From start in Dallas theater, Elizabeth Mitchell grabs TV spotlight with 'ER' and 'The Beast'
By Manuel Mendoza / The Dallas Morning News
PASADENA, Calif. "I have a boyfriend," Elizabeth Mitchell says to Angelina Jolie after their characters make love in the 1998 HBO film Gia. "I'm really very square."
Ms. Mitchell, a Dallas native, easily passes for square. Tall and thin, with curly, shoulder-length tresses, she's the innocent, all-American blonde. She grew up in Highland Park, for Pete's sake.
But rather than seeing her girl-next-door appeal as a limitation, the 30-year-old actress has used it if not exactly to play against type to question whether the type really exists. While portraying her share of conventional wives and mothers, she also has chosen to play lesbians and appear nude.
Her latest role is Alice Allenby, a reporter who goes to work for an unconventional cable/Internet news channel in the upcoming ABC series The Beast. The premiere episode opens with Alice having sex with her boyfriend, and Ms. Mitchell is once again naked for the camera.
This season, she's also playing a psychiatrist who's pursuing a romance with Dr. Weaver (Laura Innes) on ER.
"I was brought up to be kind of a free spirit," Ms. Mitchell says after an interview session between TV critics and The Beast's producers and cast. "My parents are very conservative, but at the same time they believe in people having the right to choose their own adulthood, choose their own destiny."
Ms. Mitchell chose hers early. As far back as she can remember, her mom was dropping her off at the Dallas Theater Center, where she took acting classes and performed with the teen Encore Company until high school.
"It was all introduced as fun," she says. "Every actor I talked to said they never made any money. So I thought that was for me."
Later, after forgetting a line on stage during a student production of Alice Through the Looking Glass, an Alice in Wonderland rewrite, "I just realized that the nature of being an actress is to be fallible, to be vulnerable. We're all the nerds of our world, aren't we? I was a complete, total nerd. ...I loved the idea that the underdog wins more often than not. And I don't know if that happens in life. But I want it to."
Encouraged by her mother, a lawyer who painted, and her father, a Rolling Stones fan, little Elizabeth would put on plays at home.
"Our imagination was prized above everything else, and our education was as much at home as it was at school," she says. "They prided themselves on having very intelligent, articulate kids."
After graduating in 1988 from Dallas' arts-magnet high school, Booker T. Washington, Ms. Mitchell went to Columbia, Mo., to study acting at Stephens College. She then returned to Dallas and appeared in Theatre Three's 1992 production of Amateurs, playing "a cool but sexy ingenue" in a miniskirt, according to a Dallas Morning News review.
She planned a Dallas theater career but wound up on regional and summer-stock stages in Missouri and Iowa. She also studied at the British American Drama Academy, where the Shakespeare lover played such roles as Rosalind in As You Like It.
After moving to New York, Ms. Mitchell landed her first screen role: Dinah Lee Mayberry Alden McKenzie in the daytime soap Loving. It didn't work out.
"I was trying to make it Shakespeare," she says, leaning forward excitedly, an endearing quirk that carries over into her work. "I constantly went with notes to the writers. I must've been a terror."
After four months, Ms. Mitchell was fired. She returned to the stage, becoming an understudy in Edward Albee's off-Broadway Three Tall Women and touring nationally with the show. Small roles in the short-lived TV series L.A. Firefighters and Significant Others followed.
"It was terrible, wasn't it?" she says with unusual honesty of the fire show, which lasted six episodes. "I was the wife. I was the one wearing the bra during the love scene. Things have changed, huh?"
Ms. Mitchell is jokingly referring to Gia, which was shot between the two TV series. She campaigned for the role of Linda, Gia's off-and-on lover. Gia made Angeline Jolie a familiar face and also launched Ms. Mitchell's career in earnest.
She was second-billed in the movie, which was based on the true story of Gia Marie Curangi, the first supermodel. Gia, one of the first American women to die of AIDS, was a wild child. Linda was the one stabilizing force in her life.
Before Gia, Ms. Mitchell says, "I was making a living, but I certainly wasn't making a good living. I did Significant Others because they asked me to, and I really liked these people. And I did Firefighters 'cause I had never been on TV before. Both of them were miniscule, nothing characters, not particularly interesting, nothing to play. So I never had a stake in whether or not they worked."
Gia was different. Despite some reservations about the nudity, Ms. Mitchell wanted the role. "You wanted her to save Gia," she says. "It's one of my favorite characters. She was a lovely girl."
Gia called for an extended love scene in which both Ms. Mitchell and Ms. Jolie are naked.
"When you shoot something like that, there's this many people in the room," Ms. Mitchell says, gesturing to the two other people in the room. "If you trust those people, you trust the camera. You don't think about it. You're just doing your stuff."
Gia led to a series of secondary film roles in Molly, Frequency and Nurse Betty before Ms. Mitchell landed the part of Beatle Paul's wife in CBS' The Linda McCartney Story.
Alice Allenby may be her juiciest role yet, a whip-smart Middle American gal who gets sucked into The Beast lingo for 24-hour news channels because they must be fed constantly. The show, scheduled to debut in April, raises questions about the modern media, with Frank Langella as a mogul who decides to turn the cameras on his reporters.
Executive producer Ian Sander says Ms. Mitchell has a range of qualities, from intelligence and sincerity to warmth and accessibility.
"What caught us was the light in her eyes," he says. "She has that. You can call it star quality, an unpredictability. You want to get to know what's going on behind those eyes."
As a child, Elizabeth Mitchell began training to be an actor at the Dallas Theater Center. After graduating from college in Missouri, she returned to her hometown and appeared in Amateurs at Theatre Three.
Her big break came when she was cast opposite Angeline Jolie in the HBO film Gia (1998).
She also did a brief stint on the soap opera Loving and played small roles in the short-lived TV series L.A. Firefighters and Significant Others.
Last year, she hit the big screen in Frequency and Nurse Betty and played the title character in The Linda McCartney Story on CBS. This season, she's the lesbian psychiatrist courting Dr. Weaver on ER.
Her new series, The Beast, is scheduled to debut on ABC in April.
Note: The Beast is currently scheduled to begin airing on June 13, 2001
Laura Innes and Elizabeth Mitchell in the Media
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