Tilt-a-Whirl Homegirl

It's always nice to see a local gal making a name for herself in the world of big-time professional filmmaking. Coral Park Senior High and UM drama department alumna Mel Gorham has had, in her own words, "nothing but great luck with directors." After acting in only six pictures (the latest being Blue in the Face, Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's loosely structured, largely improvisational followup to their well-received summer sleeper, Smoke), Gorham can list some impressive names on her resume: Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing), Brian De Palma (Carlito's Way), Mira Nair (The Perez Family), Penny Marshall (Awakenings), and Wang and Auster (Smoke).

"I'm a director's dream," she says. "I change physically and dramatically with every role. I'll use props, scars, cigarettes. I'll change my walk. Whatever it takes." She calls her acting style Mel's Method. "Fuck Stanislavsky," she laughs. "With drama I internalize. I look within. With comedy I work from the outside in -- I put the character on, look in the mirror, and everything follows."

Whatever she calls it, it works. In addition to the material she's already got in the can, Gorham is excited about a part Tom Berenger has reserved for her in So Far from God, a mid-nineteenth-century epic written by director Sam Peckinpah shortly before his death. Quentin Tarantino is a pal who may soon write a part for her. (Gorham "bonded" with America's hottest young director after she lost and he found a Chanel earring during this year's Toronto Film Festival. Instead of returning it to her as promised, he wore it to the premier of his film Four Rooms; Gorham had to sneak up behind Tarantino at his postpremier party and literally yank it off his ear. "I had to remove it," she gushes. "The son a bitch wore it as a good luck charm!") And there's talk of a possible Blue in the Face sequel to be called White Between the Eyes.

Gorham is not the high-cheekboned, statuesque-model type. She's on the short side of medium height, and her wide brown eyes crinkle at the corners when she flashes her infectious, toothsome smile (which is often). Her dark hair and expressive features have led to a series of roles as Latinas (her mother, who lives in Coral Gables, is Cuban). But Gorham hasn't yet logged enough screen time to worry about typecasting; besides, she points out, she has a leading role as a non-Latin character in the recently shot-in-Miami Curdled.

As Tom Petty's nasal voice issues from a cassette deck in Gorham's elegantly appointed room at the Grand Bay Hotel, the actress crosses her legs and sits lotus-style while she discusses her career. And once she starts rolling, look out. The woman's a force of nature. "I owe my career to [Miramax head honcho] Harvey Weinstein," Gorham reveals. "I owe him my left nut. Smoke, Blue in the Face, Curdled with William Baldwin, [the as-yet-unreleased] Wishful Thinking with Drew Barrymore and Jennifer Beals."

Weinstein's the man who got her the Smoke gig (as the girlfriend of the Harvey Keitel character), which led to her character's expanded role in Blue in the Face. "I got a call from Miramax about a month after Smoke to do Blue in the Face," Gorham explains. While making Smoke, the Wang-Auster writing-directing team noticed that many in their motley ensemble cast A especially the minor characters A had developed distinctive personalities completely out of proportion to the amount of screen time devoted to them. And so, in a case of the tail wagging the dog, Auster and Wang persuaded Miramax to let them capitalize on the talent pool by shooting an "instant movie" utilizing Smoke's Brooklyn corner cigar-store location while riffing on extensive improvisation by whichever Smoke cast members were still available.

"Shooting took three days," Gorham remembers. "At the wrap party there was this bar mitzvah-type organ player, and I did this Cuban torch singer version of 'Fever' with him. Harvey Keitel loved it. It was all in fun, spur of the moment. Three months later I'm on vacation in South Africa and I get a good news/bad news call. The bad news is I have to cut my vacation short. The good news is they brought me back for three more days to shoot 'Fever' so we could include it in the film."

As her career builds momentum, Gorham may as well get used to the idea that she won't be completing that vacation for quite some time.


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