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The Toronto Star
December 18, 1994
Final Edition, p.C8

Warm heart, cold hands the lot of the actress in winter Jessica Steen finds s(no)w business like show biz filming outdoors

Jim Bawden

``At last!!'' chirps Jessica Steen, currently braving the terrors of the unknown in the new NBC science fiction series Earth 2 (Sundays at 7 p.m. on Chs. 2, 11).

She's not taking about her current acting gig but something she completed almost two years ago - a CBC slice-of-life TV flick called Small Gifts that's been lying on the shelf for no apparent reason.

``I did interviews for it last Christmas,'' she says ``but CBC said they couldn't afford to show it because they had so much inventory. I'm just glad it's finally out there. It portrays the kind of Christmases most of us have. Not the phony tinsel but the small, sweet moments which make life worthwhile.'' The two-hour drama is on CBC's Channel 5 tonight at 8.

Steen stars as feisty young wife Nora who schemes to keep her family financially afloat. Her shiftless but charming husband, Evan (Jeremy Ratchford), has been laid off by the mines and their festive season looks to be a bleak one. The movie, directed by Eric Till, written by David Adams Richards, was filmed north of Toronto, with an additional two weeks of location filming in New Brunswick.

``Cold,'' says Steen. ``That's what I remember. It was during that spell of minus 25 weather and all you could see was parkas with red noses sticking out. For me it was a big stretch, dowdy clothes, little makeup. I hope I proved I can carry a big role. I'd like to come back to Canada to make films the Americans consider uncommercial. Small Gifts is something to be proud of.''

The Toronto native says having her second American series on TV in three years wasn't her idea. ``I did Homefront, which everybody seemed to love when they could find us. ABC kept changing times. And then they put us against Cheers and couldn't figure why we didn't deliver. The show was so well written and made with such care. It had something to say and I loved my character. Then - poof! - we were cancelled and I vowed no more series, but here I am.''

Steen says the folks at Amblin Entertainment went after her and she tested for them, for Universal Pictures, for NBC. The series is made in Tucson, Ariz., 7,000 feet above sea level. ``So it's fairly cold here,'' she said on the phone. ``It's not Toronto cold but nippy. We shoot outdoors a lot with that magnificent scenery, so it's wonderful escaping from the studio backlot. We have a few converted soundstages for standing sets. I've heard the series called `science fiction for people who don't like science fiction.' The technology isn't the star, the actors are. And I like my character of young, idealistic Dr. Heller. I'm starting to grow into the part.''

This is Steen's second sci-fi series. ``Only in Toronto would you remember Captain Power,'' she sighs. Steen, 28, says she left for Los Angeles only because she'd done every Canadian series going, from The Littlest Hobo to Night Heat to The Edison Twins. ``There was nothing left to challenge me. I initially moved to New York, where I was briefly on the soap Loving. Then I found out most actors had moved to L.A. and off I went.''

In junior high she was pals with Keanu Reeves, ``who used to park his car in my parents' backyard while he played basketball in the school playground next door.'' In one year she acted with him three times, including the movies Youngblood and the gymnastic flick Flying. ``Next? I'm aiming to try theatre because it scares me.''

Says Steen, ``I guess I want it all. I like doing Earth 2, with its huge budget and the audience it reaches. I'd also like doing more personal projects like Small Gifts. It's the Canadian in me.''

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