Once upon a time back in Melbourne Australia, there was a would-be law student called Mandy Rogers. Years later, Mandy is an actress, changed her name to the classier Portia, and is PLAYING a lawyer on TV’s Ally McBeal. Discovered on film in Sirens, Portia de Rossi is now a bona fide star who lives in LA, drives a Porsche and her Aussie accent is no more.
The 28-year old popped into the wintry Sundance Film Festival to flog her Indie film, Women in Film, a curious little oddity about three women surviving in cutthroat Hollywood. Squatting comfortably in a hotel bedroom in Utah’s Park City, the beautiful Aussie talked to Paul Fischer about her career, Ally McBeal and that vexing of all questions: Why DID she change her name? Portia de Rossi is curled up on a chair in a hotel room. We’re in Park City, Utah, miles from sunny Los Angeles.
Sporting red boots, khaki cargo pants and red T-shirt, with her trademark blonde locks draped over her shoulders, the beautiful Aussie actress was attending the prestigious Sundance Film Festival to chat about a strange little film called Women in Film. De Rossi plays on-edge Gina, an actress and professional masseuse who “steals” energy from her celebrity clients. Gina is obsessed with the delusion that Darren Starr stole her ideas for his hit TV shows 90210 and Sex in the City, and is determined to draw him “into my web” for retribution. Curious a film as it is, the film explores, appropriately, three women’s journeys into Hollywood. An ironic proposition, given that Portia’s own journey was unique, “simply because I didn’t grow up with a burning desire to be an actress, De Rossi says smilingly, with her Californian accent in place.
Portia recalls having studied law at Melbourne uni when she heard of the audition for the movie Sirens. “I just thought it would be really fun, to have that in my life and be in a movie. That at least was the plan”. Plans go awry, and this was no exception. .Naturally I fall madly in love with acting during the making of Sirens and realised I couldn’t do anything else with my life than that”. But acting presented an added interest for her. “I discovered, as an actress, you have MORE of a voice and you’re able to express more YOUR philosophy, opinions and moral views and have more people listen to it, than politicians or the lawmakers. So it’s kinda interesting, that with the characters I play, I try and stay true to my beliefs of how I want women to be represented”.
Such as the ballsy lawyer she plays on TV’s Ally McBeal. It worked out for Portia that playing a lawyer for pretend beats the real thing any day. “It certainly has alleviated a lot of the guilt for not finishing university; my mum is ok with it now, even though it took her a while”.
Now ensconced in the City of Angels, de Rossi admits that the move here has meant sacrifice and compromise. “I really forfeited my family, my home country, my friends, and my life that I’d established in Australia. So it’s a huge compromise for a lot of people to be in this industry. My agent called me up just before coming here, and she said, “Porsh, just remember, these are the good times.” And it’s true. I just have to take a step back from time to time and remember that what I’m a part of is just unbelievable. Being part of the film industry here really is a gift, and Hollywood really is what you want it to be. If you want it to BE cynical and see a dark side of the film industry, especially as a woman, you can feel very hard done by. That’s certainly there and available to you. But it’s also incredible how many creative elements come together to make a product that people respond to. Lives change because of the art that people make in the form of movies, and that’s kinda wonderful”.
Success for the actress happened quickly, and it happened minus the support of her family. Yet she defines her success and the attention she has received, very philosophically. “I do think it IS hard to get so much attention and so quickly. Yet you never really know why and can never work it out. You know you play a character in a TV show, but that’s kind of your life. You never really see or feel the TV show, the movie that you make, or whatever. You just meet fans who really enjoy your work, and then all of a sudden Chanel gives you something for free,. she adds laughingly. “Then suddenly you have to remain really level headed and enjoy it for what it is, because it’s going to go away, or if it comes back it’s going to be DIFFERENT”.
Portia’s success doesn’t mean that she has ‘gone Hollywood’ however. Her reason is simple. “Because it’s not real. I can’t feel it. If I could actually feel what it was like, to be a celebrity, I’d probably want it more. Look, I do enjoy it for what it is, but it’s fleeting and I can’t define my sense of self and worth, as to whether or not people respond to my TV character. It doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s all kind of silly. But the sad thing is, so many people get swept up in the idea of celebrity, which is why I’m just looking for someone to laugh with, especially back home, because my Aussie friends think how ridiculous it is that I’m on American TV. I’m from Geelong, for God’s sake”.
The actress says is that she keeps herself grounded by “working really hard every day, living in Manhattan Beach and making this TV show. It’s great that people like it, I love people coming up to me on the street, I love having an assistant, don’t get me wrong, but what I’m trying to say is, there’s a place for it in my life, but it doesn’t define who I am”.
So who is she? Not Amanda Marie Rodgers, her birth name, which she changed because “I just didn’t like it. I loved Merchant of Venice, hence Shakespeare’s Portia”. She didn’t change it, as one tabloid recently asserted, because of her love of Porsches. “No, not at all., she says squealing with laughter. Although she admits to liking that car, now that she has one. “I’m tacky I know, but it’s just a C2, straight up. Very nice, black”. So fame has its rewards after all.
Help paying for that Porsche is of course, Ally McBeal, which is still going strong. The actress remains non-committal as to its future. “I can’t really give myself any time, because I signed a contract for 5 and a half years and I’ve fulfilled nearly 3 of those. Depending on whether David [E. Kelley] wants to continue writing the show or my character, or whether Calista wants to do the show, I don’t know what will happen with it”. She is even more tight-lipped on the future of Nell Porter. “I have no idea what is in her future. I really love playing her and I’ll do it for as long as David writes it”.
Next up, Portia has to find her Aussie accent, as she’s heading home to produce and star in a new Aussie film, Love Smarts, to be directed by Steve Vidler. .It’s got that great, quirky Aussie sensibility, you know, not to mention that UNIQUE sense of humour. It’s my first shot at producing and I think that’s something I really want to do. It’s a romantic comedy and kind of a spoof on the book called The Rules. My character works for the editor of a magazine, who is writing this book and has a very different opinion as to what the rules should really be, so I go on the road”.
It’s a film close to her heart. After all, when it comes to Portia’s own rules, especially of love, she is more than happy not to follow them. “The best kind of love is the love that no one can make sense of, can’t think about. How can you possibly make it cerebral and plot or plan; you can’t. It can’t be manipulated; it just has to happen”.
Ally McBeal screens on the Fox Network. Women in Film will be released later this year.