Her Silence Is Golden

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When British actress Samantha Morton got "the Call" from Woody Allen about a possible role, she knew enough to be excited, but not enough to be intimidated. In fact, she hadn't seen any of his movies. And though Morton was then virtually unknown in the U.S., she believed that the audition cut both ways. "I have to decide whether a person is right to direct me," she explains. She knew nothing of the legendary Allen secretiveness: how, for example, he won't let actors see his scripts, just the scenes in which they appear. Morton simply had to read Sweet and Lowdown before taking the part Allen offered her on her 21st birthday. "I was totally frank with him and said I'd been offered this other film," she says. "I said, Can I read the script?' and he said, Of course you can.'"

Morton knows a great part when she sees one. The fact that Sweet and Lowdown's Hattie utters not a single word-the character is mute-was far from a deterrent for the ordinarily motor-mouthed Morton, whose magnetically expressive performance opposite Sean Penn snagged an Oscar nomination earlier this year. "Hattie's so full of stuff: How can I convey all that she's thinking?" she says. "Learning lines is the easiest thing in the world. This was the hardest part I've ever played."

Despite her tender age, dewy appearance, lack of familiarity with one of the greatest living directors and the mother-hen protectiveness of her agent and publicist, who cluck around her, it is clear that Morton is not some frail newcomer. As she likes to remind interviewers, she has racked up many television and film credits over the past decade, doing the obligatory bbc costume dramas and a handful of little-seen films. She came to Allen's attention for her raw, uninhibited portrayal of Iris in Carine Adler's 1997 Under the Skin, about a girl who goes into a promiscuous spiral after her mother dies. Next came her yearning Eva, who dallies with an English pig farmer in Dreaming of Joseph Lees. And next month she can be seen as a heroin addict in Alison Maclean's Jesus' Son, with Billy Crudup.

Acting-"the desire to communicate," she says-is her passion, but it was also clearly her salvation. She grew up poor, in public housing in Nottingham, in the north of England, with eight brothers and sisters, and was shuffled in and out of foster homes. She left school at 13, and though she refuses to talk about those rough days-"I don't want my future in acting to be about my past"-her chance to participate in an acting workshop from ages 11 to 16 was her big break into that future.

Since giving birth to daughter Esme in February (the father is actor Charlie Creed-Miles-another off-limits topic), Morton, now 22, wants it known she won't take just any job. "I'm not going to sell out," she insists. "I'm not." When Morton speaks-and even when she doesn't-people listen.