LOS ANGELES TIMES

Do a search for “Teri Hatcher” on your Web browser, and you’ll hit a cyber-avalanche. More than 40 Web sites–“Teri Forever,” “A Tribute to My Idol,” “Totally Teri”–spewing out thousands of pages of celebrity worship. There are countless images of the voluptuous 34-year-old actress from magazine covers, fashion shoots, publicity stills lifted from movies, such as her diamond-bedecked Bond Girl in “Tomorrow Never Dies,” or television, including her notorious comic turn as the woman with “the perfect breasts” in “Seinfeld.”

Then, of course, there’s the bare-shouldered, come-hither Hatcher wrapped in the red Superman cape from her career-making TV series, “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” often said to be the most downloaded image in Internet history. The extent of her pinup devotion rivals that of Raquel Welch and Farah Fawcett in their primes. So how did this self-described Northern California “nerd” morph into a diva of cyberspace?

“Teri has a kind of classic beauty and intelligent toughness of the femme fatale of the ’40s. At the same time, she’s alluring and available in a very contemporary way,” says director Phil Joanou, explaining the cinematic quality that led him to cast her as a Cajun seductress in his 1996 erotic thriller “Heaven’s Prisoners.” “You find yourself as a moth to flame, drawing closer and closer–and you’re going to get burnt. She’s just got that vibe that says, ‘I’m going to ruin your life,’ all the while smiling and looking great.”

Now Hatcher is about to start “ruining lives” again, as the captivating, self-destructive and deluded Sally Bowles in the national tour of the Roundabout Theatre revival of “Cabaret,” the 1966 John Kander-Fred Ebb musical classic that opens its first stop Wednesday at Los Angeles’ Wilshire Theatre. The production, directed by Sam Mendes, had a triumphant premiere in 1993 in London, where it received great acclaim at the Donmar Warehouse. Last March, American director-choreographer Rob Marshall joined Mendes to mount the raunchy, crotch-forward interpretation on Broadway, where the show won four Tony Awards, including best revival. While the New York production, starring Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming, opened at the Kit Kat Klub–itself a re-creation of the story’s 1930s Berlin nightclub setting, fashioned out of a derelict theater–it subsequently moved to Studio 54 in December, where performances are still virtually sold out.

In Los Angeles, the Wilshire Theatre also has been transformed, at least partially, to simulate a nightclub, with tables and chairs on the orchestra level and conventional seating in the balconies.

In the touring production, Norbert Leo Butz (who replaced Adam Pascal as Roger in “Rent” on Broadway) co-stars alongside Hatcher as the emcee of the decadent Weimar follies; Rick Holmes plays the bisexual Cliff, the American writer drawn into Sally’s web of coke-and-gin-fueled romantic desire and desperation. But it’s safe to say that when the curtain rises on opening night in Los Angeles, the pressure will be on Hatcher to claim as her own the classic role of “the Toast of Mayfair,” first created in a short story in 1937 by author Christopher Isherwood and subsequently brought to life by Julie Harris in “I Am a Camera,” the title for the stage and film adaptations.

Then came the 1966 stage musical of “Cabaret,” starring Jill Haworth, but its most memorable incarnation is undoubtedly that of Liza Minnelli, who won an Oscar for the role in Bob Fosse’s 1972 film adaptation of the musical. Also in the running for owning the role, however, is Richardson, who reinvented it in the current revival, winning a Tony in the process. Following these actresses is both terrifying and exciting, says Hatcher, who wanted to take on the challenge after seeing Richardson at the Kit Kat Klub.

“We all went out afterward, and I was just totally blown away by the production,” Hatcher recalled recently. “And a friend said to me, ‘You should do this role.’ And I thought, ‘Is it even an option? Natasha was so amazing, how could I?’ But that’s what really great acting can do for you–it inspires you to be better, that hope of being that good. All your life, you think, ‘If somebody just gives me this opportunity, please, please, give it to me,’ and then somebody gives you that opportunity and then you think, ‘Oh, God, now what do I do?’ It’s both a scary and a great feeling.”

