When Tara Correa-McMullen was 14, she got the kind of big break that aspiring actors long for -- a recurring role on the TV show "Judging Amy."
She played a former gang member who over the course of the season is urged by the show's main character to turn her life around. At the end of the season, however, her character is killed in prison.
Last week, Tara, 16, was hanging out with friends in front of an apartment complex in Inglewood when she was fatally shot. Police described her as the innocent victim of a gang-related shooting.
Friends, family and Hollywood colleagues gathered Friday to say goodbye to Tara, who died as she was struggling to build her career. This summer, 20th Century Fox released her first feature film, "Rebound," in which she played one of the middle school basketball players coached by Martin Lawrence.
They remembered a girl who loved to perform, playing the piano at age 4 and dancing and singing as a youngster.
They also remembered her as staying firmly grounded despite her rising star. On the set of "Rebound," her parents said in their eulogy, Tara made a point of eating with crew members rather than with the other actors. The crew brought her a cake to celebrate her 15th birthday on the set.
"She didn't judge anyone," her parents, Devora Correa and Thomas McMullen, wrote in the eulogy, which was read by an employee at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park Hollywood Hills. "Whether they were a grip or a caterer, it didn't matter to her. She made friends with everyone at every level."
"The girl stood out in a crowd," they added. "She had a special energy and an infectious personality."
Besides singing and acting, Tara loved to dance, practice martial arts and spend time with her family, her parents said. She was especially close to her older sister, Abigail, 18, and they would often sing together during family get-togethers.
Abigail sang "Amazing Grace" during the memorial service but had to stop when she was overcome by emotion. "I can't sing anymore," Abigail said tearfully as she walked from the podium.
Inglewood police said Tara was shot several times in the torso while standing outside an apartment complex on East Plymouth Street about 5:45 p.m. on Oct. 21. Two men were also shot but survived. Authorities said they didn't know why she was there. Detectives don't have any suspects, and they were unsure if the shooting was a drive-by or a walk-up crime.
"Not that she is a gang member, but she may have just been at the wrong place at the wrong time," said Sgt. Steve Overly.
Tara grew up on the East Coast and moved to Northern California in 1996 with her mother and sister. The family later moved to Venice, where Tara sang in the Venice High School choir and performed in several local dance groups.
She landed the "Rebound" role soon after, almost by chance. At the time, her mother was working in the office of a casting company. When officials expressed frustration that they were unable to cast the role of the only girl on a boys' basketball team, Correa mentioned that her youngest daughter, who had never acted before, might fit the bill.
"Even though she lacked a resume, the director went to bat for her," her parents said in the eulogy.
After wrapping the movie, which came out in July, she won the recurring role on "Judging Amy" that ran earlier this year.
She played a troubled and remorseless teenager, Graciela Reyes, who had been abandoned by her mother and two brothers who had fled to Guatemala. Judge Amy, played by Amy Brenneman, tries to turn Graciela's life around, but the teen gets involved in a drive-by shooting. Judge Amy attempts to prevent Graciela from being tried as an adult. She fails, but almost succeeds in getting her a new trial when Graciela is murdered in prison.
Friends at the funeral said Tara recently had been hanging out with a "bad crowd" in Inglewood.
The friends said the similarity between young Tara's life and that of her television character was eerie.
"This is life as art," said Cindy Osbrink, whose agency had represented Tara off and on for the last couple of years.
About halfway through Tara's appearance as Graciela, the actress became unreliable, Osbrink said, and the agency staff decided to pick her up and drive her to the day's shoot to make sure she showed up. After "Judging Amy," the agency dropped her as a client.
Osbrink said that Tara had come to see her several months ago, saying she wanted to continue acting, and was signed again. But when she missed an audition, she was dropped a second time.
"Needless to say, we are devastated," Osbrink said. "She had everything going for her."
Some friends who attended the funeral said Tara's mother had been trying to persuade her daughter to move to Glendale with her, but Tara wanted to stay in Inglewood with her older boyfriend.
"She was an angel," Tara's friend Maurice Tipton, 18, said before the service. "She had a lot of obstacles in her way that took her motivation away. She kind of went wherever she got attention. But she was a good person, a sweet, giving person who cared about people and didn't want to see people get hurt."
Tipton said that he had detected a change in Tara in recent weeks, and he felt that she was trying to get her life back in order.
"She was attending church every Sunday," Tipton said. "She wanted to sit there and turn to God."
Anyone with information about Tara's death is asked to call Inglewood homicide detectives at (310) 412-5246.
Times staff writers Claudia Luther and Richard Winton contributed to this report.