It's Sunday, and on a stylish strip of Hollywood's Melrose Avenue, Elizabeth Reaser has her choice of two popular coffeeshops — one that's packed with self-consciously hip Nicole Richie look-alikes, the other with a more serious sweats-and-Sunday-paper crowd. She makes a beeline for the latter. "It's such a scene at that other place," she says, pouring soy milk into her coffee.
This preference for depth over superficiality makes the Michigan native a natural for a scene-stealing role that has nothing to do with her good looks: a nine-episode stint on ABC's Grey's Anatomy (Thursdays at 9 pm/ET) as Jane Doe, the pregnant ferry-crash victim with severe facial injuries.
"Elizabeth can communicate so much with her voice and eyes — she has incredible depth and warmth," says executive producer Betsy Beers. "We needed to take to our Jane Doe, despite her appearance. With Elizabeth, you can't help but love her!"
And fans do. Jane's damaged face, along with her amnesia, have made her character a source of fascination. "I get calls from my sister almost daily trying to get the scoop," says Reaser, 31. The only thing the actress thinks she's discovered is that Jane's real name is Ava. Otherwise, Grey's well-known iron curtain of secrecy keeps her in the dark like everyone else.
But Reaser, who studied at Juilliard, can't stop wondering. "I have all these questions about her husband: Was he in the war? Did he leave her?" she says wistfully. "It kills me to think about Jane Doe having a baby and what this baby must mean to her."
She admits feeling self-conscious walking around the set in her makeup — a heavy mask that takes three hours to apply. "As opposed to doing some other show where they make you look pretty, it's scary," she says. "You feel ugly."
While it's not Reaser's first time on a set stocked with IV bags and heart monitors — she played an emergency-room doctor on TNT's short-lived Saved last season — walking onto the set of a smash hit like Grey's was intimidating. But Reaser had a secret weapon: She's known T.R. Knight for seven years, since they starred in a play called The Hologram Theory in New York. He made her feel at home at Grey's, taking her around to meet everyone.
"She's one of those actors that you have to watch yourself around because your mouth starts hanging open," says an admiring Knight. "She's very inventive. I find her completely fascinating." (Knight also reveals that she has other talents: "We made out in the play — she's a most excellent kisser!")
Jane Doe has been spurring the doctors at Seattle Grace to reflect on who they really are, especially the usually aloof Alex (Justin Chambers), who rescued Jane and has remained at her side. "He's all she has," says Reaser. "It's interesting to watch him be affected, and try not to be."
So why does Reaser think that Jane Doe has struck such a chord with fans? "I feel like we can all relate to not knowing who you are in some way," she says. "You may know your name and address and those factual things, but sometimes I know I've felt lost and unsure of myself." Right now, though, all she's feeling is curious and optimistic about her future — and Jane's. As she says, "Hopefully, they'll be able to put her back together."
Send your comments on this feature to email@example.com.