There’s a line in Memento, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, where Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential), as tormented lead character Leonard Shelby, is asked, “What’s the last thing you remember?” He says, “My wife.” But the sum of what he can piece together from his injury-induced chronic loss of short-term memory is “the feel of a person.” Jorja Fox, who suffers a Psycho-like death and haunts the film as Shelby’s memory of his murdered wife, does exactly that on the screen: creates the feel of a person. It’s this instinctive ability to mine the white space on a page of dialogue that really calls attention to a Jorja Fox performance. While you may not have her name on the tip of your tongue at the moment, the surprise hit show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (CBS) may be the platform that will launch this young actor into the national consciousness.That’s because Jorja is doing something with her craft that isn’t seen a lot: she’s not only acting, she’s listening. And the actor’s reference points are “personal.” Born in New York, but raised in the small Florida town of Melbourne Beach, Fox’s path into the profession reads like a teen fantasy. Local girl enters a modeling contest with friends; wins the contest despite the just-rolled-out-of-bed tomboy look; ends up on photo shoots in Europe; retires by the age of 18; decides to act. Then she gets cast to do guest spots on shows like “Law and Order” and “Ellen”; stars in NBC’s huge hit “ER” and moves on to the Emmy award-winning series “The West Wing.” And now it’s “CSI,” where she plays the gung-ho junior member of the investigative team, forensics investigator Sara Sidle.
That’s not including her indie credits: Forever Fabulous, Down With the Joneses, and, of course, Memento, where she gets to be a corpse not unlike the ubiquitous bodies that people the storylines of “CSI.” But the CBS show offers something more than a mystery to solve with each episode. Starring William Petersen (who also produces), Marg Helgenberger, George Eads, and Gary Dourdan, “CSI” is about healing, about coping with the enormous violence all around us.
Ironically, in her last season on “The West Wing” she was a near-casualty, literally run over by an armored limousine. “Not just a limo, a two-ton Presidential limo.” Luckily, she survived the errant tire and actually wanted to keep on working despite the bruises. But that just speaks more to her post-Modern appeal, the rare combination of gritty realism tempered with genuine optimism in the face of challenging times. Coming from a place of honesty, Jorja Fox is on the trail to find her destiny, and the public is getting a clue about what this girl can do.
Venice: So one day you found yourself having a cappuccino in Italy, being a teen model. That must have been culture shock.
Jorja Fox: I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing in Italy?’ Culture shock was moving to New York! I was a terrible model; I just wasn’t that person. It was better in Europe than New York. I would get out of bed and not brush my hair.
I wanted to be an actress from a young age. Part of the reason [I did modeling] was that it was an opportunity to go to New York City. It was great-coming from this small town. I studied at Lee Strasberg Academy … also with Bill Hickey (Prizzi’s Honor).
William Hickey was a great actor.
He’s dead now. Nobody could believe he was teaching classes down at this place in the village. He was very ethereal and would go around stuff. Other acting teachers would say, “You’re forcing it.” He would just tell a story-about a vineyard in Ireland, and it would all make sense. I loved his class.
What did you see as a career trajectory?
I tried to play down the modeling thing, like a model who wants to be an actor. People look at that with a snicker or a grin. I retired at 18. It was kind of funny. I wouldn’t trade it for a second. I was also playing music at the time. I had two loves: acting and music.
Had you been doing indie films all the while you were doing TV?
The first job I ever got was an indie movie. I sort of chased movies for a long time, but TV offered opportunities. I still love movies. [At first] I really liked movies over TV; now that’s changed. With movies you work hard over a short period. In the past I had commitment issues [with the time required to do series TV]. Then I realized I had been working three years steadily, really enjoying it, and never flaked out! In the beginning I was so scared.
How did you get over your fear?
The actual practicality of doing it day after day takes over.
Speaking of being scared, what about the car thing?
[During the taping of an assasination attempt on “The West Wing”] I was run over by a limo, and I walked away from it. It was moving really slow, three or four miles an hour. I never saw it coming; I never had a chance to tense up. It was a two-ton limo, it wasn’t even a standard limo. It was a huge master [scene], and we were laughing because we were face down on the pavement. I saw the wheel just coming off my leg. They yelled, “Cut!” There were four guys who picked me up; it happened at about 9 pm. It was our last night of the season. [After the medical exam and no broken bones were found] They said, “Go home.” But I felt if I went home, I would have freaked out a lot more. After that, I was a little paranoid about accidents.
How did you get over it?
On “CSI” I went up in a helicopter. I was kind of terrified, but I decided I could do it. It was better than therapy!
Did Aaron Sorkin write you out of “The West Wing?”
No. He didn’t write me out. They left me alive. It was kind of great for me that they let me walk away without a scratch. Aaron is one of the greatest geniuses I have ever had the pleasure of talking to and working with.
“CSI” seems to be such a hit you may not be able to go back to “West Wing,” even if the door is open.
It’s the new level of shock, how well “CSI” is doing. We’re all obviously very surprised. I think people like the mystery and the puzzles. I think that people like feeling like they are solving the puzzle with the story. You can watch it, and there are thrills. You are actively able to see what happened .
