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Shedding the wings

Years of hard work are paying off for Jenna Gavigan, who loves her foxy role in `Come Back, Little Sheba.'

July 09, 2007|Amy Kaufman | Times Staff Writer

"You," says Jenna Gavigan, shaking a quavering finger in the air and assuming the gravelly tone of Kirk Douglas, "you're a vixen."

The 21-year-old actress is camped out next to her Ahi Three Ways salad, recounting the words the legendary Douglas dispensed her way after the opening of William Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba" at Douglas' namesake theater in Culver City. The play tells the story of the disenchanted Lola (S. Epatha Merkerson), ensnared in a 25-year marriage to her alcoholic husband, Doc (Alan Rosenberg). Gavigan shines as Marie, the couple's boarder whose romantic trysts simultaneously animate and further destroy the brittle family dynamic.

Douglas' interpretation of a foxy Gavigan in the role isn't far off -- Marie dances across the stage in a cutesy pair of plastic platform sandals and lipstick-red blouse, enticing Lola with tales of her school boyfriends.

And she certainly has no lack of attractive men at her disposal, spending the majority of the show secretly necking with the bulky, svelte Turk (Josh Cooke) on the dusty living room couch.

But poking at her tuna at the Farm restaurant at the Grove, Gavigan is certainly more cherub than imp. She's wearing a demure tan cardigan that ties with a little ribbon, has almost indecipherably small stud earrings and sports a frustratingly fresh, blemish- and makeup-free complexion.

She bears a striking physical resemblance to Academy Award-winning actress Anna Paquin. Indeed, the only lingering of bad-girl Marie may be in the stoplight-red polish adorning Gavigan's fingernails, which she continually smooths over as she speaks.

"I insisted Marie wear this nail color because she's out to impress and wants everyone to like her," Gavigan explains. "I don't think I'm quite as needy when it comes to men as she is, but I do feel that same drive."

Gavigan has heeded the forceful tug of ambition from a young age: A born and bred New Yorker, she'd already secured an agent and was auditioning professionally for Broadway shows by the fifth grade.

"After I first saw 'Guys and Dolls,' I just became that kid," she says, referring to her obsession with performing. She auditioned endlessly, constantly greeted by calls of rejection from her manager.

"I remember I got a callback for 'Freaky Friday,' and then I saw Lindsay Lohan's name on the sign-in sheet and went, 'Well, didn't get that one.' "

Although she went up for the part of cheeky Brigitta in "The Sound of Music" year after year -- a role she came "very, very close to" -- she never scored the gig and consequently invited the mocking jabs of her classmates.

"The kids were a little tough on me earlier on, because they just didn't understand. It was like, 'If you're good, then why didn't you get it?' " she says, imitating their condescension. "And I didn't realize it wasn't smart for me to come in and be like, 'I'm leaving school early today because I have an audition for a Broadway show!' "

When her work finally paid off in her junior year, the then-16-year-old Gavigan quietly left her New York public high school for a couple of months to begin rehearsing for her first major break and Broadway debut -- a role in Sam Mendes' 2003 revival of "Gypsy," starring Bernadette Peters.

"Sam was lovely," she recalls. "I remember him saying at my audition, 'My goodness, that's a big voice to come out of a little girl.' "

Although Gavigan held only the small ensemble role of "Hollywood Blonde," her real starring moments came during the 44 evenings in which she was able to play the understudy part of Baby June, one of the show's lead characters.

"I was tired all the time senior year," she says of balancing the performance schedule with her final year in high school. "I'd usually roll in in sweatpants and glasses and makeup half on from the night before. But it was nice, because I'd be sitting in class going, 'Oh, well, it's OK, I have my Broadway show to look forward to tonight.'

"I almost didn't go to my prom," she adds, shrugging her shoulders. "I had just been to the Tony Awards. I was like, 'Why am I gonna go to prom?' "

During "Gypsy," Gavigan had also gained a minor part in Bill Condon's film "Kinsey," in which she played opposite Liam Neeson and Laura Linney as the couple's daughter.

Her professional ventures seemed to have accelerated the growing-up process considerably for Gavigan. The eve of prom, in fact, was the first night she spent in her own 23rd Street apartment, where she'd live while attending Columbia University the following fall.

"I figured, 'I got into an Ivy League school, I might as well go,' " says Gavigan, who is on academic leave, maintaining sophomore standing, while pursuing acting. "I would like to finish, but the school's been there for 250 years and it'll be there for another 250 years. I'm not gonna be a twentysomething who plays 16 forever."

If she does complete her degree, Gavigan is certain of one thing -- she wants to major in something "basic, like English," rather than garnering further training in the arts.

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