Sitting in a Greenwich Village restaurant not far from the rehearsal hall where the cast has just completed a run-through of the show before leaving for Los Angeles, Hatcher is a quiet, shy presence, her short brown bob streaked with highlights, her lithe frame casually dressed in dark-blue sweats. She’s clearly exhausted as she dives into a late lunch of soup and a turkey burger platter with Diet Coke–a hearty eater despite those tabloid rumors of anorexia.

Moments earlier, a passionate leave-taking from her husband, actor Jon Tenney, outside the rehearsal hall seemed intended to put to rest tabloid rumors that the couple have been having difficulties. Never in the course of the interview is there even a hint of the glamorous, self-confident magazine cover girl dubbed “Lois Lane for the ’90s” and “The Ultimate Babe.”

While such a powerful image might make it difficult at first for the public to accept Hatcher as the haunted and desperate heroine of “Cabaret,” the actress says that she has had no difficulty dredging up the crippling insecurities of the character from somewhere within herself. “I don’t want to posture that I’ve had as difficult a life as some people, but I don’t think anyone’s life is easy. I have had fortune, and I have not had fortune; it’s too personal to say what or how, but I feel things deeply and openly, and that allows you to be hurt.”

Indeed, Hatcher thinks of her press and “the Web site Teri,” as she calls it, as purveyors of an identity that has little to do with her. “I don’t dismiss it because in a business that relies on box office, it’s important, and I’m flattered that there are people who appreciate my work, but it’s not really me,” she says, showing off fingernails daubed a bright Sally Bowles green. “It’s just the way the business works: Let’s put an image out there, and you don’t even know if the image is an image you want to put out there. It all gets bigger than you sometimes, and away from you and not you. I think you have to be really smart to control that in the right way, and I’m not sure that I was.”

This has made Hatcher somewhat skittish about doing interviews, claiming that all too often “nothing gets translated accurately.” As she speaks, her fingers ply the edges of her lips, as though she could stuff her words back in her mouth before they might be misconstrued yet again in print. Her defense appears to be to speak largely in bromides, about wanting to fully explore “the journey” of her new role, of the satisfaction of being a wife and mother–to 15-month-old Emerson Rose–of just wanting to be “happy, simple, fun-loving.”

Anything that treads on sensitive subject matter (hints of an emotionally troubled personal history, a frustration with “Lois & Clark,” her driving ambition or lack thereof) leads to halting clarifications. It may be, too, that she is still deeply immersed in the role of Sally, which she just finished rehearsing in a full run-through for the first time. After all, Sally’s journey in the play, despite a frenetic joie de vivre, is ultimately a tragic one.

But whatever the cause, at every opportunity Hatcher deflects the conversation back to the role of vulnerable and doomed Sally Bowles. In fact, this whole undertaking seems a personal gamble–a risky one given her lack of stage expertise–to show people a totally different facet of herself.

There is certainly a desire in Hatcher to alter perceptions that have tended to pigeonhole her as a performer and actress, says husband Tenney, an actor who has had extensive stage experience (“The Heiress” on Broadway) as well as television success (“Brooklyn South”). “Just as Sally Bowles has this hunger to reinvent herself,” he says, “there’s this fusion going on between Teri and this character, and that is just where Teri’s at right now, in her life, not just as an actress but as a person who’s going from couple to family to working mom.”

The transformation has also been geographic; after a decade of living in Los Angeles, Hatcher has moved with her husband and child to Manhattan. Until mid-April she’ll be in L.A., however, and for six months after that, home will be hotel suites in cities booked on the “Cabaret” tour.

Hatcher once joked to an interviewer that she has “21 personalities.” Reminded of this statement, she laughs and says, “Well, I think a few of them have been hung up in the closet; I’m a little more sane than I used to be, maybe.” Still, the one quality that seems common to all of her selves is a fierce single-mindedness.

“She’s very clear about what she wants, and goes about pursuing it in a very direct manner,” Tenney says. “One of the things I most admire about her is that she doesn’t get in her own way.”

