"I've never really lived by myself," says de Rossi (at home). "That's exciting."
It's 9 o'clock on a Monday evening, and after 12 exhausting hours on the set of FOX's Ally McBeal, Portia de Rossi -- a plate of Thai take-out food in one hand and her white Maltese, Bean, trailing at her heels -- pads into the living room of her two-bedroom Santa Monica home. She plops down on a couch to watch her favorite show, which just happens to be Ally McBeal. "The funny thing is, I'd probably watch it even if I wasn't on the show," says de Rossi, who, as hotshot attorney Nelle Porter, joined Boston's fictional Cage/Fish & Associates this fall. "I was a huge fan. If I couldn't see it, I'd tape it. My friends and I would talk about it. Now that I'm in it, it's kind of surreal."
No more so than the destiny that led de Rossi, 25, to the role. A native Australian, she attended law school for one year before dropping out to become an actress. Even now she carries Black's Law Dictionary on the Ally set to look up the legalisms that Nelle spouts.
"I'm sure Portia would have made a very good lawyer, but, lucky for us, she gave up that route," says executive producer David E. Kelley, himself a former Boston attorney who picked de Rossi last June over some 300 other actors. Along with her spot-on courtroom demeanor, she also displayed a certain flair for portraying the icy Nelle, a cutthroat careerist who has clashed with Ally (Calista Flockhart). But de Rossi defends her character with lawyerly zeal. "I really don't see Nelle as a bitch," she says. "She's just very ambitious and direct with people." And in future episodes, she adds, Nelle "will work more as a team player."
De Rossi, too, has meshed so well with the Ally ensemble, she even feels for Flockhart. "I'm so lucky I'm not the face of postmodern feminism," says de Rossi. "It's important to have a normal life."
"It's really cool," she says, "because the cases on the show are [ones] I've always wanted to practice: women's issues and sexual discrimination."
Which is just what de Rossi had growing up in Melbourne as the younger of two children of Barry and Margaret Rogers. Until normalcy gave way to tragedy. "My dad passed away when I was 9," she says. "He died of a heart attack, and it was so unexpected. From that time on, I had decided to make every moment count." At 11 she began to model, doing TV ads for, among other products, fast food and candy bars. At 14 she took on the professional name Portia de Rossi. Modeling wasn't her career goal, though. Hooked on courtroom TV dramas, "I studied really, really hard to do law," says de Rossi, an A student in college.
But in 1993, a year after getting into the University of Melbourne's law school, de Rossi found herself heeding the siren song of a casting director who'd seen her in commercials -- and auditioned for Sirens, a low-budget 1994 Australian comedy starring Hugh Grant. (De Rossi, then 20, appeared topless as an artist's model.) A good student, "I had no interest at that point in my life to be an actor," she says. "But once I read the script, I just became obsessed with the idea."
In 1995 she moved to L.A. to look for more roles. "It was two months of living on people's couches," says de Rossi, who finally moved in with her boyfriend Mel Metcalfe, a documentary filmmaker. She landed minor parts on sitcoms before Wes Craven cast her in a small role as a ditsy sorority girl in 1997's Scream 2. Last summer, Kelley, remembering de Rossi from Mixed Nuts, a failed pilot he'd made for NBC in 1996, asked her to try out as Nelle.
Nowadays -- besides watching Ally -- she spends her spare hours riffing on her electric guitar and reading poetry -- alone. She and Metcalfe recently broke up. "Four years is a long time to spend with somebody, especially when you're 25," de Rossi says. Being unattached, she adds, "is kind of fun."
Especially when you love your work. "It's really cool," she says, "because the cases on the show are [ones] I've always wanted to practice: women's issues and sexual discrimination. And I get to go to court, which is my favorite thing to do."
-- MICHAEL A. LIPTON