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UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. - Every woman has her peak years. But during actress Sharon Small’s she was cast as a fat, ugly woman on a now-famous British TV series.


“The director said, ‘OK, Sharon, how do you feel about wearing no makeup, having a terrible haircut and wearing terrible clothes and playing this woman?’” she recalls in a lobby bar at a hotel here.


Mistresses

Series Premiere
Cast: Sarah Parish, Sharon Small, Orla Brady, Shelley Conn, Max Brown, Patrick Baladi, Raza Jaffrey, Adam Rayner, Adam Astill, Alys Thomas, Anna Torv
Regular airtime: Fridays, 9pm ET

(BBC America; US: 20 Feb 2009)

The role was that of dumpy policewoman Barbara Havers in Elizabeth George’s “The Inspector Lynley Mysteries.”


“I’m not saying I was pretty, but it was one of those things that was pitted against me. They said she should be someone who’s really quite awful looking. But the director was quite adamant and he said, ‘You’ve brought the right element to the character,’ which was then echoed by Elizabeth George, thankfully. But for my natural, most glamorous years ever, I was ugly looking.”


At last Small wreaks her revenge. In BBC America’s absorbing “Mistresses” (airing Fridays at 9 p.m. EST) she wears eyeliner, cavorts in a red bustier and enjoys a lusty affair with a mysterious gent.


Strangely enough, the real Sharon Small isn’t anything like either of those characters. She’s timid in interviews and frets, “How am I going to answer these questions? I’m quite shy and you worry that you’re not articulate enough or that you can’t get your point across in the right way, whereas when it’s written for you, the character does that for you.”


In fact, her shyness is part of the reason she’s an actress. “It’s a nice escape from real life,” she nods. “I’m not actually a natural show-off. I’m chatty, but I’m not a natural show-off, so weirdly you’d think acting is about showing off, and it’s not. It’s about escaping into another character. I remember the first time I did it I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is a wonderful way of expressing without putting myself on the line.’”


Small was born in the tiny Scottish resort town of Kinghorn (just north of Edinburgh). Her mother held down three different jobs at various times and her stepfather owned small catering vans.


She secretly longed to be an actress. “We didn’t have any money at all when I was growing up, so it just wasn’t an issue at all. It wasn’t going to happen. I think I just sort of harbored it very quietly to myself and then when I was about 16 and it started coming up, ‘What do you want to do?’ ... I got asked once and I said, ‘I think I want to be an actress.’ And my mom said, ‘WHAT?’ And where I come from I hadn’t grown up in that kind of environment at all, so it was a big surprise.”


The oldest of five, Small’s childhood was troubled. “We didn’t have the most harmonious home life at the time and my mum did a fantastic job, but it can have an effect and it affects how you conduct yourself for the rest of your life,” she says, “and how you conduct yourself in any given situation - where you put your status, where you might have an inferiority complex about certain things. So you spend a lot of your life trying to overcome that, I think.”


Adolescence was very difficult. “It happened very fast for me, I became a woman over the summer holidays and I’d suddenly turned into a very curvy girl. I was still the girl going out on my bike and my skateboard, but I was a woman and being treated very differently. I found that very hard to deal with and lost a lot of confidence there.


“I took a long time to recover from that,” says Small, who’s wearing a Harris-tweed jacket and a white-and-brown printed blouse.


She struck out for London when she was 19, determined to study drama. She worked in bars to earn her keep. “I left home on a night bus and school didn’t start for two weeks but I had 10 pounds (about $5) in my pocket and went overnight on the bus and took all my stuff with me. My mom waved me off, but I had no idea what the future held then. I have two sons now I just wouldn’t let them do that,” she laughs.


In fact, she sobbed when she had to say goodbye to her 2 ½-year-old and 7-month old boys to come to L.A. She left them in the care of their father (to whom she’s not married), who quit his job in the exhibition trade to become a stay-at-home-dad.


“He really stretched, being this dad, in a completely different way,” she says. “My way of conducting my (child) care was probably much more about learning constantly, just nurturing in a different kind of way. Whereas he will get down and dirty and rough and tumble with them and make stupid noises, and they laugh. So I saw the benefits of what was so good about him being with them.”


___


“The Reaper,” CW’s revenge on “Touched by an Angel,” returns to TV on March 3. The wicked little show stars Bret Harrison as the Devil’s reluctant servant who learns that he might be the son of Old Lucifer himself. When Harrison was first starting out in Hollywood he met another would-be actor, Adam Brody (“The O.C.”), and the two of them shared an apartment.


“He became my best friend and we lived on Yucca in the ghetto of Hollywood,” recalls Harrison. “And finally we were able to buy a condo, split it down the middle. Now he has a house and I have a house and it’s been 8 ½ years I’ve been in L.A. doing the thing. And I couldn’t be more fortunate. I thank God every day.”


___


PBS’ “American Masters” looks at how the Chinese were welcomed to Hollywood in “Hollywood Chinese,” airing on Friday. James Hong, who started as a standup comedian, is one Asian actor who’s appeared in nearly 500 movies. At 80 Hong is still dissatisfied with the roles he’s been given.


“My favorite role, it’s always great to have been in movies like ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Big Trouble in Little China.’ And ‘Chinatown’ was a great movie, but, again, I’m just a butler, pushing Jack Nicholson aside and teaching him a little Chinese. In a sense, here I sit now ... I’m still waiting for a few good meaty parts to bite into. However, if I keep eating my herbs, I might make it.”


___


Australian Simon Baker first made a rumble when he starred on “The Guardian,” now he’s the impish investigative consultant on CBS’ “The Mentalist,” and this part is much more fun, he says.


“That character was a very repressed, depressed character, and it started off ... actually less of a procedural show and became more of a procedural show. And we were trying to do more of a serialized story on ‘The Guardian.’  This show has a very different type of character, a guy that actually has zest and a lust for life but a total disregard for (rules) ... He’s full of self-loathing, but he’s fearless and has a good sense of humor ... When I first came on and we were doing the pilot, the main focus for me was to do a show that was going to be entertaining, first and foremost.  When I was doing ‘The Guardian,’ I wanted to act and move people and move the world and do those things.  I was young.”


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18 Feb 2009
Mistresses represents the 21st century version of the BBC’s “provocative” quality programming.
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