Sunday, October 24, 1999

Jennifer Love Hewitt is hard not to like




BY JOHN KIESEWETTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        You've got to love her. She's so cute, so candid and so casual about being one of Hollywood's hottest young stars.

        She's Jennifer Love Hewitt, 20, who leaves Party of Five after five years to star in her own series, Time of Your Life (8 p.m. Monday, Channels 19, 45).

        “I don't consider myself famous. I consider myself like a working actress who's incredibly lucky,” says Ms. Hewitt, whose “PO5” character, Sarah Merrin, leaves San Francisco to look for her father in New York.

        Hasn't she seen all the magazine covers declaring her a “hottie?”

        “I get really excited. I frame them! Yeah, like a Super Dork!” she says, giggling.

        What's not to love about anyone who calls herself a dork? She's so gosh-darn down-to-earth about the bright lights and big city.

        She's unaffected by her recording career or big-screen roles in I Know What You Did Last Summer; I Still Know What You Did Last Summer; The Suburbans; Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. (She also stars as Audrey Hepburn in an ABC movie next year.)

        “We were shooting (Fox) promos in New York, and they shut down part of Times Square so we could film. And there were all these people there who knew my full name, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and I just thought it was the oddest thing in the world.

        “I got really excited, and I started crying in the middle of Times Square. Because Times Square is so huge, and New York is so big, and when you're there, you don't think anybody even cares. It was just so nice,” says Ms. Hewitt, known simply as “Love” to her friends. (“I've been called Love my whole life. Jennifer is actually more strange to me than Love.”)

        It's clear that the Waco, Texas, native hasn't forgotten her humble start in show business, “singing at a livestock show in the middle of a pig barn.”

        In my 14 years as TV critic, Jennifer Love Hewitt ranks high on my list of People Who Are As Nice As You'd Want Them To Be. (So are Tom Selleck, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Dennis Franz.) Preparing to star in her own series hasn't changed that.

        Why would she give up a feature film career for a long-term obligation to the 15-hour-a-day TV grind? She says she wants to continue working with Chris Keyser and Amy Lippman, the Party of Five producers who created her new Time of Your Life.

        “I love them. I love their work,” she says. “I like doing stuff I believe in, and I believe in this. There may be movies that I may miss out on, or things like that, but my heart is in this. So that tells me that this is what I should be doing.”

        She had no illusions of stardom when producers summoned her last year. Quite the opposite.

        “The day they called the meeting with me, I thought I was going to be fired,” she says. “They had never had a meeting with me before. And I thought, "What have I done? I'm like fired. They're going to say that Sarah is getting kicked off the show, and I'm not ever going to work again.'”

Moving to Manhattan
        Instead, they're sending Sarah cross country to Manhattan, where she hooks up with an actress (Jennifer Garner, Felicity), a hairdresser (Diego Serrano, Another World), a struggling musician (Jonathon Schaech, That Thing You Do) and a karaoke bar owner (Gina Ravera, Soul Food) where Sarah will sing.

        The seeds of her departure were set up last spring in Party of Five, when she declined to marry longtime boyfriend Bailey Sallinger (Scott Wolf).

        One reason she loves the show's producers is that she has learned so much about growing up through their scripts.

        “I think Sarah is one of the most amazing people that I've ever come in contact with in my lifetime ... What they have written has been my role model, growing up,” she says.

        “I haven't been alone since I was 15 because I've always had Sarah to kind of like — I know this sounds weird, because she is just a piece of paper — but I mean I've always had her to sort of like help me along.”

        In the same way, she relates to Sarah leaving her close friends and striking out on her own, venturing into a risky new environment.

        “Very much like Sarah's doing, when you grow up sometimes it means moving on, and it means doing things that are hard at the time. But it makes you a better person, and it teaches you something new, and so I guess I'm sort of learning from my character in that way,” she says.

        “I like being 20, and playing a character that's 20. I love the fact that I have become a better adult because I've gotten to grow up feeling like I had a friend.”

        And she doesn't mind that the whole world knows her age, unlike everyone else in Hollywood.

        “I will always say how old I am. I don't really care if people know how old I am,” she says.

The young Hepburn
        Starring as ABC's Audrey Hepburn, from age 18 to 32, has given her another role model.

        “She is, to me, what I think women should be. She was sexy, cute, classy, sophisticaled, smart and funny. Most women, if they're lucky, get to have a couple of those traits, and she had them all,” she says.

        One big difference between Sarah and Ms. Hewitt is their love lives. For two years, she dated Carson Daly, 26, host of MTV's hugely popular Total Request Live, according to Teen People, before their recent breakup. (She's on the Teen People advisory board, as well as on the magazine's November cover.)

        While Sarah searches for her natural father, Ms. Hewitt lives in Los Angeles with her mother, Pat, another huge influence on her.

        “My mom is a person who taught me that you are never doing anything wrong in your life, if you stay completely true to who you are, and you just sort of let other stuff happen around you,” she says.

        “People are going to say what they're going to say. And they're going to be what they're going to be. But if you are who you are always, you can't go wrong.

        “I've tried really, really hard to stay as much me as possible — which is a big dork,” she says, giggling again. “So far it's been OK.”

        Don't you love her?

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330.