NEW YORK – As Jennifer Connelly sips her tea and talks about the wonderful time she's having in the wake of A Beautiful Mind, she credits Waking the Dead with shaking her career to life.
That 2000 movie "marks the beginning of this kind of chapter" in which she's snagging challenging roles in interesting movies.
"I mourned the wrapping of that movie like the loss of some great relationship that you know can't go on but you know it's really sad that it has to end," says Connelly, who played an ex-radical who — dead or alive? you decide — haunts her lover (Billy Crudup).
Connelly went on to play the painter's mistress in Pollock and a junkie who debases herself for drugs in Requiem for a Dream. (She squeezed the short-lived Fox series The $treet in between).
Then she convinced director Ron Howard during an audition with Russell Crowe that she could hold her own against the formidable actor in A Beautiful Mind, the biopic about Nobel Prize-winning schizophrenic John Forbes Nash Jr. and his wife, Alicia.
"Russell is a very strong presence and I wanted someone who was going to be comfortable on the set and not in any way overwhelmed or intimidated by the process or anyone she was working with," Howard said in a telephone interview.
And while he wasn't interested in casting look-alikes, Howard says: "By the same token, you look at pictures of young Alicia Nash and she was sort of Elizabeth Taylor-like — a very, very beautiful raven-haired young woman."
Given that Connelly has Taylor's stop-a-meteor-dead-in-its-tracks beauty, and that the pH factor of her chemistry with Crowe couldn't be better, Howard decided the job was hers.
So after nearly two decades of mostly B(ad)-movies, the 31-year-old actress who made her film debut in Sergio Leone's 1984 gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America is culminating her run of fine performances by collecting an armful of awards.
She already has a Golden Globe, a Bafta (a British Oscar), and honors from the American Film Institute and Online Film Critics Society, and she's the odds-on favorite to win the supporting-actress Oscar come March 24.
During an interview in a tony hotel restaurant in Manhattan, Connelly is simultaneously self-contained and self-effacing. She says she realized about four years ago that something had to change in her career.
Her forgettable films include Labyrinth, Career Opportunities and The Hot Spot. Her most memorable part might have been as the love interest opposite ex-beau Billy Campbell (of ABC's Once and Again) in 1991's The Rocketeer.
Talk about being stuck on the launch pad!
"I found myself looking at the movies that I like to watch, and the movies that I had done, and they weren't necessarily the same kinds of films," she says, chuckling.
Clearly, the movies she likes are darker and heftier than the ones she had done till then.
"I just came to a point where I thought: 'You know, I don't want to work unless I'm working on things that I feel really good about at this point.' To me it became torturous to work on projects that I wasn't proud of."
Her decision coincided with the birth of her son, Kai, who turns 5 in July. "I had enough that was keeping me happy in my personal life."
Patience paid off, and more interesting scripts began to arrive.
Connelly considers herself something of a late bloomer, in part because she started acting as a child.
"I don't think I turned into a teen-ager until I hit my 20s," she says.
"My personality was such that I wasn't a particularly rebellious kid. I was a kid who wanted to do well, who was very disciplined, who always had a vested interest in being nice and polite, and fulfilling my responsibilities and obligations.
"In a way, it's a gift that I came to this work early. And in ways, it was a little bit stagnating for me personally. It just took me longer to feel brave enough, I think, to explore myself and my own life."
She spent two years at Yale and one at Stanford — and even considered other careers — but left college because she "just wasn't approaching it right" and stuck with acting.
An only child who grew up in Brooklyn Heights, Connelly didn't aspire to get into acting.
"I didn't have any movie posters on my walls. I wasn't like a movie fanatic," she recalls. "I wasn't taking dance lessons and voice lessons and acting lessons and that kind of thing. I wasn't at all that kind of kid. I thought Evel Knievel was pretty cool and that I'd be a vet or something."
But her parents followed friends' advice that their daughter had what it takes to be in front of a camera, thus derailing young Jennifer's aspirations to become a daredevil doctor to dogs.
"Even though it wasn't something that I instigated, you know, I wasn't kicking and screaming," Connelly says. "It was fun. I met nice people. It was kind of interesting."
And now it's bringing honors, which, she's happy to report, beget more work.
"Other than that, my personal situation is very much the same — taking my son to school in the morning, pack his sandwiches, live in the same place, have the same friends ... "
Although she and Kai's father, photographer David Dugan, have split up, they are sharing responsibility for raising him.
Connelly, who starts work this month on Ang Lee's The Hulk, likes to bring her son to the set so she can spend time with him when she's not in front of the cameras.
"For me, vacation is just, no matter where I am, having time to not have to answer the phone or not have to fulfill any kind of obligation other than to be completely present with him," she says. "To me, that's rest, and recovery, and rejuvenating. And I love that time."