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From the Water to the Sky: “Baywatch” Star Alexandra Paul in “Rough Air”

Regular television viewers know Alexandra Paul as Lt. Stephanie Holden on Baywatch — but readers may recall my utter lack of small screen pop culture knowledge when I confessed to an amused Michael Gross that I’d never seen an episode of Family Ties. Everything I know of Baywatch has been gleaned from newspapers, magazines, and occasional channel surfing. Paul brought me up to date on the show during out conversation about the upcoming straight-to-video release Rough Air: Danger on Flight 534 (a terror in the air scenario where she plays a flight attendant opposite Eric Roberts’ stalwart pilot). With an exhaustive resume of TV projects and feature films, I’ll always remember Paul best as The Virgin Connie Swail opposite Dan Aykroyd in Dragnet and the conflicted love interest to Keith Gordon in John Carpenter’s Christine, where he has the memorable final line, ‘God, I hate rock ‘n’ roll.’ I’m sort of notorious among the staff because I don’t watch television — hardly ever. What would you say about Baywatch if you had to describe it to someone who never saw it?

Alexandra Paul: Baywatch is a one-hour television show about a group of lifeguards on the beach in Southern California. It has lot to do with their rescues and the storylines associated with those rescues. There are also a lot of relationships between the lifeguards — not usually romantic, although there are some liaisons. But a lot of them are friendships, roommates, father-son, and things like that.

One thing I do know about Baywatch is your character got killed off mid-season. I guess you were thinking about rebuilding your reputation as an actress?

I did get killed off mid-season. I told them after the fourth season that I wanted to leave, so they sort of dribbled in some extra shows into the fifth season, then I came back to shoot my last show. To rebuild my reputation as an actress? That would connote that my reputation as an actress went into the toilet because I was on Baywatch. I would say there is definitely a respect issue when you’re on a show like Baywatch, but I left because it was just time to leave and do other things.

Are you doing other films right now?

You know, I’d love to do more television. While I was on Baywatch I was also doing films. And I did films for the ten years I was an actress before Baywatch, so what I would like to do is a little bit of everything. As soon as I left Baywatch I did a pilot the next season and a television series on another network. But that pilot didn’t go. I definitely didn’t leave to do films. I left because it was time to go. The ratings were dropping on the show, and five years is a long time, so…

What TV shows did you do after Baywatch? I know there was Melrose Place.

I did that ABC pilot called Daytona Beach with Lee Majors that never went. Then I did a show called Fire Company 132 for Fox, but that was canceled after eight episodes. Melrose Place was also canceled after my eighth episode.

So now you’re looking for a little bit of everything. I guess that’s where Rough Air comes in.

I was very excited to work with Eric Roberts. Actually, I worked a lot that year. I did seven films in 2000. In some of the films I had smaller parts, and in several I was in leads. It was varied. Rough Air topped off the end of the year.

Rough Air takes place almost entirely on those airplane sets. Did you ever miss working on the beach?

Oh, the beach is an incredible place to work! Especially in the summer when it’s really hot in other parts of the city. We got to work at the beach in the summer, when it’s generally comfortable. It’s chilly at other times of the year. You do have to contend more with weather, because on the beach you have wind. But I didn’t mind working on set. I’ve worked on set before. I did one film where it all took place in the same house. On Rough Air, we didn’t really leave the set. It was actually nice to come back to the same set every day. The thing that’s the toughest is putting on the same darned clothes. You kind of get sick of them. (laughs)

How did you approach the role of a flight attendant?

I did speak with a flight attendant. I had read the script so I was able to ask her questions.

Was that person on set the whole time? I heard that an expert pilot named ‘Captain Bob’ was hired to make sure it looks real when Eric Roberts is flying. ‘Captain Bob’ filled Roberts in on the pilot lingo.

No, this woman I called before the film started.

What did you talk about?

I asked her how it goes when you get on a plane. What do you do? I have to tell you, before this I sort of looked at flight attendants as hostesses in the air. After Rough Air, I realized that’s not the case at all! They do have the job of seating people, but there’s more to it. You know when they’re sitting down before the plane’s taking off and we’re all strapped in? They’re mandated to go through a checklist in their head. They’re mandated to do that! I don’t know if all of them do it, but they’re supposed to. Also, when someone comes in (and this is before September 11th), they note who might be a troublemaker and who looks like somebody that might be able to help if there were trouble. And they do have the drug that’s in Rough Air, if they need to knock out unruly people. I was really surprised!

If you were hiring, what skills would a good flight attendant need?

They would need to be diplomatic, but tactful and polite and patient. But also strong, because the hours can be long, the place is cramped, and people are unhappy. You have to deal with them, too.

Would you make a good flight attendant? I wouldn’t! I’d have been so mad at the unruly passenger in Rough Air that I would have dumped his scotch on him.

Yeah, I think I would be a good flight attendant, except that I don’t like to fly. Every time I fly, I think, ‘Oh, this plane could crash.’ So I’m not particularly cavalier about flying. As I said, this was a year and a half before September 11th. But I just wouldn’t like to fly that much. I know that traveling sounds glamorous, but I know the reality — having traveled a lot for acting. It’s not that glamorous to be in a hotel room all alone without your family.

You said earlier you were interested in working with Eric Roberts.

