Profile : Spunky Sara Gets Serious


Sara Gilbert is nobody’s lost child. The heady young actress who plays loudmouth Darlene on ABC’s “Roseanne” wanted to set the record straight about a recent TV Guide story on teen superstars that read: “Sara bends down, her hair falling over her face; she clutches her hands around her knees and sways like a lost child.”

“That was a lost reporter,” Gilbert, 15, shot back.

Gilbert’s trademark smirk prowled across her mischievous face at the image of herself as a downtrodden child star. It was precisely because she can hold her own with heavyweight Roseanne Barr that Gilbert was cast opposite Louis Gossett Jr. in the new Lifetime cable movie “Sudie and Simpson” (Tuesday 9-11 p.m.), which deals openly with racism and child molestation.

“What I realized in watching her (on ‘Roseanne’) was that she is very, very smart,” director Joan Tewkesbury said. “And I needed a smart girl to play this role, so it wouldn’t do any damage to the actress playing it, if you understand.”


“Sudie and Simpson,” the second in a series of upcoming Lifetime original movies, is about the friendship between a 12-year-old white girl and a black man in 1943 rural Georgia, where signs are posted to keep “niggers” out of town. In town, meanwhile, a teacher secretly coerces young girls-including Gilbert-to fondle him. When word leaks out that a black man is hiding out in the woods, a lynch mob blames Gossett for the molestations.

For Gilbert, it was a bit awkward playing out the molestation scenes from a script that digs uncomfortably deep into sensitive issues. “Well, those scenes weren’t fun,” she said. “I mean, it was a hard thing to do, to put myself into the position of being molested.”

Gilbert’s mother, Barbara, was caught off guard by Sara’s honest performance in “Sudie and Simpson”Qand Barbara Gilbert, a talent agent, knows show business like no business at all. Her father, Harry Crane, created “The Honeymooners” and her eldest daughter, Melissa, starred as Laura in “Little House on the Prairie” for nine years. Her son, Jonathan, also appeared in “Little House.”

“Sara and Melissa are very different,” Gilbert said carefully of her two daughters. “But after watching Sara work in this movie, it’s like”--she paused--”they’re not so different. The quality in Sara’s performance is every bit as good, and maybe I would not have thought so, you know, or I wasn’t sure. I’m very sure of her on ‘Roseanne,’ because that just comes so easily for her. But she surprised me.”

“It’s hard to do something that’s really dramatic,” Sara said, sitting next to her mother in her trailer on a recent lunch break from the “Roseanne” set. “It’s hard for me to do anything that’s kind of like”--she wrinkled her face and said sarcastically--”tear-jerking.”

Freedom of expression is a right that Gilbert practices liberally-and is uncommonly thankful for. She is a devout student of the 1960s and wraps the culture and its artifacts around her like a raggedy security blanket. When asked what aspect of that turbulent decade attracts her so, the young actress said simply: “People’s ability to express themselves.


“I mean, I would do anything to have been alive in that time. Our freedoms now are a result of the movements then. So I just try and, like, recapture the whole essence of it through the music and art and stuff.”

Gilbert’s serious, even philosophical, nature finds occasional release on “Roseanne.” It was her recitation of a poem about personal pain in one episode that first grabbed Tewkesbury’s attention.

“I was looking over the (‘Sudie and Simpson’) script one night and had the TV on in the background,” said Tewkesbury, who has written films (“Nashville”) and directed TV movies (NBC’s “The Tenth Month” starring Carol Burnett). The script called for a 10-year-old girl, but Tewkesbury felt she needed someone older to stand up to all 6 feet-4 inches of Gossett.

“I looked up and saw Sara on television and thought, ‘That’s a really interesting-looking girl.’ I hadn’t watched ‘Roseanne’ a great deal. So I turned the sound on, stopped what I was doing and watched her. I called my casting director and said, ‘I think we found our girl.”’

Tewkesbury was delighted to see Sara walk into her interview wearing a pale, pink old-fashioned dress, bobby socks and shiny black Oxford pumps. “They were the greatest clothes,” Tewkesbury recalled. Gilbert was awarded the part on the spot.

“When I was in Georgia, we went to cast for the girl that played my best friend,” said Gilbert, who spent some time with a dialect coach to help with her Southern accent. “And that was the first time they heard me read. I was probably more nervous than the people who were being interviewed.”


At least one fan was convinced by Gilbert’s performance. During the early days of shooting in Georgia, Sara Flanigan, the woman who wrote the book that the movie is based on, was invited to the set.

“She had never even visited a movie set or anything like that before,” Barbara Gilbert said. “So the whole thing was sort of wondrous to her. And it was her book, and her words. And she saw Sara and watched Sara for a few minutes and she just started to cry. And, of course, I started to cry, because I was standing next to her.”

For her part, Sara is thankful to work on a project that may have an effect on her peers. “I think if you put yourself in a position where millions of people are going to be watching you, you have to take on some sort of responsibility. Basically, every human being in the world has a responsibility to be a role model to somebody, and do something that can be admired.”

“Sudie and Simpson” repeats Friday at 9 p.m., Saturday at 6 p.m. and Sept. 17 at 9 p.m.