**You mean people feel relieved that there’s going to be a resolve? **
Somebody either did it or they didn’t do it. But it’s really not a judgment. It is what’s real-not “I’m a cop I’m on the right side of the law.” I think [the characters ] are human, flawed.
And it’s not ‘sci-fi-ed’ out.
The world in general right now is sort of undefinable-not like when it was the 50’s. Not everything is so cut and dried. In the 2000’s, there are so many things [to consider]-the environment, all the people who make a living off the environment. We’re sort of in this gray area between resources that need protecting and people that need to make their living.
**I know you’re a vegetarian; are you vegan? **
I aspire to vegan! On “CSI,” [my character] was eating fish in a scene. I don’t normally eat fish, but she does. I was eating Chilean seabass-and [someone pointed out] that it is in danger of extinction. They said, “You might want to know your character is eating an animal that’s on the extinct list.” But I didn’t know until we shot it.
It seems like you are finding a way to make everything work together-your principles and your craft.
It has been luck, really. If [a project] says something close to my heart, if it makes a statement, that’s great. It’s all been sort of luck. With “The West Wing,” it was an amazing working relationship for me. You rarely get to say that much about the world at large. I felt like a tiny link to some kind of truth.
How did Memento come about?
That’s been really cool, too. We shot that a year and a half ago. I had heard really great things about the script. I was contacted really close to the shoot date. I loved working with Guy Pearce. He is one of my favorite husbands. I’ve only had a couple. I’ve been really lucky in the husband category!
Your character is Guy’s obsession. Have you seen the completed film?
At the premiere, I hadn’t seen it yet. The hard part was that people kept asking me about it before I was going in. They had really specific questions, like, “That scene with the prostitute in the bathroom, what did it mean?” At first I tried to answer the questions, then I started lying! I was really paranoid because of it.
“CSI” is going to change things. Are you getting recognized by people yet?
I live in the same neighborhood-go to the same places. I haven’t really gone outside the realm. When we break, start traveling, and leave L.A., it will be interesting to see what happens. People are so cool in this town anyway. People who have taken the time [to acknowledge me on the street] have been really great, nice, and supportive. It’s good feedback.
Your character doesn’t have much of a personal life. Will this change as the show progresses?
It’s a hard decision. We developed a show about the stories and not about the people. People have really liked that going into year two. There was sort of a decision that if you found out things about [the characters] it would be through their jobs. You get to know people first, before you get to know their intimate details.
What are your intimate details?
You mean me, or my character?
Both. Come on, think of something!
I’ll start with Sara first. An intimate detail about Sara is that there is something dark in her past that involves her in the work that she is doing. Not something that happened to her personally, but someone close to her. We’re still forming that; she might be one of the characters who has a reference point. I love that she’s not a cop, that there are gray areas, not representing moral authority. She just has the skills. You can never afford closure, give certainty to people. [In “CSI”] they can’t go back and fix what happened to people, they can just come in after the worst day of [the survivors’] lives and see what they can do to help. I think that’s what the show is about.
It does focus on recovering and healing.
In Western society in general, the “d” word is never used. Everyone at some point is going to have to deal with death on a personal level. It’s a vague, conceptual thing for a lot of people in America. This show takes a very good look at that, and that’s why it is so popular-people are watching.
Okay. Now your intimate detail. You thought I forgot, right?
No, I didn’t. What do you mean by an intimate detail?
Something in your life that is a reference point. I know you had a friend whose mom died a violent death.
Yeah. That, and my mom passed four years ago. My friend’s mom was murdered. It was violent and aggressive, horrible. My mom died of an illness (ovarian cancer), and her death was very fast for an illness. Very fast and very slow-a couple of years separated my friend and me, her mother and my mother. Those two really stand out for me.
Did you incorporate her illness into your own work as an actor?
When I got the job on “ER” my mom had been sick, and the first day I started [shooting] I got the call that things were a lot more grave than I thought. It stayed with me for the length of the show. The first two seasons were a balancing act: a great job and a horrific thing going on personally. My mom made me promise that I wouldn’t [go home]. That’s my reference for “CSI,” because we’re dealing with loss and death.
You do as much with silences as you do with dialogue. Are you aware that you are doing this?
I think that’s the whole idea of listening. I’ve seen that with other actors-the moment where it could be an actor’s most brilliant moment, where the actor says nothing. There are also times when it’s great to have this five-page dialogue, like Mamet. Our shows are great because most of the time we’re talking about the science.
Is your name your mom’s creation?
Yes. She was French Canadian. The idea of the “J” was a novel idea. My dad was of Irish descent-but it was weird at that time [in Canada]. It was like being black or Mexican, and white. There was a lot of animosity around everybody mixing. There’s still some flavor of that in Montreal. They left it all behind. I’m named after four relatives!
What’s next for you?
I don’t know. I won’t be able to work [during the strike]; maybe it’s better to travel, just to recharge and bring stuff back to my work. We’re pretending that we’re having a life when we act, but it’s cool to have one to use as a reference.
So you’ll strike if that happens?
I definitely support the union. I don’t want to strike, but it’s a hard year with the contracts. We are like athletes, the career span is shorter. We’ll see.