- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 14, 2000

''Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" could not possibly pick up where its predecessor left off. When "The Blair Witch Project" came to its harrowing finish, its trio of young filmmakers were toast and hence unavailable for the inevitable sequel.

The follow-up to last year's out-of-the-blue blockbuster sports a cast of fresh, eager, possibly doomed newcomers. One of them is Erica Leerhsen. Although this is her first significant screen credit, it should be fairly easy to remember her name. She plays Erica Geerson in the film.

The gist of "Blair Witch 2" is simple. Thanks to the mysterious disappearance of the previous visitors and the popularity of the spooky video they left behind, the hamlet of Burkittsville, Md., is booming with morbidly curious tourists. Miss Leerhsen plays one of a quartet of Boston College students who spend a night at the site of the atrocities, only to find that no one can remember what happened once the sun came up.

Miss Leerhsen's character is also a witch, a Wiccan practitioner determined to clear the Blair Witch's bad name.

"The great thing about this movie is how you could play the characters however you wanted because so little of the character is written into the lines," offers Miss Leerhsen. "The lines were like 'No, I didn't do that' or 'Let's go over here.' That left the characters very open, and I had a lot of fun creating mine."

With "Book of Shadows," Miss Leerhsen also confronted what seems almost inevitable for attractive, young starlets: a nude scene.

"The script was even worse in terms of nudity when I first read it. I just pictured myself naked on 4,000 screens and started to freak out. I was the first choice of the director, Joe Berlinger, and the part was mine. But I don't think I fulfilled the role of the naked chick. That's so not me. I don't have a Carmen Electra body. But the film does ask this question: Why are women who are Wiccans persecuted when they dance naked in the moonlight?"

By definition, witches adhere to Wicca, the theoretically benign, pagan religion that celebrates nature and observes the equinoxes and solstices as sacred days. "Book of Shadows," in fact, refers to the collected knowledge, lore and incantations of Wiccan practice. Miss Leerhsen did her homework on the ancient craft.

"I did so much research," she beams. "I read a lot of books. I knew a lot of teen Wiccans in my life, but I met a witch in Baltimore. I had lots of discussions with her and got to see how she works. She was worried how I was going to present Wiccanism. She was open to me but also saw me as dangerous. A lot of people are going to see this sequel and Wiccans have such a bad rap. I was also doing charms and spells every day, purifying our set.

"I've always believed in the supernatural, but Wiccanism isn't about superstition. It's based on practical magic and aligning your energies. But I'm too chaotic myself to be Wiccan. I haven't been able to integrate it into my life as much as I would like to."

After doing off-off Broadway theater, a TV pilot and independent features, Miss Leerhsen is thrilled with this career break. She finally nailed down the role on her birthday (Valentine's Day) and celebrated by going to see "Scream III" in Times Square. But she is leery of impending fame.

"Any time you expect recognition, you're not going to get it," she laughs. "I'll just be happy if people relate to my character. I expect things to keep going the way it's already going. I'm getting close to some great parts and turning down some work that's just not right for me. But it's a very fickle business."

Both "Blair Witch" films have an intriguing Internet site that generated great buzz. Miss Leerhsen has done a Webcast and is startled at how much the fans already know about her part.

"It's scary," she says. "People are debating the film already and making up nicknames for the characters. It's also cool because they see us representing different subcultures."

So did Miss Leerhsen keep any souvenirs of her "Blair" experience?

"It was a challenging experience," she confides wearily. "The last day of shooting wasn't fun or funny. It was the hardest thing I've ever done. It was heavy. I didn't take pictures. I didn't take rocks or sticks. It was spiritual for me. I can't explain it."

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