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From the time movie audiences discovered the charms and talent of Penelope Ann Miller in films as diverse as Kindergarten Cop and Carlito's Way, stardom seemed assured for the young star. While it hasn't quite come her way, she doesn't seem to mind, as she explains to Paul Fischer in Los Angeles, from the set of her latest movie, The Family Bloom.

There was a time when beautiful screen newcomer Penelope Ann Miller was the next biggest thing to shake up Hollywood. Remember her as the kindergarten teacher on the run in Kindergarten Cop or as the love interest in the romantic tragedy Carlito's Way or Gregory Peck's shrewd daughter trying to outwit Danny DeVito in Other People's Money? Sexy, illuminating and always eye-catching, Miller seemed a shoe-in for Hollywood stardom. Yet when interviewed back in 1990, she classified herself then as 'the natural love interest. I'm the girl they go home to. I don't mind it, but I'm not really part of the action, and that can be really frustrating.' But she has no regrets. "No, I have been happy with the parts I've done.. I always try and make the characters that I play, no matter what they are, as real as multi-dimensional as possible."

"I have been happy with the parts I've done"

That includes the evolutionary biologist she plays in the monster flick The Relic, whom she sees "as a very strong female character" in an often used genre. In the movie, Miller teams up with a cynical cop (Tom Sizemore) to solve a series of gruesome murders that have taken place within the dark confines of a Chicago museum. "One of the reasons I chose to DO this, was because playing an action hero in an action film, is very new for me. I also liked that she was a strong character that WASN'T a love interest, damsel in distress or victim, but the fact that she really IS the one who really gets to save the day and be a smart, intelligent, independent woman."

"One of the reasons I chose to DO this, was because playing an action hero in an action film, is very new for me." on her role in The Relic

Playing a scientist in a rather unusual area, meant that Miller had her research work cut out for her. "I had my own technical adviser who helped me pronounce these words I had to say, which I couldn't even pronounce myself", she admits laughingly. "But in the beginning of the shoot, when we were in Chicago, I did the tour of the museum that is not for public access, which is a staggering 95%. So it was fascinating for ME to go into the alcoholic storage room seeing these dozens of specimens of creatures in jars of alcohol."

"I thought it was cool being kissed by Al Pacino, but this is something else," on being licked by the creature in The Relic

The Relic is, however, a horror movie whose aim is to scare the pants of audiences. Miller had no trouble expressing that fear in playing this character. "I tend to get scared pretty easily, so that was a piece of cake; I didn't have to work hard at getting scared, let me tell you. Having said that, my character is pretty cynical and doesn't scare easily, but then when this creature is rampant running around killing people in the museum, things change very quickly, which is when all the elements of fear tend to come pretty naturally to me." There's one choice moment in the film when she is required to be licked by the creature. It remains a memorable moment for the actress. "I thought it was cool being kissed by Al Pacino, but this is something else", she quips.

"I don't think audiences would have seen a creature like this before."

On screen monsters have been scaring movie audiences since the birth of cinema, and more recently there have been the Alien movies and of course the recent Species. So given the fact that audiences are very picky about what they see, one wonders what makes The Relic unique. "I don't think audiences would have seen a creature like this before. It's a case of a DNA experiment running amuck. The way the creature is depicted is fascinating and quite frightening, I think."

While Miller's latest film may scare audiences, she went from horror back to comedy, in the low-budget independent film Little City, in which she stars opposite the likes of Jon Bon Jovi and Annabella Sciorra. "It's a really lovely film, very character-driven, set in San Francisco, and it was a joy to do." Indeed she sees independent, more character-driven films as the way of the future "as is evidenced by much of what comes out of Europe and Australia." Though the money is not as hefty, there are other rewards in doing these smaller films. "I get so much more out of it and get I feel that I actually sink my teeth into a character."

"I really do have to carry the movie, which is such an awesome responsibility." on her role in Family Bloom

When we spoke, Miller was shooting her current film, the independently-produced Family Bloom, which is actually being executive produced by Australia's own REP films. "It's about a woman coming into her own. I play this woman who's raising her brother's children, because his wife died five years ago, and she's taken over as this kind of surrogate mother. As a result, she's given up HER independent life, all of which changes when the brother falls in love, and her own future changes as a result." Miller sees this as an enormous challenge "because I really do have to carry the movie which is such an awesome responsibility."

The Relic opens nationally this week; Little City and Bloom will be released later this year.

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Scenes from The Relic

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