Stowe decided to focus her energy—and create a role she could get excited about—by turning her research on Native American abductions into a movie. In 2003 she and Benben finished the first draft of Unbound Captives, a sprawling Western about a white woman whose children are taken by Comanches in the 1860s. “I have a very romantic sensibility,” she says, “and at its core, this is a large love story. I wanted the landscape and characters to be inextricable in an almost otherworldly sense. I think love is an otherworldly thing that we can’t define easily. I can’t.” That year, 20th Century Fox, seeing it as a project for Russell Crowe and director Ridley Scott, offered $5 million for the script but no role for Stowe. “Without a moment’s thought,” she says, “I turned it down.”
Stowe didn’tgrow up dreaming of becoming an actress. She studied piano with renowned Russian pianist Sergei Tarnowsky, who’d taught the young Vladimir Horowitz and whom she regarded as a surrogate father. “He had two grand pianos, side by side,” she remembers. “He’d sit on the bench with me and place his fingertips on my wrists to see if they were loose. I always remember his hands.”
Music was one escape, films were another; she drank up their fantasy worlds and idolized the characters who inhabited them. “In the late ’60s and ’70s, there were Pacino and Hoffman and De Niro and Nicholson, and they blew your mind,” she says. “I loved the sprawling epics, like Doctor Zhivago.” Stowe spent a year at the University of Southern California, studying journalism and film, and earned gas money working as an usher at a playhouse in Beverly Hills. There she met Dennis Quaid, her first date and the first boy she kissed. “I was very shy,” she says. “He told a friend of mine he thought I was a virgin, and he couldn’t take that responsibility. Very sweet!” When the two worked together on 1998’s Playing by Heart, Stowe reminded Quaid that they’d dated. “He said, ‘Did we . . . ?’ I said, ‘No. We didn’t.’ ”
While handing out playhouse programs, Stowe was spotted by legendary agent Meyer Mishkin, who asked if she had ever been interested in acting (she hadn’t). A few months later, they met, and after she performed a scene, he signed her. Stowe became one of the rare actresses on his roster at the time. Mishkin was known for handling men, among them Lee Marvin, Richard Dreyfuss and Charles Bronson.
Far from being intimidated, Stowe was invigorated by the macho company; she’s always been a guy’s kind of girl. Several years ago, when Oscar-winning screenwriter and director Paul Haggis (Crash) invited her and Benben to one of his “boys’ night” gatherings, her husband declined, but Stowe accepted and spent the evening on her own with Haggis, Oliver Stone, Josh Brolin and other men she calls “mega-intelligent.” She attributes her desire to bond with the opposite sex to her incomplete relationship with her father: “I didn’t know him. I found myself gravitating toward very powerful men. I have a real ease when I’m around them, because the need to connect to them has always been great.”