Joe Rhodes is a frequent contributor to TV Times.

You could, if you wanted, make the case that Mimi Rogers' role in "Ladykiller," a USA Network original movie, is yet another in that cable network's series of movies about smart women who put themselves in jeopardy by doing some really stupid things.

Rogers stars as female cop Michael Madison (a forensics expert, actually), who has sex with a guy on the very first night she meets him. In the ladies room of a fancy hotel. Right there on the marble-top sink. And then she continues the affair, even after she's found out that he's married, using a phony name and may well have killed two women (not to mention their cats).

You could make that case. But Mimi Rogers would testify against you. She doesn't think "Ladykiller" demeans women in the least.

"I see it as exactly the opposite," she is saying, nibbling on strawberries from a fruit tray that has been laid out in the USA Network conference room, 25 floors above Century City. "I see it as a woman character doing the types of things that usually only the male leads are doing. I think this is a liberated character.

"It's always the guy who's getting involved with the bad girl and letting his lower parts take over. And the reality is that women do it, too." Not that Rogers is advocating sexual escapades in public restrooms as a form of feminist expression. And it should be noted that her character does, at least, hold out long enough to establish that her mysterious lover is in possession of a condom. It's just that she understands how a woman like Michael, unhappy about her job, her age and the fact that she lives alone could, under certain circumstances, "boil over, reach the point where she says, 'I'm gonna do something wild.'

"You do reach points in your life, especially in your mid-30s, where you just go, 'What the ----," Rogers, 35, says, her attention now shifted from the strawberries to an amethyst pendant that dangles from her neck. She twists and untwists it as she talks.

"Michael knows the affair is wrong and it's stupid, but she does it anyway. We all have those moments where we just want to be bad. Everybody does."

Rogers is talking about how much fun it had been to play a cop, about the thrill of riding along in an El Monte squad car to research her role, about what it was like to roar through traffic with the sirens howling and to have the lieutenant ask her, after an arrest had been made, "Do you want to meet the bad guy?"

She also talks about how the crew was filming in Hancock Park when the riots broke out. The production shut down for three days and Rogers spent the free time in South Central, bagging groceries for victims. "To a certain degree, it was a selfish thing to do," she says. "I could only feel better about it if I tried to do something."

This time a year ago, Rogers was talking about the first of what would become a crescendo of accolades for her breakthrough performance in "The Rapture," Michael Tolkin's controversial and highly regarded independent film about a woman who, after failing to find salvation in a life of sexual extremism, turns to an equally extreme dependence on religion.

The film was viewed as blasphemous by some, pro-Christianity by others. But almost without exception Rogers' performance was hailed as a revelation, showing a dramatic range at which her previous roles (Michael Keaton's girlfriend in "Gung Ho," the rich damsel in distress in "Someone to Watch Over Me") never even hinted.

Filming "The Rapture" was one way for Rogers to focus attention back on her acting and away from her three-year tabloid-fodder marriage to Tom Cruise, which ended in 1990. For a while the publicity about her personal life seemed destined to overshadow her career.

"It certainly doesn't help," she says. "It can be frustrating to have your work kind of passed over as being irrelevant. And that's what happened, to a certain extent."

Rogers, who graduated from high school when she was 14, was in her early 20s when she decided to pursue acting seriously. Her first significant parts were in television, including a recurring role on "Hill Street Blues." That may explain why she chose "Ladykiller" as her first starring role since "The Rapture."

"The hardest thing about doing a movie like 'The Rapture,' " Rogers says, "is reconciling yourself to the material that comes afterwards. 'The Rapture' was such a unique experience. You want to be that challenged, that motivated, that aware of the fact that you're treading in wildly dangerous areas. But the realities are that, most of the time, that's not going to be the case."

"Ladykiller" airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on USA.

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