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MANHEIN, CAMRYN: HAPPINESS

HAPPINESS TAKES PRACTICE
In this exclusive Australian interview, Camryn Manheim in Los Angeles talks with typical candour to PAUL FISCHER, explaining how she is no longer just the token fat woman.

She was voted one of US People Magazine's 'most intriguing’ people of 1998, received both an Emmy and a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actress for her role in the tv series The Practice, has appeared in her own one-woman show, Wake up I'm Fat, rides a Harley, is passionately political and works with New York's deaf community. In an industry which fosters thin and sexy, Camryn Manheim has emerged as a spokeswoman for the bold, the large and the beautiful. Outspoken and ferociously passionate, Manheim's determination to break through Hollywood stereotypes has won her enormous respect, while her acting continues to win her kudos. Her latest film is the darkly tragicomic Happiness, in which she gives another remarkable performance.

"I just hope overweight women will have the confidence to go in a bookstore & buy the damn thing"

Camryn Manheim is a changed woman. It wasn't so long ago that roles for larger women were near impossible to come by. Now she's regarded as one of Hollywood's best, and celebrates her weight without fear or self-loathing. In fact, she's even finishing off writing a book on the subject, Wake Up I'm Fat, based on her one-woman stage show. The book (published in May 1999) explores the pride one should have in being fat.

"My whole book is about owning that word, being proud and saying it", the bubbly 37-year old actress comments from her West Los Angeles home. "I just hope that overweight women will have the confidence to go into a bookstore and buy the damn thing, especially having been down that dreaded self-acceptance road."

Self-acceptance has finally made Manheim who she is today, and one can't help admire her for it. Last year when she won her first Emmy Award for her powerful work on the acclaimed TV series The Practice, she cried out: 'This one is for all the fat girls.' It was an amazing moment to behold, yet asked if she sees herself as a role model 'for all those fat girls', Manheim isn't so sure. "That's such a complicated question; I feel that things have changed for me, Camryn. A decade ago, there was nothing for me; I was shut out every step I took, and I had to find out how to circumvent that. Now, it seems to be a lot more doors open to me. I did get a phone call from a woman who's a plus size model and she said that she was working once or twice a year; but since the day after the Emmy speech she's been working non-stop. So, I know that it did trickle down for some people, and therefore if I have passed the torch to them and they're bringing it into their offices and social circles and feel this new sense of confidence, then that's great."

"Wake Up, I'm Fat"

In 1993, Camryn wrote and starred in a one-woman off-Broadway show entitled "Wake Up, I'm Fat", which she admits was a cathartic experience for her. "I even say in the play I'm writing it for three reasons…I wanted to catapult my career, I wanted to artificially induce a cathartic experience and I wanted to get a boyfriend," she adds laughingly. That of course begs the question: Did she succeed on all counts? "Well, obviously it totally catapulted my career, so A+ there. And, while I was writing it, I wasn't particularly having the cathartic experience, I was just pretending I was having one; it was really afterwards, when I thought writing a book about growing up fat would put me in a vulnerable position; but quite the opposite happened - it made me much more powerful. And it was, in retrospect, that I saw how that gave me my power and that was when I had the cathartic experience, which was really several months after the play ended."

As for the men that she craved: "Well, it's been a long time since the play and I've had lovely experiences, and I'm sure it had to do with the play, with the cathartic experience and with my newfound self-acceptance. So it was all wrapped up in a nice little present to me --- via some very beautiful men," she hastens to add laughingly.

The show finally launched her award-winning career in film and television.

Her career is swimming along. She even turned down a role in one movie for a part in the darker, more controversial film, Happiness, in which she plays a character the complete opposite of herself . The film centres on a seemingly disparate group of lonely characters. Joy (Jane Adams), a single aspiring songwriter, feels she should have a man and a stable life like her married older sister Trish (Cynthia Stevenson); Trish, a housewife, feels inferior to sister Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), a successful author; Helen, meanwhile, wants a life of danger to give her writing "authenticity."

"I think all of us have that well of insecurity and fragility"

Helen's lonely, obscene phone-calling neighbour Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman) longs for Helen while considering her inaccessible, even as he becomes the object of similar feelings from even lonelier neighbour Kristina, so perfectly played by Manheim.

Commenting on how she relates to this quite tragic character, Manheim says that "I think all of us have that well of insecurity and fragility that I had to call upon to play her. I don't particularly like to go there, it's not a pleasant experience, but there's so much humanity to her. I felt so compelled to play her, even though those are the kinds of parts I like to steer clear of. I don't like to play the put-upon, forgotten, self-loathing, worthless fat girl. I really, don't like to do it. I don't enjoy it, I don't see the necessity for it, but I thought that she was much more than that somehow. It was a wonderful movie about broken people in search of their own happiness and how they go about doing it, that I was compelled to play her."

As for working with idiosyncratic (eccentric?) filmmaker Todd Solondz, that experience was, shall we say, unique, for the actress. "You don't wake up in the morning and have 3½ inch coke bottle glasses. Somebody must order them, you know what I mean? You don't wake up wearing plaid with stripes, you must put them on. I think he works really hard at keeping people at arm's distance."

"your token fat woman"

While Manheim is justifiably proud of who she is, both physically and spiritually, she hopes that with her new found recognition, Hollywood will cease to pigeonhole as "your token fat woman". Of course such roles remain hard to come by. "At least people are crossing out the description of characters before they send scripts to me. Even though the description says, 'a big woman walks in', they cross it out before it gets to me because they know I won't like it. But it's rare that when they're looking for a romantic leading woman that they're going to consider me, and that's what I'm trying to change. They should consider me, because as far as I'm concerned, I am a romantic leading woman, both in my own life and in the lives of most female Americans. So that's what I want to do - make art more like life."

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