Tori Enters, Stage Left

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tori Spelling is making her professional stage debut.

Quit waiting for the punch line. The actress best known for spending a decade in high school on "Beverly Hills 90210," produced by her dad, Aaron Spelling, is starring in "Maybe Baby, It's You" at the Coronet Theatre.

"Maybe Baby, It's You," about the agony and the ecstasy of searching for a soul mate, was written by Charlie Shanian and Shari Simpson, for themselves. The two-character show, comprising 11 skits, opened in New York in 1999 and at the Coronet in November, starring Shanian and Simpson. But Simpson, recently married, decided to move back to New York to be with her husband.

Enter Victoria Davey Spelling.

This television actress, Hollywood royalty by birth, has the audacity to attempt theat-ah, albeit in a show that makes no pretense of being Shakespeare. And while this would seem to demand an apology of some kind to the Serious Acting Community, here is Spelling, friendly as a new puppy, breathlessly relating how much fun it is to do this show, to get to play all those characters, to dance and sing and run up and down the aisles.

"I was like, wow, how could any actor pass this up?" Spelling bubbles. "There were a few other actresses that came to see it before it was offered, who said, wow, it's wonderful, but it's just too intimidating to get up there and do all those characters. I thought, God, that's what you strive for as an actor, to be challenged. Who cares if you fail? Take that on; do yourself a favor. See what you can do with it."

Spelling can't understand why anyone should want to stop her from having such a good time. If Daddy got her her first gig, so what? "I say thank you; it's a blessing," she says happily. "I'm so lucky--I mean I am, to have him as a father, everything he's done for my career. People should be happy for me. They should say: 'You're lucky.'"

And she seems genuinely surprised that they don't, always. "They want to hear bad before they want to hear good. I don't know what it is, but it's something," she says, wide-eyed. Then she laughs. "Well

Dressed in blue jeans and gray sweater, Spelling appears impossibly slender, as if there's no one inside her clothes. Sitting in a chair in the empty theater, she's thin enough to be able to cross her legs, at the knee, then cross them again, at the ankle. Arms get the same twisty, nervous treatment. At times during the conversation, she appears to have braided herself.

The interview begins with a sad little story.

In the first grade, Tori Spelling was cast as Becky Thatcher in a school production of "Tom Sawyer." In the second grade, she again won a lead role: Gretel, in "Hansel and Gretel." But the fact that Tori got the lead again caused such an uproar among the parents that the school canceled the show.

"I thought I was so good, to have gotten the lead two years in a row, but all the mothers complained so much that they canceled the play, and there were no more plays for the rest of my elementary school," recalls Spelling, 28. (She's quick to tell her age, but that's because some people think the "90210" cast must be 40 by now.) "I don't remember knowing what it was about, then. At the time, I remember just thinking they were probably just jealous because I was so good." She laughs. "But--yeah. It was probably ... that."

During a conversation with Spelling at the Coronet, there's a lot of talk about that--or it, depending on the sentence: the monster known best by its ZIP Code. But the fact that she's perfectly aware of it renders this monster almost harmless. She laughs in its face, just as she laughs at losing the breakout role of Gretel, Witch Hunter. "It's something that's never going to go away, basically," she observes. "So I've learned to accept it."

Spelling has appeared in movies: "The House of Yes," "Scary Movie 2" and 1999's "trick", in which she portrayed a talentless actress. That film was a surprise hit at Sundance. And, even though Spelling received mixed reviews ("Surprisingly good"--Toronto Star; "alternately effective and excessive"--Los Angeles Times), there was a lot of press speculation that a major role in a classy independent film could launch Spelling to a new level in her career.

But even with her recent film credits, she acknowledges the first thing anyone sees at an audition is Tori Spelling, 90210. "I have to really impress them to get them to like me; it has to really be something out of the ordinary," she says, still smiling.

"Because if it's me, they're going to say it's just another Hollywood daughter. It's tough out there. You don't want to be cynical, but I've been dealing with it for 28 years now, and it's pretty much the truth.

"But it's just given me a stronger backbone, and I just say, 'I'm doing it, I'm not going to let bad reviews stop me from doing what I want to do.'"

Spelling isn't expecting bad reviews for "Maybe Baby, It's You." "The feeling I've had so far is so amazing, I have the feeling that for the first time in my life, I am using my craft to the best of my ability. I know I'm good at the role. I've worked very hard, and I'm confident about my work in this." "Doing this, I feel beautiful and wonderful every day."

Early reviews--well, at least from her co-star Shanian--have been good. "I have to say this: She has impressed me with her talent, she is a natural, she just has taken to the stage," he says. "Luckily, with both women [Simpson and Spelling], there was that natural spark called chemistry that occurred between us." She's also fearless, Shanian adds. "I sometimes get nervous when I have to dance, but she's like: "That's what I love, that's what I look forward to.' She loves to be thrown around and tossed in the air."

Although she likes to get crazy onstage, offstage, Spelling describes herself as shy. She acknowledges that may arise from spending her adolescence in a fishbowl. "I did '90210' for 10 years, a long 10 years," she muses. "It was weird, going from teenager to woman, with all of it being viewed under a microscope by everybody.

"It was difficult, but I have very good morals; my parents raised my brother [actor Randy Spelling] and me right. I never fell into the trap of young Hollywood. You read about these young kids from rich families who got mixed up with drugs, and I just don't understand it. I came from a wealthy family; I was as exposed to that as anyone, so it's not like, 'poor them'--please. You have a decision to make."

Spelling, a graduate of Westlake School for Girls in Holmby Hills (now merged with Harvard School as Harvard-Westlake), adds that nothing was weirder than dating under a microscope. "Forget about it!" says Spelling, who lives in Westwood with her pug dog. "You'd think, here comes a guy who thinks I'm cute, and then he'd be like: 'Aren't you on that show? He wants to talk to me because I'm an actor, not because he thinks I'm a cute girl, or interesting and smart. That was always a huge issue for me.

"But I think as you get older, you can immediately decipher between those and the genuine ones," she says. "People ask why actors always date actors. Well, it's because they having something in common, and they don't get judged for doing their job."

Great. Talent morals, and a stable home life with the Spelling Bunch. But there must be something that pushes her buttons. How about endless rumors about her extensive plastic surgery?

"That's something I actually don't wish to talk about," she says politely--then gamely proceeds to talk about it. "I am not the seventh Jackson!" she exclaims. "I remember when I was 20, and there was something in the Globe, crazy stuff like, she's had chin implants, cheek implants, ribs removed--God, head to toe. And a quote from someone saying: 'I went to high school with her, and she didn't look anything like this.' And they had a picture of me when I was in the ninth grade.

"I thought: 'OK, listen, honey. I didn't know how to pluck eyebrows at that point, I had baby fat on my face, I didn't realize at that point that you could use bleach in your hair or that the '80s perm was out. Ever since then, I read things like the Queen of Plastic Surgery.

"I don't look at myself and say: 'Oh, I'm the prettiest girl.' I think I'm a fairly normal-looking girl," she adds--laughing, as usual. "I don't know why anyone would go out of their way to say I've had all this plastic surgery done, because if I had, I'd probably look a lot better than I do.

"I'm always like: 'How can people misconstrue me?' I'm very willing to talk about anything, whatever, I'm not guarded; my life's pretty much an open book. Even though people are always all up into your business, I haven't been one of those people who won't talk. I'm still the sucker. I like talking. I like people."

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