05-2006 Paper Magazine

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"Sorry to drag you all the way out here," says Rebecca Romijn, bounding into a back booth of a restaurant in the West Valley suburb of Woodland Hills. It's an apt halfway point between Hollywood and the sprawling ranch she shares with her fiance, Crossing Jordan TV actor Jerry O'Connell, way out in Calabasas. "It's kind of ghetto," she continues, apologizing for the office-park atmosphere. But the light reflecting off the glass buildings gives her a subtle glow; dressed in a hooded, mint-striped white sweater and with her blond hair framing her strong but soft features, she's beautiful in a way that isn't so much striking as it is unimpeachably true.

It's only four o'clock and Romijn has Pilates at six, but she orders a big glass of Merlot anyway. "It's my day off," she says. This is her first free Friday since shooting began on her new WB series Pepper Dennis two months ago. She stars as an ambitious Chicago TV reporter trying not to let her love interest -- who turns out to be the station's new anchor -- or her couch-surfing kid sister stop her from becoming the next Walter Cronkite. "I actually thought about going into broadcast journalism," she says, and as anybody who saw her on MTV's House of Style in the late '90s remembers, she was a natural on-camera. The show's writing can be clever and, as Romijn puts it, "flowery, like Gilbert and Sullivan." Give or take a made-for-TV cliche or two -- the sisters in their jammies sitting on Pepper's loft floor, eating Chinese food; a slow-mo nighttime montage with a dejected Pepper standing in front of street steam -- the show is a WB-scale attempt at Sex and the City. It addresses issues (the media, the Olsen twins) with a tongue-in-cheek sensibility, but where, say, Boston Legal uses Tom Selleck for a celebrity cameo, Pepper brings on gossip blogger Perez Hilton. "He went to Yale Drama School," says Romijn.

The series marks a change for the actress -- and the woman. Even though she will once again play the evil blue angel Mystique in X-Men 3 this summer and is starring opposite Steve Coogan in the upcoming Lies and Alibis, she's done with film -- and talking about film -- for a while. She's capable of more meaty roles, like that of the histrionically Sapphic bad girl in Brian De Palma's stylish Femme Fatale, but she likes being able to leave work, jump into her Prius and drive home to her own bed every night.

"Maybe it's because of where I am in my life, but the all or nothing of making films is getting on my nerves," she says. "This is the grown-up thing to do," she continues, cracking a smile. "This is my first job!" It helps that O'Connell is on a series, too: He's shooting Crossing Jordan tonight, so red wine and Pilates and making sure the dogs don't crap all over the house is shaping up to be her Friday night. She isn't complaining. "Weekends take on a whole new meaning now. I don't feel bad if I want to stay in bed and lie around in my pajamas all day." The two haven't set a wedding date yet, but Romijn's biological clock is ticking: "I'm at the point where I get tears in my eyes when I see pregnant women," she says.

Even though she's an accomplished actress, she's best known as a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model and the toothy smile behind a thousand Victoria's Secret catalog pages. But her modeling career was at best accidental. "I was really self-conscious and awkward in high school. I wanted nothing below my waist to exist. I always wore unpressed shirts around my butt -- I dressed like the Olsen twins!" she says. The subject of the Olsens is a curious one. Ashley and M-K have a place in Romijn's life, and they're emblematic of both everything great and all things terrible about show business. (One Pepper Dennis episode features an actress twin who is accused of murdering her sister. In homage to the Olsens, the character holds a Starbucks cup that's a little too heavy for her thin wrist. "I picked it up on the set one day -- they had the thing loaded down with 20 rocks!" Romijn says with a laugh.) On the other hand, the Olsens are old friends from her past. "They were on a show with my ex-husband," she says softly, referring to Full House, which featured her ex, mullet-hunk John Stamos. Though the official word on the breakup was that they parted amicably over career pressures -- he supposedly wanted kids, she wasn't ready -- she's uneasy talking about it. When I ask her what she learned from her marriage, she says, "You have to make unhappy decisions. You're no good to anybody if you're unhappy."

Keeping it real is as important to Romijn as it is natural. Raised in Berkeley by her Dutch craftsman father and linguist mother, her surroundings were humble but happily so. "We were poor -- I mean po'," she says. Mom was a big fan of language and musicals, so the house was filled with soundtracks. "I got the lead in every Gilbert and Sullivan production," she says, before launching into a pitch-perfect tongue twister from The Pirates of Penzance.

"I remember going on a casting for a show and being criticized by a designer who always fans himself. That guy, who wears sunglasses indoors, made me feel bad about having big boobs. Do I really want to be taken seriously by that kind of person?"

