Tori Spelling knew she had something to prove when she took on the physical comedy, "Maybe, Baby, It's You," a two-person play about relationships at the Coronet Theatre.
Even after she received rave reviews for her darkly comic turns in the late 1990s films "Trick" and "House of Yes," Spelling -- best known as the virginal Donna on "Beverly Hills 90210" -- had a decade of Hollywood hazing to live down: How she'd be working retail if daddy weren't "90210" mega-producer Aaron Spelling; how she was spoiled, talentless, anorexic and plastic surgery-addicted (a rumor she denies).
"The stuff in the press used to make me cry," sighs the 28-year-old Jewish actress, who in person is attractive, funny, quirky and self-effacing. "But my instinct is to fight people and do what I want despite them. And what I most want now is to do physical comedy."
Which is why Spelling, who's had the aspiration since discovering "I Love Lucy" as a kid, risked the demanding sketch comedy "Maybe, Baby." In the course of two hours, she must transform herself into 11 different characters, ranging from a junior high nerd to Medea on a blind date. And while critics have praised her exuberance and comic flair, there have been the inevitable digs, like this one in the Los Angeles Times: "Tori Spelling is making her professional stage debut. Quit waiting for the punch line."
Spelling just rolls her doe eyes and laughs good-naturedly. "I am so used to backhanded compliments that it would be weird if people just took me seriously," she says.
If the actress has a steel spine, it's clear her survival instincts are genetic. During a recent interview, she tells a story about her father's impoverished Dallas childhood: "When he was 10, he heard about a Christmas story contest and the winner would get a bike," she recounts. "So he spent days writing a beautiful story -- even though he was Jewish, he felt Christmas was a time for people coming together. And he won the bike and he was so proud. And then they found out he was Jewish and they took it away from him."
Spelling may have been the actress everyone loved to hate, but at least she never experienced anti-Semitism. She grew up quietly celebrating the Jewish holidays in the family's 100-room mansion: On Passover, her mother, Candy (who, contrary to popular lore, was born Jewish), hosted a seder, led by Aaron Spelling, who translated the Hebrew from the haggadah. On the High Holy Days, the family attended Sinai Temple. If the actress has one regret, it's that she did not become bat mitzvah: "Being a child, if you're given a choice, you go, 'Oh, religious school, no,'" she says.
Another regret is her past choice of boyfriends, which is why the single actress was drawn to "Maybe, Baby" and its theme of soulmate-searching. She most identifies with the once-burned character of Medea: "When I was younger, I'd always pick the bad boys," says Spelling, who made the tabloids during her tempestuous relationship with Nick Savalas, son of "Kojak" star Telly. "Then you get older and you think, 'Those nice guys are looking pretty good.'"
"Maybe, Baby" is helping her cope with dating as well as her career. "In the past, I've always been so worried about what's going on with life and boys," she says. "But since I've been doing this play, I feel I can breathe for the first time in years. I wake up every day and I feel talented and beautiful and confident. The play has given me all of that."
"Maybe Baby" runs through March 23. For tickets and information, call (310) 657-7377.