- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 1, 2002

PASADENA, Calif. — Christine Lahti felt her career needed some laughs. "I wanted to do a comedy desperately," the actress says, explaining her choice of "Women vs. Men," a farce about marital errors and misunderstandings.

The Showtime movie provided a sharp contrast to the "dramatic and intense" CBS film "The Pilot's Wife," in which she starred last April.

But although "Women vs. Men" is "frothy and fun," Miss Lahti says it does explore real issues that can arise in long-term marriages, "so there are some painful things you have to access even though it's a comedy."

In "Women vs. Men," which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m., Miss Lahti plays Dana, whose husband, Michael (played by Joe Mantegna), seeks what Miss Lahti calls the "false intimacy" of a strip club as a tonic after a quarrel at home. Paul Reiser and Glenne Headly play another couple also affected by philandering.

Writer David J. Burke developed the farce through a series of informal readings with Miss Lahti and other actors, reworking scenes and tweaking dialogue as they went along. Miss Lahti says that allowed her to "flesh out [Dana] a little more, to make it seem that it was a specific time in her life, not just a general midlife crisis."

The movie marks the screen directing debut of actor Chazz Palminteri, who says he appreciated Miss Lahti's extra effort.

"With Christine, we would say, 'You know, that was really great,' but Christine would say, 'Let me go a little further.' And I would say, 'Go a little further,'" Mr. Palminteri says.

Chatting in a Pasadena hotel, where she looks elegantly at ease in an amber-and-gold flower-patterned sheath dress, Miss Lahti says both sexes behave in "a very adolescent way" in the movie.

"What unites them all is a common need to be loved, to feel adored in their marriage, and like many of us, they don't know how to ask for it; they don't know how to get it; they don't know how to give it," she says.

Miss Lahti, 52, has been married for nearly two decades to director Thomas Schlamme, an Emmy winner for his work on several series, including "The West Wing."

"It takes common sense. It takes communication," she says of her marriage qualities that are missing from the relationships in "Women vs. Men."

The desire to be in Los Angeles with her three children often influences Miss Lahti's career choices.

"Women vs. Men" was filmed in California, but she did travel to Lithuania earlier this year to play the lead in a Showtime movie, to air next year, about Gisella Perl, a doctor forced to work in Nazi concentration camps.

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Probably best known for her Emmy-winning role as Dr. Kate Austin from 1995 through '99 on CBS' medical drama "Chicago Hope," Miss Lahti says she thinks it's unlikely she'll return to the demanding schedule of series television while her children are still young.

She says she is sometimes mistaken for Allison Janney, who plays White House press secretary C.J. Cregg on NBC's "The West Wing."

"I can always tell because they say, 'I love your show,' as opposed to, 'I loved your show,'" Miss Lahti says with a laugh. "Never in a million years do I think we look alike, but we are both tall and have red hair, I guess."

The first role Miss Lahti remembers playing was "a tree" in a grade-school play in her hometown of Birmingham, Mich.

"I don't remember what the tree did, or whether it had any lines," she jests.

She played the Virgin Mary in a Christmas pageant in sixth grade and was hooked on acting.

She survived stints as a waitress in New York and much "off-off-off Broadway" theater before attracting Hollywood attention opposite Al Pacino in l979's " And Justice for All." She was nominated for a supporting-actress Oscar for 1984's "Swing Shift."

Also a director, she won the 1996 Oscar for best live-action short for the romance "Lieberman in Love." She also directed the 2001 feature film "My First Mister," starring Albert Brooks and Leelee Sobieski.

She says she finds directing even more satisfying than acting and is looking for another project. "I'm still a student in terms of what to do with the pesky camera, but I know what to do with pesky actors," she says.

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