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Kirsten Johnston re-defines gender on ''3rd Rock''

Head-turning actress stars as male alien trapped in a woman’s body

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Wanna see Kristen Johnston squirm in her seat? Shift those never-ending legs, roll her eyes, and curl her lip? Just call her a dirty name. Call her, you know, a babe.

”It’s totally alien,” says the 28-year-old actress. Which, when you think about it, is a good thing given her role on NBC’s 3rd Rock From the Sun: a testosterone-teeming extraterrestrial trapped in the body of sultry humanoid Sally Solomon. ”A script will say, ‘Sally enters the room and all the guys’ jaws drop.’ I’m thinking, ‘How the hell am I gonna pull this off? I’m going to Wardrobe for some help.”’

The lady doth protest too much. Johnston’s two-year trip from TV cameo queen (Chicago Hope, Hearts Afire) to next big thing is about brains, even a little brawn, but also — and let’s not mince words here — full-out va-va-va-voom. Who else could pull off the gruff, smart-ass Sally, a Valkyrie who can hawk spit like — well, perhaps 3rd Rock exec producer Terry Turner says it best: ”Kristen is Harrison Ford in a dress. She can put ’em down like a man, but there’s no mistaking she’s a woman.” So each week, when Johnston, cleavage jiggling, flattens some leering loser, there goes another gender barrier. ”I don’t think she realizes the impact she’s having,” notes costar John Lithgow. ”She’s remaking the way we look at women in comedy.”

Johnston knows impact all right — and alienation: ”I was 5 foot 11 1/2 at age 13,” says the Milwaukee native, who studied drama at NYU and acted Off Broadway before moving west. ”I was enormous, a monstrosity, a freak. I’ve always been an outsider.” Thanks to 3rd Rock, Johnston’s verging on insider — this fall, she’ll appear in Disney’s big-screen comedy Grosse Pointe Blank and an NBC adaptation of Neil Simon’s London Suite — even as she clings to self-imposed notions of freakdom. ”People on the street don’t talk to me like I’m Pamela Anderson,” she says. ”They talk to me like I’m kinda scary.”

That said, a smile crosses her face with the following implication: Scary is fine. Just don’t call me babe.