Laura Allen: Down to Earth

If this acting thing doesn't work out, Laura Allen has at least one career option to fall back on. The actor studied criminology and sociology at Wellesley College, and she worked as a domestic violence counselor with the New York Police Department shortly after graduation. "Coming out of Wellesley, becoming an actor is like joining the circus, there wasn't a lot of credibility when it came to the performing arts," she says.

These days, however, Allen has fully embraced her artistic side: She's winning over diehard sci-fi fans and mainstream television critics in USA Network's The 4400, an intricately plotted surprise hit that features a diverse ensemble cast. Allen plays Lily, a strong-willed new mother and one of the 4,400 individuals returned to Earth after being abducted by humans living thousands of years in the future.

Though Allen was initially drawn to social work and felt the need to use her degree, she couldn't fight her love for the theatre. She started moonlighting as a crew member for Blue Man Group, the experimental theatre troupe known for its outrageous multimedia performances. Considering the amount of paint, toilet paper, and marshmallows the Blue Men go through in their performances, what exactly does being a crew member entail? "They have a few cues in the show where you walk in the late arrivals. It's, like, a schtick," she explains. "You [also] dress a guy up in a suit who gets paint [thrown on him]. So just random stuff, and there'd be two shows on Friday nights, so we'd have to clean up all that toilet paper in between shows."

For kicks, Allen also auditioned for the occasional acting gig. After she had been out of school for about a year, she booked a traveling tour of Robin Hood through a Back Stage audition listing. "[The tour] was a miserable time," she remembers, laughing. "There was no money in it. It was me and two guys sharing one hotel room, and we were Maid Marion, Robin Hood, and Friar Tuck." In spite of this, Allen started to wonder: What if she returned to New York, waited tables, and just gave the acting thing a shot? "It was on that tour, I think, when I kind of committed to going for it, because it couldn't have been worse than that," she says.

Back in New York, Allen waitressed at night and interned at the Off-Broadway MCC Theater during the day. There she met her mentor Bob LuPone, who taught her Meisner technique and introduced her to her first agent. After a year of going out on auditions, Allen booked several television guest spots, eventually landing a regular part on the soap All My Children.

Allen has changed reps since landing that first agent. She is currently with Larry Taub and Lindsay Porter at the Gersh Agency and manager Michael Baum at Handprint Entertainment. "It's such a great group that I have right now," she says. "They are sensitive to so many of my needs.… I have a fiancé in New York City, they know that. They know that I eventually want to get back onstage. They're looking at The 4400 and how that's kind of an underground, sci-fi, cool little thing that could really blossom into an independent film career."

The outlook wasn't always quite so rosy, however. After her stint on All My Children ended, Allen had no idea what was next for her acting career. "There were a few months there that I didn't work at all, and 9/11 had happened and I was in New York. I had this wild drive all of a sudden to study EMT work," she remembers.

Allen ended up enrolling in a 10-week emergency medical technician course. She also continued to polish her craft through acting classes, but she wasn't sure if she was ever going to land another gig. "It was a hard time. I was on unemployment," she remembers. "But there was something about it, the rhythm of being an EMT, that seemed somewhat similar to being an actor…. I [could] perform well in high-drama situations, and I [could] respond to emergencies, and it felt like I could be contributing something on a new level."

Allen thought she might spend the rest of her career riding around in an ambulance; instead, she booked a part that allowed her to work with respected director Mike Newell and several of the most accomplished young female actors in the business. The film was Mona Lisa Smile, and real-life Wellesley alum Allen played one of the 1950s-era Wellesley pupils unorthodox professor Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) takes under her wing.

Allen initially read for the roles that ended up going to Kirsten Dunst and Julia Stiles. "Almost three weeks [passed], and I didn't hear anything," she says. "Then I read in the trade papers that those two girls booked it, and I'm, like, 'Well, of course.' And then another week passed and I get an offer for a role that they were creating…. It became a very organic experience, because the script was still in revisions and they hadn't really created the role yet, so I was just given an opportunity to be part of that wonderful group of women."

These days, with The 4400 going strong and a part in the recently-wrapped feature How You Look to Me, it doesn't look like Allen will be returning to social work or EMT shifts anytime soon. Still, if the acting jobs dry up, she's not opposed to it. "It's hard to face yourself and be, like, 'Maybe this isn't working out,'" she says. "But I think when you start exploring your other interests, that can serve you as an artist, too."