To Hollywood with love

Chicoan Amanda Detmer followed her small-town dreams all the way to the big screen

Amanda Detmer

Amanda Detmer

Six years ago, an article appeared in Newsweek magazine written by a young Chico State University acting student and English major named Amanda Detmer. Its title was “The Reality of Make-Believe,” and it had been submitted to the magazine by one of Detmer’s English teachers. Written with conviction and passion, the essay was an idealistic appeal for actors to be recognized for their hard work and dedication to understanding their art, a sentiment one doesn’t usually expect from a 23-year-old who has just begun acting.

“Your search becomes the most important thing in your life,” Detmer writes of the actor’s craft. “You want to give your life to the words on paper, and you struggle endlessly to do it. If, after all the hours of expended energy, you finally reach the truth, a whole realm of possibilities opens to you.”

Beside the young author’s photo in the Newsweek piece is an enlarged pull quote from the article that reads, “I get really mad when someone suggests that all I want is to be famous.”

On the cover of the very same issue is a close-up photo of another actor who was really famous—the goofy Jim Carrey, America’s “number one comedian and Hollywood’s $20 million dollar man.”

Time has been kind to the wishful young student.

Recently, Detmer completed shooting on The Majestic, a big-budget feature film in which she plays the girlfriend of—you guessed it—Jim Carrey. Score one for the small-town girl with big-time dreams.

One would think it nearly impossible for a fresh-faced young woman to hop directly from small theater productions in Chico to acting school in New York City, major regional theater work in Minneapolis, and several Hollywood films in the span of a mere six years, but it happened. And, to those who knew Amanda Detmer when she lived in Chico, her rapid success comes as no surprise.

Amanda Detmer and her family moved to Chico when she was in the third grade. Her parents, Susan, a reading teacher, and Melvin, a charismatic singing cowboy and rice farmer, moved her and her brother Matt here at an early age so they could grow up in a friendly community near their grandparents.

“My stepfather was an attorney in the area who had once acted at Chico State,” Susan Detmer explains. “He likes to say that Matt and Amanda got their acting skills from him,” she says with a laugh.

The cute, blondee Amanda seemed to excel at nearly everything she put her mind to. She and Matt attended Chico Junior and Chico High School, where she was a good student and active in several sports. A competitive roller-skater as a young girl, she later played field hockey and basketball in high school, as well as enjoying outdoor activities with her father such as horseback riding.

ALL IN THE FAMILY Matt Detmer, Amanda and their cowboy dad Mel relaxing at home in Chico.

“She liked competitive situations. Her skating required a lot of practice and concentration,” Susan Detmer recalls.

But it was brother Matt who came first to acting. After being asked to perform in a play being put on at the former Wall Street Dance Academy, he fell in love with the art. Shortly afterward, his younger sister, who was then 18 years old, began to follow his lead.

“Performing is their passion,” says their mom. “I think both of them are very good observers of human nature—to play a part, you have to have some empathy and understanding of what they’re asking you to do.”

Growing up, Amanda was always a voracious reader and loved animals. During summers, the tight-knit family would spend time at their cabin in the mountains near Santa Cruz, an area she came to love so much that she transferred there for a semester during her college tenure at Chico State—just in time for the big Loma Prieta quake.

“That story is actually very telling about her,” her mother explains. “Initially, she was not accepted at the university in Santa Cruz, but she wasn’t willing to accept their non-acceptance.” Detmer laughs at the memory. “So she wrote a very persuasive letter to the board or someone explaining why she wanted to go there and why she would be a good student. On the strength of that letter, they accepted her. … Later, after the earthquake, she decided to come back.”

Susan Detmer explains that Amanda was always focused, willing to risk anything, and aware of exactly what she wanted to accomplish. Though she would soon catch a series of lucky breaks that would start her on the fast track to stardom, the hard work didn’t hurt either. As she details in the Newsweek piece:

“For the past three years, my commitments have totaled approximately 80 hours a week. I work in a café in town from 5:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. four days a week and as a stitch in the costume shop at Chico State. I take 15 academic units a semester and rehearse five days a week, three to four hours a night. … For the next three years I will be attending graduate school. … Classes run from 9 in the morning until 11 at night. Am I putting myself through all this to be famous?”

Mike Johnson, production manager in the College of Fine Arts at Chico State, says he remembers Amanda for her rapid development and team attitude.

“I respected her a lot because she totally appreciated all facets of the production,” he says. “Her swan song was acting as stage manager in a production of Gypsy in the spring of ‘95. She was terrific.”

Around the time when she was acting with Court Theatre and Shakespeare in the Park, Detmer was heavily influenced by a mentor, legendary Chico State acting teacher Donna Breed, a dynamic and well-respected woman who devoted her life to theater.

Detmer played the part of the sprite Ariel in Breed’s Shakespeare in the Park production of The Tempest. Breed died of brain cancer directly after the production, leaving a large hole in the local theater scene and the hearts of those who knew her well.

FROM BIDWELL BEAUTY… A late-'80s photo of a high-school-aged Amanda posing in Bidwell Park.

In 1995, Detmer received her first break during a casting call for a made-for-TV movie, Stolen Innocence, to be filmed in Chico. From all the local actors who auditioned, she got the plum role, as the sidekick to the character played by Tracey Gold, from the television series Growing Pains.

The role gave Detmer her first taste of acting before the cameras and a nice addition to her résumé, one that came in handy when she applied for grad work at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she was accepted. She left Chico in the fall of 1995 still unsure of her decision.

