| WHAT TO WATCH

Shannon Elizabeth Curls up with 'Cuts'

By John Crook

Sunday, February 13, 2005

12:01 AM PT

Shannon Elizabeth is ready to curl up and dye.

Best known for her breakout role in "American Pie," the 31-year-old actress makes her debut as a TV series regular in "Cuts," a UPN comedy premiering Monday, Feb. 14.

The sitcom, a spinoff of the UPN hit "One on One," stars Elizabeth as Tiffany Sherwood, a rich party girl whose father, Jack (Corbin Bernsen), is the new owner of Phatheadz, a former black family-owned barbershop in an upwardly mobile Los Angeles neighborhood.

"I was keeping my options open and had taken meetings before for something like this, but I wasn't necessarily looking for something like this when it came along," the actress says of her new gig. "I'm surrounded by a lot of good people I really trust, though, and they saw a sitcom as something I should do.

"When I did the 'One on One' episode, there were no handshakes; it was all hugs and kisses, and they just made me feel totally comfortable, people I would want to get up and come to work with for the next however many years this could go."

When the series pilot aired as a "One on One" episode last May, Jack installed Tiffany as manager of the business, determined that she become more responsible. But Tiffany immediately butted heads with the previous manager of Phatheadz, Kevin (Marques Houston), who was horrified by Tiffany's plans to turn this traditional men's barbershop into a swank women's day spa called Serenity.

By the end of the episode, Tiffany and Kevin had reluctantly agreed to allow the barbershop and spa to coexist under the new name "Pharenity."

"Oh, but there's still plenty of room for conflict," Elizabeth says. "We've agreed that the shop will be both a barbershop and a day spa, so there's a little of everything there, but there's an ongoing argument over how best to manage and coordinate things.

"You saw that in the pilot episode, where Tiffany came in and started making all these impulsive decisions that didn't sit well with the original owners. There still will be lots of that."

The sitcom got a late production start, going into rehearsals less than a month before its Valentine's Day premiere date. While Elizabeth previously did several guest shots on "That '70s Show" as Kelso's girlfriend, she knows she has to find a way to make the "Cuts" set feel more like home.

"The energy you get from a live audience is always very welcome, although you have to get over being nervous at first. It doesn't help that they keep the studios freezing cold, which makes me shiver right from the start," she says, laughing.

"The only thing you really have to be aware of and get used to is that different soundstages echo very differently. You can be on a set and hear the laugh, like, two seconds late because it travels. It's hard to get used to, but you really have to make that adjustment in performance."

Spoken like a sitcom veteran, one far removed from the self-described country girl who grew up in small Waco, Texas. After studying dance as a child, the young Elizabeth went through a period when she seriously considered a career in professional tennis, but she eventually gave that up.

"To be honest, there was a tennis coach at our high school that a lot of people just really weren't real fond of, and there were a bunch of us who were pretty good who quit playing, at least on the school level, and it was kind of hard to keep up with regular practices after that," she explains. "It also was just very stressful for me, just getting ready for one match. There was all this preparation the night before: what you would eat, getting enough sleep, and I really got blisters. That meant I had to wrap my feet before every match. I really had fun doing it, but it was also kind of easy to just fall out of it."

Immediately after graduation, she began a modeling career that took her around the world, introducing her to a variety of cultures and, as a welcome bonus, ridding her of a thick Southern accent in the process.

"I was around all these people who did not speak English as a first language, so they couldn't understand me and my accent at all," she explains. "I had to learn to speak without the accent so that they could understand my English. By the time I came out to Hollywood, I wasn't having to work to lose it on purpose. It already was pretty much gone."

A move into TV commercials segued into acting classes, leading eventually to her role in the teen comedy "American Pie," a success she admits was both exciting and intimidating.

"It was different from anything I had experienced before," she says. "For one thing, before 'American Pie,' I never had been recognized just walking down the street before. That took some getting used to, for sure.

"I guess I was a little used to seeing my picture from my modeling work, but that was different, too, because I had usually been representing a product, and no one knew who I was, whereas now suddenly, I was the product."

A passionate animal lover, she shrewdly began exploiting her celebrity to promote Animal Avengers, an animal rescue organization she founded with her husband, actor Joseph D. Reitman. She invites fans to visit the organization's Web site, located at www.animalavengers.com.

"It's one of the things that I wanted to do with all the press that I've been getting," Elizabeth says of the organization. "I wanted to do something more than just promoting my films and myself, to do something that could really make a difference. I hope everyone will check it out, because it's very close to my heart."