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Shue only had a learner's permit when she and her pals would "borrow" her stepdad's car and head for the beach. They would catch some rays, flirt with the boys and then speed back home.
"I didn't get caught much, which allowed me to do so many more things," she says. "I don't even want to talk about what I did in college."
By the time Shue found success as an actress, she was typecast as the ultimate girl next door. She was all sweetness and light in such confections as "The Karate Kid" (1984), "Adventures in Babysitting" (1987), "Cocktail" (1988), "Hearts and Souls" (1993) and the three "Back to the Future" movies (1985, 1989 and 1990).
But the Wild Child was just waiting to show her true colors. "Leaving Las Vegas," for which she earned her first Best Actress nomination, fit the bill. Her performance as a down-and-out call girl was a scalding revelation.
However, that was last year, which in Hollywood time is long, long ago. This year, Shue has a trio of more conventional projects on tap. She'll play a 19th-century courtesan alongside Jessica Lange in an upcoming adaptation of Balzac's "Cousin Bette." She's Val Kilmer's love match in the $75-million action film "The Saint," due next summer. And in "The Trigger Effect," opening Friday, she's the object of desire for Kyle MacLachlan and Dermot Mulroney.
"The great roles are still the ones you have to fight for," Shue, 32, maintains. "And that won't change, because there are so few of them to go around, especially if you're a woman. In a lot of ways, it's still the same game for me."
David Koepp's "The Trigger Effect," a what-if thriller about a week-long black-out, isn't in the same league as "Leaving Las Vegas," but it allows Shue another chance to strut her stuff. It's a tribute to her edgy turn that even the most prosaic domestic scenes bristle with the tension of a downed electric wire.
"I've always liked Elisabeth on screen, but all she was ever allowed to show was her beauty. I knew she was capable of so much more," says Koepp.
Shue contributed heavily to developing the role of a suburban mom who has repressed her free-spirited nature for the sake of her straight-laced hubby (MacLachlan), Koepp points out.
"I made the movie a few months before `Leaving Las Vegas' came out because I really needed to work," Shue says. "But now I'm glad I did it. I learned that a woman who has a baby and lives in suburbia is just as complex and interesting -- and has as much pain and as many desires -- as someone who lives on the street."
The movie, Koepp's first as a director after scripting "Jurassic Park" (1993) and "Carlito's Way" (1993), concerns characters who, deep within, have the potential for anti-social behavior.
Like her character, Shue admits to being transfixed by spontaneous street-level drama. Car wrecks fascinate her. So do natural disasters. A blackout would be a turn-on.
"I wish I had been in L.A. for the power outtage," she says. "I would have been out on the street, checking out what was going on. That would have been so cool. Once the danger came toward my house, I'd be very afraid. But then I'd get more excited by the fear."
Shue isn't kidding about facing her fears. The worry of working with the reportedly difficult Val Kilmer didn't stop her from accepting the role of a shy electro-chemist in "The Saint."
"I heard all of these awful stories about Val," she admits, "but I had an incredibly good experience working with him."
If there's a downside to Shue's sudden success, it's the scrutiny she's received from the tabloids. Asked about published reports that she's leaving her husband of two years, TV director Davis Guggenheim, for Kilmer, Shue breaks into a big smile.
"They must be desperate for stories to make up a romance between me and Val. At a certain point, you have to have a sense of humor about it, but the last few weeks have been tough. They said I was having an affair with Tom Cruise during `Cocktail,' which is the most absurd thing I'd ever heard."
Shue's sunny disposition might belie it, but she has had a difficult life. Her parents separated when she was in the fourth grade, forcing her bank-exec mom to take a job in Manhattan. Shue grew up surrounded by three brothers, one of whom is "Melrose Place's" hunky Andrew Shue, "knowing only sports and competition."
Says the actress, "My childhood was male-dominated. It was great, but also very painful. Looking back after years of therapy, I realize that my wanting to act had nothing to do with making money and everything to do with needing attention and wanting to express myself and investigate my sexuality."
It was the accidental death of her younger brother, Will, eight years ago that originally convinced Shue to seek therapy. The actress watched in horror as her brother, then 28, was impaled on a tree branch after swinging from a rope that broke mid-swing. Shue believes her performance in "Leaving Las Vegas" was fueled by her own sorrow.
"Will's death taught me not to be afraid to express my vulnerability, that rawness inside myself that I tried so long to protect. `Leaving Las Vegas' proved to me that strength comes from vulnerability. And that's something I always have to remember."