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Maura than meets the eye

Maura Tierney of “ER” landing the gig and her character Abby Lockhart

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Plotting out a successful Hollywood career is a gut-wrenching science. One has to show patience and prudence. Work with the right people at the right time. Dodge the pitfalls of fame and fortune. For example, listen to all the agonizing behind-the-scenes stratagems that went into Maura Tierney’s decision to join the cast of ER: “My agent said, ‘ER called,'” she recalls. “And I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’ That’s pretty much how it went.”

All right, so it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to determine whether or not to scrub in at TV’s top-rated drama. But for Tierney, 35, who plays ambitious divorcee nurse-turned-med student Abby Lockhart, this role could be just what the doctor ordered. After five seasons on NBC as NewsRadio‘s good-girl Lisa and a series of high-profile movie gigs (Liar Liar, Primary Colors, Forces of Nature), Tierney had carved her niche as a solid supporting player — someone who’s dependable, accessible, likable…well, why don’t we let her tell it. “In a lot of my roles, I’m sort of the facilitator, the straight man — or whatever you call it,” she explains intently. “I’m a little tired of that now. I hope this job will be a chance to play a full, mature person for a long stretch of time.”

ER‘s producers were more than willing to stretch when creating a character for her. “The wonderful thing about ensemble drama is you can unpeel the onion really slowly and experiment,” says coexec producer Jack Orman. “And we could sense Maura would give us a lot. She’s so grounded, yet there seems to be so much going on underneath. She’s someone you empathize with immediately on screen — it’s that self-deprecating nature and wry smile.”

You’ll find those qualities off screen, too. The Boston native volunteers that she was once fired from a Growing Pains guest spot. (“They just felt I wasn’t ‘working out.'”) Interviews distress her. (”How am I doing? Any anecdotes here? I’m bad at these things.”) Then there’s her resume, filled with A-listers like Jim Carrey, John Travolta, Emma Thompson, and Cuba Gooding Jr.: “Someone once asked me, ‘Are you nervous working with Academy Award winners?'” she laughs, “and I said, ‘That’s all I do. That’s my forte. , as seen with…'”

But the actress doesn’t need a little gold statuette to keep her hands full. She’s a voice on NBC’s upcoming David Spade-led animated series, Sammy (“I have a lesbian crush on my character,” she confides), and Tierney is also planning to star as “the bitchiest, greediest, devil version of me” in an indie dark comedy penned by actor husband Billy Morrissette. And as for that all-important blueprint of her career’s future: “Where do I see myself in two years?” Pause. “Very thin, and very wealthy.”