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She'll Have a Dozen of Those

Actress Laurel Green has appeared in all of Justin Tanner's 12 plays. Maybe she's just a natural fit for his quirky characters.

June 23, 1996|Janice Arkatov | Janice Arkatov is a regular contributor to Calendar

It's a medical fact: Laurel Green and Justin Tanner are not joined at the hip.

True, the actress has appeared in every one of Tanner's 12 plays--and many times he's created and shaded the roles specifically for her. And yes, they bonded as freshmen at L.A. City College, car-pooling to school together and later living in the same apartment building. Rarely a day goes by when they don't see each other or talk on the phone. It's never been romantic--just a fierce friendship. As an actress, Green has pursued projects without Tanner but dreams of the day when they work together in TV and film. "We're not a package deal," she says wistfully, "but I'd like it to be."

For now, Green is relishing her latest Tanner stage role, as a gentle but wound-too-tightly Angeleno seeking spiritual answers in "Heartbreak Help" at the Cast Theatre. (Since 1989, the Cast has premiered all of Tanner's works.) Co-starring Ellen Ratner, Carol Ann Susi and Pamela Segall, the story of four roommates at a women's empowerment retreat is Tanner's first all-female show: funny and sad, wicked and gossipy, genially food- and relationship-obsessed, and a fitting bookend to his 1994 male-bonding-in-the-woods comedy, "The Tent Show."

Although she counts her current role as her all-time favorite, Green, 32, holds a soft spot for many of her Tanner characters: needy but judgmental Dottie (in 1987's "Changing Channels" and 1989's "Happytime Xmas"), unhappily married Barbie in "Still Life With Vacuum Salesman" (1989), geeky bandleader Alice in "Zombie Attack!" (also 1989, and co-written by Andy Daley), looking-for-love Ginger in "Party Mix," virginal Susan coming of age in "Teen Girl" (1992) and pass-the-blame Cynthia in "Intervention" (1995).

Less comfortable were the characters Green felt no affinity for--notably, her snotty, self-involved aerobics instructor in 1993's "Bitter Women." "The title says it all," she explains. "Kim was like every creepy girl I went to high school with, who'd smile at you and then say the evilest things." She also grappled with 1994's "Pot Mom": "I didn't think I could play a slutty Generation-X chick with a bad attitude." (Tanner's sole failure, 1988's "Red Tide," remains Green's only unhappy stage experience. She cannot recall much of its plot, or even her character's name: "We all sort of blanked that one out.")

Green is also candid about her uneasiness with glamour roles--such as the calculating flight attendant Cory in "Zombie Attack!"

"That awkwardness never really changes," she admits. "By Hollywood standards, I'm not beautiful--I'm closer to the character [actor] standard. I guess I fall somewhere in the cracks between beautiful and not-beautiful. So when I get a part like that, I have to work from inside myself, look for the things in me that are like the character--because I can't change my look."

Green's biggest challenge came in 1994-95's "The Collected Works of Justin Tanner," a repertory of eight plays, split weekly into 11 performances over five nights. Green acted in every show. "I'd done 'Tent Show' recently," she notes, "so that was new. So was 'Still Life' [originally staged with another actress]. 'Pot Mom' and 'Zombie Attack!' were in my mind because I was still doing them. But I really had to go back to remember 'Party Mix,' 'Teen Girl,' 'Bitter Women' and 'Happytime Xmas.' "

Despite their personal and professional history (Tanner credits the actress as "the main reason I started to write . . . she was the first voice I heard in my head"), Green never assumes her casting is a given.

"Everyone wants to be a part of it, but I've never pressured him [for a part]," she says. "I know the time will come that I'm not in a Justin Tanner play, and I know it'll be sad."

After a year-plus run in her beloved "Pot Mom," she's now on hiatus from that show--mostly because its schedule overlaps with "Heartbreak Help." That leaves time for pursuing other ventures; Green's recent TV credits include "Partners," "Ellen," "3rd Rock From the Sun" and "Murphy Brown," where she landed a recurring role as Jim Dial's perky and harried new assistant.

Born in L.A. to a 16-year-old mother, the actress' parents split when she was 2, and she spent most of her growing-up years in a vagabond existence (about 15 moves in all), touching down in Mexico City, San Francisco and L.A. When she landed at Beverly Hills High at age 14, it was instant culture shock. Aside from two happy alliances--with acting teacher Andy Grenier and first love Nicolas Cage--Green says, "I loathed high school."

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