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So, Will This Role Do the ‘trick’? : Tori Spelling’s admirers think her comic turn in a new film may stifle some of the wisecracks.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When a reporter has to pitch a story on Tori Spelling with the explanation “This isn’t a joke,” you know she has image problems. She herself knows. Her family knows. Her publicist knows. And that’s what’s so frustrating to them.

“It’s so unfair,” says actor Randy Spelling of “Sunset Beach,” who was spared the brunt of the nepotism invectives hurtled at his sister, cast a decade ago in father Aaron Spelling’s “Beverly Hills, 90210.” “She’s really talented.”

“People think she’s a joke,” Parker Posey says by phone, calling between shots from the set of her current film, “Scream 3,” to offer moral support in defense--and praise--of her former co-star. The two worked together on “The House of Yes,” the black comedy that first put Spelling on the radar screen of film critics and indie movie buffs two years ago.

But the big building block in redeeming Spelling’s pampered quasi-talented, silver-spoon image comes today, with the opening of “trick,” a gay love story set in Manhattan. (The film closed Outfest, L.A.'s gay and lesbian film festival.) Her star turn as Katherine, the neurotic, hyperkinetic, self-delusional but lovable Broadway baby, wowed Sundance audiences in February. “They went crazy at Sundance when her name came up,” says “trick” screenwriter Jason Schafer. “There was this insane applause.”

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It’s the kind of no-holds-barred comedy turn that moves Spelling into Joan Cusack country. The capper is a late-night diner scene in which she does a nonstop monologue, to the agog, stunned faces of her fellow eaters, of a scatological artist she’s just seen.

“She’s talking about a party she’s gone to, about the poet that read 17 poems about [expletive], and she’s rattling it off at machine-gun rate,” says “trick” director Jim Fall. It was the monologue scene that got Spelling the part at the audition. That speech, says Fall, had stumped actresses’ readings during the three years that the film was being pitched for financing, and then casting.

“That monologue is make or break. And the Katherines we heard were deadly,” says the first-time director, who, along with the writer, considered rewriting the part. But then “Tori started rattling it at the audition, and we were laughing right off the top,” Fall says. “She just got it from the get-go.”

Posey notes that for “The House of Yes,” an undoubtedly daunting film role, “we had to work very fast, always two or three takes, and Tori just nailed it. She never messed up her lines. She was always focused. She’s a pro.”

The controversial “House of Yes"--in which a brother and sister have an incestuous relationship and get their kicks acting out the assassination of President Kennedy--was also the flag that Spelling had artistic aspirations, could make unexpected choices in material and was unafraid of risk.

In person, the 26-year-old Spelling is quirky, funny, endearing, shy--and toughened by a decade of slurs. “I go out one night to bars with my friends for drinks, and all of a sudden it’s in the tabloids: ‘Tori Spelling’s Wild Night Out!’ ” she complains. There are scars from the endless assaults--about the plastic surgery, the boyfriends, the lack of talent. “A writer asked me, ‘How many people have you slept with?’ It’s, like, I know they don’t ask other people that.”

She fiddles with her food at Sweet Lady Jane, a cake and sandwich cafe she likes on Melrose. And if you didn’t know that her father lives in a castle in Beverly Hills and that she has been on prime-time television for a decade, the shy, unassuming demeanor would camouflage the star. (Posey says she was freaked out when the two were walking along a nearby strip of Melrose, and fans began obsessively shouting, “Tori, Tori,” from across the street. “I asked her, ‘How do you deal with that?’ She goes, ‘I just ignore it, and not let it spoil my time.’ She’s very smart about that, very real.”)

When Spelling offers to pour more coffee for the reporter, it’s easy to picture the doting daughter and loving sister that her family describes. “She has a huge, huge heart,” Randy says. “She always takes in stray dogs and cats, and ends up keeping them.”

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“I am a daddy’s girl,” she freely admits. “I’m totally a daddy’s girl.” And as incensed--if not more so--at the invectives directed at her father than those she has endured.

“I don’t understand why people say about his shows, ‘Well, they’re all about [T&A;].’ I think he does wonderful things. What do they care what’s on the shows? People are enjoying it. It’s bringing happiness into their homes for an hour. He’s also done wonderful things like ‘The Band Played On.’ They ignore that. He always gets a bum rap.”

If Spelling has some of her father’s steel in her spine, it’s no doubt the result of all the hits she’s taken since she was a kid. “I was 16 when I started, and it was hard. I was a kid. I didn’t know what was going on. All of a sudden I’m in a series, and people are just left and right trashing me, saying, ‘She can’t act. She got the part because of her dad.’ And they hadn’t even seen my work yet. One or two episodes had aired. I had, like, two lines. How do they know?” she challenges.

She says she built up tolerance. “I just turned it around to, ‘Well, I’m going to show them. I’m going to work hard and get to the point where they are not even going to make the connection.’ And I think that’s what happened.”

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Detractors don’t know that the pampered princess has actually been on the work grind since preschool. “I’ve worked really, really hard. I started acting when I was 5. When I was 10 years old, every day after school I would come home and study lines or go on auditions.

“But you get that one part from your dad and that’s it, you know: ‘You obviously can’t act.’ ”

Spelling does more than act in “trick,” she also does a song and dance routine--a tricky bit for the non-singing, non-dancing actress. “When [Jim] asked me if I could sing, I took a breath, and said, ‘Yeah,’ ” she reports. She says the “Yeah” with a sing-song that is as much “Maybe” as it is “Yes.”

“She was brave to take this on,” says “trick” casting director Susan Shopmaker, who had opposed Spelling’s casting because the part called for an overweight actress who could sing and dance. “She said she could sing and she couldn’t. But she wanted it badly enough to lie about it.”

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Notes Fall: “Katherine’s supposed to think she’s really good, despite this lack of talent. Tori’s natural vulnerability makes you like Katherine despite how self-involved she is.”

And Schafer adds: “She makes Katherine endearing and funny while maintaining her abrasive edge and pushiness. It’s a difficult combination.”

Spelling shrugs off the fact that “trick” is a gay-themed comedy whose leads (Christian Campbell and J.P. Pitoc) spend the bulk of screen time looking for a place to make out after meeting at a bar. She says she didn’t even think about gender.

“It didn’t even strike me as a ‘gay movie,’ ” she says. “It was just gushy-mushy, people falling in love with each other in the course of the night. It’s a universal love story, not just, you know, male-male, female-female.”

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Fall is pleased that he has played a part in turning Tori-bashers into fans: “I love it when people walk out and say, ‘I was not a Tori Spelling fan. I hated her, but she’s hilarious. It turned me around.’ ”

The early reviews have been enthusiastic. Says Spelling: “My father, is, like, cutting out all the reviews from ‘trick’ so far.”

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“All of a sudden I’m in a series, and people are just left and right trashing me, saying, ‘She can’t act. She got the part because of her dad.’ ”

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