HOLLYWOOD -- Cynthia Gibb believes she will never be asked to play as eerie a role as she does in 'The Karen Carpenter Story,' nor will she probably ever have as much difficulty in letting go of a character.
To play the role of the enormously successful pop singer, an anorexic who died five years ago of a heart attack at 33, Gibb found herself steeped in Karen's life, family and emotions.
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that most commonly occurs in adolescent girls -- although some are in their 20s and 30s -- obsessed with being thin and who carry dieting to the extreme.
The disorder is characterized by rapid weight loss and can result in death. Bulimia, another extreme eating disorder, is characterized by excessive eating -- binging -- followed by use of laxatives or induced vomiting.
Gibb, 24, is in almost every scene of the two-hour CBS-TV film to be broadcast this fall.
When she completed the project two months ago, Gibb found it difficult to shake off the overwhelming association she had developed with Karen.
'We shot some scenes in the family home in Downey (a Los Angeles suburb) and I found it terribly difficult at first to talk to her mother and father.
'Karen was the hardest character to let go of when the film was finished. Once I began playing the role I never let go of her,' said Gibb. 'It was like living her life all over again in five weeks.
'I will never forget going through her clothes that were stored in a trunk in her family's home: dresses, blouses, shoes, jackets, hats and bags -- even her wedding gown. It was very eerie. Everything fit me almost exactly. We wore the same sizes.
'The first day I opened the trunk there was a ghost in the room, an energy about the clothes that was very real. I didn't invent a ghost. I simply felt Karen's spirit there among all her possessions. It's something I will never forget as long as I live.
'Richard (Karen's brother) was on the set every day. Sometimes he appeared to feel great and at other times I could see the strain. But I believe the picture is a catharsis for him and Mr. and Mrs. Carpenter.'
Gibb, a serious young woman, wore wigs and makeup to emulate Karen's facial characteristics.
'They did what they could to emphasize those features of mine that most closely resembled Karen's,' Gibb said. 'But in much of the film I am made up to look sick -- and I don't look very much like me. I didn't feel like me when I was playing Karen.
'The strangest thing of all was a still photograph they took of me with Richard in the background. Only it wasn't me. It looked exactly like Karen and when I saw Richard studying it sadly, I couldn't stop crying.'
Despite her youth, Gibb's credits include starring in the TV series, 'Fame' and the motion pictures 'Salvador,' 'Malone,' 'Modern Girls' and two new films, 'Short Circuit II' and 'Jack's Back.'
'I wasn't asked to carry any of those movies,' she said. 'In fact, I get a lot of scripts asking me to play the girl who hangs on the arm of the leading man.
'But playing wishy-washy girls looking for a man doesn't interest me. I've been lucky to play girls with a lot of spunk. One of the reasons I wanted to play Karen was to get away from ingenue roles and play a protagonist.
'I only had five days from the time they gave me the part until production began. I started my research right away and kept it up throughout the five weeks of production.
'In addition to the magazine and newspaper stories about Karen, I read everything I could find on bulimia and anexoria and the tragedy of the young girls involved. Even though a lot has been written about the horrors of anorexia, it is still a growing problem with even younger girls today.'
Gibb worked closely with Richard, who was executive producer of the film, and spent time with Karen's parents.
'I even took drum lessons so I could be convincing in the scenes where she sings and plays the drums. It was Karen's voice on the soundtrack, of course, but I had to memorize 20 of her songs so I could synchronize my lips to the audio playback.
'I found video tapes and audio tapes of almost all of Karen's big hits and listened to them over and over again. It helped that I learned to lip-sync on 'Fame,' but matching the drumbeats was really complicated.
'By the end of the picture I came to feel as if I knew Karen. I liked her.'