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Larisa Oleynik Still the Girl-Next-Door

originally posted July 9, 2004

Larisa Oleynik admits she's a little out of training; not particularly primed for the incoming questions. "I haven't thought about my whole career or whatever, in quite some time," she says, with a giggle. It's her first interview in a couple of years. The 23-year-old actress has maintained a low profile in her four years away studying at New York's Sarah Lawrence College, where she graduated in early June with a Bachelor of Arts degree. But despite her absence from the public eye, certain characteristics of hers-her effervescent, girl-next-door nature-have remained intact. And so has her propensity to laugh-and laugh a lot. These qualities are highlighted when she outlines her day before our conversation. "I got up, I made myself coffee, and then I worked really intently on a jigsaw puzzle for about two hours," she explains, before adding, "I'm kinda lame (laughs)."

It was this down-to-earth, almost coy temperament that saw her rocket into the spotlight at age 12, when she was cast as Alex Mack, a girl who accidentally acquires superpowers, in "The Secret World of Alex Mack." Having developed a strong cult-like following in its four seasons, the series was and still is one of the most successful in Nickelodeon history.

On the back of that success, Oleynik would then land the part of Bianca Stratford in the 1999 teen-hit, 10 Things I Hate About You. The popularity of the film, alongside a recurring role on "3rd Rock from the Sun," and three impressive independent film performances would see her labeled by many as one of the hottest young actresses in the world. But Oleynik decided-against the urges of industry experts - to put the acting pursuits on hold and attend college. "Everyone tries to talk you out of going to college," she says. "The consensus being that people are just gonna forget about you, you know, and that's the way the business works." But she had an indifferent opinion. "I kinda feel that hopefully if [acting] is what I'm supposed to be doing, and it's something that I'm good at, that that's not gonna have changed by just taking a little break from it," she explains. "I don't think I've really lost any momentum."

Her choice to pursue college was fuelled partially by the desire to have a full, uninterrupted school experience. Although she attended the same school from Kindergarten to 12th grade, Oleynik says her presence was "intermittent" because of acting commitments. Oftentimes the school would fax her work, and she would study with the assistance of a tutor in between takes. "It worked out pretty well," she remembers, "but it was still a little hard because whenever I would go back to my regular high school I was always behind, and I couldn't go out with my friends on the weekend because I had makeup tests to do. That was a little bit tricky, and I think that's part of the reason why I really wanted to take time off and go to college."

Furthermore, Oleynik saw it as an opportunity to refresh after nearly 12 years straight of professional acting. "I've been acting professionally since (pause), god, eight I guess," she points out. "So it's something that I've been doing for so long, that I think I really needed a break from it. I just wanted the time to be in school, and be around my peers." College also would assist her, she figured, perspective wise. "I think it's really important because, you know, if I'm gonna be acting I have to have some kind of foot dipped into real life and not just Los Angeles," she says, laughing. "Because it's a not a very real place to live. It can be, but I was needing to get away from a while." Oleynik feel she achieved the latter in college, and will be wiser for it. "I feel like I'm going back into it [the acting] now with a bit of a stronger head on my shoulders and stuff like that."

Oleynik did partake in one project while in college, which was offbeat indie film, Bringing Rain, shot in between her junior and sophomore years. The zany boarding school-set film, in which Oleynik is Ori Swords, an upbeat, innocent student, was launched at the 2003 Tribeca Film Festival. "The director was only 24, it was a young cast, and so it was like one big party!," Oleynik says. A party that as Oleynik explains she was a last-minute addition to. "The director had a friend that he wanted for that part, and something fell through at the very last minute," she explains. "Literally only a few days before they started shooting-I think it was the Wednesday and they started shooting on the Monday-they called me up. I was in Los Angeles, and they were in New York, and they sent me the script, and it was basically like, 'We're sending the script to a couple actresses, and whoever responds the quickest gets the part.'" After quickly reading the script, she was on the phone within 20 minutes to accept. "I said 'Yeah, yeah, I want to do it.' Fly me to New York.'" She pauses a moment, and then jokingly adds, "Actually, that's not true. I flew myself!"

The 5'7" brunette says she had a familiarity with the personality of her character, hence it wasn't overwhelming to take it at such short notice. "I think it was a good role because it was similar enough to things I had done in the past, so I felt comfortable and didn't need months and months of preparation." It presented just enough of a challenge too. "The character herself wasn't mature, but the material was, so if you compare it to a movie like 10 Things, it's not necessarily the same type of high school movie," says Oleynik.

Always looking for a challenge, it comes as no surprise that Oleynik picks her role in independent film, A Time For Dancing, in which she plays Juliana, a brilliant young dancer stricken by cancer, over her more commercial works as her favorite part to date. "I loved the script, I loved working on it, and it felt like-it felt like the first time I ever was responsible for really acting," Oleynik says of the film she commenced working on just after graduating from high school. "It wasn't just, you know, I could rely on giggling, or being cute, or having superpowers, or whatever. It was like, 'Okay, this is a movie dealing with serious issues. I better be prepared.' It was definitely like a maturing experience for me, and I think it turned out pretty well… it was really the first time I felt I got the whole acting game."

Currently, she is planning a move back to Los Angeles to resume life as a full-time actress. Her future parts, she hopes, will project positive messages to the audience. "I definitely think that movies have the possibility to be something positive, and are really becoming teaching tools for a lot of kids growing up," Oleynik says. "Like, more often than not…kids grow up learning a lot from the movies, and I would just like to be able to bring something positive. Realistic, but positive. Hopefully I'm gonna be able to choose projects based on that."

Oleynik also has a few actresses she wouldn't mind working alongside. "I'm obsessed with Sarah Polley," she reveals. "I've seen almost every movie that she's been in. She represents something in actresses that few strive for, so she's someone I would like to work with…she's kind of a role model, even though she's my age. I guess I'd have to move to Canada for that though (laughs)." Another is Susan Sarandon. "Susan Sarandon, hell yeah," Oleynik enthuses. "She's pretty kickass."

When pressed to comment distinctly about her attitude towards the future, Oleynik alludes to her recent graduation ceremony. "You know, at the graduation ceremony, there's all this talk of like, you know, 'You're going out to the world,' and 'It's your time,' and 'You have the power to change things,' and you get really excited about that, and I hope that I can kinda hold onto that for a while. I hope I don't get too cynical living in Los Angeles!" Whatever the ensuing months and years entail, one thing is for certain, the buoyant actress won't be taking herself too seriously. "I've had a pretty charmed life, so there's nothing that I need to take too seriously right now," she says, accompanied by that oh-so-signature million dollar giggle.

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