The Girl Next Door

Monica Potter is one of us. So much so that even after relocating to Los Angeles and starring in movies opposite Robin Williams and Nicolas Cage, she moved back to the Cleveland neighborhood where she grew up. But walking away from Hollywood was now
Monica Potter looks like a working mom in the middle of a long day.

She’s sitting on a swivel chair on the set of her new show, Trust Me, legs crossed at the knee and dressed in her character’s business-frumpy getup — a boring sweater over a knee-length skirt, her hair up in a quick twist.

In some ways, this new look is appropriate. Potter’s been a working mother for a long time (she had her first child at age 19). In other ways, it’s ludicrous. When not dressed down, Potter’s just as much of a beauty as when she was growing up in North Collinwood and everyone told her she should model. That kind of pretty — dreamy eyes, milky skin, huge smile — is hard to conceal.

What the new lookdoes represent is a sequel to her Hollywood story. In part one, she starred as the sexy single girl in major studio movies. She made the cover of Vanity Fair. She was headed for the A-list when she made a baffling, almost unbelievable decision. And now, at age 37, she can walk down the street without being recognized.

It’s kind of hard to find the proper time to ask someone what stopped her from wanting to make itreally big — and how she feels about that now — especially when you’re talking in a string of 15-minute converations tucked between shots.

That question isn’t coming now, either. Potter’s got to get back to work. Trust Me, which is scheduled to debut this month on TNT, is a light-hearted drama about a Chicago advertising agency. Potter is the lead female, starring alongside Eric McCormack from Will & Grace and Tom Cavanagh from Ed.

The bell rings, and the camera rolls. Potter turns on. She is Sarah Krajicek-Hunter begging her boss, Mason (McCormack), to help her with a tricky account. She gets her way and, as the scene ends, the camera lingers on her for a moment. Each take, she uses the time a bit differently. This last time, she does a little happy dance. “That’s funny,” says director Mike Robin, chuckling. This scene’s done.

“Not all wonderful dramatic actors can do comedy,” he says, taking a few moments to talk about Potter. “I think she’s a master comedian. People don’t have an understanding of that.”

Not yet, at least. But maybe soon. Because now it’s not about playing the giggling girl in search of love in major studio movies. As much as the ’90s were about raking in millions at the megaplex, this decade has been about reaching audiences through smart shows on the small screen.

Potter knows it, too. “This is where I feel like I’ve done the best work I’ve ever done. It’s what I’ve always dreamt of doing — this character.”

Two friends of mine, as it happens, know Potter from the four years she spent raising her sons in Cleveland. One met her while out one night in the Warehouse District. She was the most beautiful woman in the room, but down-to-earth. Another got to know Potter when she began dating a friend. So genuine, so likeable was the report.

Because she’s from Cleveland, you expect her to be humble and friendly — and she is. And because she is an actress living in Los Angeles, you assume her life is glamorous and fun. That has to be the storyline, right?

It’s part of it. The other part is that to get where she is today has been a struggle, an unwieldy balancing act of the professional and personal sides of her life that have taken her from here to the West Coast and back each way again.

The story starts on Overlook Drive near the lake in Cleveland. She calls it a Stand By Me childhood on a street full of big, blue-collar families that all looked out for each other. It etched an ideal in Potter’s head — one that would really trip her up later in life.

As perfect as that neighborhood was, she ultimately looked beyond it. “I could see California in my mind,” she recalls. “I knew what it was like.”

When she was 23, she set out to see if she was right. But she was not some free-spirited girl looking for a good time. Sitting in the backseat of that car was her 3-year-old child. At her side was her husband, Tom Potter, a construction worker she met shortly after graduating from Euclid High School.

Once in Los Angles, Potter got pregnant again before landing any big parts and considered moving back home. But after Liam was born, she got a new agent. And that agent got her noticed.

She started landing movie roles, starting with the 1996 movie Bulletproof and moving on at a pace of about one per year, including Con Air with Nicolas Cage in 1997 and Patch Adams with Robin Williams in 1998.

She was inching her way toward the A-list when she made a decision that she defends to this day, no matter how insane it seems to anyone else: She picked up her family and moved back to Cleveland.

She wanted to give her two sons the same childhood she had. The house she bought was around the corner from where she grew up. Her parents and two of her three sisters lived within walking distance. The fact that her marriage was coming undone made family seem all the more important.

It was a good, solid, Midwestern thing to do — if you’re a doctor or a salesperson. But Potter was an actress on a roll. This is how she explains it: “I have a very different lifestyle. I’m not the kind of actress that’s very ambitious. I’m ambitious in other ways, as a person and as a mom, but not as an actress.”

It’s a statement you wouldn’t believe — if there were any other explanation for the move. Who’s ambitious enough to go to Hollywood but not ambitious enough to stay there?

“It wasn’t the right time,” Potter insists. “I had to make choices: Do you want to fly and meet with this director, or do you want to stay home and raise your kids?”

She made a few films while based here, including Along Came a Spider in 2001 with Morgan Freeman and the romantic comedy I’m With Lucy in 2002, but her career eventually sputtered. One day, she found herself alone at home, out of work and angry. “I was yelling at God, ‘What am I doing here? Why am I here?’

“I had basically kind of given up a little bit,” she says. “It was a nice little house on the lake, and I’d been happy, but I always knew there was something left I wanted to do.”

What’s more, her by-then ex-husband, with whom she is still close, was supporting their children while she squandered her earning potential. So in 2003, after four years back in Cleveland, she rented an apartment in Los Angeles. Her sons were in second and seventh grades. She was set to work.