Aided by school loans and a little help from home, Detmer lived in your average rattrap New York City apartment consisting of a bed and a closet for $1,200 a month. After buckling down and getting serious about her goals—and learning a few clown and juggling tricks along the way—she had her MFA in acting.

Shortly thereafter, she got her first job, in Minneapolis at the famous regional repertory Guthrie Theatre, acting in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest. Then, in almost overnight fashion, she began landing supporting roles in Hollywood films and on television series. She played a tough young cop in a mini-series with veteran actor Craig T. Nelson (To Serve and Protect), and the movies, most of them teen comedies or dramas, followed: Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999), Final Destination (2000), Boys and Girls (2000) and Saving Silverman (2001).

At the box office, her films have grossed an average of $25,960,623, with an opening weekend average take of just over $7 million. These numbers are only likely to go up, considering she just completed filming The Majestic, due out in December, alongside bona-fide mega-star Jim Carrey in addition to two other, smaller films, Pay to Play and A Little Inside, to be released shortly after.

Her beautiful looks and sweet, girl-next-door vibe made her a young Hollywood star to watch. As her name gets bandied about dozens of Internet sites (some with titles such as “Hottie of the Week"), young males fantasize about her thanks to a famous “bra scene” in one of her movies as well as a bikini spread in the lowbrow, male magazine Stuff.

Too often, though, fanzine pieces portray her as just another pretty face. Obviously, this is a far cry from the talented and smart young woman who realized her goals so quickly in the entertainment world—a business known for spitting out the best and brightest like so much gristle.

When Amanda was 16, her family moved from a modest home on Vallombrosa into a spacious, rustic home north of Chico off Keefer Road—a beautiful, sunlit place with a pool and large back yard. Today, the interior is filled with old cowboy memorabilia and various photos of both children, from professional headshots to fancy movie premieres.

There’s even a framed photo of Neil Diamond on a counter that reads, “To Mel … from Amanda’s co-worker, Neil Diamond.” The famous singer worked with Amanda on Saving Silverman (recently released on video) and apparently had such a fondness for the young actress that he sent her one of his own signature guitars after the shoot.

Concerning Hollywood, her mother thinks she does “really well” with all the pressures. “She does keep a level head. In Hollywood, even though you might have successes, you have a lot of disappointments that nobody ever hears about,” she says. “It’s hard when you have two [children] in the same business—you want both of them to be successful doing whatever they want to do. We told them to follow their passion because"—she pauses—"you’re going to be doing it for a long time.”

Chico friend and former housemate Tiffany Curtis keeps in touch with Amanda and chalks up her success partly to a winning personality.

…TO PINUP GIRL A recent bikini spread in US Weekly that is part of Detmer’s publicity package. Detmer is already drawing comparisons to California beauty queen-turned-actress Michele Pfeiffer as well as screen icon Meg Ryan.

“We lived in a house on First Avenue with six girls,” Curtis, now a manager at Moxie’s Café, explains. “She was just so cute and real outgoing. We’ve stayed friends over the years, and she hasn’t really changed at all. You know, we partied like Chico people that age do, but Amanda had so much going on. She was close to burning out sometimes, but I can’t remember her ever really suffering the setbacks most actors go through. She pretty much went for it and did it.”

Her brother Matt, another Blue Room and Guthrie Theatre alumnus, is currently living in Los Angeles “in pursuit,” he says, of similar acting success. He just finished a commercial for the California Department of Energy and says being the brother of Amanda has helped some in meeting casting directors, though so far it hasn’t been a factor in the parts he has earned.

Even though he may have unconsciously inspired his sister to act, and though at one time he was the one getting all the accolades, he’s not bitter about her success. Well, maybe a little envious.

“Of course, I’m happy for her,” he says. “One of the great things about living down here is being able to see her a lot. There’s a lot of Chico people—Jeff DiFranco, Jeff Hoheimer, Shannon McNally. … But it’s tough. The equation is like: Talent plus persistence plus connections equals luck.”

“She had it from the beginning,” Detmer says. “She’s always been good at school. … She just always had the ability to focus and work hard.”

Detmer says it is common for him to meet casting agents and other Hollywood types full of praise for his younger sibling. “'We love your sister'—I get that a lot,” he says.

He admits that what happened to his sister is quite the anomaly for a young woman new to the business. “It’s like a one-in-a-million thing,” he says. “And I know she worked really hard; she’s probably the hardest-working person I know. She’s pretty, she’s talented, she’s easy to work with. She’s got the total package. And she has been extremely lucky.”

Looking at her film roles so far, Matt acknowledges that his sister has become more of a comedic actress and that she’s “totally funny now that she doesn’t worry about it anymore.”

Oh, and he loved the scene when she was hit by a bus in the bruising, body count of a movie, Final Destination.

“That was awesome,” he says. “She called me the day they were filming that. They had her stuck in a full-body cast, because in the original edit her body was supposed to explode and her head fly off. … She gets to do all the stuff I’ve always wanted to.”

“One of the amazing things about my sister is that she’s totally mellow,” he adds. “She is still herself; she hasn’t gotten into the young-Hollywood-starlet thing. It’s just work for her—then she likes to be with her family and friends. It can really get the better of some people, but she handles it.”

Matt’s commercial—look for the guy talking on the cell phone—should begin airing in a month.

In retrospect, one can’t help but feel a certain pride when rereading the Newsweek piece—that a young woman with such a pure attitude toward acting as an art could summon the work ethic and lucky breaks needed to reach her dream, a dream sought by millions and one that she eloquently sums up: "As long as I can express myself through my art, I will be happy. … I don’t want to be famous, I just want to be an actor."