It’s midafternoon on an unseasonably warm winter day, and actress Kate Capshaw, her pantsuit topped off by a beret, breezes into her favorite Santa Monica cafe for a chat before joining her 2-year-old son, Sawyer, at his Mommy and Me play group nearby.
Capshaw is at an intriguing juncture in her career, which began in earnest 14 years ago, paused for a time and is resuming full-throttle as the female lead in “Just Cause,” a legal thriller.
Hers is a pivotal role. She plays the wife of a middle-aged, tenured law school professor (Sean Connery) who is drawn into the issue of whether a young man on Death Row is guilty as convicted. Her character has more legal expertise than is assumed at first, and as a result, turns out to be much more than a mere appendage to her spouse.
“It was time for me to work - the right time to step out the door, drive somewhere and speak to adults all day,” she says about her decision last summer to return to the soundstage and to location shooting in Miami.
Capshaw, 41, had been away more than three years. During that time she gave birth to two children - her daughter, Sasha (now 4), and Sawyer - converted to Judaism, married Steven Spielberg and supported him through his most exhilarating and exhausting filmmaking phase.
Even so, the tug of home, the attention to be paid to Sasha, Sawyer, Jessica (her 18-year-old daughter from her first marriage), 9-year-old Max (from Spielberg’s marriage to actress Amy Irving) and 6-year-old Theo (Kate and Steven’s adopted son) still finds her quite selective about the parts she’ll take.
She shares those decisions with her husband.
“Steven and I are partners, and our life together is our production, so to speak. If I want to do something that affects that production, I want to have his support. If he doesn’t understand the piece, then I have to help explain it. Sometimes, in explaining it, I realize I don’t understand it. Then everybody’s saved a lot of work.”
From her earliest teens, besides dreaming of an acting career, Capshaw yearned to be surrounded by children in her life - at work and at home. An education major, she completed a master’s program in learning disabilities, then began teaching learning-disabled youngsters.
“I think my interest in special education was prompted by some instinctual knowledge that we were all very different, that we all had special needs,” she says. “I still have those images with our children. I look at them very differently. There are house rules that you have to follow - it doesn’t matter how unique you are. But within that, there’s room for each child to be who he or she is.”
As much as she enjoyed her students, she was less inspired by the routines of teaching. Then her marriage to high school principal Bob Capshaw began to founder. He convinced her that they might strengthen their relationship by a change of scenery and opportunities.
They moved to New York City in 1978 with 1-year-old Jessica in tow. Capshaw secured a contract with the Ford Model Agency. About a year later, the couple was divorced. Capshaw began taking voice and singing lessons, did commercials, spent six weeks on a soap opera as a dying woman and raised Jessica.
In February 1981, she read for a small part in a movie and unexpectedly won the lead. “A Little Sex” led to a series of movie projects. On one, she met director Armyan Bernstein. They had a four-year relationship, during which she and Jessica moved to California.
One day in 1983, casting director Mike Fenton and talent agent Peter Meyers were jogging around a Los Angeles suburb. Fenton vented his frustration over Spielberg’s inability to find a woman to play opposite Harrison Ford in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”
“How about Kate Capshaw?” Meyers asked. One screen test and two meetings with Spielberg and the part of chanteuse Willie Scott in the 1984 blockbuster film was hers.
During the next several years, Spielberg and Capshaw began a relationship that has spanned most of the last decade. They began living together in 1989, soon after Spielberg and Irving separated. By this point, Capshaw and Jessica had been joined by Theo, a foster child Capshaw discovered in a newspaper advertisement.
In 1990, the family portrait became more complex. Capshaw adopted Theo and bore Sasha. Max gained a new brother when Irving had another baby.
Soon after Sasha’s birth, Capshaw became Jewish, along with the rest of the younger children (Jessica remains Christian). Capshaw married Spielberg in 1991. The next year, she gave birth to Sawyer.
While she has busied herself with motherhood more intensively than ever these last few years, her husband has produced “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List,” winning Oscars and an armload of industry, human rights and philanthropic awards. In March, he will receive the Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute.
The spark of inspiration that enabled Spielberg to realize his Holocaust-related film project nearly a decade after buying the rights to Thomas Keneally’s novel is directly linked to Capshaw’s decision to convert to Judaism, a move that caused the director to draw closer to his faith than he had been for years. That choice typifies the loyalties and passions - individual and collective - binding Capshaw and Spielberg.
“In some ways, Steven and I share (the fact) that we’re always pushing our own envelopes,” Capshaw says. “He operates his jet - a camera and a story. My jet is the family. I might not be comfortable pushing the limits in film the way he does, and he might not be as comfortable pushing the limits of our family. But I get to be the frontierswoman here, and he gets to be the frontiersman there.
“When he feels like maybe we shouldn’t, I’m making a case for why we should. Sometimes I’ll push, push, push, and if he resists and resists, I’ll say, `You know what? I really need his support.’ And he does the same with me.
“How about if I run a studio?” she recalls his saying about the notion that has become a reality, in partnership with studio executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and recording mogul David Geffen. “Well …,” she recalls answering noncommittally. “We took a long time thinking about that, and asked each other a lot of questions and came up with answers we were comfortable with.”
While admitting she may be naive about it, Capshaw sees herself as “neither hurt nor helped by being Mrs. Steven Spielberg.” She had her own identity as an actress before becoming involved with him, she says, adding that she is scrupulous about never using her husband to get a job. In fact, she is quite willing to audition or read for parts - something that normally is anathema to established actors.
On the other hand, she says, people have suggested that some directors might not want to work with her because of who she is.
“If someone is so insecure that it would be frightening to them to have Steven read a page of their script or hear the experiences of the set or watch the experiences, if that’s threatening, that is a ticket to disaster,” she says. “A director has to be confident.
“The people I’ve worked with are thrilled to share the making of the movie with Steven, who is one of the more generous directors in the community we live in. He’s quiet, he sits back, he doesn’t answer a question unless a question’s been asked. You feel his support.”
Professionally, often it’s the little things that excite her. She is about to team up with her good friend, actress Rita Wilson, in a 12-minute short film about two women, a script she loves.
She recently finished a small part in a forthcoming movie, “How to Make an American Quilt,” based on Whitney Otto’s 1990 multigenerational novel. Capshaw sees “a certain poetry” in the fact that though her character appears only twice in the movie, she opens and closes it, like “bookends.”
Most precious, and least publicized, is her role as a founder of the 3-year-old Children’s Action Network, a media-based advocacy group created by Hollywood insiders. It seeks to have an impact on people’s thinking about youngsters - “who can’t vote in politicians who have an agenda for children,” she says.
Always there is her own brood to measure. The Spielbergs talk “all the time,” Capshaw says, about increasing their household - beyond the kitten that Sasha has been promised, joining the two dogs, three parrots and two parakeets already in residence.
“I don’t know if we talk about it to keep the idea alive or keep the possibilities alive,” she says. “We debate whether we want to have a natural child or adopt another child. Our friends tease us all the time. I think they expect us to put out a little flag, letting them know which way the wind is blowing!”