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It’s safe to smile again

Times Staff Writer

‘That girl from ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ ” has a name -- and soon many people will know it. The name is Elizabeth Reaser, and a year after her Emmy nomination for a guest role as a mentally unstable, disfigured Seattle Grace patient, she’s starring in “The Ex List” for CBS.

The 33-year-old actress couldn’t have foreseen these events. A seven-episode stint on the highly popular “Grey’s” -- during which she managed to develop a playful chemistry with Justin Chambers’ Alex despite her character being, at first, a horribly maimed amnesiac -- evolved into a 17-episode run as Alex’s on-again/off-again, and finally insane, girlfriend. That led to Reaser being cast as the lead in “The Ex List,” a comedic drama about a woman’s search for love. It sounds easy, but it comes after many years of toiling on screens big and small, and waiting for the proverbial Hollywood break.

The chance came by way of Israel, where “The Mythological Ex,” the original version of the series, was born. Reaser plays Bella Bloom, a San Diego flower shop owner who is told by a psychic that if she doesn’t marry within a year, she never will. The catch, the psychic says, is that Bella has already met her husband, so she sets out on a journey to rediscover herself and the men in her past.

As taxing as that sounds for Bella (being single is hard enough!), the series also presents a creative and promotional challenge to the mostly macho CBS, which is in need of a hit and offers romance and lightness only on its sitcoms. “The Ex List” will air on Fridays after “Ghost Whisperer,” the only other CBS drama led by a woman, Jennifer Love Hewitt. It also tests Reaser because -- get this -- according to her, pretending to have a nervous breakdown and a bout with amnesia and reconstructive surgery on “Grey’s” was easier than wearing a bikini and hanging out in a kiddie pool.

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“I did a film called ‘Puccini for Beginners,’ which was a romantic comedy, and I always wanted to do more, but I kept doing drama,” Reaser said during an interview in July. “It’s an easy thing for me tap into. This is more challenging: to work at a different speed, quicker and lighter. It seems easy and fun, but it’s more subtle and it’s actually harder.”

Behind the scenes, and nowhere near San Diego, where the show is filmed, there have been plenty of artistic trials. Creator and show runner Diane Ruggiero unexpectedly resigned Sept. 12 over what CBS President of Entertainment Nina Tassler described in a phone interview as a “simple disagreement about the future direction of the show, particularly as it pertains to Bella.”

Ruggiero’s adaptation diverged from the original, with CBS’ approval, by adding a career and sister for Bella and by making the psychic a recurring character. Of the seven episodes produced, only two, so far, contain stories from the Israeli series, which CBS also supported, according to Tassler. The problems between executives and Ruggiero were centered more on the tone of the series and how Bella was responding to her predicament/adventure.

“In the Israeli series, the character had a sense of adventure and wonderment and optimism,” Tassler said. “And maybe it’s because, in part, it represents Israeli life, which is a very ‘live for today’ outlook on things. This is a character that was always reflecting on her own personal journey in addition to how she approached life and relationships and her friends. We just wanted to make sure that in the scenes and in the stories we were faithful to that.”

Since resigning, Ruggiero has not returned several phone calls from The Times, but in a Sept. 14 interview with The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, where she is from, Ruggiero described her frustration: “They would keep talking to me about how they wanted the Israeli version . . . and I felt very strongly that she has to have a regular life, and this weird quest almost has to feel like a burden at times. She has to feel put-upon. Otherwise, she bugs me. Every kind of spin they tried to put on it like that, they just wanted to be happy and optimistic.”

Tassler said the network will air all of the episodes produced with Ruggiero at the helm without having to reshoot them. “All the notes we gave eventually got into the episodes, all those notes were incorporated in those cuts,” Tassler said. “It was not an easy journey to get there, but those elements are in the episodes that we have.”

Respect and happiness

Insulated ON the San Diego set, where she works long hours, Reaser said she had no idea that there had been problems over the direction of the show and was surprised when she learned Ruggiero had quit.

“Because this meant something to her,” Reaser said. “And it was something that we started together, along with other people, but I felt we both connected to the character and to these stories and to each other. But I also completely respect her decision. That’s a very personal and intense decision to have to make. If you’re not happy, then you shouldn’t be locked into something that’s not making you happy.”

Playing Bella definitely makes Reaser happy, and lately, she says, as she’s settled into the gig, she’s become even more excited about playing a woman who isn’t afraid to actively search for the One. The character, she added, has not been compromised as the series has developed.

“I haven’t seen any departure from what I think is essential to the character and to the way we tell these stories,” Reaser said. “I think if that were to happen, I’d be very aware because I’m married to this character, line by line. But I’m also not privy to every single draft and every single incarnation of what’s been happening.”

During an interview in August, Ruggiero called Reaser “a girl’s girl,” and it’s easy to see why. Over lunch at Circa 55 at the Beverly Hilton in July, Reaser ordered only a beefsteak tomato salad (for those bikini scenes, she said), admitted to avoiding message boards because “Grey’s” fans once called her ugly (seriously?), and confessed she was not yet “spiritually strong enough” to watch the pilot of her first series. Reaser also drove herself to the hotel and self-parked, avoiding the TV cameras and photographers assembled for the semi-annual TV critics press tour.

“They don’t care about me,” she noted. “They’re here for the stars.”

Au contraire. Why do you think “Grey’s” creator Shonda Rhimes expanded the touching story line between Ava (Reaser) and Alex (Justin Chambers)? It was the same reason Ruggiero wanted Reaser.

“Bella needed to be accessible, and I felt she should have an element of wish fulfillment about her in that she’s beautiful and interesting but also grounded, so that you felt you could hang out with her and talk to her,” Ruggiero said. “And Elizabeth is just so real. You can have a real conversation with her. She has that quality of girl that other girls like.”

Reaser feels the same way about Bella. “Maybe I don’t see enough television, but it seems there aren’t many shows that are romantic comedies that are an hour long where you’re not solving a crime or being a doctor,” she said. “So it’s interesting for me to play someone my age who’s a pretty cool chick. She isn’t desperate, but she’s unapologetically looking to connect and fall in love, which I think is interesting because, for me, as a woman, there’s this unspoken thing out there, that if you’re a strong woman, you don’t need a man. And I think that’s kind of nonsense. Maybe you want to have a man.”

After hearing the psychic’s prediction, Bella begins to analyze every past liaison and failed relationship with her close friends (Adam Rothenberg, Alex Breckenridge and Amir Talai) and tries to reconnect with her old flames. In the pilot, Eric Balfour plays a needy ex-boyfriend whose heart Bella broke. By the second episode, Bella has moved on to a slacker with something to prove, played by Eric Winter. Reaser said she recognizes a bit of herself in Bella.

“I definitely relate to her search for love and her search for connection and openness,” Reaser said. “Her spirit of really being open and kind of ridiculous. I definitely feel in my own life a lot of buffoonery in the love-life department. She’s less serious about it than I am, so she’s having more fun. She’s got a certain confidence that I don’t have. She’s able to just keep moving along. I think I can learn a lot from her. I love that about this job.”

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maria.elena.fernandez @latimes.com


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