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Calista Lockhart's 'Ally Mcbeal' Is A Tough Lawyer But Still Vulnerable In Love

September 21, 1997|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Love is blind. So, at times, is justice.

The youngest of the new lawyers in prime time's legal court is learning that the hard way as she maneuvers her way through both arenas in "Ally McBeal," the new Fox drama-comedy from "L.A. Law" writer-producer and "Picket Fences" creator David E. Kelley.

But the actress who plays Ally, Calista Flockhart, said she has her eyes wide open as she gets a handle on her character, a capable but vulnerable attorney who often finds herself in dire straits at her new law office and in her love life.

"Ally is complicated, a woman who is struggling to get through the day and do the right thing," said the waif-like Flockhart, who portrayed the daughter of Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest in "The Birdcage." "She's flawed. It's exciting to have a character that breaks the idea that women have to be perfect. Ally has problems like anyone else. She questions things. She wants things."

Friends of Flockhart told her she was perfect for the role because she resembles Ally in many respects. "They said, 'You've just got to read this, this is you all the way,' " she recalled with a quizzical look. She said she has yet to grasp the Ally-Calista connection.

"I don't think I'm like her all that much," Flockhart said, carefully measuring her words as she sat in her dressing room at Ren-Mar Studios in Hollywood. "The more I play the part, the more similar we become. But Ally is like a kid who goes into a room filled with junk, certain there's a pony inside. And she's determined to find it."

Flockhart, who is single and declines to specify her age, said she is a bit more pessimistic than Ally, although she has moments of optimism. And she is more likely than Ally to speak her mind: "I have an opinion about everything, and I certainly express it."

Though Ally has an air of bluntness about her, she doesn't always say what she thinks. But viewers will get to see and hear her innermost thoughts and opinions through voice-overs and quick fantasy sequences.

"I love Ally's sense of humor. She sees the world in a very peculiar way," Flockhart said.

In the series, Ally finds herself in a peculiar situation. She has joined a law firm headed by an old law school nemesis (Greg Germann). Even more troubling is the fact that one of her new colleagues is Billy (Gil Bellows), her childhood sweetheart and her lover though college. The couple split up when he went to a different college.

The heartbroken Ally is still in love with Billy, and her pain with having to work with him heightens when she discovers he is now married to a beautiful woman (Courtney Thorne-Smith). Even worse, Billy is still attracted to Ally. The series deals with Ally's emotional dilemma while trying to establish her reputation as a tough lawyer.

Flockhart is a newcomer to TV. She has been principally a stage actress, and most recently appeared on Broadway in "The Three Sisters," playing the narcissistic Natasha. "I had great fun doing that role," she said. "People don't usually think of me as being evil."

She also starred as Laura in "The Glass Menagerie" on Broadway, and her other New York stage appearances include "The Loop," "Sophistry and Sons" and "Wrong Turn at Lungfish."

But Flockhart is most recognizable as the woman engaged to Robin Williams' son in last year's drag film comedy, "The Birdcage."

Kelley said he knew he had found his Ally as soon as Flockhart read for the role.

"It's like the Supreme Court looking at obscenity--they know it when they see it," Kelley said. "Of course, Calista is not obscene. But she is Ally. She's able to be vulnerable without being weak in the very scenes where she is to personify strength."

Kelley had planned to use extensive voice-overs in the series for Ally's inner thoughts, but "we've already eliminated 50% of it, because Calista's face is so expressive. You get to see beyond the veil of Ally, and Calista has such a winning quality about her."

Flockhart said some people have compared her to Michelle Pfeiffer, Kelley's wife. She said she is not intimidated by such talk. "Yes, some have said such things to me, and I'm extremely flattered, but that hasn't gotten in my way or confused me," she said. "But it's still hugely flattering."

Being at the center of a series, in which she is in almost every scene, has taken a bit of getting used to for the actress.

"Everyone asks me if I feel any pressure, but I've been so focused on the acting that I just have tunnel vision," she said. "The pace [here], as opposed to the stage, is so hugely different. One of the challenges I've had is letting go of a scene. I'm obsessed with getting a second chance, which you get on stage. I also love the immediate feedback an actor gets [in a play]."

But one consolation, she said, is getting to work with Kelley. Flockhart said she was a big admirer of "Picket Fences," his show about a quirky, fictional small town in Wisconsin. "I loved how odd that show was, and its oddity made it more honest," she said. "It was refreshing to see a show that was that smart."

Although she has had her own ideas of what Ally is experiencing or going through, Flockhart said she "is stunned and surprised at where David is taking her. It's so superior to what I could think of."

Flockhart said she hopes to do another play when her series breaks for the season, and she's looking forward to directing one day. "But right now my life is Ally, and I'm overwhelmed but very excited about it."

"Ally McBeal" airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on Fox.

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