An Unlikely Housewife

Jane Krakowski loves playing the secretary everyone loves to hate on Ally McBeal. But she has no intention of being typecast. In the upcoming Go, she's a very odd homemaker.

Jamie Portman (The Ottawa Citizen)

Jane Krakowski should be tired. She has already spent an exhausting day on the set of Ally McBeal, cooking up further mischief in the role of television's most irrepressible and irresistible secretary. And now it's early evening in Los Angeles, but instead of heading for home, Krakowski is on the phone to talk about her new movie, Go, and her own fast-rising career.

Amazingly, she's still sounding full of vim and vigour. She credits her abundance of energy to the two years she spent on Broadway in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Starlight Express. That's the show where the performers all work on roller skates, and Krakowski figures she skated several thousand miles during her association with it. "I wasn't that fit when I started out but I got to be extremely fit by the time it was over -- and I still am," she says merrily.

Besides, there are good reasons for continuing to be in an upbeat mood at the end of this long day. After all, Elaine Vassal -- the secretary people love to hate -- is going to be particularly outrageous and infuriating during this season's final episodes of Ally McBeal. And no one is happier about that than the 30-year-old actress who plays her.

For one thing, the notorious "face bra" which Elaine invented opening season will be making a return visit. But Krakowski hints tantalizingly that further office outrages are in store as well.

At the same time, she believes that Elaine is continuing to develop as a character.

"She's made this transition. At the beginning, she was this gnat, this character who would fly through the office, and you'd want to use your hand to swat her away. But you still continue to discover new things about her."

She credits David Kelley, the show's creator and principal writer, for finding genuine truths in the quirkiness of human behaviour.

"David says he doesn't write with a plan to be controversial. He simply wants to write credible stories for the characters who are on the show."

But he also works closely with actors like herself and star Calista Flockhart. "There's this unspoken collaboration involving him and the characters and the actors -- there's this infusion of his ideas with who these people are.

"He's created a world in which anything is possible. It has its own reality, and there are no limits to where the characters can go. In fact it's been a great surprise that we've been allowed to get away with everything we do on that show."

Some viewers see Elaine as an infuriating busybody. Others see her as an out-of-bounds eccentric. Others consider her a nymphomaniac. Krakowksi has heard it all -- and is delighted with every interpretation

"Almost everything she does is outrageous and that's what's so great about playing her. She doesn't apologize about who she is and she doesn't edit any of her actions. She does all the things we would love to do but are afraid to.

"I love the fact that every national holiday, she does a full-blown campy musical number. That's pretty outrageous -- especially when she's the only one singing."

Krakowski especially loves doing those musical numbers. After all, she originally wanted to be a dancer and she has delivered show-stopping performances in two Broadway musicals -- Starlight Express and Grand Hotel, for which she received a Tony nomination. She was outstanding in the little-seen 1991 movie musical, Stepping Out, in which she co-starred with Liza Minnelli, and last year had a serious role in Dance With Me, which dealt with the world of ballroom dancing.

Krakowski has made such an impact on Ally McBeal that few viewers realize she is a remarkably versatile performer with a varied stage background, which includes both musicals and straight plays. Her stage credits range from Moliere's 17th-century Tartuffe to 20th-century English playwright Alan Ayckbourne's Henceforward. She has also done recordings of music by Sondheim, Burt Bacharach and Paul Simon, and recently signed a contract for a new solo album. Much as she loves being on Ally McBeal, she has no intention of being typecast in the role of Elaine.

"By the end of the first season, I was getting a lot of scripts for flirty secretaries, but I kept saying no." Instead, she waited for roles that were different and challenging. Last year's Dance With Me was one such script. Go, which opens April 9, is another.

Structurally, the screenplay, which newcomer John August has written for Go, is reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction because of the way in which it keeps several narrative balls in the air at the same time before integrating these various story lines. It deals with the misadventures of a group of young people over a 24-hour time span in the uninhibited underground scene of Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Canada's Sarah Polley is a supermarket checkout clerk whose panic over an impending eviction from her apartment turns her into a bungling criminal in order to pay her rent money. Scott Wolf and Jay Mohr are a pair of TV stars who get trapped in a drug deal. Desmond Askew is a feckless young Englishman who ends up in a stolen car after an all-night party in Las Vegas. And Krakowski and William Fichtner are a decidedly odd couple who invite a pair of virtual strangers to an equally odd Christmas dinner.

"When this script came along I was so surprised by my character," Krakowski says. "I was so taken by the fact that she's not what you assume her to be. When I was reading the first couple of pages, I was saying, 'Oh, this is an interesting character.'

"Then, when I got to the end of her scene, I was literally rolling on the floor laughing. I couldn't believe it when the actual truth about this couple was revealed."

It's just a supporting role, but Krakowski knew she wanted to play it. She also wanted to work with director Doug Liman because she had enjoyed his earlier movie, Swingers.

And she loved the structure. "I heard someone describe it as Quentin Tarantino at the A&P and that just about sums it up."

Once this season's Ally McBeal finishes shooting at the end of April, she'll be working on the movie sequel to the Flintstones, playing Betty to Stephen Baldwin's Barney. Lately she's been preparing for the project, which is based on a legendary animated TV series.

"It's the first time I can legitimately sit at home all day watching cartoons and claim that it's character research."