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WITH AN EYE ON . . . : Romance is, what else, chaotic for new intern Christine Elise in the 'ER'


Relationships can be tough. Especially if you're working 48 hours nonstop, with people sick and dying around you, and as a new couple you share your first kiss over a patient.

Nonetheless, intern Harper Tracey and Dr. John Carter managed to find love in the goldfish bowl of "ER."

Actress Christine Elise, 30, who plays Harper, sees it all in good fun. "This is such a wonderful show," she says of the NBC drama that dominates the ratings charts. "And the writing is great," so even as the actress realizes she has "no idea" where they'll take her earnest character, she's going to enjoy it all.

Originally brought on for six episodes, Elise's role has now expanded to an additional 10 appearances. Harper brings to the series a "pleasing chemistry with Carter," played by Noah Wyle, says Carol Flint, co-executive producer of "ER." The show often adds newcomers--medical students, nurses, paramedics and trainees--to mix with the strong cast of regulars. Flint calls Harper "a more soulful newcomer who offers new prisms to look through, new ways to look at medicine."

Harper's and Carter's relationship, Flint acknowledges, promises to be rocky, especially considering that during a recent tragedy Harper landed in the arms of another doctor (George Clooney).

"The big question is going to be: 'Can they find their way back to each other?' " Flint suggests. To fans of the series since its debut, that may sound more than a little similar to the Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) and Dr. Douglas Ross (Clooney) story line.

Producers see much promise in Elise. "I think what we all responded to in Christine is she's a very sympathetic young woman," says Flint. "She's tough, but she looks wounded. She makes you interested, you want to know her. You feel she's feeling things deeply despite her independent veneer."

That's a fitting description for Harper, and frankly, for the roles Elise finds herself winning. "Oh, there's definitely a common trait in my characters," says Elise from the Los Angeles home she shares with actor Jason Priestley ("Beverly Hills, 90210"). "I am the offbeat, misunderstood tough girl with a heart of gold. Always."

That's "pretty close to real life, I guess," she acknowledges. "I don't think anyone is as pat as they are on TV, but it's not really a huge stretch for me."

Neither was Emily Valentine, the character Elise played on "90210" for 11 episodes over four seasons--opposite Priestley.

"[Emily] started out a lot like Harper--alternative in appearance, but really smart and really together," says Elise. "That's what attracted me to Harper and to Emily originally." As the recurring character returned to "90210," "she then lost her mind over a guy and went loopy," Elise explains. "I didn't agree with the direction they took with her. It didn't jive."

Elise says she won't return to the Fox show unless "the story line was good enough. It's a fun show and I have a lot of friends there. It's kind of like doing a backyard play. But I actually wouldn't really want to return. It feels like, you know, stagnating, at the very least, you know, been there, done that."

Elise, a Boston native and the only child of artist parents, came to Los Angeles in 1984 with hopes of continuing her directing studies, which she did for a year at Boston University's film department.

But while trying to finance school, Elise found herself working "60-hour weeks" as a cashier at a Rodeo Drive store. "I couldn't afford film school, so I took an acting class, which I wasn't as afraid of as I thought. Then I thought about what a crapshoot this all is, a game of persistence."

She realized, she says, "I suck as bad as anyone else and I decided to give it [acting] a whirl and it worked."

Elise landed a role on a movie-of-the-week, as well as recurring roles on "China Beach" and "In the Heat of the Night." She also began getting roles in feature films.

"Directing is definitely on hold now," she says, but adds she's discovered a new passion: writing. Armed with a partner--a friend of Priestley's--Elise penned the recent "90210" Halloween episode, as well as two other scripts for the show.

But she acknowledges, "writing is very frustrating, a very undervalued commodity. With acting you have a great deal more control and reward. It's a more gratifying job. I want to pursue acting solidly, get on track with a good solid career with some longevity."

Now if only Harper and Carter could say that about their relationship

"ER" airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.

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