BY: FRAZIER MOORE
NEW YORK – Natascha McElhone faces dual challenges as Karen on “Californication.”
For one thing, McElhone is gorgeous: willowy, ethereal, with lofty cheekbones and a luxurious mane. So how is she supposed to make viewers believe that Karen’s boyfriend, Hank (series star David Duchovny), would habitually stray from that fine a woman?
Meanwhile: How to portray Karen as a character the audience respects, even as she welcomes him back, over and over, from his dalliances?
Somehow, McElhone is pulling it off. She makes codependency enchanting on this raw, outrageous Showtime comedy, which, in its fourth season (with a fifth recently announced), airs Sundays at 9 p.m. EST.
Only last week, Karen flew to her estranged mate after he apparently tried to kill himself with a drug overdose.
“I was so busy being mad at you, I had no idea how much pain you were in,” Karen told Hank tenderly.
Then, by the end of the episode, their teenage daughter, Becca, had blown the whistle on him: Hank’s “suicide attempt” was just a reckless case of self-medication.
In a rage, Karen banished him again.
But don’t count them out for yet another rapprochement.
“She never quite gets the same feeling or the same hit from anyone else,” says McElhone, “and that’s what brings her back to him. The cycle of their relationship is, perhaps in some ways, repetitive. But each time the wheel goes around, there’s a different set of colors in the kaleidoscope.”
Sometimes the kaleidoscope is riotously off-color. While Karen is the steadfast enabler of Hank, he is a roguish writer at the core of a fast crowd of sexed-up, misbehaving Angelenos.
“Rather than wishing to change him,” says McElhone, “she’s trying to make him realize his best self — as much for his sake as hers and their daughter’s.”
There’s some form of true love between them, however volatile and funny.
In the past, the 39-year-old British native has played characters as varied as an artist’s muse (“Surviving Picasso”), an Irish terrorist’s lover (“Devil’s Own”), a fantasy woman (“The Truman Show”) and a nun unraveling prophesies (the miniseries “Revelations”). But until “Californication,” she hadn’t had much chance at comedy.
A Sit Down with “Californication’s” Natascha McElhone
Her first contact with the show’s creator, Tom Kapinos, was a transcontinental telephone call.
“I had to make him laugh on the phone,” she says. “And we laughed!”
Making people laugh is what first attracted her to acting.
“As a child,” she recalls, “I would do impersonations of my parents’ friends. As soon as they would leave our house, I would run in and do my version of them, and make my parents howl with laughter.”
Asked why funny roles may have eluded her for so long, she answers, in a modest way, that it might be explained by “something as mundane” as her physical appearance.
“When I left drama school,” she says, “if you were a woman who was sort of tall with medium frame and didn’t have a wonky face, well, you were going to play straight rules. And that was that.
“It sounds like I’m being strident and grumpy,” she adds, though, of course, it doesn’t. “I took gladly all the roles that I’ve had. You say, ‘Why do I think I wasn’t cast in comedy?’ Well, perhaps I’m not very funny — or perhaps I’m only funny in the safety of my home.”
The image of casual chic in a loose gray sweater and black leggings, McElhone is pleasantly direct, whether it’s discussing escapades on “Californication” or her long career, or revisiting a tragic episode in her personal life: the sudden death of her husband at age 43.
In May 2008, Martin Kelly, a facial reconstruction expert who founded a charity that performs plastic surgery for severely disfigured children in poor countries, collapsed from a heart attack on the doorstep of their London home. It was just days before he planned to join her in Los Angeles, where she was shooting her series, to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. She was five months pregnant with their third son.
One way she dealt with the loss was by publishing “After You,” a collection of writings about her marriage and her loss.
“My salvation was in writing to him,” she says. “It was never intended to be a book, but just a series of diary entries to him. It was very cathartic.”
Another way she coped was by continuing her work on “Californication.” By then, she said, the people on the show were a welcome family.
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