The day of shooting drags on — more rehearsing, more makeup, more shoots, more of this interview — and Potter is tired. She’s got a nasty cold and had to load up on medicine so she’s not sniffling on camera. “I feel like I’m in a tunnel,” she says. Coffee and Red Bull keep her going.

About 20 crew members, including producers, assistants and makeup artists, sit behind the director as he runs the shoot. Texting, crossword puzzles and snacking are the primary diversions.

It’s time for Potter’s scene. “Oh God, give me strength,” she says, almost under her breath.

When the bell rings, that all goes away. In this scene, her character’s part is minimal. She merely walks by a group of her gossiping co-workers, looks back over her shoulder at them and clears her throat to let them know she sees them.

The flash in her eyes, the way she tilts her head and gestures — it’s funny. The crew laughs. Every actor uses facial expressions and body language, of course, but this is where Potter excels. In perhaps her most underappreciated movie,I’m With Lucy, Potter is captivating. Her face — and the range of emotions it can convey — fills the frame.

Potter was picked out of 200 women for the part in TNT’s Trust Me. Robin, who is also the show’s executive producer, noticed her during her time onBoston Legalin 2004 and 2005.

“She has great dramatic chops,” he says. But that wouldn’t have been enough to cast her opposite the “bromance” between McCormack and Cavanagh’s characters. “That was the thing; we had to have somebody who can literally keep up with these guys. That was a tough challenge.”

McCormack compares Potter’s skills to that of his former co-star. “She’s beautiful, but can play quirk — like Debra Messing.”

When Potter finishes her last take for the day, she moves fast, heading for the dinner buffet set up for the cast and crew.

Plate in one hand, cell phone in the other, she barrels through the doors leading out of the studio into the night air, heading for the parking garage where her trailer is located. “I’m trying to find my son,” she says, zipping ahead and disappearing into her trailer. Five minutes later, the door flies open, and Potter pops out wearing tan cords, a knit shirt and Uggs.

“Sorry,” she shouts. “Come in. Come in.”

Potter the actress is gone. But Potter the mom’s mind is racing. Her son was supposed to meet her here so that the set’s seamstress could take in his football uniform. His competition is always grabbing his jersey. It needs to be tighter.

She’s worried she’s going to forget to send in a check for one of her child’s activities. Five calendars line the walls of her house —one for each child, one for the nanny and one for her. Still, she sits down on the worn gold upholstery, ready to talk more. She burns a lavender candle. The scent is supposed to be calming.

Potter’s beauty has always been obvious. But now she’s on a show where she can display the full range of her acting abilities. Actresses over the age of 30 are shining all over cable television these days, from Mary-Louise Parker on Showtime’s Weeds to Glenn Close on FX’s Damages. TNT has already scored with Kyra Sedgwick’s The Closer and Holly Hunter’s Saving Grace. The fact that they’ve paid out for actors as well-known as McCormack, Cavanagh and Potter shows the hope they have for Trust Me.

It’s easy to imagine Potter’s career taking off. Everything seems to be possible again, at least to an outsider. So I dig in and ask. What does she think it would take for her to break through? To be the person whodoes get stopped on the street.

“I don’t know if I ever will,” she says. “It’s certainly something that I didn’t set out to do.”

Maybe her seeming unaffectedness is because, for her, this job has never been focused on money. She is not rich and never has been. She currently lives in a 2,700-square-foot home in Studio City, adding that it’s a good neighborhood for kids.

What’s left then is the vision she had in her mind as a child —the one of California and of being here — embodying characters, performing and making people laugh. Is it everything she hoped it would be? “At times,” she replies.

Her cell phone rings. It’s her husband, Chris Allison, an orthopedic surgeon Potter met because he was part of the team that had reattached a friend’s severed finger. Cute, huh? They met, fell in love and got married in 2007.

They have a 3-year-old daughter, Molly. Potter found out she was pregnant while filmingBoston Legal. She wasn’t brought back the next season and didn’t work again in any substantial way untilTrust Me. It was by choice — at least for a while.

“In Hollywood terms, I was fat,” Potter later explains. “I was trying to lose weight, and it wasn’t coming off.” Finally, she dropped 30 pounds.

As she talks to her husband, she stands at her dressing table twirling her hair, putting lotion on her hands.

“I’m just wrapping things up,” she tells him. “I’m going to study a little bit and then go home and spend some time with Molly. I felt like jelly all day, and I’m not liking it.”

She’s a working mom at the end of a long day, and she’s ready to go home. I get it.

Potter energizes to say goodbye. She stands at her trailer door, waving and thanking me. The next time I come to California, maybe our little girls can play together, she shouts. Sure, she knows that’ll probably never happen, but she gives me her cell phone number anyway. It’s easy to imagine hanging out with Potter and the kids.

Like any decent Clevelander, she’s not self-promoting. In fact, it’s just the opposite. If you compliment her, she won’t just resist, she’ll deflect, launching into a soliloquy about her respect for anyone living their particular dream.

“I look at somebody in Cleveland owning their own flower shop. I look at them and say, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’ ”

And there are a lot of people on this Hollywood lot — and back home in Cleveland for that matter — who want Potter’s particular dream to take off.

They want Monica Potter to be a huge success, to reclaim the Hollywood trajectory she traveled a decade ago and finally become the household name she’s always seemed on the verge of becoming.

But it’s also equally clear when talking with Potter that everyone else may want this for her much more than she does.
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