Alex Kingston shakes up ''ER'' -- The British import pumps new blood into television's hottest drama

By Dan Snierson
Updated April 24, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

The plan is to meet Alex Kingston at a bar on L.A.’s Sunset Strip. But when you arrive on the scene — a tad curious as to why a Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts-schooled, Royal Shakespeare Company-groomed, Masterpiece Theatre-starring British actress might choose such an unseemly locale (and at such an improper Sunday-afternoon hour!) — she throws a wrench in the works. ”I went swing dancing last night at the Derby and had a few Wild Turkey sours, so I’m feeling a bit fragile today,” she confesses, her shock of auburn curls twisting in the breeze. ”Could we chat over a cup of tea at the hotel next door?”

Now that’s more like it. After all, Kingston, 35, has an image to protect: the Earl Grey-sipping thespian who knows from emotive dames. (Perhaps you’re still fanning yourself after seeing her earthy, lusty, husband-hopping heroine in PBS’ 1996 miniseries Moll Flanders.) But these days, she’s trading Ibsen for intubation trays, and making a Hollywood name for herself as ER‘s blunt new surgeon Elizabeth Corday. ”This character is bright, ballsy, and not terribly straight,” she says. ”To introduce someone into the show who’s English and a little wacky allows Americans to see that the Brits aren’t all Merchant Ivory characters.”

Of course, ER was more than just a proving ground for the London-raised Kingston; it was a bloody transatlantic leap of faith. During a 1996 visit to the States, she was invited to meet the show’s producers; the next thing she knew, she was offered the full monty. ”When Alex walked in, she had such exuberance and intelligence and wit that we just started formulating a character,” says ER exec producer Carol Flint. ”It was very unusual.” Kingston did have one weensy reservation: ”It was scary signing five years of your career to absolute thin air, but if you want to be an actor, one is taking on a life of risk. And this opportunity was the biggest risk of all.”

The gamble has paid off, as Kingston is scoring with one of ER‘s juicier story lines: an interracial romance with Dr. Benton (Eriq La Salle) that promises to intensify in coming weeks. ”Alex just sauntered in here and took over,” praises cast mate Julianna Margulies. ”She’s such an explorer — I mean, this is a woman who’s already seen more of L.A. than any of us. She goes on long car trips by herself just to see some mountain she’s heard about, and then she’ll end up spending a week there. She has an incredible willingness to learn about life.”

And, as her star rises, the media have been eager to learn about her as well. English tabs still scour for dirt on her 1995 split from husband Ralph Fiennes. ”Obviously if you’ve been in a relationship for 12 years, the wounds are going to take many, many years to heal, and what upsets me is that journalists want to keep reopening those wounds,” says Kingston, who now calls herself a ”proud divorcee” and is currently dating a German writer. ”I find it a shame they’re so preoccupied with it. One morning a pushy journalist knocked on my door and I had to close it on him.” Point taken. Still, does she have any juicy stuff to bare in a more respectable national publication? ”Oh, God…I really can’t think of anything at all….” Not one thing? ”Well…I buy trashy lingerie. You can put that in if you want.”