In early 1995, Hedy Burress was a typical college student just four months shy of graduation. What a difference a year can make.
Burress literally came out of nowhere to land a starring role in the feature film "Foxfire," which opened Friday, and on the hit NBC sitcom "Boston Common."
"My story is the story that every L.A. actor does not want to hear," says the 22-year-old Burress. "A lot of them have the attitude that I never really suffered enough, which is an attitude that I have many bones to pick with."
Still, struggling L.A. thespians will no doubt cringe when they learn how extremely painless her journey has been. Burress has never spent endless months on unemployment. She never pounded the pavement. She never worked as a waitress or as an extra, waiting for her big break. In fact, she really wasn't looking for her big break.
Burress was content attending Milliken University, a small liberal arts college in Decatur, Ill.
"I was a stage actress," explains the petite Burress, who is extremely chatty and outgoing this morning in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel. "I was studying directing and acting. I had a band. That was my true passion. I was into rock climbing. I was doing a lot of things. In fact, I was backing away from theater more and more."
Then her life changed when she received a call from a Chicago-based casting director who had used Burress in a CD-ROM game the year before. The casting director asked if she'd audition for the role of the artistic, well-adjusted teenager Maddy in "Foxfire."
"I said, 'What the heck?' " Burress recalls.
The ensemble drama is based on Joyce Carol Oates' novel about four young women who are drawn together when they meet an enigmatic drifter (Angelina Jolie).
"We had done the usual casting calls in L.A. and New York looking for Maddy," says "Foxfire" director Annette Haywood-Carter. "I was looking for a quality that was really fresh. Everybody [I saw] was wrong. I was looking for someone who everyone could relate to, particularly kids outside of the big cities."
Shortly after opening the casting call to other major cities, Haywood-Carter got the audition tape from Chicago. "There were about 100 girls on it, and I got to Hedy and said, 'That's her! That's Maddy!' "
A week after her audition, Burress was on a plane to Los Angeles for a screen test.
"It was such a trip," she says, picking at her fruit platter. "It was this total roller coaster. Literally two days after I got home, they called me to tell me I had the role and could I be there in a week."
Because she had no prior film experience, Burress says she is embarrassed about some aspects of her "Foxfire" performance. "It's so obvious that this was my first thing. I was a stage actress. I was still acting to the back row."
Haywood-Carter says she worked with Burress to pare down her performance. In the early sequences, says the director, "her performance was a stage performance. We shot the school scenes first. But by the third week, she had really gotten rid of most of it. She is good and she's versatile. She's also just a wonderful person to be around. You are always looking for those kind of actors you actually enjoy going to work with."
After completing "Foxfire," the members of Burress' folk-rock band thought she would return home. But Burress had other ideas. Much to the chagrin of her band, she opted to try her luck in Hollywood.
"I was like, 'Guys, it's being handed to me on a silver platter. How would I not do this?' "
Within three months, she got a supporting role in an Ann-Margret miniseries for NBC, "Seduced by Madness." And shortly thereafter, she was cast in the pilot of "Boston Common" as Wyleen, the effervescent Boston College freshman who shares her room with her handyman brother (Anthony Clark).
While waiting to hear about the fate of "Boston Common," Burress got the opportunity to work with her idol, Sissy Spacek, in an abortion drama, "If These Walls Could Talk," which is to air on HBO in October.
Burress is stunned at her good fortune. "I wake up every morning and say, 'What happened to you?' "
Still, Hollywood was a bit overwhelming for the small-town Illinois native.
"I had some trouble when I first moved here," she says. "You know, depression. I didn't have any friends here. I didn't have my family here. My college was just two hours away from my hometown. I had never really lived outside my comfort zone, so to come here, it's definitely been quite a ride."
What's kept her sane, she says, is her strong family base.
"We all know about the evils of Hollywood," Burress says with a smile. "My father, stepfather and mother have kept me so grounded but not dominating over any aspect of my creative outlets. They were always, like, 'You want to be a performer? Great. You go and do it with both hands.' I think that's one thing not enough young girls get told."
That's why she responded so strongly to "Foxfire."
"These girls were sort of taking their life with both hands and saying, 'You know what? I am going to start questioning life, I am going to question authority and I am going to question sexuality.' It's really being more aware of your choices."
Although "Foxfire" is vastly different than "Boston Common," Burress describes working on the comedy series as "getting paid to be in the eighth grade."
Wyleen, Burress adds, is "definitely wonderful and funny and speaks her mind. They have written her so well. It's nice to see women characters on TV that women of today can relate to. It's no more wearing-pearls-while-doing-the-vacuuming characters."
As for her future, Burress doesn't see herself staying in L.A.
"I think you need to ask yourself, 'Is [L.A.] really something I can't do without because I can't live without acting? Or do I just want to try this glam lifestyle?' This is a dirty place, and this is a dirty business sometimes. It's hard on you and there's a lot of rejection. I think if all of this would unhappen tomorrow, which is totally plausible, I don't think I could live without acting, but I don't think I would stay in L.A. to do it. I could go anywhere as long as I was able to perform."
* "Boston Common" airs Sundays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC (Channel 4).