In 1991, her freshman year at UC Santa Cruz, a girlfriend gave her name to a model scout. "It was the time when supermodels were taking over the world, right in the middle of the holy trinity of Cindy, Christy and Naomi." Romijn was hesitant at first. "When the lady called to meet with me, I was like, 'I can't, I'm in the middle of finals.'" Romijn finally agreed to a meeting and was told to lose weight. "I'd put on the freshman fifteen. How could I not, with the cafeteria, all the Golden Grahams, doughnuts and soft-serve I could eat?" She swam every day, lost the weight and was summoned to Paris. But "I didn't make the best model in the world," Romijn admits. The unaffected girl from Berkeley found herself in the world of supermodels and superegos. "I remember going on a casting for a show and being criticized by a designer who always fans himself," she says. "That guy, who wears sunglasses indoors, made me feel bad about having big boobs. Do I really want to be taken seriously by that kind of person? I mean, I don't want to take myself that seriously."

By the mid-'90s she was in New York, living in the West Village, hanging out at Grange Hall and Peggy Sue's but bored out of her mind. "I became a high-end catalogue girl," she recalls. "I decided to switch it up." She'd been a guest on a lot of talk shows and had parlayed that into a gig on House of Style. "It was the only platform where a model could be taken seriously. It was a really great, safe, challenging place." She wrote a lot of her own scripts and started to think more seriously about acting. A few years later she landed the role of Mystique in X-Men, which, minus the seven hours of blue body makeup application a day, was a thrill. "I think anybody who's ever been ostracized can relate to the X-Men. I mean, it had been written during the civil-rights movement." Of her character's villainous turn, she says simply, "Some people go M.L.K., some go Malcolm X."

At least she knows what she's talking about. "On Martin Luther King Day a few years ago, Jerry came downstairs in his pajamas and read me the whole 'I Have a Dream' speech. This year he called me from the set and read it to me again." I tell her she might be the palest -- or bluest -- Black Panther Oakland has ever produced. "Halle [Berry] and I were teamed up to do interviews on the first X-Men. An interviewer asked her what it was like to be the only woman of color in the movie, and I was like, 'Hey, wait a minute!'"

After her divorce in 2004, Romijn sunk into a depression that even a series of colonics couldn't fix. She wound up with Steve, her best friend from New York, watching the dancing fountains at the Bellagio in Vegas. "We talked about choreographing our own show. So I found the number of the company that does the fountains -- Wet Designs -- and called them up and started leaving messages. I even went on The Tonight Show and looked right into the camera and asked the guy to please call me back." Romijn and Steve (a filmmaker) began making a documentary about their quest -- appropriately titled Wet Dreams. And that's how she met O'Connell.

"We were about to go to the Bellagio to do some scouting, and I ran into Jerry -- I'd met him before -- and invited him to come along. He was like, 'Excuse me, what are you doing?' and I told him and he was like, 'That's the coolest thing. Can I be your boom operator?'" The Bellagio fountains still feature Romijn and Steve's choreography to Ennio Morricone's "Ecstasy of Gold" as part of their daily program. "It was during a horrible and sad time for me," Romijn continues. "I wanted to do something that was pure fun. And honestly, it was one of the most satisfying things I've ever been a part of."

Romijn and O'Connell aren't much for the celebrity scene. "We just jump in the car, find an oldies station and go exploring," she says. "We were in Palm Springs for the weekend, and we kept getting steered to all these trendy restaurants, and we were like, 'No, no, where are the old-school places?'" On breaks, they wander up and down the coast, checking out tourist stops (the Hearst Castle, the Madonna Inn), drinking at random bars and eating at random diners, like everybody else along the way. "Jerry's from the East Coast, so I love showing him all these California things." She and O'Connell could embark on another career as hipster Charles Kuraults, documenting kitsch Americana, with Steve behind the camera and O'Connell working the boom mike. "Yeah, if the acting thing doesn't work out," she says, getting ready to leave.

The restaurant is now teeming with kids. This is, after all, Friday night in suburbia. The wine is done, but there is Pilates to do. And, someday, as the children seem to remind her, there will be kids of her own. "I'm very responsible and pragmatic -- I get that from my parents. But I'm still in touch with who I was as a kid," she says. "I get goofy with a lot of shit." With that she gives me a hug, steers her six-foot frame through the manic rug rats and heads back to her ranch and her dogs, waiting for her man to get off work -- like the rest of America.

Original article: Paper Magazine 05/2006

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