By Dan Jewel
Updated March 01, 1999 12:00 PM

Auditioning can be a nightmare, but for Illeana Douglas, it was a scream—literally. Back in New York City in 1988, the aspiring actress’s résumé included the boast “Great legs, bloodcurdling screams.” So when Martin Scorsese needed someone to shriek for a scene in The Last Temptation of Christ, she got the call. “I went trudging down there and screamed,” she says. “And I said, ‘Thanks for the release!’ ”

These days, Douglas, 33, has even more to shout about. After landing roles in Scorsese hits Goodfellas and Cape Fear (in which she was memorably assaulted by Robert De Niro), she currently shines as Robin Wright Penn’s confidante in the three-hanky romance Message in a Bottle.

Douglas has a good deal to say about her own romances. First came Scorsese, 56, who broke up with her in 1997 after eight comfortable years together. “It was tough,” she recalls. “It was his decision, and there wasn’t a lot I had to say about it.” Soon after, a mutual friend fixed Douglas up with TV producer Jonathan Axelrod. Eight months later, he proposed. “I cried for 20 minutes,” she says—before saying yes. Message director Luis Mandoki recalls her saying at the 1998 audition, ” ‘I met this man, and I’m going to marry him, and I’m very nervous, and I hope the shooting schedule doesn’t conflict with my wedding date.’ ” It didn’t; Douglas and Axelrod, 49, tied the knot last May. “I was very happy [with Scorsese], but in retrospect it’s a lot more fun to be with someone [closer to] your own age,” she says with a laugh. “They don’t tire easily.”

Both Douglas and her husband grew up in families that knew how to get on with the show. He is the son of screenwriter George Axelrod (The Seven Year Itch); her grandfather Melvyn Douglas won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1963’s Hud. “[He] used to come down to breakfast in silk pajamas and robe, looking very dapper,” says Douglas, whose grandmother was California congresswoman and Senate candidate—defeated by Richard Nixon—Helen Gahagan Douglas. Illeana, who “wanted to be Liza Minnelli,” and her two brothers (Stefan, 38, a veterinary student, and Erik, 35, a Connecticut newspaper reporter) shuttled between divorced parents—Joan, a teacher in Connecticut, and Gregory, an artist and teacher in Massachusetts. After high school she struggled in the New York City theater until her screaming success.

Since then, Douglas has scored in supporting roles (1997’s Picture Perfect) and starred in ’96’s Grace of My Heart. “She’s very friendly and has a great sense of humor,” says Matt Dillon, who played her brother in ’95’s To Die For. “The camera just loves her—those big eyes—and she has such a strong presence.”

Axelrod agrees. “I never expected to meet anyone as wonderful as Illeana,” he says. They share a ranch home in Los Angeles where they throw frequent dinner parties, complete with gather-round-the-baby-grand sing-alongs. “We’re like the show tunes family,” says Douglas.

She is also enjoying the role of weekend stepmom to Sam, Axel-rod’s 8-year-old son from a previous marriage. While Douglas decides whether she wants to have children of her own, Sam, she says, “fulfills my need.” At parents’ night at his grade school recently, she and Axelrod came across a list of Sam’s favorite things on display. “It said his favorite movie was Message in a Bottle,” says a smiling Douglas. “We’ve trained him well.”

Dan Jewel

Julie Jordan in Los Angeles