Twenty-two-year-old Kate Moennig was extolling the talents of her aunt and fellow thespian, Blythe Danner, over an iced chai at Café Orlin on a recent Friday morning.
“She’s such a wonderful actress,” she said solemnly, before her brow wrinkled with a distant memory from high school civics class. The teacher had screened The Great Santini , and Ms. Moennig couldn’t take her eyes off the elegant blonde who played Robert Duvall’s wife.
“I’m like ‘Damn, that woman looks so familiar to me!’” Ms. Moennig remembered excitedly. “And I came home that day and I was talking to my mom, and my mom was like, ‘Blythe is in that.’ And it was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s who she is!’ So I went in the next day and was like, ‘That’s my aunt!’” Her classmates were unimpressed.
Had her civics class screening taken place just a few years later, Ms. Moennig’s classmates would have given her a little more satisfaction. For, if Ms. Danner is her father’s sister, then that surely means that Gwyneth Paltrow is … her … cousin. And there are a lot of people on this earth who would love to know what the star of Shakespeare in Love –the blessed First Lady of Miramax, for chrissakes–is really like.
Ms. Moennig could probably tell them a thing or two. They even performed on the same stage at the Williams-town Theater Festival, where Ms. Moennig had a small non-speaking role in Ms. Paltrow’s stage debut, As You Like It .
But when the subject of Ms. Paltrow arose, a wary look crossed Ms. Moennig’s eyes and her facial muscles seemed to freeze up. She folded arms and leaned away from the table.
“Are you close?” she was asked.
“She’s my cousin!” Ms. Moennig replied quickly.
But as anyone who has a Gwyneth somewhere in the family–or a cousin Dilbert who made it into Congress–knows history, the world and, yes, show business are rich with familial tensions. Maybe Eric Roberts doesn’t flinch every time someone mentions his sister Julia’s name; maybe Jonathan Bush can take it; maybe Nicolas Cage and Sofia Coppola are calm around each other. But remember Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots.
Ms. Moennig didn’t express that kind of familial tension. She said that she had last spent time with her cousin in Pasadena, Calif., at a “really nice cousin bonding” dinner with Ms. Paltrow’s screenwriter brother Jake, and another actress cousin, Hillary.
Even after Duets , Ms. Paltrow’s name continues to represent some frustratingly high standards in the worlds of Hollywood and fashion: Photographers, writers and film directors have nattered on about her regal cheekbones, world-class slouch, reedy frame and life choices (Brad! Ben ?), to the point where you think that one more luminous cover shot and the big-boned gals of the world are going to take up torches and chase Ms. Paltrow through the Hollywood Hills.
Ms. Moennig acknowledged that she sometimes fears “cruel things from the public” in terms of comparisons between her and her more famous cousin, but she also said that “there really is no comparison at all. [Our] work and lifestyles are completely different.”
Ms. Moennig’s friends in Williamstown thought so. They even came up with a nickname that celebrates the differences. They christened her: Alt.Gwyn.
Upon hearing the Alt.Gwyn handle, Ms. Moennig’s face relaxed and brightened, and she uncrossed her arms.
“Yeah, totally ,” she said. “We’re totally different people. We look very different, too. I think that people would be able to point out the differences a lot more easily than they’d be able to point out the similarities.” Then she added: “I like that people don’t actually make the comparison. And I want no one judging me solely on the fact that I am her cousin. There is a fear, yeah. It could be a blow to your head, but again, it is none of my business.”
Anyone who caught Ms. Moennig on the WB Network summer series Young Americans would understand what her friends were getting at. In the series, Ms. Moennig played Jake Pratt, a young woman who disguised herself as a boy to attend the tony (and fictional) Rawley Academy, the setting for the nubile drama. Yes, Ms. Paltrow bound her breasts to imitate a man in Shakespeare in Love , but Ms. Moennig’s role was more in the Boys Don’t Cry mold. She looked more masculine than Ms. Paltrow’s Shakespeare co-star Joseph Fiennes, let alone her cousin.
Sitting in Café Orlin, Ms. Moennig still looked rather androgynous with her dark, punk Peppermint Patty hairdo, Nike flip-flops and an original Rolling Stones concert tour T-shirt that she bought for $8 in Baltimore. She has full red lips that easily crack into a deep, V-shaped smile, and her long thin arms move erratically as she speaks. Like Ms. Paltrow, Ms. Moennig is a tall drink of water, with high cheekbones, her Aunt Blythe’s eyes and “the best slouch in the business,” according to her friends.
Although the WB did not renew Young Americans , MTV is sniffing around the show, which remains the subject of countless online chats. And Ms. Moennig’s character, Jake Pratt, enjoyed the distinction of tying for the fewest number of votes on the “Who Would You Kill On Young Americans ?” Web site.
While she awaits news of the series’ fate, Ms. Moennig will be playing, in her words, a “punky chick who plays the bass” in the independent film Thank You, Goodnight , which will shoot in Los Angeles. She’ll also hear soon about a part in Robert DeNiro’s new film, City by the Sea , and is thinking seriously about what turn her burgeoning film career will next take if the strikes shut down Hollywood next year.
