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THE PERFORMANCE

She hears more jeers than cheers

`Friday Night Lights' star Minka Kelly plays a sleazy teen so well that some fans can't stand it.

March 18, 2007|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

LOVE HER OR HATE HER — and there's ample evidence on the Web and on the street that many of you choose the latter -- please, please, do not call actress Minka Kelly a slut. It's not nice, especially when she's out in public with her father.

"That's not how you approach someone, my God!" she says, over a breakfast of her favorite oatmeal frittata at Hugo's. "I've been with my dad and a man came up to me and said, 'You're that little slut on that show, aren't you?' And I'm like, 'My dad is standing right here!'"

To her further chagrin, Kelly's father seems to get a kick out of how the world is receiving his daughter's Lyla Garrity, the not-so-perfect cheerleader on NBC's "Friday Night Lights." His advice: "Oh, shut up. It's not a big deal. Laugh at it."

To a certain extent, Kelly is learning that. For one thing, she doesn't go online anymore to see what the e-chatters are saying about her turn as the girl whose white-picket-fence dreams were shattered when her star quarterback boyfriend was paralyzed in the pilot. Lyla stood by her man in the series' early episodes but then fell into bed with his best friend, which is about the time the show's fans began their player-hating.

"The biggest thing I wanted to make sure I did was go through this journey with her and have people understand why she's making the decisions she's making," Kelly says. "It's not a superficial thing she does.... I wanted them to understand that they're common mistakes we all make in life."

To be sure, Lyla is only 17, a delicate age at which to be dealt such a traumatizing blow. In her portrayal, Kelly captures with ease the girl who seems to have everything but turns out to be as confused and insecure as everyone else. Maybe it's because Kelly is 26, and those torturous adolescent years are not that far behind her. Or maybe it's because when the actress was in high school she committed the same sin as her character: She cheated on her boyfriend. Whatever the case, Kelly is turning heads as Lyla, whether she's being held up on one foot during a cheerleading routine or pleading for forgiveness.

"The whole idea with Lyla Garrity and Jason Street [Scott Porter] was to take the All-American dream couple and deconstruct it and see what happens when you pulverize the American dream," creator and show-runner Peter Berg said. "And Minka is very hard to characterize as being sweet and wholesome or sultry and mildly diabolical. You feel like she can be your friend, but you also feel if you're not really careful, there's the tiny, teeny little chance that she'll walk off with your boyfriend. She's done a great job of bringing an element of danger, recklessness and angst to a character who might otherwise just be sweet and superficial."

Kelly takes none of it for granted. This is her Big Break, and although she auditioned for the role of Tyra (ironically, the school slut, played by Adrianne Palicki), she was happy to be cast as Lyla. "I would have played a football player to get this job," she says, half-jokingly.

Rah-rah reality

TO make Lyla as believable as possible, the self-proclaimed tomboy, who never held a pompom in her life, trains with real high school cheerleaders, the show's extras. If she could have her way, Kelly would do all of her own stunts. Yes, that was really the actress on one foot in the air during the cheerleading competition. But occasionally, when tumbling across a floor is required, for instance, a body double is called to protect the production from liability.

"I work on it for a couple of weeks with really, really great cheerleaders and they make it really easy for me," Kelly said. "I just want to do as much of it as possible because you want it to be you. You don't know if someone's going to move the way you do."

When Kelly, and others, noticed that her voice was too high in the early episodes, she volunteered to take lessons with an opera teacher to learn to bring it down. And when the script called for a Lyla-style bawling scene, Kelly would spend the day alone, listening to depressing music and focusing on either sad personal times or gloomy moments in the script to keep her in the right frame of mind.

"Sometimes I would drive myself crazy because in so many scenes, Lyla was breaking down," she says. "Now, I've gotten to a point where I don't have to do that to myself. I'll wake up and have a great day and show up and be totally myself and 15 minutes before I have to do my scene, I just lock myself in my trailer and go to that place and it's a much healthier process."

Things are also looking up for Lyla, who surprised the show's fans when she got the gumption several episodes ago to stop wallowing in how Jason didn't want to see her and showed up for an important competition. She uttered her best line yet when someone recognized her from the mean-spirited website her enemies created about her. "Lyla Garrity," Lyla said. "Yeah, the whore with the website."

Since then, Lyla and Jason have been healing and, even though Jason proposed and wants to marry her ASAP, Lyla wants to slow things down.

"I really love playing her because I feel she is a lot of girls out there, as far as being so in love with a boy that you forget about yourself," Kelly says. "And you're so lost in the relationship that you don't matter. Now, she's coming out of that and opening her eyes to the fact that there's so much more than getting married. She's a really strong girl, but she doesn't know it yet."

To those who are quick to hurl hatred at the impressionable actress, Berg says, wait to see what happens by season's end on April 11.

"The great thing about being torn apart is that you get to be reborn," Berg said. "Everyone loves a comeback, and I think Minka is going to get plenty of chances to redeem herself. And so I think that those same people who are calling her scarlet and a tramp right now are going to be [singing] her praises."

maria.elena.fernandez@latimes.com

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