Minnie Driver's life as a Hollywood starlet has turned out to be very inconvenient to fulfilling her lifelong dream of being a rock star. She was on her way to a record deal in the early 1990s when Circle of Friends came along and she had to turn the deal down. Then as one movie followed another '- and one high-profile romance followed another '- she just didn't have the time to get back to it. When she finally stopped to take a break to work on her music, Joel Schumacher's big-screen version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera came her way. Concert interruptus again.
At least this time, she could put her singing career on hold to play a singer. Despite the fact that she had never seen the stage production in her native London or in New York, the 34-year-old wanted to be a part of this lavish adaptation so much that she postponed finishing her first album.
One big draw was getting to work with Schumacher, whom she befriended after trying out for Batman, though she didn't get the part she sought. But most of all, she wanted to take a stab at playing La Carlotta, the over-the-top soprano who can out-tantrum a 2-year-old. Broadway actress Emmy Rossum may be the romantic lead as the beautiful, innocent Christine in this bittersweet love triangle, but Driver gets to be the comedic counterpoint.
To prepare for the role, Driver studied Maria Callas and her friends' "badly behaved children" in equal parts. She did not, however, try to mold her breathy alto into an operatic soprano.
That didn't matter to director Schumacher. "I've never met an opera soprano who had a sense of humor about herself," he says. "I needed a comic actress. Whether she sang opera or not, it was not important."
That most people don't see Driver as a pure comedic actress didn't faze him either.
"The roles that I might be more known for are certainly more dramatic, but anybody who knows me as a person knows that comedy is something I love," Driver says.
"You have to be realistic about approaching stuff that you don't do normally," she adds. "Opera is a lifetime of training. That particular bel canto sound is not something you sort of pick up and do with a couple of months of training."
Instead, Driver sings an original song written by Webber that concludes the movie, and she waited until after the movie wrapped to fully satisfy her rock star dreams. She tried to take another break from film, and this time she succeeded, finishing her debut album, Everything I've Got in My Pocket.
"I needed to take a step back," she says. "I had been making films back to back for 10 years. I just needed to reassess for a moment. I had always wanted to write this record, so it seemed the perfect moment to pause."
But banish any ideas that the album's love-weary songs '- 10 are written by Driver and one track is a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart" '- chronicle her infamous breakup with fiancé Josh Brolin or her high-profile romances with Matt Damon, Harrison Ford and John Cusack.
"I am in my 30s," she says with a smile. "I've had a fair few experiences with love far beyond those that people recognize in the public eye."
The music isn't about the men, she says; it's about her: "I broke up with my fiancé. It was a time of great change. But there were other emotional things I needed to work through '- watching my friends have children and what it is to be at this juncture in my life."
Songs like "Ruby Adeline" and "Home" are about love and children. "Fast as You Can," inspired by a friend, is about a troubled relationship between a mother and son.
The album, released this fall, has received mixed reviews. But Driver isn't discouraged. She's set on making room in her life for music and is already planning to work on a second album '- this one as more of a collaborative effort. She also just wound down the U.S. leg of her tour and will hit the musical venues of England in February.
Still, she hasn't abandoned the big screen. Movie fans can eventually catch her in The Virgin of Juarez, an independent film about the women garment workers in Juarez, Mexico, who are being killed. She also hopes to work on a biopic of a singer like Dusty Springfield. It's not likely she'll have to lip-sync.