I respect him a lot as an actor. I’ve followed his career a little, because he’s not much older than I am. When I came to Hollywood, he was already established. It was very nice to work with him after seeing a lot of his films. He was really professional as a pilot, that’s for sure. It’s not easy pretending to fly a plane, but he did it!

You’re huge into personal fitness, right? Running for triathlons — do you have an exercise regime you do weekly or something?

Yeah, I do. Actually, I’m not doing triathlons right now, but my husband is a triathlon coach. I have done them before. In 1997, I took a year off just to train for triathlons and I did about a dozen in that year culminating with the Hawaiian Ironman. Marathons are more my thing right now. I’m coming off a running injury, but I’m running again now and hope to do a marathon at the end of this year. We’ll see how my ankle holds up. I do an hour of cardio a day and that might be swimming, running, or riding a stationary bike. I do yoga three times a week and lift twice a week, maybe three times. That’s the right amount
I can carry when I’m not working.

Think you could beat Eric Roberts in a race?

Y’know, I could definitely beat him in a marathon but I’ll bet I couldn’t beat him in a sprint! I’m kind of a plodder. He’s in really good shape. He looks terrific in terms of — his body looks very good.

One thing you said about Pierce Brosnan was that as he gets older, he’s getting foxier. How do you perceive your own image of getting older?

I don’t know. I’m 38 now. Pierce was like 42 when I worked with him, and that was 1994. Men tend to have the blessing of becoming distinguished as they get older, if they keep in shape. Women have the curse of, even if they’re in shape, just getting older.

Why do you think that is? Why aren’t women viewed as distinguished when they get older?

I think it’s biological. Biologically, women who are younger can have babies more. That’s why men are more visual, because they were sizing up the woman to see if she was young, healthy, curvaceous, if she has better hips for birthing and stuff like that. In our society and in many societies aging for women is not as celebrated, because women’s looks are more important than their head. Woman’s looks tend to quote-deteriorate-unquote. Although I have to say that I think in my 30s I looked better than I did in my 20s.

What do you mean?

I look better because — not because the styles were so dorky in the ‘80s, though I’m sure in ten years we’ll look back at the ‘90s and laugh. Even now I look and say, ‘Oh, look, they plucked their eyebrows so much!’ And in the ‘80s: ‘God, how come I didn’t pluck my eyebrows more?’ (laughs) I don’t know about right now. I think I’m going through an ugly period. But I think my face has more angles and I have more grace than I did in my 20s. I had a rounder face in my 20s. There’s a film I did in 1985 when I was 23 or something, I was probably eight pounds thinner and my face was a lot rounder!

You just mentioned a minute ago about how women are viewed. How do you deal with that ‘hot chick from Baywatch‘ thing?

Hey, if someone called me a hot chick from Baywatch, I wouldn’t mind! I know that that’s not my — I’m not a hot chick from Baywatch. I would say the others were, and I was the smart one. If someone thinks I’m attractive, that’s just nice. I always know that’s not the only thing they think about me, because I’m not known for being super-attractive. Do you know what I’m saying? I’m not a Pamela [Anderson]. The first thing anyone ever thinks about with her is how sexy or beautiful she is. That wasn’t the reason I was on that show. I was on Baywatch because I was a very good swimmer, I had ten years of acting that I had already done in a lot of big films, and they wanted someone with credibility as a lifeguard.

Is that what you look for in your acting roles? Credibility?

No, I’d love to play idiot bimbos and wackos! I’ve done so many roles as the sensible, intelligent, together woman — forget it! I’ll do ‘em, but I can do ‘em in my sleep! I’d like to play someone really free. Free with her emotions, free with her sexuality, her anger, her love, her humor, and all that. A big character, a big person.

I know you’re based in Los Angeles, but do you have any interest in doing theater?

I’ve done theater only once. I know that people love that, but I’m not attracted to it. A lot of that is the fear of something new. But I think I have a prerogative. I don’t have to do it. I do a lot of things I’m afraid of in my life, but I don’t have to do everything that I’m adverse to, or that I’m not particularly attracted to.

Two of your co-stars from John Carpenter’s Christine have gone on to careers as directors. Keith Gordon filmed Waking the Dead and Mother Night. And John Stockwell went on to direct crazy/beautiful with Kirsten Dunst.

Y’know, I think he wrote Rock Star, too, didn’t he?

Yeah, he did.

I saw his credits and I said, ‘Woo-hoo, that’s awesome!’

Hey, now it’s your turn. If you could direct anything, what would you do?

I don’t aspire to direct. I have produced and co-written two education films on environmental issues and the only reason I did it was not because I thought the issues were so important. But no, I’m an actress. It’s funny because I know a lot of people want to be directors, but it’s drawn along sex lines. It seems that more men want to direct than women, and I don’t know if that’s just because we have less of a desire for power or what.

How many times in your career have you been directed by a woman?

Only once! And it was great. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience. She was organized, it was the most relaxed set, and we actually finished early so many times during the day. It was Mixed Blessings, a TV movie about having babies. Scott Baio is in it.

So your true passion is for acting.

It’s all about character. It’s definitely a smart thing to produce or write or get involved with one’s own career instead of waiting for someone to give you roles, so I’ve definitely had some ideas and spoken to people about things. I don’t have a desire to direct, but I think it’s smart for people, to have a hand in the projects they want to be in.

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