Sardonic drama takes her looks in stride Beauty: Michael Michele says she's been trying for years to be part of this $H 'brilliant' program.

September 24, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

For the first half hour of the interview, Michael Michele has been playing nice-nice. She carefully considers each word and chooses only the positive ones about her new best friends at "Homicide: Life on the Street."

Then she is asked about the background of her character, Detective Rene Sheppard, which, according to executive producers Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, includes being a former beauty queen.

"I hated it," she says without hesitation. "I hated it."

And now the words start coming faster.

"When I was given that background story, I said, 'Oh this is great, Tom. I'm the person who used to hand out the book "The Beauty Myth," by Naomi Wolf. This is the strangest background story for a person like myself because it could not be further from the truth.

"I went through a period where I was very much against the whole idea that surrounds the beauty industry -- the fact that, you know, 14-, 15-, 12-year-olds are being used to sell products to women who are in their 50s and 60s. I mean, I really had a period where I was very concerned about the images women have and where all of that was coming from.

"And, so, I thought it was very ironic that I wind up having that kind of background story in a character I play, because I've tried to avoid those types of roles in my career. I mean, my career is relatively young, but I've avoided those types of roles where there was the emphasis on how the character looked."

At 27, Michele is one of the youngest and least experienced of the "Homicide" cast. Her first feature film role was in 1991 in "New Jack City." She also appeared in "Substitute 2" and "The Sixth Man." She is probably most recognizable to television viewers for her recurring role for two seasons on "New York Undercover" as Malik Yoba's girlfriend, attorney Sandy Gill.

She knows that joining the cast of "Homicide" is a quantum leap for her career.

"Brilliant producers, brilliant writers, brilliant actors," she says. "You don't have to tell me. I've been trying to get cast in this series for six years."

And, after six weeks of production, all those brilliant folks have Michele feeling much better about the beauty stuff. There is an emphasis on how the character looks -- a lot of emphasis -- but it would be unrealistic to deny that she's beautiful, and it's mostly handled with the sardonic "Homicide" attitude that undercuts and mocks as it notices.

There's a scene at the end of the fifth episode in which Bayliss (Kyle Secor) comes upon Sheppard late at night on the roof of the precinct house. They have been through a lot together during the episode, and he confesses to feeling bad about something he did.

She responds to his confession by saying, " 'For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.' New Testament."

"You quote the Bible?" Bayliss says, surprised.

"In Hebrew," she says. "That's what I did for the talent segment of the Miss Anne Arundel beauty pageant."

"Talk about your novelty acts," he says, before they get down to what is really on his mind.

In tomorrow night's season premiere, she gets to drop a nice little speech on Falsone (Jon Seda) about her feelings on the beauty industry. She doesn't need Naomi Wolf anymore; the "Homicide" writers are more than happy to tee off on the many and damaging ways beauty becomes commodity in our culture.

"I feel good about the way things are going," she says. "In a small way, I have accomplished what I set out to do. And that was to prove the notion that -- other than being on a show that's glamorous and I'm asked to wear high heels and short skirts and lots of makeup -- I can do the work if given the opportunity.

L "They are giving me the opportunity. And, so far, so good. "

Pub Date: 9/24/98

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