She's Streisand's Sweetie in Yentl, but Amy Irving Says Her Heart Belongs to Broadway

updated 01/16/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/16/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

She glides across the stage, a demure little figure in Victorian lace. But beneath the prim exterior, the character of Ellie Dunn in George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House is a calculating woman obsessed with power and money. "Ellie is the most intelligent woman I've ever played," says Amy Irving. "Usually I play sweet young things. I suppose it's because I look young and innocent and virginal. Little do they know!" Nevertheless, Irving, 30, doesn't deny that she is adept at projecting a girlish guilelessness. "When I first saw myself in Yentl," she says, "even I bought my act."

So did the critics. They praised her performance as the docile Jewish maiden Hadass just as much as they did her more cerebral and feminist Ellie in Heartbreak House. "Suddenly I'm hot," says Irving, who regards her newfound success with a cool eye. "It wouldn't matter if I was terrible in Yentl. It's making money." But far more than collecting shekels, Irving hopes her sudden popularity will now allow her to pick and choose roles in the medium she most relishes: the theater. "You explore every facet of your instrument onstage. When you become one with a character, it's like falling in love. It's that kind of high," says Irving, who made her Broadway debut in 1982 playing Mozart's wife in Amadeus. "If someone said to me, 'You can't do films anymore,' I wouldn't shed a tear."

In fact, she almost said no to Yentl. "I thought Hadass was just another sweet young thing," she says. Then Barbra Streisand, the producer, director, star and insistent proselytizer, invited her over for tea and a sympathetic rendering of Hadass' complexity beneath the serene surface. Amy finally accepted the role and was particularly intrigued by the notion of a screen kiss with Streisand, who plays a woman masquerading as a man. "She was more scared about the kiss scene than I was," explains Irving. "But after the first time, she told me, 'You know, it's not so bad. It's like kissing an arm.' " It was also, to hear Barbra tell it, a relatively steamy moment. "I had asked her to be very maidenly before that scene, and she did it beautifully," says Streisand. "But then in the bedroom, when she comes on erotically, I asked her to let all her sexiness out, and wow! did she let it out."

Irving's charms have been better appreciated, perhaps, by her male co-stars, including Willie Nelson, with whom she appeared in Honeysuckle Rose. The pair were rumored to have been involved offscreen as well as on, but Amy denies it. "I made that movie right after my father died. I needed guidance, and Willie was there. We're friends," insists Irving, who notes that people also wrote about her and her married TV movie co-star, Ben Cross. "Sometimes you think you may as well do it," says Amy. "You have to deal with it anyway."

One of Amy's closest friends and her former fiancé is movie director Steven Spielberg. "We lived together for four years and were engaged for three months," says Irving. "It didn't work out. We weren't ready. We've both grown into different people now. But I love him still."

The life they led together in Los Angeles is one she looks back on with mixed feelings. "Our social life was going out to dinner with studio heads. I wasn't honoring myself there," she says. "The values are movie values. They only want to be your friend if your name is above the title of your movie." Then, too, there was a gnawing feeling that Hollywood assumed Amy was getting roles because of Spielberg. "I knew it wasn't true, but I still resented it," she gripes.

Eventually, Irving fled to Santa Fe, N. Mex. and was mesmerized by the mesas and the unpretentiousness of the town. She has lived there off and on ever since, riding her quarterhorse, Buddy, painting portraits and landscapes, and drinking in the sunsets from her adobe abode 8,000 feet above sea level.

A city girl by upbringing, Irving is the daughter of actress Priscilla Pointer (cast as Amy's mother in both Carrie and Honeysuckle Rose) and the late Jules Irving, who co-founded the San Francisco Actor's Workshop and later became artistic director of New York City's Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center. Early on, Amy grew infatuated with the family business and studied theater at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. She broke into Hollywood as the sole survivor of Sissy Spacek's revenge in Brian De Palma's Carrie. Later came The Fury, Voices and The Competition with Richard Dreyfuss. But her film career never really took off until now.

Since her return to the stage in Heartbreak House, Irving and friend and co-star Rex Harrison, 75, have been casting around for another play to do together. She is also considering film scripts. "I'm getting a lot of Jewish girls now," she jokes. Irving will appear in her first starring TV role next April as the sultry Indian princess Anjuli in an HBO miniseries based on M.M. Kaye's bestseller, The Far Pavilions. "She really lusts for her men," marvels Irving of her character. "I've never played a woman who gets right down to it that way."

One role Irving hopes to get right down to is that of wife and mother, though there is no one currently cast as spouse and paterfamilias. Would she and Spielberg consider marriage again? "Who knows?" Irving says. "I never say never." Certainly, she would like to work with him, and perhaps vice versa. "When we were together, I used to have terrific dreams," Amy recalls. "They were Brian De Palma-type stories with a beginning, a middle and an end." They must have been something. E.T.'s creator, Irving reports, once expressed interest in buying the movie rights to those dreams.

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