Raven-haired actress Juliet Landau is best-known for playing characters with a dark, wicked edge. In Tim Burton's "Ed Wood," she was the starlet who out-conned Hollywood's schlockiest filmmaker. In "Theodore Rex," she was the James Bond-ish vixen Dr. Veronica Shade. On TV shows "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel," she is Drusilla, a bloodthirsty addict with an enabler boyfriend named Spike.
"We are the Sid and Nancy of the vampire set," says Landau, the 29-year-old daughter of "Mission Impossible" stars Martin Landau and Barbara Bain.
At Wilshire Boulevard Temple's Westside campus this month, the actress, who was raised in an assimilated Jewish home, will again take a walk on the dark side, but in a very different kind of play. She'll appear in Richard Rashke's "Dear Esther," based on the true story of Esther Raab, one of 300 Jews who escaped the Sobibor death camp in 1943.
The piece is primarily a dialogue between the main character, Esther (Bain), and "Esther 2" (Landau), Raab's conscience, alter ego and younger self. Landau's own mother will play the other half of Landau's character, which might prompt some to envision Dr. Freud stroking his beard and asking a question or two.
During the course of the play, the two Esthers work through the guilt and rage Raab feels about her mother's suicide during the Shoah.
"It's strange," admits the younger actress, who, like her mother, is a member of the Actors Studio. "But it's a good casting choice. Much of an actor's work is creating a history with the other performers, but with my mother, that is already taken care of. We have a deep knowledge of each other and a history to draw upon when we step onstage."
For Landau, show business is in the blood. During her childhood, her parents' friends included Carl Reiner and Carroll O'Connor, so Juliet believed that everyone had his own TV show.
Acting, however, was off-limits for Juliet and her older sister, who attended the American School in London while their parents fought off aliens in the TV show "Space 1999." "They didn't want to subject us to the vagaries of the business," says Landau. "And then I never wanted to be an actress; that was my parents' world. I was a dancer."
After working as a professional ballerina for five years, Landau became disillusioned with the business and enrolled in an acting class.
Soon after, she began earning positive reviews for performances in plays such as Wendy Wasserstein's "Uncommon Women & Others."
Burton was so impressed with her audition tape that he hired her even before he cast her father as the aging horror star Bela Lugosi (for which Martin Landau earned the Oscar for best supporting actor in 1995). Father and daughter discussed dailies on the set, though they only appeared together in one scene, a re-enactment of Ed Wood's "Bride of the Monster." "Dad put my character in a trance, then he took a whip and started beating this other character as I was lying there," Landau recalls. "It was very bizarre."
Since Landau enjoys working with her mother, with whom she has appeared in half a dozen staged readings, she was amenable when director Alexandra More called and asked if she would co-star with Bain in "Dear Esther."
Like her parents, who helped found the Los Angeles branch of the Actors Studio, Landau will approach the role with her usual meticulous attention to detail. She has already gathered a stack of books on the Holocaust, including "I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children's Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp."
Her DramaLogue and Emmy Award-winning mother will not need to do such in-depth research. While Juliet grew up a generation removed from the Holocaust, Bain, née Millicent Fogel, remembers being terrified of the Nazis as a child. "I looked as blond and corn-fed as everyone around me in my Chicago neighborhood, yet there was an ominousness in the air, and I felt unsafe," she told the Journal.
She will no doubt identify on some level with her character's main struggle: coming to terms with the death of one's mother. When Barbara Bain was 18, she was summoned home from school because her own mother was dying of pancreatic cancer. "It was a very, very painful time," she recalls. "I didn't know what hit me."
Bain, who conducts a workshop in sense memory (the use of personal emotions to fuel a performance), may use some of that technique to bring the fictional Esther to life. When Juliet wondered whether the approach can emotionally crush an actor, her mom provided words of wisdom. "It's not threatening, but healthy," she said. "It's a catharsis, a release."
For tickets to "Dear Esther," April 18 and 19 at the Irmas Campus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 11661 W. Olympic Blvd., call Rabbi Karen Fox's office at (213) 388-2401, ext. 269.