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Interview

Miles of 'Isles'

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Miles of 'Isles'
For Sasha Alexander, film affords more opportunities for acting risks than episodic TV. The former provides a single dose of a self-contained universe, whereas with recurring roles on the small screen, one "has to create a three-dimensional character that audiences are going to want to watch each week. You don't have a beginning, middle, and end. You may have some basic idea where the character is going and you may not." Backstories emerge sporadically, if at all, she adds: "You're leaving little crumbs for the audience. It can be frustrating."

Alexander knows something about episodic TV, having appeared on "NCIS," "Dawson's Creek," and "Presidio Med." She is currently tackling medical examiner Maura Isles on "Rizzoli & Isles," a new TNT police drama based on the novels of Tess Gerritsen and co-starring Angie Harmon as blue-collar detective Jane Rizzoli. By contrast, Isles has a wealthy family and a posh education. "I like the fact that the two women come from such different backgrounds and have such different points of view, but at core have a deep respect and friendship," says Alexander.

For her it's no fluke the series was created, produced, and written by a woman (Janet Tamaro) who stresses female bonding. Equally important, Tamaro allows her characters to feel and express extreme emotion and seemingly contradictory qualities. "Maura has a mathematical and scientific mind, yet she also has a quirky and eccentric sense of humor," explains Alexander. "Janet has given us some really funny stuff to do, but that has not compromised the suspense or the women's ability to do their jobs well and be competent. Janet writes about women who can be vulnerable and sexual and very smart, all in the same scene. The only role I've enjoyed as much as this one was on 'Presidio Med,' which was also written by a woman. I sometimes think men write women the way they want them to be rather than the way we are."

Alexander is also pleased to be working on cable. There are fewer episodes and a shorter rehearsal period than with network shows, which makes family life easier. Married and the mother of a 4-year-old girl, Alexander remarks that was one of the reasons she decided to leave "NCIS" after two seasons. "It was a complicated decision," she admits. "But like many jobs, it was not perfect, and all things come to an end."

Loving Shakespeare and Ibsen

A Los Angeles native of Serbian descent, Alexander recalls being an imaginative youngster who was awakened to the power of theater in general—and Shakespeare in particular—by an unusually progressive seventh-grade teacher. Alexander felt an immediate affinity for acting in the works of the Bard. "His characters had so many different levels and colors, and that gave me the freedom to express all the things that we didn't express in our daily lives," she says. "It felt very comfortable for me." Throughout high school, she entered statewide Shakespearean competitions, ultimately winning for her portrayal of Kate in "The Taming of the Shrew." She earned a scholarship to study with the iconic Cecily Barry at the Royal Shakespeare Company and trained with her for two summers.

Alexander then switched gears, attending the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, where she studied film and television production. "I felt college was the time to explore new horizons," she recalls. "I felt acting was about life and I needed to know more about life in order to do it well. Also, I was in a phase where I wasn't sure I wanted to be in front of the camera. I felt, 'I'm not blonde and I don't have a button nose.' "

Exposure to older American and foreign films were eye-opening for Alexander, who was especially taken with the multilayered roles women were playing and their decidedly unconventional looks. She cites Isabella Rossellini and Lauren Bacall as examples. It was actors like these who made her think perhaps there might be a place for her in front of the camera.

Her first major break was appearing in "Battle of the Sexes," a small independent flick, directed by Eric Kripke, that was shown at the Sundance Festival. It brought Alexander her first agent. She is currently repped by UTA and has worked fairly steadily, though it never occurred to her she could make a living as an actor; she often felt each gig would be her last. "No job is the one job of your life," she emphasizes, adding it's the entire artistic journey that counts. If she had her druthers, she'd take on "Hedda Gabler" or a contemporary woman who is usually in control but finds herself in a situation that is out of control. It's in those circumstances we reveal who we are, and that's always of interest to an actor, she says.

Alexander says she's fairly good at auditioning, despite its being an "unnatural process, not that I think videotaping is the answer." She says the key—and she knows it's easier said than done—is being prepared, giving an audition her best shot, and having a lack of attachment to the outcome. "If you are result-oriented, it's a killer," she insists. "I listen to a piece of music, do the audition, and then continue the song where I left off. That makes the audition part of a larger process. But I have to feel I was prepared regardless of the outcome. There are actors who believe if they are not prepared, they are not attached to it."

A Family Business

Alexander is married to director Edoardo Ponti, and they have recently launched a website, www.takehollywood.com, where industry insiders can connect with one another and view dozens of video interviews with actors of all stripes. (A free copy of Back Stage's Call Sheet will be given to anyone who purchases one of the video interviews offered by the website.) The daughter-in-law of the late producer Carlo Ponti and Sophia Loren, Alexander is not intimidated by her superstar mother-in-law. Loren has been helpful and provided a wealth of information. "She's had a remarkable career and worked with incredible auteurs," says Alexander. "She prepared six months to a year for a mowww.takehollywood.comvie role. She can't believe we get the script at 6 in the morning and are on the set at 8. She loves American acting, the energy, but says she's not sure she would have been an actor if she had to work that way."

The speed, as well as the factorylike audition process, is alien to Loren, Alexander reports, noting that even for lesser-known actors in Europe, getting cast is often based on meeting a director for coffee—perhaps being introduced by friends—and hopefully clicking. The volume of actors is smaller, and the process is altogether more personal outside of the States. "My European actor friends are totally thrown by us," Alexander says. "In London, a casting director will talk to you for two hours. Here you may get five minutes with the casting director."

At the moment Alexander's thoughts are focused on Isles: loving her brains and glamour yet "challenged by the medical terminology," she says. "I've played doctors before and worked with medical examiners. There is one on the set, and he'll show me how to hold a scalpel, for example. I understand the mentality, but Maura uses such big words, and they roll off the tongue in a natural way. This is how this woman speaks."



Outtakes

- Has guest-starred on "House," "Greg the Bunny," and "Friends"

- Featured in the films "He's Just Not That Into You," "Yes Man," "Tenure," "Love Happens," and "Mission Impossible III"

- Will soon be seen in the independent film "Coming & Going"

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