PASADENA, Calif. -- It doesn't happen often, but sometimes actors are more interesting than the characters they play. That's saying something in the case of Wendie Malick -- considering she's played everything from a neurotic fashion editor to an entire gallery of cartoon characters.
Malick is best known as the pretentious editor from Just Shoot Me or the put-upon ex-wife in Dream On. In her latest TV foray she plays the uber-controlling mother of the bride in ABC's Big Day, premiering Tuesday.
Already the recipient of comic acting honors, Malick never intended to be a comedian.
"When I was little there were two possibilities for me from a very early age," she says. "I would either be a veterinarian or an actress. ... We had a summerhouse on the lake, and I used to walk down the beach and imagine that an orchestra was coming up around me. I would sing and learn every song in every musical I ever heard. I made up plays with my friends and used to pretend I was from another country when I was on vacation with my family, and I didn't know them. It was so embarrassing when later people would see me sitting at the dinner table with my family," says Malick, seated on a director's chair in a meeting room here.
Though acting was her goal, she deliberately sidetracked herself for five years to model. It wasn't the modeling that interested her. It was the travel.
"We had a normal middle-class upbringing, but my grandparents had a wonderful life that they brought us into and shared with us that afforded us a lot of things we wouldn't have had otherwise," she says.
"Grandfather had a hotel and restaurant in Buffalo ... and he was able to retire early and travel a lot. So their life always seemed utterly glamorous and exciting to me. I think they whet my appetite for seeing the world and taking chances and being brave and adventurous."
Malick has always been brave and adventurous. As a junior in high school she studied in Amsterdam, vowing someday to live in Paris, which she did later as a model.
"I was making $75 a week doing off-off-Broadway and dinner theater in New Jersey, so [when] I was approached by someone from Wilhelmina [modeling agency], I thought, `This is my ticket to see the world!' And it was."
After the five years, she returned to acting earning the role as "the girl doctor" on the drama Trauma Center.
In 1995, Malick married her second husband, builder Richard Erickson. They met "over vegetarian spaghetti sauce in Tijuana," she laughs.
"We couldn't be more different; we couldn't be more opposite. He's a very thoughtful, very quiet, very private person. I think we were put in each other's path for a reason. He certainly has made me more aware and grounded than I would've been."
Erickson, the son of missionaries, spent seven years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He and Malick returned to build a small medical center in one of the villages.
"We sort of became a little U.N. We set up a couple of scholarships and try to get them medical equipment and things like that," she says.
"We've been there four times. But the first trip there, we flew in this tiny little chartered flight and landed in this field. And, they came out of the woodwork and were singing to us, and I felt it was one of the most overwhelming [examples] of how much we -- in our tiny little way -- could impact this village."
Though she has no children, Malick is caring for her 5-year-old niece this fall, an experience she relishes. "Getting to know this little girl and feeling like her own special Auntie Mame, which I was designed to be much more than a mom just because of the nature of my life and how I've chosen to live it," she says.
"There's a little part of her that reminds me of me at that age. She's one of the most fascinating people I've ever been with. She fascinates me and interests me, and if I'm not present she lets me know and she won't stand for it. If I'm distracted and having a half conversation with her, she doesn't buy it."
Family is important to Malick, and she still honors her grandfather's influence. He died unexpectedly when she was 15.
"He'd sent my grandmother and I off on a vacation together because he'd been sick for a long time and it happened while we were gone. When we got back that was the first time I realized not only was it a great sadness for me but also that energy never entirely goes away because he has been with me," she says.
"It was that sense of when people pass on -- which is how I think of it, passing on is such a great word for that -- he kind of was around and watching over me, and used to always worry that I tried to do too many things. He hoped I didn't spread myself too thin and that's still one of my biggest problems. He did make me mindful of that. And sometimes I have to slow down and breathe and go, `OK, this maybe you don't need to do, let's stay a little bit more focused on what we're doing and smell the roses.'"