This was certainly clear in her pursuit of the role of Sally. Before auditioning for it, she hired dialect and dance coaches and, at her own expense, flew to New York. “Teri was this unbelievable surprise,” says director-choreographer Marshall. “She nailed the audition. She came in and said, ‘This is mine.’ She’s beautiful and elegant, and that helps a lot in a play where people are drawn to her. But underneath this very strong persona of Sally, she created this scared, desperate, vulnerable little girl. Now, she’s working her butt off to prove herself. She’ll try anything.”

This fearlessness stems from Hatcher’s youth in Sunnyvale, Calif., as the only daughter of Owen and Esther Hatcher. “My mom said I was always an independent little girl,” she recalls. Her parents worked their way up as an electrical engineer and computer programmer, respectively, and they imbued in their daughter a dedicated work ethic that is still singled out by almost everyone she has worked with.

The actress describes her childhood as “lonely and nerdy,” complicated by a relationship with her parents that was at times tense and overprotective. In high school she blossomed, leading the school’s dance drill team, competing for homecoming queen (she didn’t win) and being voted by her classmates as “most likely to become a ‘Solid Gold’ Dancer.”

Despite all indicators pointing to a career in show business, Hatcher claims, perhaps disingenuously, that she never seriously thought about that until she accompanied a friend, for moral support, to an open audition for an episode in the mid-’80s on “The Love Boat” and got a part as a dancer. Forsaking her studies in math at De Anza College, a Northern California community college, she briefly took acting lessons at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (Annette Bening was a teacher) before moving to the San Fernando Valley.

She supported herself by waitressing–her father refused to subsidize a career he thought of as a momentary aberration–and by playing small parts in films (a self-absorbed starlet in “The Big Picture” in 1989; a physically obsessed freak in “Soapdish” in 1991) before hitting it big in 1993 with a four-year run as cool, sophisticated Lois Lane in “Lois & Clark.”

Until that time, Hatcher says, she considered her career as something of a fluke. Once she made her commitment to “Lois & Clark,” however, she felt compelled to try to make the series as good as it possibly could be. She felt the show, co-starring Dean Cain as the hunk of steel, had potential to bring to the small screen a sophisticated blend of screwball comedy and romance. She apparently stepped on some toes.

“Teri could be really difficult and charming at the same time,” says an ABC-TV production assistant who worked on the show and wished to remain anonymous. “As long as she was the prettiest girl in the room and the focus of attention, she was fine. But if not, she could be a real handful.”

The actress feels that ego had nothing to do with her frustrations on the set. “I never felt we reached our true potential on that show,” she says. “People talk about it as a success, but we were never higher than [number] 30 in the ratings. Not that it’s all about ratings. But I just felt I was this singular voice saying, ‘This show could be a lot better than it is,’ and it just never landed on the powers that be.”

While she is proud of her work in the 1996 feature films “Heaven’s Prisoners,” co-starring Alec Baldwin, and “2 Days in the Valley,” about an Olympic skier who plots to kill her husband, she says that only now, with “Cabaret,” does she feel that she is fully exploiting her potential. Though she may be demanding of those around her, she is just as demanding of herself.

“On the second day of rehearsal, Teri came up to me and said, ‘Feel free to tell me if you think I suck,’ ” says “Cabaret” co-star Holmes.  “What I didn’t know is that she would have this larger-than-life presence that is completely infectious and totally necessary to the role.”

Hatcher concedes that she is pretty tough on herself, but she hopes that she’s mellowing. “It takes a lot of energy to beat yourself up, and running after an 15-month-old tends to use it all up,” she says with a laugh. Asked whether she tends to see the glass half-full or half-empty, she replies: “Funny, in our family, the joke is that I always ask, ‘What glass?’ Jon, who sees everything half-full, says I don’t even see a glass. But I think I’m getting better.”

Looking around, Hatcher adds, “How many people in this restaurant are truly happy, do you think? It seems like such a simple thing, but it’s such a universal struggle. It doesn’t matter whether you’re successful or not. Everybody has their inner demons, and they struggle every day of their life trying to make some sense of the chaos around them. I think it’s those struggles that make Sally Bowles a character everyone can relate to. That accounts for her longevity. There’s a part of us that sympathizes with her and a part that makes us want to hit her for the wrong choices she makes. It’s all part of being human, I guess.”

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