San Francisco Chronicle June 2003   Ultimate DVD   UGO     Newday

Los Angeles -- Georgia Lass found out the hard way just how fragile life can be.

In Episode 1 of "Dead Like Me," the teenager dies when a flaming bathroom from a disintegrating MIR space station hurtles through space and lands on her.

A few days ago, Ellen Muth, the 22-year-old actress who plays Georgia "George" Lass in the new Showtime series, was reminded that real life also can offer unexpected shocks to the system. During a mid-day break on the show's Vancouver set, Muth explained that the sequence she was in the middle of filming had been thrown out of whack when a cast mate left the set because of a death in the family. "This episode is a little chaotic just because unfortunately Callum Blue's father just passed way. We're in a bit of turmoil because we're planning ways to write him out of this episode, and how do we do that? Because he adds so much to the show."

It is precisely those kinds of harsh surprises that drive "Dead Like Me."

The premise: After George gets squashed on her lunch break, she's taken in by "Grim Reapers" who occupy a nether zone between life and death. Headed by mentor Rube (Mandy Patinkin), Grim Reapers continue to traffic in the real world as "undead" escorts who release human souls moments before people shuffle off their mortal coil. Complicating matters are gremlin-like "Graveling" creatures who hover ominously at each "soul-taking."

Informally tagged "My So Called After-Life" by Showtime execs, "Dead Like Me" casts Muth as the latest in a line of dyspeptic teenage characters who have mastered the put-down as emotional defense mechanism. Previously incarnated by actresses like Christina Ricci, Thora Birch, Lauren Ambrose and Claire Danes, Muth's George delivers the monotone voice-over narration for "Dead" with dead-pan insouciance.

"When George dies, it almost seems like she's happier when she's dead," said Muth. "She's not the type that cares about makeup or clothes. George laughs at those people and she's confused in life, like most teenagers are, and she has a dysfunctional family and doesn't realize what she missed out in life, until she's lost it all. As the story goes, George begins to realize how much she's missed, and how much she took for granted when she was alive, and she kind of regrets the way that she lived her life."

Muth grew up in Connecticut equipped with no apparent showbiz DNA -- her father's an eye doctor, her mom, a homemaker. Gifted instead with a genius- level IQ, Mensa-member Muth displayed a precocious penchant for drama-queen histrionics. "I was always performing as far back as I can remember," Muth said. "I was never interested in the whole school play kind of thing because I always wanted to be in control. I like to boss my friends around actually, making up my own kind of movies and having them film me. In fact I just found a couple of horror films I made when I was 9 or 10. I used ketchup for blood and you see me crying hysterically on the floor. It's pretty funny."

By age 13, Muth could quote lines from acting coach Uta Hagen's famous book "The Actor Prepares." She began sending out head shots and a year later landed her first acting role as an incest victim, holding her own opposite Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh in "Dolores Claiborne."

"It was a creepy movie. Kathy and Jennifer were both brilliant and they helped me a lot with my technique. And working with Taylor Hackford was a great learning experience," recalls Muth.

BEST ACTRESS AWARD

TV and independent film work followed, including "The Young Girl & the Monsoon," which earned her a 1999 American Film Institute Best Actress Award. Two years ago, after graduating from high school, Muth beat out several hundred competitors after execs were blown away by her screen test for "Dead Like Me."

Showtime has previously steered clear of youth-demo'ed series, and Gary Levine, the network's executive vice president of original programming, acknowledges casting was critical.

"It was scary for us to think about going ahead with a series with a 19- year-old lead," he said. "At that age, anyone who's well known would have to have been a child star, and we weren't interested in that. We also weren't interested in going with the Dawson Creek-y, beautiful, 8-by-10 glossy that the WB (network) insists upon. We needed a real actress equally versatile in comedy and drama. That's a tall order and Ellen immediately jumped out as someone who could give us the ugly reality of that (sarcastic) voice. This character doesn't really have much to redeem her at the beginning. George is a pain in the ass, she's turned off to everyone and everything. We found that incredibly refreshing and then juxtaposing that with a coming of age story after she's dead -- we felt that was a really neat twist."

Muth also struck a common chord with "Dead Like Me" creator Bryan Fuller, who spent several years writing for the "Star Trek" TV series and was now itching to conjure an alternate universe of his own making. While promoting the show last January, Fuller said, "I wanted to create a mythology with characters who had very real problems and put them in a fantastical situation. You know -- how do they pay for rent? They probably squat in the places that their victims lived in, after they died they take their souls and they stay there until they're kicked out. It was a matter of sitting down and thinking 'How would I live if I was a reaper and I didn't have a source of income?' and that just kind of all started growing from that seed."

After shooting the pilot last fall, Muth and the rest of the "Dead" ensemble decamped to Vancouver and started work on the 13-episode series in March. Fuller left "Dead Like Me" after three episodes to focus on "Wonder Falls," a new drama he'd created for Fox. Veteran writer-producer John Masius ("St. Elsewhere," "Providence," "Touched by an Angel") took the reins after he got the seal of approval from his 15-year-old daughter. "I played the pilot for her and she went nuts for the Ellen character. She told me, 'This is the first person I've seen in my age bracket on TV.' I think Ellen is brilliant because she hits all the right notes. She's sardonic, but she can also get emotional. She's fearless and at the same time afraid, caught in this place she doesn't really want to be."

In terms of the "Dead" concept, Masius says he appreciates the show's relatively nonmelodramatic tone. " 'Dead Like Me' has this sort of a 'Buffy (the Vampire Slayer)' quality to it, in that you kind of believe this universe exists within our (normal world)," he said. "It's not like these (Grim Reapers) are out there fighting evil. For the most part, they're just facilitators. Death is a part of life, and it's their job."

'DISCREET SMARTNESS'

That matter-of-fact approach to mortality seems to work for Muth. Three months into shooting, the young actress has been working 14-hour days and appearing in nearly every scene. "It's very different for me because all the other things I've ever done have been mainly drama. I played a lot of victims where I've had to cry every single day. I like George's dry sense of humor and her kind of just discreet smartness that she holds inside. And the fact that, uh, she's just very nonchalant and has this kind of goes-with-the-flow type of thing. She's not (a hero) at all. . . . So this is very refreshing to wake up in the morning and go, 'Oh I can go to work today and I don't have to cry!' "