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Beauty and the Beach : Orange County's Eva Zakrzewski never expected 'Baywatch' to beckon. It's not the role Yale prepared her for. Then again, an Ivy League education can't hurt.

February 16, 1996|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you're a struggling actor, maybe you shouldn't read this.

Upon graduating from Yale last year with a 3.4 grade-point average, Eva Zakrzewski was relaxing at her parents' house in Mission Viejo, trying to choose between law school and medical school.

Then, one fine day, a producer spotted Zakrzewski swimming in the ocean and spoke those five magic words that transform lives every day in Hollywood:

"Hey, I like your look!"

Casually, the producer asked if Zakrzewski would consider appearing on "Baywatch," the most popular TV show in the Milky Way.

Her response was typical for a skeptical 22-year-old who's not easily impressed:

"I was, like, whatever."

But that night, as promised, the show's director phoned Zakrzewski at home and asked her to be on the beach, bright and early, the following morning.

Next thing you know, Zakrzewski is hanging out with David Hasselhoff, racing off to wardrobe, even speaking words on camera.

"I had one line," she says, slipping into character: "Help! Help!"

After seeing Zakrzewski plunged up to her naturally platinum blond hair in saltwater, the producers decided to feature her again and again in the course of the season. And so, unto the world was born a recurring character.

"Guard Connors," Zakrzewski says, as though the name were on a par with Lady Macbeth.

Aquatic skills Zakrzewski acquired as a competitive swimmer at Yale had much to do with the producers' decision, of course. But her can-do attitude and willingness to learn were an added bonus, she says.

Zakrzewski's gig ended when the season did last fall. But who's to say what will happen this June when shooting resumes?

Meanwhile, Zakrzewski's acting career is officially afloat: Every week she's invited to another big audition--from major movies to mega-infomercials--and she's already filmed a Coca-Cola spot scheduled to air during this summer's Olympics.

It's too early to compare Zakrzewski's discovery to Lana Turner's mythical luck at the soda fountain. But it's not too early for Zakrzewski to kiss off law school, medical school and every other professional hope her parents once held dear.

"Instead of thinking I just wasted $100,000 of my parents money," she says, "I look at it, like, 'Hey, you know what? I have this education; it's not going to go up in flames; it's always going to be there.' "

There was a time when Ivy League sheepskin set a person on the path to upright, button-down respectability in the real world.

Now, on the heels of Yalies Jodie Foster and Jennifer Beals, plus Harvard's Elisabeth Shue and Mira Sorvino, Hollywood takes extra note of actresses with that added dimension--brains.

Maybe brainy women take extra note of Hollywood too.

Zakrzewski, a 1990 graduate of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, says she's come to realize that acting always has been her calling, a calling she was simply too busy swimming and cramming to answer.

"This thing that had been burning deep inside so many years all of a sudden came out," she insists over coffee in Laguna Beach, where she recently rented a house to be near the ocean (and her boyfriend, a surfer-industrial designer). "If you were dying of thirst and you got a drink of water, you'd want more, right?"

Zakrzewski now hopes her name will one day be a household word. Before that can happen, however, every household will have to become hooked on phonics: It's pronounced Zak-SHEF-skee.

Having survived Yale's academic rigors (her senior thesis on self-image among female athletes earned her a gaudy A-plus), Zakrzewski says she brings more confidence to the table than many women her age.

"I think I'm going to go really far," she says, matter-of-factly. "With a Yale education behind me, although I'm not using it in an intellectual sense, I'm using all the skills it taught me. It taught me to be determined; it taught me to keep pushing."

Zakrzewski concedes she sometimes wonders, as do her parents, what in the name of Hillary Rodham Clinton she's doing prancing about in a skimpy bathing suit and consorting with an often slimy subspecies of Hollywood people?

"Glamour and glitz and bimbos and sleazy directors," she says. "I've seen it all. I've been up close to it all. I've had directors say, 'Hey, you want to come over to the house?' The casting couch is as existent as ever."

Then there are her fellow actors.

"They just don't have the education," she says. "Most haven't finished college, even gone to college. The intellectual level is lower. When you talk to these people, it's very hard to have an intellectual conversation. They're, like, 'I auditioned for this, I auditioned for that . . .' Do you have anything else in your life?"

At times she reassures herself, and her worried parents, with the notion that she's paying dues now for a noble career later, a career that will cloverleaf onto Hollywood's high road.

The idea that she's "paying dues" would make more than a few starving actors snort derisively.

But Zakrzewski insists she's worked hard to reach this point in her acting career--even if the work had nothing to do with acting.

"Such an opportunity," she says. "Why not play with it? This is, like, the time of my life."

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