Don't let her pigtails fool you

Interview/ actor Alison Lohman

Alison Lohman. Remember that name.

Only 23, she has already turned in two of the most complex performances of any young film actress over the past year. Last fall, she starred as the protagonist of "White Oleander," a teenager manipulated both by a mother (Michelle Pfeiffer), in prison for murder, and a series of foster parents. This fall, she holds her own opposite Nicolas Cage as his 14-year-old daughter in Ridley Scott's con-artist film, "Matchstick Men."

Director Scott, who received an award for the movie at the Boston Film Festival, recalls casting Lohman: "Alison walked in in pigtails at 6 o'clock at night, and at 7 I knew she was the one. So I said, 'Is your dad coming for you?' And she said, 'No, I've got an Explorer outside. I'm driving myself home.' "

For her part, the young actress is bowled over by her good fortune. "It's unimaginable that an actress of my caliber [would] be getting these complex, interesting characters," she says.

Lohman grew up outside show business in Palm Springs, Calif., where her dad is an architect and her mom runs a bakery. She auditioned for a local stage production of "The Sound of Music" at age 9, and has acted ever since, getting increasingly larger parts in the theater, on TV, and finally in movies.

Ironically, she almost flunked a drama class in the ninth grade.

"I couldn't get up," she recalls. "I was so shy. I couldn't muster the strength to perform in front of people I know." The teacher allowed her to do makeup work to pass. A few years later, Lohman appeared on stage in Los Angeles in "Romeo and Juliet," and she heard from the teacher again, only this time it was to apologize.

Lohman became interested in film at a young age, but her parents wouldn't let her go to Los Angeles to try out for roles until she finished high school. "My dad knows nothing about the business," she says. "He didn't even know who Michelle Pfeiffer was."

Lohman drew on her close relationship with her dad to play Cage's daughter, but only positive aspects. "I have the most normal - whatever that means - parents. I grew up in a small community. There isn't any drama."

Once out on her own, she got some small parts in independent films and some minor roles in big-budget films. She even shaved her head for the Kevin Costner movie "Dragonfly," only to see her scenes end up on the cutting-room floor. It was then that she went to an open audition for "White Oleander" and had to wear a wig. They liked her, but felt the look was wrong. Her agent had to explain about the wig.

In "Matchstick Men," she prepared for the part by wearing a retainer and hanging out with a 14-year-old cousin. "I tried to capture the spirit of 14, just the look in her eyes," she says, adding that the resulting character is "nothing like my cousin."

Costar Sam Rockwell has nothing but praise for her. "She has great emotional depth," he says. "I loved watching her. It reminded me why I got into acting."

Her next film, "Big Fish," directed by Tim Burton, debuts in December. "I don't know how many opportunities I'm going to have," she says. She's more interested in landing thoughtful roles than fame. "My dream would be that nobody would recognize me on the street."

With a worldwide promotional push for "Matchstick Men," that's one dream that may prove a bit harder than expected.

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