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Take 2, 'Karen Sisco'

In which Carla Gugino takes on the high expectations that come with a role first played by Jennifer Lopez and created by crime novelist Elmore Leonard.

ERIC DEGGANS
Published September 22, 2003

MIAMI - She opens the car door smoothly, pushing it aside with a well-toned leg so that the light catches both the muscles in her calves and the fashionable pumps on her feet.

Rising from the driver's seat, she walks toward the rear of her car, strutting almost, with the sure gait of a beautiful woman who knows she's being watched. One hand flips open the trunk as the other cradles a cell phone to her ear.

Over her shoulder, through the chain-link fence of the parking garage wall, Miami's sprawling downtown simmers in the fading sunlight. She is oblivious, engaged in conversation while sorting through the detritus in the trunk, careful not to smudge dirt on her brown leather Dolce and Gabbana skirt.

Away goes the shotgun, pushed to the back. The 9mm handgun is shoved to the side. A stun gun is discarded toward the rear. Then she grabs the Kevlar vest emblazoned with "U.S. Marshal" in bold, yellow lettering, hoisting it as she ends the phone call.

"CUT!" Director Stephen Cragg steps up to Carla Gugino, padding through pools of water created by production assistants who had hosed down the ground to make for better reflections during filming.

The pair, along with a crew of dozens imported from Los Angeles, are finishing the second day in a week of filming around Miami in August for the ABC-TV drama Karen Sisco. The show, debuting Oct. 1, stars Gugino as a gorgeous yet tough-as-nails U.S. marshal, a character played by Jennifer Lopez in the film Out of Sight.

Cragg seems to like the shot, but Gugino - focused and friendly despite nearly nine hours spent filming that day, and four run-throughs of the parking lot scene - is game to try it again. Like Sisco, who is drawn as a streetwise combination of guts, brains and beauty, Gugino is a sharp professional who knows that much of today's success is riding on her good attitude and passion for perfection.

"Her work habits are the kind you don't see until people are real mature," said veteran character actor Robert Forster, who plays Sisco's dad onscreen and offscreen treats his 32-year-old co-star like a surrogate daughter.

"Long hours. No complaints. There every minute. No nonsense. Not delicate," said Forster, looking over at Gugino as she speaks between takes with a camera crew from the entertainment news TV show Extra. "I was an ironworker, and I worked on the railroad. I never did a job as hard as carrying a television show. They expect you to deliver the goods all the time, every time, and she does."

Indeed, Gugino is the one actor who appears in nearly every scene of the show, and works 14 to 16 hours every day. When she's not shooting, learning lines or sleeping, she's speaking with the media, all to help bring the offbeat flavor of Sisco creator Elmore Leonard's crime novels to prime-time television.

But to hear Gugino tell it, she almost didn't take the job.

"I didn't want to do a TV show. . . . I'm kind of a gypsy," said Gugino between takes in the parking garage, her pumps replaced with blue flip-flops. "Yet . . . I just loved this character. She's someone I feel I could play for a long time."

Why not Miami?

Ask folks around the Sisco set why they're not based in Miami full time, and you'll get a range of answers.

Another of the show's directors, Steve Minor, cites the lack of a large, soundproofed studio for interior sets. Cragg notes the difficulty of producing a show when its writers and main producer are in Los Angeles. But Gugino is forthright in admitting the biggest reason.

She simply didn't want to live in Miami.

"With my schedule, there's no way I could go home, even for a day (during filming)," said the actor, whose boyfriend of many years has children ages 8 and 10 in California. "Robert Forster and myself and a lot of the producers have children and families and schools. It was a cumulative personal decision."

This makes Sisco one of five prime-time TV shows this fall set in Miami but based largely in California (the others are CBS's CSI: Miami, UPN's Eve, FX's Nip/Tuck and NBC's Good Morning Miami). The show returns to Florida for about a week every two months or to shoot outdoor scenes that capture the city's unique flavor.

It's not an unusual move; series such as ER and NYPD Blue have been faking Chicago and New York from California for years. Still, the rise of shows such as Sisco and CSI: Miami, in which the city's ambience is used almost as another character onscreen, ups the ante for TV producers seeking a setting couch potatoes haven't seen a thousand times before.

"The network would rather this have been based in Miami. . . . They really want this to be a Miami show," said executive producer Michael Dinner during a July interview (he stayed in Los Angeles during the show's latest Miami excursion while his wife had a baby). "The water looks different, the air is different, the light feels different, the people are different. We have to be very careful in (casting) Latinos and Latinas. . . . We'll probably bring actors (to Los Angeles) from New York . . . because there's a difference between Cubans and Mexicans."

During August's stop, the production crew filmed scenes for three episodes in one week, vaulting from a gravel road beneath the MacArthur Causeway to the faux Bahamian shacks at Jimbo's watering hole on Virginia Key and the wilds of Sawgrass Recreation Park.

In one instance, Gugino completed a scene filmed in Los Angeles, in which she walked an actor playing a criminal toward the door of his shack on a Los Angeles sound stage.

