Why Not Take All of Me?

updated 11/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

THE NUDE SCENE: IT'S A CAREER moment some actors will do anything to avoid. Julia Roberts, for example, used a body double in Pretty Woman, and Kevin Costner had a backside double when he was shot from behind in Robin Hood. But Camryn Manheim has no such compunctions. At her 1993 audition for The Road to Wellville, director Alan Parker told the actress that her role in his comedy, about a turn-of-the-century health spa run by cornflake titan John Harvey Kellogg, required acting in the buff. "How do you feel about that?" he asked.

"I feel fine," Manheim replied. "How do you feel about it?"

Such self-assurance might be less surprising if Manheim, 33, were as lithe as costar Bridget Fonda. Or even Anthony Hopkins. But at 5'10" and 270 lbs., Manheim's figure speaks more of Godiva chocolates than Lady Godiva. "I'm fat," declares Manheim—a size 22, to be exact. But she is also, she says, "a sexy, confident woman who embraces herself and isn't afraid."

At the moment, Manheim has every reason to be proud. Her performance as Fonda's sensuous, liberated confidante is one of the few vital signs critics have detected in Wellville. She also has what she calls "not-fat roles" in Sigourney Weaver's next movie, Jeffrey, due out next summer, and in the CBS-TV movie Deadly Whispers, starring Tony Danza and scheduled to air Nov. 29. Director Parker, for one, isn't surprised. "All I saw was an extraordinary, accomplished actress," he says. "She's a very beautiful woman."

Until age 10, Manheim was a standard-size beauty growing up in Peoria, Ill., the third and youngest child of Jerry Manheim, a college math professor, and his wife, Sylvia, a schoolteacher. Then her father took a job at California State University at Long Beach in 1971, and Manheim began to expand. "All the kids in California walked around in bathing suits; people went grocery shopping in bikinis," Manheim recalls. "It was horrifying for me. I think gaining weight was a shield against that body-image stuff."

Manheim's parents were liberal activists—in the 1950s her father was once personally denounced by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. But all progressive thinking went out the window, it seemed, when it came to Camryn's weight. They just wanted her thinner. "They tried everything from bribes to hypnotism," she says. Nothing helped, but Manheim seemed well-adjusted. "I was very social," she says. Acting became an outlet during her teens, and after graduating from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1984, Manheim decided to go for a master's degree at New York University's drama school.

Manheim labels the experience boot camp. Her teachers harped on her weight, she says, and she began to take illegal amphetamines to stifle her appetite. In nine months she lost 80 pounds and became, she says, "the golden child" of the drama department and finally got to play a youthful character. But when graduation arrived, and the parts stopped coming, Manheim couldn't handle the hard times. "It was heartbreaking," she says, eyes welling at the memory. "I was contemplating suicide." Manheim says that after she overdosed on amphetamines, she ditched the pills and quit smoking cigarettes.

When she gained back the weight, her parents couldn't hide their chagrin. "I was very disappointed," says her mother. "I'd like her to be thin for her health." Manheim's father even suggested she take up smoking again. To support herself in New York City, Manheim took a job interpreting for deaf people at job interviews, using signing skills she learned in college. "The deaf community saved me," says Manheim. "I found a world where I was completely useful."

Manheim also kept going to auditions, where stage directors began finding her useful too. She worked with Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner and later with his protege Michael Mayer, who cast her in seven productions. "She can play anyone," Mayer says. To get a lead, though, Manheim had to write the part herself—which she did for Wake Up, I'm Fat. The one-woman show—bitter memories laced with wry "fat survival" rules such as "Always remain horizontal on the beach"—was a 1993 Off-Broadway success.

Manheim lives with her two cats, Steve and Bob, in a loft on Manhattan's Lower East Side, but she really wants "a boyfriend—someone with a wicked sense of humor." She still works with the deaf and zips off to work for activist groups like Greenpeace on her Honda 750 motorcycle. Her ultimate goal, she says, is to be known simply as an an actress, not a. fat actress. She also wants to be a role model. Heavy people "are the last minority people openly discriminated against," she says. "Someone has to dispel these myths that we are pathetic slobs." For Manheim, the first place to stamp out the bigotry was in her own mind. "Yes, I'm fat. Yes, if there were a magic pill to make my body thin, I would take it," she admits. "But I'm going to stop beating myself up, because what's inside that body is so worthwhile."

TOBY KAHN in New York City

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