Geelong girls makes good


THE conspicuous blonde hair cascades down her shoulders, fanning the jaunty red leather jacket and tumbling to her waist. As she talks, beaming about the plum career break that came from David E. Kelley, she twirls the locks between her fingers. No wonder she's just signed to be the face of L'Oreal: it's hard not to talk hair with Portia de Rossi.

Exuding a gregarious joie de vivre - in marked contrast to the glacial goddess she portrays on Ally McBeal the hit TV series - de Rossi looks as though she's never had a bad hair day in what is turning out to be a very good life. Sitting in a Melbourne hotel lobby during a two-week visit home to see her mother and 92-year-old grandmother, de Rossi agrees that Kelley has a thing about hair, ``and rightly so because a lot of women see it as a very important part of their personality''. One only has to watch Ling (Lucy Liu) administering a hair massage to know that's true. From the start, one of the defining characteristics of de Rossi's Nelle Porter was a tight bun that, accompanied by her no-nonsense reading glasses and sleek tailored suits, signaled a lawyer who meant business.

Revealing that she's a once-a-day-girl - a shampoo and condition daily - de Rossi also laughs that her favorite song lyric comes from Nick Cave: ``Her hair was like a curtain falling open with the laughter and closing with the lies''.

``People do hide behind it, and they use it to attract, so I think that David has really honed in on that about women and I'm an obvious target because I've got a helluva lot of it.''

Kelley's ability to zero in on the characteristics of his cast and use them to help craft his unique brand of quirky comedy-drama is one of the talents that has made him the most successful and prolific writer-producer working in television today. ``He picks up a personality and character traits of the actors that he's cast,'' says de Rossi. ``It's a little bit nerve-wracking because you're constantly setting your character: every time you have a conversation with him, he remembers little bits.

``I had dinner with David and Michelle (Kelley's wife, Michelle Pfeiffer) and the cast for Christmas and I was talking to Michelle about children. I said `Not in my future, I can't really see that as a possibility.'

``David overheard this and he was fascinated by the fact that I really didn't want to have children. The next week, a script arrived with a whole episode on Nelle putting her career before her decision to be a mother.''

While 26-year-old de Rossi has time to change her mind about motherhood, she comes across as someone who has long been inclined to set her own path and pursue it with a clear-eyed determination. At the age of 14, while a student at Geelong Grammar, she adopted the rather exotic name of Portia de Rossi because she loved Shakespeare.

Born Amanda Rogers and raised in Grovedale, near Geelong, she moved to Melbourne when she was 15, attended Melbourne Girls' Grammar, and lived with a relative in Mont Albert. Six months later her mother Margaret joined her - father Barry died of a heart attack when his daughter was nine - but de Rossi had decided that Merton Hall's ``type of schooling didn't suit me: it was too regimented, too conservative''.

She left school and started modeling but after a year returned to her studies, choosing Taylors College. ``I had the best years of my life at that school,'' she says. ``At the end of the day, we'd go out for coffee with our teachers and we'd argue about Dostoyevsky until we were blue in the face. Then I went to law school at Melbourne University.''

A nascent acting career drew her away from university, though there has been some contact: ``I got a whole bunch of fan mail early on and I saw an envelope that had Melbourne University Law Faculty as the return address,'' she grins. ``It was from my Torts professor and he wrote `Dear Portia, I hope the year of Torts serves Nelle Porter a lot better than it did Portia de Rossi'.''

After appearing with Kate Fischer and Elle Macpherson as one of the lithe muses in Sirens (1994), de Rossi went to the US to shoot The Woman In The Moon and decided to stay in LA and have a shot at establishing a Hollywood career, while perfecting the American accent that now accompanies her everywhere. ``I decided to speak with an American accent all of the time because I don't trust myself to go in and out of it.

``I didn't have much money but I thought that if I went straight back to Australia I would never have known if I could do it, if I could have a career in acting.

``It only took me about four months to get a job on a sitcom called Too Something (1995) and we shot 20 episodes. It aired for about seven episodes but it was a great opportunity. After that, I could afford to get an apartment.

``It's a funny thing with acting in LA: you kind of get into a loop when you start working. And that's how Ally came about because then I did another show called Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher for a year, I did a lot of independent movies, one of which was Scream 2. And the thing that got me Ally was a pilot that I shot called Astoria. David Kelley saw the pilot then cast me for Ally.

Now, with a five-and-half year contract, de Rossi has what many actors crave: a sense of security and the challenge of playing a character she enjoys in a production she admires. ``I think Nelle came into the show as slightly one-dimensional, the way that she was set up to be the antithesis of Ally, to be hard where Ally is very soft, to be composed, collected and confident. And as it progressed - it's just such a gift that David gave me - he allowed Nelle to show vulnerability and to really flesh into a multi-layered character. Now she's more human, which makes a lot more sense than to set someone up like an Amanda from Melrose Place. People can relate to Nelle more now than they could when she started because now her character seems plausible. A lot of her strength and a lot of her vulnerability comes out during the course of this season.

``I see her as a person who really does not use her sexual energy to get ahead in the workplace and I that is very important for me too: not to flirt my way into auditions and roles in furthering my career. That's the foundation of the character: she's feminine, and she really enjoys being a woman, but when she's at the office, it's business. And of course the twist is that she falls in love with her boss.''

De Rossi and her fellow cast members work on the show for 10 months a year, starting in late July with days that begin at 5.30am - with two hours in hair and makeup - end at around 7.30pm, and usually involve shooting seven pages of dialogue-intensive script. As a result of the show's 10-strong ensemble, there are days when Nelle isn't part of the action at Cage, Fish & Associates and de Rossi gets the day off.

Unlike the numerous TV actors who see their summer hiatus as a chance for a big-screen splash, de Rossi viewed the break as a time to visit family, smile through a guest spot on All Star Squares - where she was feted with centre-square status - and enjoy the fruits of her labors.

``This is the first time in five years, since I left Australia, that I've had a period of time where I don't have to chase up work, or feel guilty that I'm out of work. I have a great job to go back to. All I've been doing since I started acting was looking for my next project. This is the opportunity have a vacation and take a deep breath and enjoy it.

``Sometimes you have to step back and say `This is great, where I am right now is where I want to be. And it really is for me right now. Honestly, I was reading scripts and I couldn't find one that was of the same quality as my current job, where the character was as interesting, as rich. There's no point in doing something less than I'm doing right now. That's really important, not to just go `Oh, now I have to go out and get my big summer blockbuster movie'. Because it'll come, you know, it's come to me so far, it'll come.''

Recent history would suggest that Portia de Rossi has every reason to relax and feel confident.