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Saturday, July 22, 2000

At the front lines of 'The War Zone'

It can really happen like this. One day, an 18-year-old girl strolls down Portobello Road, London, and two women come up and ask if she's interested in appearing in a movie.

All Lara Belmont could think was that these women were muggers. "I clutched my bag with both hands and started backing off," she said. Then she realized that they were serious, and wanted to snap her Polaroid. "We'll call you in a few days," they said, and disappeared.

In these five minutes, Belmont's life changed. She had done a little modeling before, but she was mostly a high school student, wondering what to do with her life. Then, like a gift from the sky, a film. And not just any film.

This was a chance to work with the likes of Tilda Swinton, Ray Winstone and Tim Roth, who was making his directorial debut with this project. Belmont says: "I knew about Tim, of course, and when they told me it was his film I couldn't believe it. I thought it was someone else with the same name."

But it wasn't until the screenplay for "The War Zone" arrived on her doorstep that Belmont was completely intrigued. By the time she was finished reading it, her mind was made up: She'd play the part of Jessie.

Like Belmont, Jessie is 18 years old and belongs to a middle-class family. Unlike Belmont, she is sexually abused by her father and confused about her feelings for her younger brother Tom (Freddie Cunliffe). The story, which has some of the most graphic scenes of incest ever shot in cinema, caused a sound-effects man to weep and another crew member to go home with severe nausea.

The role was a heavy one for any actress, but for a first-time actress, the strain was sometimes unbearable. Belmont thought long and hard before saying: "That scene was incredibly hard to do. But I think that if you were really set on doing something, then you might as well do it right. Tim knew it was absolutely necessary, and I had to agree. Abuse is a terrible thing, but no one's going to know how terrible until they actually see it on-screen."

Not surprisingly, most journalists ask about this scene. "A lot of them ask if I've actually been abused like that and it's almost funny. I mean, supposing I had, would I tell a reporter I've only met three minutes ago?" says Belmont. "They look into my eyes as if to say, it's OK, you can tell me, and it's like, oh please." But she shrugs these incidents off. "After all, they're only doing their job. And if I said yes, then it would have made a great story."

Actually, Belmont comes from a "warm family," and considers herself lucky to be the eldest of four siblings. ("I had a lot of kids to grow up with and compare notes with.") When she showed the screenplay to her mother, the latter naturally had misgivings. "But in the end, she said that I was old enough to make my own decisions. As for my dad, he said that if Tim disrespected me, then he was disrespecting my father and he'd go and punch his nose."

Her father and one of her sisters visited the set in North Devon, and the whole family came down for the first public screening. By then Belmont had already watched herself on-screen and had been shaken, but it was far more disturbing to see her mother come out of the theater in tears. She was also worried about the effect on her father, who tried to brush off the experience with a blase, "I don't think I can go down to the pub very often from now on."

Says Belmont: "My father hadn't seen me naked since I was 4 years old. My mother knew that I can take this kind of thing - she always said I was a very good liar and that's a big part of acting. But my dad . . . it must have been hard for him."

Now, almost two years after the making of "The War Zone," Belmont thinks she has "finally parted from Jessie and gone on to other things." This includes a love of photography which she is now studying in college, and a new role in a teenage horror picture. "I get to play this girl who's always smiling and being happy . . . quite a change from Jessie, who never smiled."

Belmont is not sure yet whether acting is her chosen career, but she says, "I love the actual work that goes into it, the atmosphere on set."

For now, she is enjoying work on the new movie. "When my sister saw 'The War Zone,' she said to me, 'Lara, please be someone nice next time.' So I did."

Judging from the big smile on her face, it made her feel a whole lot better.

"The War Zone" opens early September at Cinema Image Forum in Shibuya.

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