Part of “Old Info And News”
March 26, 2008
In the past decade, Elizabeth Mitchell has portrayed everything from a lesbian lover to Santa’s significant other to her enduring role as an ominous doc on abc’s lost. and though she’s played her part in Hollywood, the bi-coastal actress hasn’t let Hollywood play her
One of Elizabeth Mitchell’s neighbours is a hardened marine corps vet, but he’s terrified of her. “He came up to me recently and said, ‘I’ve encountered some of the scariest people you can imagine but you’re really scary,’” laughs Mitchell. “I just smiled and said, ‘that’s sweet! thank you so much.’” after two seasons playing creepy fertility specialist Juliet burke on abc’s hit drama Lost, Mitchell is getting used to spooking fans. even in her laidback community of Kailua, those penetrating blue eyes of hers get nerves rattling. “The new measure of my abilities as an actress,” Mitchell says, “is how pale people get when I walk down the street.”
What’s funny is how different Mitchell is from the tightly wound “Other” she plays on TV. At the moment, the woman every mom-to-be runs from on Lost (Juliet has an eerie way of making pregnancies go very, very wrong) is cooing to her two year-old son, C.J., and deciding between a hike with friends, an afternoon run with her comedian husband, or a refreshing dip in the Pacific. As her Lost costar Michael Emerson, who plays Ben, puts it, “With Elizabeth, the icy stillness she projects on the show is completely at odds with who she is. She couldn’t be warmer or more gracious, and what an amazing mother she is. But then the cameras roll and she’ll send chills up your spine with a simple tilt of her neck.”
Hearing the way Mitchell talks about the job, you’d halfexpect her to be giggling with glee through her scenes. “It would have been enough to get a part on a show like Lost,” she says. “But to have it shoot in paradise and have my family along for the ride, and have good friends from the show, I keep wondering, ‘What on earth did I do to deserve this?’”
She’s done quite a bit actually. Born in L.A. and raised in Dallas, Mitchell, 37, is one of those actresses who’s been dancing on the periphery of fame for years. Nearly a decade ago, she had her breakout role as Angelina Jolie’s on-again-off again lesbian lover in HBO’s Gia, memorable for the love scene the women had together. That led to a string of solid parts—she played the title role in NBC’s The Linda McCartney Story and Tim Allen’s wife in The Santa Clause sequels—that somehow let Mitchell maintain her anonymity. “In a way it’s been the perfect career for an actor,” she says. “I’ve worked on all kinds of interesting, fun projects yet never had the hassle or downside that comes with too much notoriety.”
That’s changing lately. For one thing, she says half-jokingly, “I don’t get to hold as many babies anymore.” But Lost has also upped the ante for Mitchell. With a hit show on her hands, she’s had to decide whether to make a play for bigger, bolder roles or just enjoy the fruits of her labors. Her decision to buy a home on an island off Seattle recently—as opposed to, say, Beverly Hills—suggests where the answer lies for her.
“Before Lost, I was at a point in my career where things were supposed to start going down not up, but then this happened,” she says. “It definitely feels like a professional breakthrough but it also makes me want to enjoy the rest of my life—the real parts—even more.” Mitchell was seven when she landed her first acting role in Alice Through the Looking Glass at the renowned Dallas Theatre Company, where she maintained an association for six years. “I used to beg my mom to drop me off at the theater just so I could watch the actors get ready,” recalls Mitchell, whose parents, real estate and tax attorneys, still live in Dallas’ Highland Park neighborhood. “Looking back, I have no idea why the actors let me hang around but they did, and acting became the only thing I ever really wanted to do.” With her breathy voice and patrician good looks, Mitchell, the oldest of three sisters, was a standout at Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
She later spent a year at Dallas’ Encore Theater before heading overseas to study Shakespeare at the British American Drama Academy in London. But even as she began making inroads in Hollywood, with recurring appearances on shows like E.R. and House and parts in films like Frequency and Nurse Betty, it was the memory of her Dallas childhood that brought drama to her performances, she says. “I base so many of my characters on the women I grew up with there,” says Mitchell, who says she spends eleven months of the year looking forward to the old-fashioned Texas Christmases at her parents’ place. “Dallas women are so strong but they’re never in your face. They smile and they’re polite but you’re never sure what’s lurking behind the eyes. It’s that combination of being forthright yet somewhat mysterious that makes them such an inspiration for me.”
These days, Mitchell finds just as much inspiration from filming in Hawaii. When her husband is on Oahu, they punctuate their days by taking three-mile runs along the beach followed by half-hour swims. To keep in shape for the knee-deep slogs through the mud on Lost, Mitchell regularly practices yoga, karate and boxing. To stay fresh creatively, all she needs to do is drive to the set. Says the actress, “My call times are usually at 3:30 or 4AM, but people are often out walking at that hour, enjoying the cool air or waiting for the sun to rise at the beach. All those gentle Hawaiian ways of being in the world have made me a better, calmer person just by association.”
What makes her Lost experience particularly special is that Mitchell knows it’s a fantasy that ultimately must end. “On a show like this, your character can get killed at any time but that’s become a metaphor,” she says, adding she has no idea what the ultimate conclusion of the jagged Lost plot will be. “There’s real joy in being in a place of beauty like this, but the way my life has gone, I know when this chapter closes, a new and interesting chapter is bound to open up.”
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