January 27, 2005 06:00 AM

She was nominated for an Oscar, then disappeared into the ivory tower. Now Elisabeth Shue, who returned to Harvard in 2000 to finish her bachelor’s degree, is back on the big screen in Hide and Seek, a spooky thriller costarring Robert De Niro and Dakota Fanning, and Mysterious Skin, an entry at the Sundance Film Festival. The actress, 41, who earned her Academy Award nod for 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas, also focused on family in the meantime, with daughter Stella, 3, joining son Miles, 7. Shue recently chatted about taking a hiatus from Hollywood, sharing an alma mater with Natalie Portman and enjoying the horror of working on her new film.

Where have you been the past few years?
Oh gosh, okay. Well, right after (2000’s) Hollow Man, I went back to school. I went back for a whole entire semester and I had five credits to make up in college. So I graduated with my diploma.

In what?
Political science.

How did your classmates react when they realized who you were?
Harvard is so filled with students with such accomplishment that they probably looked down on me for being an actress. I don’t think that they were really that impressed.

Natalie Portman went there, too.
I saw her many times walking through the yard. I never went up to say hi because I thought that it would be strange to just walk up and say, “Hi. We’re the two animals in the zoo.” But yeah, it was cool that she was there at the same time. I think that it also helped my anonymity because there was already someone there who was already much more famous there on the campus.

Do you think you’ll ever go back to academics?
I still think about it. One day. I really still have a fantasy of getting my master’s, maybe in a different subject, (and) that I would be interested in teaching one day.

"You learn how to give of yourself in ways that you couldn't even have imagined," Shue (with Stella) says of motherhood. "At the same time you can't let it consume you to the point where you lose your individuality"

Has taking a break affected your work? Have you felt hindered?
Not really. I have two children and I have such a full life, and I’ve also been through many different cycles in my career, so it hasn’t felt different. It felt like, “Oh, this is the time where you sort of get reacquainted and you go back in, and then slowly, but surely more opportunities will open up.” And they already have.

Plus, you’re more mature.
The difference is that you’re not willing to just sit back and wait for projects because life is too short. You finally say, “Hey, what do I really want to do? I’m going to go out there and try to make it happen.”

Your kids, Stella and Miles, do they show any signs of wanting to be actors?
I don’t think so. (But) they’re much more performers than I ever was at their age.

What was it like working with a 10-year-old, Dakota Fanning?
She’s like a little woman. I mean, we all joked about how she was much more mature than any of us were.

Did you give her any advice?
You don’t need to give Dakota any advice really. She will give you advice. She’s so happy to be there, and so it sort of inspires everyone around her. It’s like, “Oh yeah. God, this is so fun.”

Was it fun making Hide and Seek?
Yeah, that’s the whole point. Even going to see the movie, I’ve really reconnected to the whole horror/thriller thing. I understand it now. It’s fun. It’s funny. It’s fun and exciting, and thrilling.

What about De Niro? Was he intimidating?
I wasn’t intimidated, but I was in awe, I would say. I was really excited to meet him and really excited to work with him. I remember the first day that he showed up on the set. Everyone was kind of like not speaking very loudly because they were preparing for his entrance, and then my heart started to pound a little bit harder. I was like, “Oh my God.”

Finally, what’s one of your horror film favorites?
The Shining. That’ll just go down as the all-time scariest film that I’ve ever seen.

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