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A Family-Friendly Starring Role, 03.11.01 ...

Lauren Graham learned to act in the Washington area. While growing up in Northern Virginia, Graham said her earliest role was "Cook No. 2" at the Arlington Children's Theater. From there, it's been a pretty straight line to a starring role in the WB's critically acclaimed "Gilmore Girls," for which she may win a Screen Actors Guild award Sunday night.

"Gilmore Girls" is a smart drama about the relationship between Graham's character, single mother Lorelai Gilmore, and 16-year-old Rory, played by Alexis Bledel. Airing Thursdays at 8, the show's warmth is infused with a lot of humor, which may explain why Graham seems such a natural fit.

"I'm a great example of what Washington has to offer because I did everything there," said Graham from Los Angeles, where the series is shot.

"My dad took me to the Kennedy Center all the time. He made it interesting. I did the Arena Stage's Living Stage, their experimental company. And I did their resident company. Then I did the Catholic University summer training program."

While at Langley High School in McLean, she landed her first professional acting job, for Planned Parenthood. "It was a training film on how to treat young people who come in." She laughed at the fact that she got her start by being cast as a pregnant girl and now plays a character who experienced this at 16.

Graham's parents divorced when she was young and her mother, Donna Grant, lives in London. Her dad, Larry, lives with his wife Karen and Lauren's half-brother Chris and half-sister Maggie in Great Falls.

Before her father was remarried, she said being an only child encouraged her love of books. "I was a big reader as a child and the next natural step after reading something was to express it."

But her father said he didn't realize she had made a career choice to act until it came time to apply to college.

"I had ideas of colleges for her," he explained, "ones that my relatives had gone to, and she said, 'Oh, I know what schools I want to apply to.' All had big, strong drama departments. Then I thought, I guess she's serious about this."

Graham spent a year at New York University. "It was all theater and no college," said her father. "NYU does the first two years of drama, then the last two are liberal-arts filled." So she transferred to Barnard College and majored in English, then completed an MFA at Southern Methodist University in Texas.

She got an agent, who persuaded her to move to Los Angeles, which she did in 1995. Almost immediately, she landed a guest role on "Caroline in the City" as Richard's girlfriend. The following year she signed on for a short-lived sitcom called "Townies" with Jenna Elfman and Molly Ringwald. She also was an efficiency expert on "NewsRadio," and a film studio executive who pursued Benjamin Bratt's character on "Law & Order."

"Gilmore," though, came as a surprise. "I was on a show on NBC called 'MYOB,' which had not been released yet," she said. In the meantime, she was cast as "Gilmore's" lively single mother who manages a historic inn in Connecticut. She shot the pilot in Canada and the WB picked it up.

"I went to do the [press] presentation, to introduce it -- all that before 'MYOB' ever got on the air," she said.

Now, she has what she called the most challenging role of her career "because of what [Lorelai] speaks and how much she speaks." That, plus the range of the writing -- from serious to quite funny.

"This is a character I really respond to and writing I really relate to," said Graham, who is single. "But you still never know. I was nervous about doing something on the WB because to me this show has a much broader appeal in age than what they program for. Is no one going to see this, I thought. It seemed like a show for people my age, and for families in general. It has an edge to it though."

Lorelai's sharp wit likely comes from the show's creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, who also writes for the show.

Lorelai "is somebody I thought would be fun to write for and fun to put on the air," said Sherman-Palladino. "The way she handles things and takes care of her friends. She's not like 'oooh poor me' " as a working single mother. On the contrary, she's sassy and sarcastic and has a network of quirky friends and coworkers she supports. Her relationship with her parents, played by Edward Herrmann and Kelly Bishop, offers quite a bit of friction. A wealthy couple, they struggle with their headstrong daughter's decision to raise Rory alone.

Sherman-Palladino especially enjoys writing scenes between Lorelai and Rory, exploring their intense bond.

"I wanted to do a character like Rory for a long time -- a teen who's not having sex and who's shyer and who's more of an adult because her mother always treated her like one. Her mother is her absolute best friend."

Mother and daughter have a lot in common. "One of the important parallels of the show is that they bumble in relationships in the same way," Graham said. "I don't think my character is a child, but because she had a child at 16, she probably missed out on a lot of dating. So she's afraid to have a relationship and bring someone into her daughter's life."

So far, Rory has had a steady boyfriend, but not Lorelai. "I like that," added Graham. "I think that's realistic."

But Sherman-Palladino said: "That Lorelai looks like that -- of course she's going to date. Had she not had Rory, she'd still be out there dating at 32."

That the series is supported by a consortium of advertisers called the Family Friendly Programming Forum does not cramp Sherman-Palladino's writing, she said. She didn't discover the connection until the pilot was being shot.

"They said, we want a show that we can endorse and run our ads on, a show that the whole family can watch. And TV needs that -- TV needs a lot of things," she said. But, "the show you see is what it's intended to be."

Meanwhile, she said she has no end of topics to write about. "Families will never not be crazy. There will always be conflict between people whose bonds are so tight and who love each other," said Sherman-Palladino.

And beyond the main storyline, there are strong supporting characters to explore in Lorelai's parents; Sookie St. James, the chef at Lorelai's inn played by Melissa McCarthy; Michel Gerard, the snobby concierge played by Yanic Truesdale; Luke Danes (Scott Patterson), Lorelai's potential romantic partner; Liz Torres as Miss Patty, a sweet neighbor; and Keiko Agena as Lane Kim, Rory's Korean-American best friend who struggles with a strict mother.

Whether the series will get a second season won't be announced until May, although all involved say the WB has been extremely positive thus far. This month, the show is being repeated from the pilot on Monday nights after "7th Heaven." Original episodes will continue on Thursdays, but the Monday airings are meant to give people a chance to see a show that is overshadowed by the double-whammy competition of "Friends" and "Survivor."
Credit: Washington Post

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