NEW YORK -- Laura Dern vividly recalls her impression of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris during the 2000 recount.
"I remembered how paralyzed we all felt when we first saw her," Dern said. "Oh my God, she's going to make a decision?"
But Dern began thinking a bit differently about the pilloried politician after researching her role as Harris in HBO's "Recount."
"She surprised me with her intellect," the actress said.
Derided at the time for her heavy makeup and partisan ties, Harris was the character who presented the biggest challenge in the film, said director Jay Roach.
"We didn't want to go too far and portray her in any cartoonish way," he said.
The Republican Harris, who went on to serve two terms in the House of Representatives, declined to be interviewed by "Recount's" screenwriter, Danny Strong. (He said she initially agreed but then didn't call him back.)
To learn more about her, Dern studied the news conferences that Harris gave during the recount. She said she was amazed at Harris' "myriad of emotions and personality traits and mannerisms."
In the end, Dern's portrayal of Harris as a woman simultaneously dazed and intoxicated by her power provides much of the film's comic relief.
But Dern said she didn't try to play her for laughs.
"The challenge as an actor and the great fun of it is: How do you stay truthful, when that which is true is absurd?" she said.
It remains to be seen what the real Harris will make of the portrayal. Efforts to reach her through her former congressional chief of staff were not successful.
But in October, the onetime politician, who left public life after losing a bid for the Senate in 2006, told Sarasota Magazine that she didn't see how Dern could play her.
"She's blonde and tall," Harris said.
Dern said she hoped Harris would change her mind after seeing the film: "Maybe she'll feel better when she sees the wig."