Star overcoming her suspicion of Hollywood

January 20, 1995|By Joe Rhodes | Joe Rhodes,Special to The Sun

Portland, Ore. -- Karen Sillas remembers the day last spring that she auditioned for the role of Detective Rose Phillips on "Under Suspicion," the critically acclaimed police drama, as a kind of 12-hour lurching frenzy, a spinning blur like nothing she'd ever been through before.

Having flown into Los Angeles that morning, she found herself being hustled into limos and run through a glad-handing gantlet of producers and network executives, with their hugs and their handshakes and their Hollywood smiles. She didn't have a clue who most of them were.

She hadn't expected things to be quite so manic. It was just a reading, her agents had said; an audition for some CBS types who'd seen her buzz-generating performance in an independent film called "What Happened Was," a two-character drama that ** won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival.

Ms. Sillas, who'd built her career in the bare-bones world of independent films, had never before auditioned for a TV series. She'd never been interested. She was, after all, a serious New York actress who'd grown up in Brooklyn and studied with Lee Strasberg at the legendary Actors Studio.

"I've never done material that I don't want to do," she says, her Brooklyn bluntness coming through. "I don't want to do something if it's [garbage]. And I won't."

So she waited. She read the "Under Suspicion" pilot script only because her agents promised it wasn't a typical television part. Detective Rose Phillips was no perky prime-time babe. She was a complicated woman, with tightly bundled emotions, struggling be taken seriously without sacrificing her femininity. And besides, it was only a reading, right? How big a deal could it be?

She couldn't have known that Jacqueline Zambrano, the high-strung creator and executive producer of "Under Suspicion," had been trying to cast the part for months and, as production deadlines for the pilot grew near, was approaching a state of panic.

"I wanted a real woman, not some anorexic girl," she says. "Someone who could come in and just be the part, who doesn't have to act tough because she is tough. They would throw names at me and I'd say, 'I don't believe her as a woman!' "

Lisa Freiberger, head of casting at CBS, spotted Ms. Sillas' chiseled features in "What Happened Was." Mesmerized by her unsettling portrayal of a lonely (and possibly psychotic) legal secretary, she flew her to L.A. The same day of the audition Ms. Zambrano saw a print of the film and made up her mind -- before even meeting Ms. Sillas.

"After she finished reading for CBS," Ms. Zambrano remembers, "they shoved her in a taxi, she came over to us. We chatted. She read. We shoved her out of the room and I said, 'I want her. She's brilliant.'

"I was on my way to Portland [where 'Under Suspicion' is filmed] that afternoon, so I walked out, said to Karen, 'Congratulations, you've got the role. I'll see you when I get back tomorrow.' And I left for the airport."

For Ms. Sillas, it wasn't so simple. "Nobody had even asked me if I wanted to do a TV show. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought, 'No! I don't.' "

It took Ms. Zambrano most of the next day to convince Ms. Sillas to take the part, promising her a collaborative voice in the shaping of her character, and assuring her she'd be able to do films. Five days later, the two were on a plane to Oregon to film the pilot episode.

Although ratings for "Under Suspicion," hamstrung by its Friday night graveyard time slot, have been less than stellar, CBS has ordered a full season of episodes. Ms. Sillas' reviews may well be the reason.

Her smoldering essence has moved some writers to near rapture, including James Walcott of the New Yorker, who says her face and figure "seem borrowed from Norse Myth."

"In the beginning I was totally overwhelmed by this and my instinct, like an animal, was just to survive," she says. "So all I concentrated on was the moment in front of me. But every once in a while some of it does seep in. I'm just beginning to realize that I have my own show, that a lot of people have taken a risk and had faith that I can pull this off."

There are more inquiries coming in from studios, wanting to know if she's interested in trying the full Hollywood ride. But Ms. Sillas says she'll stay where she is for now, waiting for the world to come to her. "People know where I am," she says. "If they're interested, they'll find me."

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