November 25, 2002 12:00 PM

When Kim Basinger and her 7-year-old daughter Ireland want to get away from it all, they drive five hours north of Los Angeles for a weekend of girl talk, bonding—and shoveling elephant dung. Clad in carpenter pants and T-shirts, the Oscar winner and her daughter chop animal feed and clean the enclosures at the Performing Animal Welfare Society’s Gait sanctuary. “Kim told us that the sanctuary is a place of peace and quiet for her,” says PAWS cofounder Pat Derby. “Animals are great. If they don’t like you, they let you know. And they never stab you in the back.”

No wonder Basinger, 48, finds them preferable to the company of Hollywood society. Since the tempestuous breakup of her seven-year marriage to Alec Baldwin, 44, in December 2000, the reclusive actress has retreated even more from the parties and premieres that drive the movie world, even as she has revved up her film career. The drama 8 Mile, in which she costars with Eminem as his alcoholic mother, topped the box office with $54 million in its first weekend. And in the upcoming thriller People I Know (due next year), she has a bigger role as Al Pacino’s love interest. Offscreen, though, Basinger has embraced a quiet life that revolves around Ireland and her animal-rights projects. “She’s basically disappeared,” says one regular on Hollywood’s A-list social scene. “I don’t know anyone in our group who talks to her or who has seen her since the divorce.”

She is certainly keeping her distance from Baldwin. The couple—whose divorce became final last December—were still battling over visitation issues as recently as June. A Los Angeles superior court document issued in August set out a monthly visitation schedule for Baldwin and spelled out precise hours when he may phone Ireland daily on a private line to be installed in the girl’s room by Basinger. It also instructed Baldwin not to phone other household members and ordered him to “commence anger-management therapy.” Says Alexander Peters, a friend and neighbor in Amagansett, N.Y., who works with Baldwin on environmental issues: “Kim makes it as difficult as possible for him to see his daughter. She just makes his life impossible.” (Neither Basinger nor Baldwin will discuss their divorce or custody arrangements.)

Basinger, meanwhile, continues to wrestle with her acute need for privacy. At the L.A. premiere of 8 Mile, the actress, whose agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) has twice confined her to home for six-month stints, hurried into the theater, avoiding castmates and news crews alike. “She’s smart and gentle, but in some ways she’s completely ill-suited to being a public personality,” says 8 Mile director Curtis Hanson, who guided her to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1997’s L.A. Confidential. “She’s painfully shy and slow to trust.”

Even those nearest to her. While she is close to her sister Ashley Brewer, 34, and father Don, 79, she is estranged from her brother Mick, 51, and her mother, Ann, 77, who has been sympathetic to ex-son-in-law Baldwin in the aftermath of the divorce. “Kim has just written off the ones who don’t agree with her,” says a source close to the family.

Others paint a different picture. “She’s in a place in her life where she’s coming into her own,” explains People I Know producer Leslie Urdang. “She’s very self-possessed and able to handle work and motherhood and the demands of being in the spotlight without being ruffled.” On the Detroit set of 8 Mile, Basinger took the theatrically inexperienced—but notoriously temperamental—Eminem (a.k.a. Marshall Mathers), 30, under her wing. “When she came into rehearsals, which she did for me as a favor, because she normally doesn’t rehearse,” says Hanson, “it was thrilling to watch her give her all and see Marshall get it, react to it and give back.” At home she’s just as nurturing. “Ireland,” says Brewer, “is her life.”

Still recovering from summer back surgery, Basinger sticks close to the 3,200-sq.-ft., four-bedroom contemporary ranch house in Woodland Hills, Calif., that she purchased in 1981 and fled to after her marriage imploded. Some nights she ventures out with a tight circle of nonfamous girlfriends to Ago, an Italian restaurant in West Hollywood. Friends say she shows little inclination to begin dating again. But they’re not concerned. “She’s a very private person,” says producer Urdang. “She’s going to be just fine with whatever she chooses to do.”

Jill Smolowe

Ulrica Wihlborg and Kwala Mandel in Los Angeles, Rebecca Paley in New York City and Michaele Ballard in Charlotte, N.C.

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