SANTA MONICA, California — Yes, Elisha Cuthbert is one of the most desirable actresses of her generation, a regular on men's magazine covers and a seemingly mandatory inclusion on their annual "sexiest" lists.

When the 23-year-old blonde walks into a room, however, her most striking quality is her startling intelligence — and the newly christened movie producer is insistent on getting something about her latest film out of the way immediately.

"You're not gonna get any nudity," she laughed, giving a sneak preview of "The Quiet." "Trust me."

What audiences will uncover in the moody indie, however, is a powerful tale of seclusion, sexual abuse and sisterhood — a dramatic departure for Cuthbert after a half-decade as the eye-candy in everything from "Old School" and "House of Wax" to "The Girl Next Door" and "24."

"I was really interested in the character at first because I thought she was this strong, empowered woman dealing with this situation," Cuthbert said of Nina, the cheerleading queen whose high school existence initially seems hindered only by the annoying appearance of Dot, her parents' deaf and mute teenage goddaughter ("When a Stranger Calls" star Camilla Belle). "But then I got into the actual filming of it, and I realized it was nothing like that at all. She was being victimized, and she didn't know any better."

As the many dark curtains in "The Quiet" are pulled back, the screenplay by first-time big-screen scribes Abdi Nazemian and Micah Shraft reveals Nina to be a teen seductress using the lust of her father (Martin Donovan, "Saved!") to get what she wants. As the wallpaper-like Dot sits alone at the cafeteria table, however, she's the only one observant enough to realize that Nina isn't in control of the situation.

"I wanted to defend the character as I was playing her! I wanted to lash out and say, 'Stop doing this to her!' " Cuthbert said. "I remember at one point having to walk off set, and getting really upset, because I didn't want my own feelings to show through the character — sometimes you could be thinking something and not realize it's coming through."

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It's quite a departure for a cover girl known primarily for stirring up men's emotions, rather than embracing her own. "I wish everyone could understand that I think the [characters I play] are all intelligent," she sighed. "But this is definitely the most in-your-face intelligent project that I've ever been a part of. This movie dabbles with some very severe topics.

" 'The Girl Next Door' stuff," she said, referencing the 2004 movie in which she played a next-door neighbor who happens to be an ex-porn star, "I feel like all of that came from the pretty girl [stereotyping]. The 'FHM' and 'Maxim' stuff was definitely another side of me. I feel like we worked very hard to make ['Girl'] an intelligent film, even though it was really fun too.

"I go into every film not just wanting to play the hot girl in the movie," she confessed. "It kills me."

Which is why Cuthbert became anything but quiet after she got her hands on the Sundance workshop script by two unknown writers. "Elisha became an associate producer on the movie," Shraft explained, admitting that the film never could have been made without the efforts of the star. "She feels very strongly about the movie, and she understands what it's really trying to say."

"She's a great combination too, because she's so sexy and gorgeous," his writing partner and longtime friend Nazemian added, "so it fed the whole conundrum of the movie with her as a gorgeous, beautiful, attractive girl — but still a girl. ... Not many people can do it."

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As the mysteries and twists of "The Quiet" unfold, the film explains that while we may all remember despising the most popular, most beautiful girl in high school, few of us consider that the same qualities that made her so "perfect"' might be simultaneously condemning her to a life as a fractured object. "She has this tough exterior and this thick skin, and you think she's the popular, pretty one at school and she's got no problems," Cuthbert said, insisting that sexual abuse is rarely visible to the outside world. "It was really cool to take on the challenge, to go, 'OK, how can I make the two worlds blend?' "

The performance is all the more impressive when you realize that the majority of Cuthbert's lines are opposite a heartbreakingly unresponsive, silent Camilla Belle — which necessitated that Cuthbert carry both sides of the scene. "[Belle is] not doing a whole lot in the movie, as far as dialogue goes — it was difficult, because we had to find the right timing and the beats," Cuthbert remembered. "It's interesting when you don't have that banter back and forth, because sometimes you react just purely off what the other person is saying, or how they're saying it. It was important to really find my own moments."

Fining those moments became even more important as Cuthbert realized that Dot is hardly the only character who is emotionally absent in this dark, evocative film that casts isolation as a main character. "My mother in the film has sort of checked out and is on drugs and not there," Cuthbert observed. "Dot is really not there, and [my character] feels like she has to pretend to be somebody she's not in front of her friend Michelle [Katy Mixon], so I really couldn't play off anyone."

Still, Cuthbert found herself bonding easily with 19-year-old Belle, a talented young actress who in real life is still very much a teenager, and whose skills as a classical pianist provide the moody soundtrack for the film. "It wasn't tough every day; it was actually a lot of fun," Cuthbert said. "We got to play with the adolescence of going to high school ... and there's a lot of funny moments in the film," she added, referring to the early "Mean Girls"-like vibe of the school scenes. "But the heavier stuff was dealing with my character and what's going on in her life, with her father.

"She's being sexually abused, and playing those scenes ... towards the end of the film, was extremely difficult for me," she said, her words forceful, intelligent and sympathetic. "Going there was a tough thing to do."

Yes, it's true: Elisha Cuthbert does not take her clothes off in "The Quiet" — emotionally, however, she's never been more naked.

Check out everything we've got on "The Quiet."

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