Elizabeth Mitchell was wearing mismatched shoes -- an Ugg on one foot, her husband's slipper on the other. That is, until said husband -- actor Chris Soldevilla -- appeared, having discovered the mate to Mitchell's sheepskin boot in the car. Dropping to one knee in the couple's Bainbridge Island, Wash., home, he slid it onto his wife's foot.
"My Prince Charming!" she exclaimed during a phone interview. "Look at you coming to my rescue."
On screen, it's Mitchell who's doing most of the rescuing these days. In ABC's hotly anticipated new drama "V" -- an update of the '80s miniseries that premieres tonight -- she's FBI agent Erica Evans, who helps lead the charge to save humankind from an alien race made up of the preternaturally beautiful (at least on the surface).
And then, of course, there's her role as "Lost's" enigmatic fertility doctor Juliet who, in last May's season finale, seemingly made the ultimate sacrifice -- death by hydrogen bomb -- in order to give her island cohorts a shot at rebooting their knotty lives.
No one is more surprised to find herself at the forefront of TV's fierce femmes than the actress herself.
" 'Action hero' is not something I thought I'd have the chance to do," said the self-described theater nerd who previously garnered positive notices for romancing Angelina Jolie in "Gia" and Laura Innes on "ER." "I mean, I'm 39 years old! I thought at this point, I'd be sinking into oblivion."
At least from a Hollywood perspective, the Texas native began her career fairly close to oblivion -- the Dallas Theater Center, where she honed her acting skills for about six years. Before finally landing her prized role on "Lost," she guest starred on some of television's best shows, including "Boston Legal," "House" and CSI."
Self-deprecating humor is part of Mitchell's considerable charm, though she rarely gets the opportunity to exhibit that playful side on screen. But like the brainy, tough characters she's becoming known for, Mitchell can turn steely when she feels it's warranted. Take her initial reaction to the news that "Lost" executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse planned to hook up her character, originally conceived as a romantic interest for fellow physician Jack (Matthew Fox), with the oft-shirtless reformed con man Sawyer (Josh Holloway).
"I not only hated the idea but was completely vocal about it," she said. "I told Damon and Carlton, 'We have zero chemistry, both in person and as characters. I can't think of a more boring pair.' "
To her surprise, Mitchell found herself ultimately won over by the story line, even as she realized, "Any time characters fall in love and are happy on 'Lost,' that's kind of the end for them." She learned her own end was near after she'd just said goodbye to her 4-year-old son, CJ, at the Honolulu airport.
"I was already crying," she said, "so I just cried some more." For support, she reached out to one of her younger sisters and costar Evangeline Lilly. "They came over later that night and we got rip-roarin' drunk," remembers Mitchell. "We cried and laughed and watched really stupid movies." The "Lost" bosses insist Juliet's death wasn't particularly easy for them either. "Making that call to Elizabeth was one of the hardest things we've had to do," says Lindelof. "But Juliet's actions in the finale completely catalyze what's gonna happen in the final season." Mitchell, by now a pro at keeping "Lost's" patented twists under wraps, will add only, "I've already shot [scenes] with Sawyer. It's one of those things where it appears to be one thing, and then it turns into something else."
By losing one steady gig and so quickly landing another, Mitchell has learned to embrace the unexpected. "V" executive producer Scott Peters has witnessed the actress' roll-with-it style on set. "There are actors who do a scene exactly the same way every time, but each take is a new adventure for her," he said. "Elizabeth's not afraid to play."
Particularly when her booty-kicking single mom role is fulfilling a long-held personal fantasy. "I remember watching the 'Terminator' series and thinking, 'How amazing to be [Sarah Connor] after she got all buff and crazy,' " said the actress, who has been working to bulk up her own biceps. "To be a mother fighting for your life and the lives of the people that you love -- I mean, come on. That's just fun."
It hasn't all been fun. In September, "V" shut down production for just more than a month so that the series could undergo creative tweaking. "We needed to punch everything up," Mitchell said. "Up the drama, make it more chilling. We were at a 7 and we're now at a 10."