The casting of 12-year-old Lacey Chabert as "Party of Five's" violin prodigy didn't turn on her musical abilities.
It happened because of what producers of the Fox show call Lacey's inner "sparkle." Viewers who've watched the Monday night series that critics have praised likely know what the producers are talking about.
"We looked all over the country to find someone to play" Claudia, the next-to-the-youngest in the Salinger family left without parents when both die in an accident, says Amy Lippman, co-executive producer.
"It wasn't what she read (during her audition); her personality won us over," adds fellow producer, Chris Keyfer, from the office he shares with Lippman on the Sony lot in Culver City, where "Party" shoots. "She was given very complicated direction and just impressed us with how bright she is."
When Lippman says, "It's a strong sense of irony that she also plays violin," Keyfer quickly adds, "But we would have cast her anyway if she didn't play an instrument."
"She just had this sparkle ," says Lippman.
The sparkle was still there, as much as it could be, in a phone interview from the beachfront apartment Lacey shares with her mother and sister Wendy in Los Angeles.
"When I was little," she says of her "youth" in the South, "I loved to perform."
A 1992 vacation in New York turned into two years in the Big Apple, where Lacey won the role of young Cosette in Broadway's "Les Miserables."
"I loved it!" she says of the stage. "I got to wear makeup and get a huge black eye every night and that was so fun. I got to get beaten up. I also had a solo song."
Musical talent runs in her family, Lacey emphasizes, pointing out that sister Wendy, 19, is also a singer. Other siblings, T.J., 10, and Chrissy, 16, live with her father, Tony, at the family's 20-acre farm in Purvis, Miss. Mom Julie says she's looking for a Los Angeles home so the whole family can be together soon.
Lacey's confident Claudia helps keep her "Party of Five" together, and with much of her own family away, Lacey's found her TV family a warm experience. "Neve (Campbell, who plays her sister, Julia) is like a real sister to me." The producers find Campbell's and Lacey's striking resemblance "a great coincidence."
As for Scott Wolf, who plays her brother Bailey on the series, Lacey says dreamily, "I want to marry him."
But it'll be a long time before Lacey walks down the aisle. She's still enjoying her childhood. "I love to roller-blade and swim," she says. "And I love to play business. My agent gave me this huge phone with 21 lines and I play Agency, where I run this casting agency and travel agency. When I play my name is Ally Watson." When asked where the name came from, she says, "I was just playing around and saying names and that one came to me, so that's who I am when I play."
For her birthday, three days away from the interview, she wants "a cash register. It's $400 at Staples. It has all the buttons. The cash drawer pops out. I hope I get it." (She did.)
Despite her happiness on the set and with her mom and Wendy in Los Angeles, she still misses Purvis, where the family lives "way out in the country."
"I love it when the studio lets us off for four-day weekends. We've been going home like every three weeks."
As much as she enjoys her newfound fame--she's beginning to be recognized at malls--she says the future may be a different matter. "I hope I'll be doing this, but I don't know what'll happen when I get old. I like the challenge of acting different ways and being different characters. I want to do movies, but I don't know if I'll always feel that way."
Says Lacey's mother: "Sometimes it feels like she's a much older person in the body of a 12-year-old. But right now, she's sure having the time of her life."
"Party of Five" airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on Fox.