Linda Hamilton, the buff action star, is studying Yiddish-language tapes.
The image is startling for anyone who remembers her as Sarah Connor, the all-American waitress-turned-warrior in James Cameron's "Terminator" flicks. It's even more startling when you consider that the Yiddish is for a play, Lou Shaw's "Worse Than Murder: Ethel and Julius Rosenberg," which opens tomorrow at the Ventura Court Theatre in Studio City. Hamilton plays Ethel Rosenberg, who was strapped into the electric chair in 1953 and executed, along with her husband, for conspiring to pass atomic secrets to the Soviets.
Sitting on a faded gold couch in the bland rehearsal space at the Court, the petite, smoky-eyed actress says even she was surprised she accepted the part. "I'd sworn off heavy roles since 'Terminator 2' because I was just so sick of playing these very earnest, strong women," she says. Instead, Hamilton did some acclaimed TV movies, films such as "Dante's Peak" and a comedy or two.
But when her manager came calling with "Murder" six weeks ago, the 45-year-old actress couldn't resist. "Its very largesse attracted me," she says. "It's a period piece, it's a romance, and I have to transform myself into a tenement Jew from the Lower East Side."
It's only her second theatrical role in two decades, but then again, Hamilton -- who's declined a role in "T-3" -- can afford to be picky: "I married well," she says, wryly alluding to her hefty divorce settlement from ex-husband Cameron. "Of course, people raise their eyebrows when I tell them I'm doing theater in the Valley, but I don't care. I'm just so ignited with joy to be onstage again."
Hamilton was born three years after Ethel Rosenberg died, and a world apart. She says she grew up in "a very boring, white Anglo- Saxon" Maryland home, where she struggled to differentiate herself from her identical twin sister, Leslie, a cheerleader. "I voraciously read books," she recalls. "I got fat, and I cut off my hair and my eyelashes. I wanted to be ugly."
She also wanted to become an actress, which she accomplished after studying theater in New York and landing the role of the ethereal DA on the CBS drama, "Beauty and the Beast" in 1987.
Hamilton morphed into a muscle-bound Amazon for the "Terminator" films, enduring excruciating training sessions with ex-Israeli commando Uzi Gal on "T-2: Judgment Day." "I hated him most of the time," she says with a laugh. "He would yell at me and throw tennis balls while I was shooting weapons blindfolded. I'd go off to the bathroom to cry for a minute, then I'd wipe away my tears and go back."
The Rosenberg play --in which Ethel requests the "Kaddish" en route to the electric chair -- requires preparation of a different sort. Hamilton, who's been reading Torah and studying old union songs, says she feels "overwhelmed by the challenges of not just playing Jewish, but steeping myself in [Yiddishkayt]."
Yet she identifies in one organic way with her character: "I don't have to work very hard to bring up abandonment issues," says the actress, whose father died when she was 5. "For Ethel, it was abandonment by family and country. For me, it was abandonment by father and a series of men."
Hamilton adds that she's chosen not to meet the Rosenbergs' sons because "they were too young to have anything but emotional memories of their mother."
Conversely, Shaw, the co-creator of "Quincy," spent dozens of hours interviewing the now-50-something sons at their homes in Massachusetts. The brothers granted the 76-year-old writer the rights to their book, "We Are Your Sons" and their parents' "600 Death House Letters." Apparently, they found a sympathetic ear in Shaw, who's been fascinated by the Rosenbergs since following their trial as a young writer during the Hollywood communist witch hunts. Though most historians now concur that at least Julius Rosenberg was guilty of some kind of espionage, Shaw says he came to a different conclusion after perusing FBI documents, trial transcripts and some 30 books.
While some viewers may feel his melodrama whitewashes the Rosenbergs, Hamilton insists she's uninterested in portraying Ethel as a "wronged woman." "I want to play the whole person -- hubris, flaws and all," she says.
Yet she isn't above a case of nerves about the show: "It's just fear, like someone has their hand over my heart," she says, placing her hand on her solar plexus. "The role is huge, and I'm already prepared for the critics to be unkind to me, like, 'Why is she playing a Jewish character' or 'What's she trying to do, prove she's an actress?' But the fear is just part of the process. It lets you know you're doing a good job."
For tickets and information about the play, call (818) 752-8563.