When she stepped into the sunlight, she was walking through a field in Miami. But when viewers see the two sequences edited together, it will look as if she never left Miami-Dade County.

"It does remind you of the magic of moviemaking," Gugino said. "It's incredible that you can put it together so it actually looks like we were in the same place at the same time. But sometimes, just figuring out where I'm at in any given moment is challenging."

Two big opportunities

These days, Gugino seems poised before the greatest opportunity of her career.

A sultry actor with engaging, hazel brown eyes, she was best known pre-Sisco as the feisty mom from Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids movies. But Gugino has an eclectic resume, ranging from films such as Miami Rhapsody and Jet Li's The One to a stint on the ABC sitcom Spin City and CBS's medical drama Chicago Hope.

Born in Sarasota, Gugino shuttled between an orthodontist father, Carl (who still lives in the city, along with her half-brother, also named Carl), and a bohemian mother in California. A teenage fashion model, Gugino began acting classes at the suggestion of her aunt, former Let's Make a Deal spokesmodel Carol Merrill.

"I lived in a tepee in Northern California and a van in Big Sur," said Gugino, who still visits her family in Sarasota regularly. "With my dad, I lived in a beautiful house with a swimming pool and a tennis court and went to Europe for the summers. So I feel like I lived two childhoods."

Her new series has a serious lineage. Actor Danny DeVito's Jersey Films has brought several Leonard books to the movies, beginning when consummate Hollywood player DeVito purchased the rights to Leonard's Get Shorty for director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black, The Addams Family) without reading it. Now, his Jersey Television company is producing Karen Sisco.

"There are certainly character traits that Elmore brings along with him in all of his characters," DeVito told TV critics during a news conference in July (both he and wife Rhea Perlman will play guest roles in an upcoming episode; he as a mob boss, she as the mother of two nitwits who steal a prized Babe Ruth baseball from him). "They're edgy, real characters that have a life . . . whether it's noir feeling or whether it's some dilemma they're working through."

In Sisco's case, the problem is love, or perhaps the lack of it.

Producers constantly play up the disconnect between Sisco's beauty and her rough-and-tumble job, highlighting the difficulties a woman can have in finding both romance and respect within a male-dominated world.

"From what I hear, Elmore Leonard was reading the newspaper and he saw a picture of this gorgeous woman with a shotgun in her hand," said Gugino. "He looked down and (the caption) said "so-and-so U.S. Marshal captures fugitive,' and he thought, "I gotta write about that."'

Dinner describes it more succinctly.

"In a way, she is a reflection of her father . . . who is kind of the quintessential Elmore Leonard man in the middle," the producer said. "It's almost a father/son relationship. But she's the son."

Forster blazed onto the Hollywood scene in the late '60s, starring in three TV series before his career stalled for nearly 25 years (a starring role in Quentin Tarantino's 1997 Leonard adaptation Jackie Brown revived it).

Given that history and a reputation for straight shooting, Forster acknowledged some view him as the embodiment of Leonard's down-but-not-out characters.

"I got lucky with Jackie Brown. . . . It's a kind of character I understand well," said Forster, who often shows his appreciation for recent good fortune by handing those he meets a small gift. "In the world of Elmore Leonard, believable things happen to real people that are even stranger than fiction. I can sign on to that."

With so much ink spilled recently over the lack of Hispanics on television, some critics wondered why ABC couldn't find a Hispanic actor to continue a role made famous by one of Hollywood's best known Hispanic stars.

"The original Cisco Kid was a non-Hispanic; flash forward to 2003, and the new Cisco gal is also not Hispanic," said Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. "We have reached a point where we've been able to impress upon network executives the importance of a black/white diversity. Beyond that, they can't broaden out their concept of diversity to include Hispanics and Asians and Native Americans."

Producers say they initially went looking for a Hispanic star, but soon realized they needed someone who could best inhabit the role, regardless of ethnicity. Gugino hopes audiences will see her and Lopez as two different interpretations of the author's vision.

"I'm half-Italian, so personally, I consider that Latina . . . and in Spy Kids I also play Spanish," she said in a July interview. "What's interesting is that Karen Sisco in the book was blond-haired (and non-Hispanic) . . . and originally, Nicole Kidman was going to do the movie. My feeling about this Karen Sisco, is that her mother was Cuban and her father was not."

All this hand-wringing may not matter if audiences don't show up; the show will debut against the 800-pound gorilla of cop dramas, Law & Order. Fans of TV cop dramas may stick with L&O, while viewers who might enjoy the character study in Karen Sisco may dismiss it as just another police show.

"I'm working so hard, I don't have time to worry about getting my hopes up," said Gugino, laughing.

"Six Feet Under is a good example of something that is very unique and whether you like it or not, has stayed with what it believes and what they're interested in doing and therefore has found its audience," she said. "We need to do that as much as we possibly can.

"If I make the best show I can possibly make, I have no control over anything else."

PREVIEW: Karen Sisco debuts at 10 p.m. Oct. 1 on WFTS-Ch. 28.

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