New Frontier: Pell James

Pell James leaps to stardom with a lead role in “The King.”

Her feet tucked beneath her in a plush armchair at New York’s SoHo Grand, 28-year-old actress Pell James could pass for a teenager. In “The King,” a forthcoming drama about an illicit romance between half-siblings in Southern Baptist country, she is riveting as Malerie, a sixteen-year-old preacher’s daughter transformed by her encounter with her father’s illegitimate son (played by Gael Garcia Bernal). But she hardly needs a whole picture to make an impression. In Jim Jarmusch’s Cannes Grand Prix winner “Broken Flowers,” James’ luminous cameo — she sells flowers to a truculent Bill Murray, who is on a tour of embittered old flames — is a grace note in a tough film about wounded lives. “It was an on-the-spot acting job,” says James, who received the script on the day of shooting.

Persuading “king” director James Marsh to sign up a relative newcomer — the actress’ previous crediits included two “Law & Order” episodes and a Wes Anderson-directed IKEA commercial — required more preparation. After an in-character journal “filled with religious stickers and diary entries about how Malerie wasn’t sure why she didn’t feel one with God like her parents” failed to convince him that she could play a simple-living Texas teenager, “I went to Kmart, got a really dodgy outfit — pink top, brown khakis, $6 sneakers — and dyed my hair brown.” Then a friend photographed her as “Malerie just hanging out” in the least glamorous place they could imagine — New Jersey. “Initially, I thought, She’s too pretty,” Marsh says, “but then she made this leap. It was such an intelligent, thought-out performance.”

The part reminded James of Sissy Spacek’s role in “Badlands.” Recalling Spacek’s star turns in that film and in “Carrie” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” James muses, “That’s what I want to do, make three good movies and get out.”

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