Sunday, February 2, 2003

'Alias' role helps actor make a name

Next wave: Who's up and coming

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LOS ANGELES - Sitting cross-legged in a Mel's Diner booth, Constance Elizabeth Brenneman talks about her alias.

And her Alias.

Friends and classmates who know her as "Lizi Brenneman" from Oak Hills High School will see her credit as "Constance Brenneman" on tonight's Alias (9 p.m., Channels 9, 2).

Constance Brenneman on her famous co-stars:
Jennifer Garner, Alias: "She remains positive and focused at all times, regardless of her extremely hectic work schedule. The entire crew working on Alias loved Jennifer because she was attentive and respectful to everybody. She has worked hard to get to where she is, and she seems completely untainted by her successes."
Jonathan Winters, Swing: "He's a comic mastermind (but who didn't know that)? He never did the (scripted) lines - but his lines so were much better. He kept us on his toes."
Camryn Manheim, The Practice: "She does her job extremely well, and then acts like a well-rounded, normal person. She is grounded and seems like a wonderful mother to her adorable little boy, Milo."
Michael Vartan, Alias: "He's very funny and handsome ... and handsome."
Jacqueline Bisset, Swing: "She is radiant, graceful and classy. She seems like royalty with a purpose."
Tom Skerritt, Swing: He was wise and kind. We were dancing to an uptempo swing song two minutes after we met. It was a ball!"
Victor Garber, Alias: "He is charming and talented. He makes acting look like a walk in the park; effortless."
"It's a more memorable name - Constance - particularly when you're starting out," says Brenneman, 22, who moved here in July after graduating from Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University.

"I like my name. In college, about half of my friends and my teachers called me Constance."

So far, the name has worked well for her. In six months on the West Coast, she has landed two roles on popular ABC dramas - she appeared on The Practice Dec. 8 - and had a part in an independent feature film, Swing.

Her biggest break is playing CIA recruit Christine Phillips on ABC's Alias. Producers told her it could be a recurring role.

"Christine has just graduated from college, and goes to the CIA to observe, and she's just awestruck by Sydney's character," Brenneman says about central character Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner).

ABC's super secrecy about the spy thriller won't let her say much more. She won't reveal how guest star Ethan Hawke, who plays CIA Agent Lennox, fits into the picture.

All she says is: "Christine ends up helping out (the agents) in the end."

Having an Alias gives Brenneman confidence that she can make it in Hollywood.

"I'm making a living at this, and I never thought it would happen this quickly," she says.

But she's realistic. She knows she has a l-o-n-g way to go. It's not like folks are interrupting her breakfast during our conversation in this '50s-style diner a block away from Grauman's Theater and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Nobody knows - or cares - who she is this morning, and she's fine with that. She knows she could be serving omelets here, instead of eating one.

"I'm very happy because I can pay my bills and live - for now," says Brenneman, who lives in a two-bedroom Hollywood apartment.

Almost landed a series

Since arriving in July, she has gone out on auditions a couple of times a week. The 1998 Oak Hills grad almost had a role in a 13-week Pax TV series, Young Blades, but the network pulled the plug before a pilot was shot. She turned down a screen test for ABC's All My Children because producers insisted she first sign a five-year contract.

"I didn't want to do a soap for five years," she says. "I thought: `If I wanted to make this a career, I might as well go for it.' "

In October, she filmed her TV debut as Tammy, an 18-year-old busted for marijuana possession on The Practice.

Then she spent November in San Francisco filming Swing, a feature film directed by Martin Guigui. She plays Tina, a clothing store owner who flirts with a young musician (Innis Casey from 24) while swing dancing. Jonathan Winters, Jacqueline Bisset, Tom Skerritt, Mindy Cohn and Nell Carter (who died Jan. 23) also appear in the movie, which has no release date.

"I've learned so much out here in the past couple of months," says Brenneman, a 5-foot-7 blonde who looks like the younger sister of actress Charlotte Ross (Detective Connie McDowell on NYPD Blue). "I think I'm learning as much - if not more - as I did in college. And I'm getting paid for it. That's the beauty of it."

Mom's not surprised

Her mom, Oak Hills Schools Superintendent Patricia Brenneman, says her daughter has been an entertainer all her life. She's not surprised that Constance is pursuing her dreams in Hollywood.

"When we look at old videos of Lizi, she's always singing, or dancing, or performing," says the school executive, who named her daughter Constance after her mother.

As a sixth-grader in her hometown of Gallipolis, Ohio, Constance won the John Kennedy Memorial National History Day acting award for her performance as 19th-century labor organizer Mary Harris "Mother" Jones.

Her family moved here in 1994, for her freshman year, when her mother was hired to run the western Hamilton County school district. At Oak Hills, she played the leads in Alice in Wonderland and David and Lisa, and served as student council president.

"I've always known, deep down, that Lizi would be in the arts, and very successful in the arts," her mom says.

Her daughter is trying her best to make it happen. When she isn't auditioning, she's writing screenplays or creating concepts for TV dramas or situation comedies.

"When I came out here, and got a couple of things, I knew I could make something of this, even if the (acting) well runs dry," says Brenneman, as she finishes off a glass of orange juice.

"People believe in me, so I think I can make it."


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