At 22, she is seven years older than the character she played on TV. But at the café table on an East Eighth Street sidewalk, with wet hair and a tensile body posture, she seemed impossibly young. Her voice was deep and throaty like a truck driver’s, but she peppered her speech with the catch-phrases of a Valley Girl who had summered in London:
“Brilliant!” “Totally!” “Classic!” and “Awesome!” she said.
Recounting the moment she learned that she had nabbed the Young Americans role, she said: “Dude, I was pumped!” She also referred to several male friends as “really cool cats.” The next minute, she was speculating authoritatively that if Young Americans got resuscitated, “it would build a stronger visibility line where I’d be available to be optioned for other projects.”
Ms. Moennig’s portrayal of the gender-confused Jake Pratt was not her first stab at an androgynous character. She said that she originally tried out for the role of Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry , the part for which actress Hilary Swank took home an Oscar earlier this year. “It was weird,” she said, “because I totally transformed myself as a guy, and I remember signing out and seeing Hilary’s name right above mine and I was like, ‘Oh, she was in the Karate Kid Part 3 .’ (Actually, Ms. Swank starred in the fourth installment, The Next Karate Kid .) I’m not mad that she got [ Boys ],” Ms. Moennig added. “I mean, she rocked.”
Ms. Moennig’s butch looks and initial role choices have insured that she won’t be compared to her more girlie-girl cousin. But, she asserted, “I would not want to play a girl who masquerades as a boy for the rest of my life.” There’s an important difference between gender-crossing roles and androgyny as a look. “If you’re androgynous, that’s what you look like.”
Although she is straight and is currently seeing a Los Angeles actor “who knows what he wants,” Ms. Moennig recalled a number of instances when, because of her appearance, she was “probably” hit on by women, who either mistook her for a boy or for a lesbian.
One story making the rounds of Williamstown was that Lea DeLaria, the vivacious, openly gay comic, had taken a shine to Ms. Moennig and pursued her enthusiastically while the two co-starred in As You Like It .
“She did, a bit,” Ms. Moennig said carefully, quickly adding: “I like her a lot … she’s really talented. And she’s nuts, man!”
If Ms. Moennig takes misconceptions about gender or sexuality in stride, it may have to do with some of her earliest acting experiences. “I knew that I’d probably be cast as an androgynous character, but I never knew what kind,” she said. Nicknamed “Scout” by her mother after literature’s most famous tomboy, Ms. Moennig’s first acting gig was at 10, in a children’s theater production of Winnie the Pooh . She played Christopher Robin.
Ms. Moennig grew up in tony Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. Her father is a violin-maker, her mother a retired Broadway dancer who was in Funny Girl , the film Thoroughly Modern Millie and a string of what she later told her daughter were flops. She attended a Catholic elementary school and then Notre Dame Academy, a private all-girls prep school which she calls a “clique factory.”
Ms. Moennig had some early career confusion. “I wanted to be a violin-maker like my dad, and then I wanted to be a doorman in my building,” she said. Even when she’d found acting, she briefly considered other options. “I thought if this never works out, maybe I’ll study to be in the F.B.I., or I’ll be a marine biologist or something.” But then she realized that she’d rather “play those two things in a film.”
And so, after graduating, Ms. Moennig headed for an acting conservatory at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Though Ms. Moennig’s starving-artist days were mercifully brief, her life is not that different from the other impossibly young, ambitious women who populate Soho. She has brunch with her best friend every Sunday, although she said she was preparing for a seven-day cleanse–no meat, no dairy, no wheat, no smoking, no caffeine. (“It makes your lymph nodes stronger.”) She then lit up a cigarette and explained that she frequents bars like the Stone Crow, Tapestry and 2A. She “adores” Café Orlin. And she’s a clotheshorse, who favors Katayone Adeli and Style Lab, although, she noted, “vintage shopping always rocks, too.”
She dismissed the club scene and said that she feels jaded about city life. “I’ve seen it and done it all in New York, and it’s kind of lame,” she explained, then thought better of what she had just said: “Not lame, just not me.”
She then weighed in on a recent New York Times Magazine piece on young Hollywood (“Teenseltown”). She remembered one of the aspiring actresses bragging about getting a part in Coyote Ugly , another telling her roommate that if she lost weight she’d get more parts. “You are so pompous! Get over yourself,” she said of the actors. “I hope you have good solid work to prove this pompousness, because if you don’t, you’re even more wack than you appear to be on paper. Uuuugggh.” She took a drag on her cigarette.
But surely Kate Moennig understands the pressures of being young in Hollywood. Perhaps she understands them better than most, contending as she does with a hefty familial gold standard of success. “If I let it pressure me, it would be horrible. But why do that?” Ms. Moennig said of her extended family. “You may be a famous actress, but you’re also my cousin. You’re also my aunt.”
It wasn’t business. It was just family.