Originally created 08/14/97

`3rd Rock' actress making solid name for herself



Simbi Khali is still a new kid in Hollywood, but playing Nina on NBC's 3rd Rock From the Sun is changing that. The show, airing Sunday night at 8, arrived as a mid-season replacement last spring to terrific ratings, and to the perplexity of some viewers.

"People either love it or they hate it," said Ms. Khali, 26. "They think it's too silly because it's a very specific kind of (humor) - it's mental, but at the same time it's very slapsticky."

Regardless, the comedy is offering great exposure to Ms. Khali, a supporting player in the series about aliens disguised as earthlings. Ms. Khali plays a human office assistant to John Lithgow and Jane Curtin's characters. And she thinks that the show's appeal may stem from the comedy's way of making light of serious issues and reminding people not to take themselves too seriously.

During 3rd Rock's summer hiatus, Ms. Khali visited Washington and reminisced about her start in theater, her years at D.C.'s Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts, and her rearing as the youngest of seven children - five girls, two boys - in a very supportive, if not well-to-do, family.

Ms. Khali was born in Jackson, Miss., in 1971, moved to Chicago at age 2, then back to the Deep South before finishing high school in Washington. It was in high school that she decided to pursue acting.

"When I was 15, I got really bad, and I went to live with my sister who had gone to Alabama. And then my junior and senior year, I came to Duke, got myself together, decided, `OK, I'm going to commit now. I'm ready to be serious."'

She traced her first influential onstage role to early high school in Alabama. For a talent show, she lip-synched Janet Jackson's song Control and found the onstage rush irresistible.

Halfway through her Alabama high school, Ms. Khali said, she grew weary of the state and rejoined her mother, Amerah Shabazz, who was then working as a secretary at The Washington Post and counseling at the D.C. Rape Crisis Center. Ms. Khali transferred to Duke Ellington and, upon graduating, won admission to the prestigious California Institute of the Arts. In her senior year, an agent saw her perform at the school and agreed to represent her. But success did not follow immediately.

"I thought, what am I going to do? Now I have to make a living. And I have to keep this car note up - because I had gotten my first car my junior year, a little Nissan Sentra. I still have her, too. My family (members) were so sweet. They said, `Until you get on your feet, we will help you with your bills' - that was my graduation present."

Then she answered a posting from Ben & Jerry's, which was looking for performers to impersonate ice cream flavors.

"All of my friends went and auditioned," she said. "There were four of us from Cal Arts and three from UCLA."

The Ben & Jerry's troupe visited hospitals and other Los Angeles locales in need of cheer and dished out samples. Ms. Khali was coffee almond fudge.

"We had so much fun," she said. "I got to see more of L.A. that summer than I ever had."

The stint paid well and allowed her time to audition for other jobs. But more importantly, she said, "The thing about that job was it seemed really silly, but we touched so many people."

One time a woman emerged from a courthouse upset over the possibility of losing custody of her children, she said. "So we stood there, holding hands - praying ice cream."

Soon afterward, Khali got her first job on Fox's "Martin," playing Sheneneh's best friend. She did a couple of episodes for that show, and one for "Sinbad" on the same network. Then she landed a regular spot on the all-female sketch ABC comedy series "SheTV."

But it ran only six weeks. And she was in limbo again.

"I was auditioning and auditioning, and whenever I was on the lot, I would go say hi to Bonnie and Terry" (Turner, who were cooking up "3rd Rock" for Carsey-Werner). They had become friends while working together on "She-TV." Then things just clicked.

"One time, after auditioning for `Vampire in Brooklyn' (a film role she got), I bumped into John Lithgow there, who told me he loved my impersonation of Michael Jackson on `She-TV.' " Khali was thrilled: "John Lithgow - the man, the man, the man!"

Then the Turners invited her to be a part of "3rd Rock's" pilot. "They hadn't even cast Jane (Curtin) yet. I asked what it was about and they said, `We have this character that was John's love interest and his secretary but it made it too sweet. We need some walls, we need some resistance. The rest of the show is working, but the office is not working.' "

Khali asked them, " `Well, what do you want me to do?' I didn't want a stereotypical, rolling-my-neck role." They assured her that Nina was no stereotype.

Now, Khali said, she is comfortable with the role, after deciding that Nina "can't be too tough. She has to be the audience's response" to Lithgow's shenanigans and Curtin's reactions, a filter to the sexual tension between them.