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New faces are just what 'ER' ordered

Changes like the arrival of Parminder Nagra and Linda Cardellini give the veteran drama's writers new possibilities.

November 18, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Parminder Nagra remembers how she would sit in coffee shops with her fellow actors in London dreaming of one day joining a show like "ER." The fantasy became a reality when the British actress of Indian descent became a regular this season on the long-running NBC series as a wide-eyed medical student.

Nagra, star of the art-house hit "Bend It Like Beckham," isn't the only new face who has checked into the Emmy Award-winning series, now in its 10th season and still the Peacock network's top-rated drama. Linda Cardellini, late of the acclaimed but short-lived 1999-2000 NBC teen series "Freaks and Geeks" and the film "Scooby-Doo," is roaming the halls of the Chicago hospital as an independent-minded nurse with a young son.

Being a new member of the ensemble cast, says Cardellini, feels very much like being the "new kid in school."

"But you are not a stranger very long here," she adds. "Everybody is really nice and you work so long and hard together. People told me the set was a nice place to be. I couldn't imagine how right it would be. There really isn't a bad apple in the bunch."

Which doesn't happen often, she adds. "There's always somebody who tends to be different and on their own. I think in this case, it's a very good and unique situation."

Considering the long, intense hours on the show and the frenetic pace, the set at Warner Bros. in Burbank seemed pretty relaxed one recent day, with cast and crew members joking back and forth between scenes. It also looked to be an extremely well-fed set. Almost everyone seemed to be making stops for goodies from the craft services table. Nagra even quips that "ER" actually means "eat regularly."

"We have a really good group," says executive producer Christopher Chulack, who also is one of the show's principal directors. "I think that Parminder and Linda both hit the floor running, which is really hard to do. I think it's a credit to how talented they are and dedicated to their craft that they just kind of came in and were not intimidated."

Goran Visnjic, who has played heartthrob Dr. Luka Kovac on the series since 1999, agrees that the actresses quickly integrated themselves.

"They just became a part of it," says Visnjic, whose character becomes involved with Cardellini's single-mom Samantha. "If you are in some kind of a set that's not so friendly, you don't work as well. You feel like you have a big obstacle in front of you. I spoke to the girls and told them when I first came on, in a couple of days, I felt like I had been on the show for years, and they told me the same thing."

Nagra had no inkling she would be joining "ER" when she came to L.A. in the spring to do publicity for "Bend It Like Beckham." The actress, 28, was praised for her portrayal in that film of a teenage soccer player from a strict Indian family.

Between media interviews, she had general meetings with producers in the television and film industries. One of these meet-and-greets was with "ER" executive producer John Wells.

"He was really gracious," Nagra recalls. "He said, 'How do you fancy doing some 'ER'? It was literally as casual as that. He said, 'You don't have to answer me right now.' "

When Nagra returned home to London two weeks later, her agent informed her that Wells wanted her for a full season with an option for three more. She briefly returned to L.A. in May to film her introductory episode as Yale graduate Neela Rasgotra, then went back to London to pack for an extended stay.

She says she can deal with the intense workload; it's the "logistics of moving and being in a different country" that have been more difficult for her. But the transition has been made a bit easier because fellow actress Alex Kingston and some of the "ER" crew members are also British.

Cardellini was contacted by Wells about playing Samantha.

"I had a few meetings," she says. "It was just a really great part. I fell in love with the idea of the part. We talked a lot about what she would do and what she would become. It's so different from anything I had been seen in. It was the best part I could find that would be different from what I had been doing."

"We were looking around [at actresses] and then Linda came in to talk to us, and we just knew that she was it," producer Chulack says. "She just kind of fit the part on a personal level. We knew she had the edge and the energy."

Adding new cast members to a long-running series obviously is meant to keep viewers interested, but the benefits go deeper than that, Visnjic says.

"When you have new people on the set, either guest stars or new cast regulars, it's easier for writers to write something," the actor explains. "They have new ideas. It's more interesting for us. It makes everybody happy."

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