Madeleine in the Hill Country

Can a Hollywood actress keep up a successful career living in Central Texas? As Madeleine Stowe has discovered, it depends on how you define “successful.”

MADELEINE STOWE HAS A GREEN TONGUE. the actress best known for her performance as the strong-willed Cora Munro in The Last of the Mohicans has been sucking on a lollipop as she sits in the living room of her Hill Country house and talks about sobering issues such as the current state of cinema. Listening to this soft-spoken woman discuss her career and her family as her tongue turns an unsettling shade of lime green is more than a little disconcerting.

It is also strangely appropriate. Stowe is full of contradictions. She is a striking woman in person and on-screen, but one whose dark, unconventional beauty flies in the face of perpetually blond, blue-eyed Hollywood. Her features are delicate, but her laugh is raucous and deep. Stowe is often candid in interviews, but she’s also reserved and thoughtful.

Sometimes these juxtapositions work in her favor, as in The General’s Daughter, a military thriller due out this month in which Stowe co-stars, with John Travolta, as Army rape investigator Sarah Sunhill. The film’s director, Simon West, describes Stowe’s role as a difficult one to play because her character has to be no-nonsense and smart—someone you’d believe was in the Army—yet sexy enough to be Travolta’s unrequited love interest. “Madeleine’s very good at that,” West says. “Also, when I spoke to her, she totally got it. A lot of actresses were trying to play it very heavy and everything was a tragedy: the tragedy of the murder [of the rape victim] and then the tragedy of the unrequited love between her and the Travolta character. But she sort of took it in a much lighter vein.”

This is not the first time that Stowe has played a complicated character, but it may be the first time since The Last of the Mohicans that so many people will see her performance. Budgeted at $60 million, The General’s Daughter was being fine-tuned by West in Los Angeles as Stowe spoke about it thousands of miles away on her ranch just outside Fredericksburg. Paramount, the movie’s distributor, is so confident about it that the studio decided to release the film in early summer, one of the industry’s most competitive and lucrative seasons.

And if The General’s Daughter is a critical and commercial success, what might it mean for Stowe’s career? The forty-year-old actress has made fifteen feature films, but hers is not a household name. Nor is her face instantly recognizable, although it has recently appeared in fashion magazines in designer Emanuel Ungaro’s strikingly minimalist black-and-white spring ad campaign. Perhaps the greatest contradiction of all is that, on the verge of a probable career upswing, Stowe seems more ambivalent than ever about being a Hollywood actress.

STOWE IS DRESSED IN JEANS AND AN OVERSIZED gray T-shirt, her trademark long chestnut hair—the same mane that rivaled Daniel Day-Lewis’ for screen time in The Last of the Mohicans—pulled back from her face in a loose knot. She moves easily around the kitchen of the airy, two-story limestone house she shares with her husband, actor Brian Benben (best known as the humorously neurotic protagonist of the HBO series Dream On), and their daughter, May, who turns three this month. Stowe met Benben in 1981 when they co-starred as husband and wife in NBC’s short-lived series The Gangster Chronicles. They married in real life in 1986.

May has just woken up from a nap, one that Stowe had hoped would last a bit longer. “We don’t have a nanny,” she explains as she and Benben casually negotiate their daughter’s next few hours. With long brown hair just like her mom’s, May makes sure she’s in the thick of the action, wandering out from the kitchen to size up their visitor. She pretends to be downright uninterested, but she’s reluctant to go outside with her father, almost suspicious of what’s going to happen in her absence. Stowe warmly reassures her daughter that she can come back in a little while.

She’s very competitive when people come around,” Stowe says with a touch of pride as she waves good-bye to May and Benben. As if on cue, May turns just outside the screen door and screams out, “We’ll be right back!” Stowe laughs and says, “See ya!”

The house sits on a four-hundred-acre ranch about eighty miles west of Austin. Stowe and Benben bought the place in 1994 just after Stowe finished Bad Girls, the women-with-guns period piece shot in Brackettville and produced by Fredericksburg neighbor Lynda Obst. Making Bad Girls was not a pleasant experience for the actress. The studio switched directors after two weeks of shooting, and Stowe says she thought her co-stars (who included Andie MacDowell, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Drew Barrymore) viewed her approach to acting as “competitive.” “It could be very interesting, or it could not be,” Stowe told Newsweek just before the movie’s release, a comment that revealed her ambivalence about the project. The experience wasn’t a total wash, however. To escape the confines of the shoot, Stowe would drive northeast from Brackettville toward the Hill Country. She fell in love with the area, and a few months later she found the ranch.

Stowe’s reflective nature is suited to the pace of life in the Hill Country, and she traces a shift in the trajectory of her career to her move to Texas and the birth of her daughter two years later, in 1996. She realized that while she enjoyed making movies, the urge to work wasn’t as forceful as it had been in previous years. “My career had been going at a certain clip for a long time,” she explains. “I always considered myself very ambitious, but I knew that there was a distinction between myself and other actors. It’s what I’ve had to come to terms with.”

Ted and Carolyn Kyle, the parents of Stowe’s former assistant Kellie Macy, live in the ranch’s original homestead, only a few hundred feet from the main house. Stowe and Benben consider the Kyles family, and the older couple manage the ranch on a daily

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