By Dennis Hunt, Special for USA TODAY
WEST HOLLYWOOD - Who has ever heard of an actress who craves anonymity? Yet Elizabeth Mitchell swears she thrives on being thoroughly obscure.
"Elizabeth who?" you're probably saying . That's music to her ears. But after Sunday night, Mitchell might not blend so easily into the crowd . She has the lead in The Linda McCartney Story (9 p.m. ET/PT), a two-hour CBS movie about the woman - photographer, activist, mother and cancer victim - who spent 30 years married to Beatle Paul McCartney (Gary Bakewell).
Swathed in a long, swirling dress, the tall, slender actress - who's a bundle of nervous energy - is curled up in the corner of an old couch in the Chateau Marmont hotel lobby. No one bothers her. There isn't much traffic in the lobby, but actor Rob Lowe, being interviewed by Entertainment Tonight in the courtyard, is getting all the attention.
Is Mitchell's anti-celebrity stance for real or a line she's handing the media to make herself more interesting? "I'm sincere," insists Mitchell, 30, who was born in Dallas and raised in Los Angeles. "Nobody knows who I am, which is
heavenly. I'm not totally prepared for the attention you get when you're a celebrity.
"Celebrity can get in the way. I prefer to focus on work. I've taken steps in that celebrity direction but so far none have worked out, which is OK. Taking this Linda McCartney role is another step in the direction of celebrity, and
I'm nervous about it."
So far, supporting roles in HBO's Gia with Angelina Jolie (Mitchell played '70s supermodel Gia Carangi's lesbian lover) and the recent Dennis Quaid movie Frequency have resulted in good notices only - which is just fine with
Mitchell, who's also in the upcoming Renee Zellweger film Nurse Betty. Until now, her biggest brushes with celebrity have been supporting roles in ballyhooed TV series that didn't make it, such as Significant Others.
Mitchell has been doing movies and TV for only five years. Before that she was dedicated to the stage, doing lots of Chekov and Shakespeare, taking advantage of her training at the British-American Drama Academy in London.
"I would have been happy working in a theater company in Dallas, doing different plays," she says. "But I came to L.A. as an understudy in a touring company. My agents sent me on some TV auditions. I got a job and I stuck around L.A., doing TV and film, but also some theater."
Stardom was never part of the game plan.
"I love character roles," says Mitchell, who has been acting for 17 years. "You don't become a star that way. You work hard, immerse yourself in the characters. I generally don't do big high-profile roles. They terrify me. They lead me into places I'm not sure I want to go."
Yet, there was something about the McCartney role that intrigued her.
"At first, I didn't want to play such a high-profile part," she explains. "But the more I looked into it, I saw she was a fascinating, complex woman. It's a role spanning a few decades, so I get to play young and old. It's something I could sink my teeth into. It was also important that I liked the director and the script."
She almost didn't get the part. It had nothing to do with competition or doubts that she could handle it. Casting her was also part of a behind-the-scenes drama. Co-executive producer Tom Patricia explains:
"We wanted Elizabeth all along. But CBS wanted to cast her in a pilot. If she got that part, she couldn't play Linda McCartney. We were really sweating. We had no backup. We were running out of time. But CBS took a long time to decide. Finally someone else got the role in the pilot and she was free to do our movie at the last minute. Everyone else was already cast. We breathed a sigh of relief."
The movie, which was shot in Vancouver, was conceived as a four-hour miniseries. But CBS wanted to get the story on during May sweeps, so the network settled for a two-hour movie, forcing writer Christine Berardo to cut the script in half in time to start shooting in March.
"It was sad we couldn't go into Linda's health-food activism and other parts of her life," Mitchell says. "But there was no room for it. We had to focus on the love story with Paul. But maybe that's the aspect of her life that interests people the most."
Mitchell lives near the Chateau Marmont and likes to hang out there. If she comes back next week, things might be different. People just might look twice.
Laura Innes and Elizabeth Mitchell in the Media
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