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Bewitched by Other Roles

March 08, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's late Friday afternoon on the set of ABC's hit comedy "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," and Melissa Joan Hart is in the makeup room explaining how she is trying to segue to adult actress while still starring in a children's series.

"It's kind of a good thing to experiment with my acting and take different roles," says the peppy and personable 21-year-old actress.

"I really enjoy doing TV movies for the experience and the characters," says Hart, who came to fame as a teenager in the 1991-94 Nickelodeon series, "Clarissa Explains It All." "If I'm going to do TV movies, I don't want it to be the same characters everyone has seen me in. It's going to be to help my career and move my career along in different areas."

Hart's latest TV movie, "Silencing Mary," airing Sunday on NBC, is about as far removed from her bewitching "Sabrina" as possible.

Executive produced by her mother Paula, who also wears the same hat on "Sabrina," the drama finds Hart playing a scrappy college student who becomes a one-woman crusader for justice when her roommate gets raped and the star football player who committed the crime is not prosecuted.

It was Hart's 19-year-old sister Trisha who came up with the idea for "Mary." Trisha is the film's co-producer.

"She sort of developed the whole thing," Hart says. "She goes to Miami University in Ohio." In researching colleges, the actress says, her sister discovered that schools do not have to list rapes and other crimes of violence in their safety statistics if the perpetrator was not convicted. So "most colleges, if not all colleges, have higher incidents than they reported," she says.

Hart says it was her mother's idea not to have the heroine also be the victim. "That really drew me to the role," she says. "It's different."

She hopes her young fans won't be upset that she's trying more mature roles like Mary. " 'Sabrina' is just done for entertainment purposes," Hart explains. "This is my career and I have to make decisions for my career. I try to be careful of my audience, but it's also that audience who is going to grow up with me. I don't want to get stuck [in the same roles].

"Hopefully, the kids who watch 'Sabrina' aren't going to be up when it's on Sunday night, because they have school the next day or their parents will be careful and know what the subject matter is before they let them watch it."

Though Hart frequently appeared on stage as a teen and made her Broadway debut at 15 in "The Crucible," she's more comfortable doing comedy.

"I've done comedy for the last six years," Hart says. "I find drama really challenging to me, like not to use my eyebrows [to express myself] and be real and find the truth behind every line. So to do something like this movie where there's emotion involved is so great. I am a very high-energy person on the set. I need to be friends with the whole crew and be a clown. That works here [on 'Sabrina'], but on this movie there were a lot of emotional scenes, and to learn to take the time to calm down and be, like, 'OK. This is what I have to do' was [challenging]."

While she's pushing herself as an actress in more adult roles, Hart still enjoys playing a teenager on "Sabrina," now in its second season and already renewed for two more.

"I have a 17-year-old sister, Elizabeth, and she's my inspiration," Hart says. "I study her. Everything is scary to her. She's a very teen 'angster.' A lot of 'Sabrina" was based on her at the beginning and still sort of is. I don't think it's hard playing 17 at all."

Despite her hectic schedule, Hart is enrolled at New York University. "I attend right now through correspondence," she says. "Hopefully, we're set to wrap 'Sabrina' in June of 2000 or something. Once it's done, as long as it hasn't been too long, I can go back. But I am afraid of losing my credits. I would be graduating now if I was a regular student."

Though Hart played a typical teen on "Clarissa," she was rarely around kids her own age and was tutored on the set in Orlando, Fla. Though the "Clarissa" experience was "special," she acknowledges she knew she was missing a social life.

"I knew what I was missing because of my sister [Trisha]," she says. "We have always been at the same level. We're like twins. So I watched her go through [high school]. I was, like, hanging out with people who were between the ages of 23 and 50. They were my best friends. But I learned a lot on how to be myself through them. I still have a hard time being myself with people my own age."

Hart did get to spend one month at the dorm at NYU before "Sabrina" began. "I had the best time," she says enthusiastically. "It's a bunch of kids living together--how can't that be fun?"

Though Hart is still undeclared, she thinks she may major in art and literature. "I can make my own major," she says. "Last year I said I needed three weeks to myself. I wanted to go to school and I wanted to go to Italy. So I combined it all. "

Hart says she was so taken with Florence that "Sabrina" may actually film next season's opener there. "It's not definite but I'm asking for it," she says with a smile.

She hopes to do a feature film this summer. "I've a bunch of independent features lined up, possibly studio features," she says. "All different kinds of roles. What I really want to do is an independent film because that is where the really cool roles and directors are."

"Silencing Mary" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on NBC; "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" airs Fridays at 8 and 9 p.m. on ABC.

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