The actress talks about her surprise at her recent Emmy nomination

There’s no denying it: Camryn Manheim is huge. Just check out her imposingly grand presence as spunky attorney Ellenor Frutt on ABC’s The Practice. Get a load of her immense acting range, which helped her score last season’s most intriguing romantic plotline: Ellenor’s affair with a scamming chiropractor. And soak up her plus-size talent, which — now that the TV Academy has bestowed upon her a dramatic Best Supporting Actress nod — finally has people mentioning her in the same breath as Emmy instead of Emme.

”I just started to sob,” says Manheim, 37, of hearing about her nomination, which places her among veteran candidates like ER’s Gloria Reuben and Laura Innes, NYPD Blue’s Kim Delaney, and Touched by an Angel’s Della Reese. ”It felt like an ancient struggle was over.”

That struggle was with Hollywood’s size discrimination, which had her obsessively popping amphetamines to control her weight, almost fatally overdosing in 1987. ”I was suicidal, I was a drug addict, I hated myself, I hated my body, I didn’t know what I really had to live for,” she says. ”I was a mess.”

Manheim’s work as an interpreter for the deaf (her fluency in sign language was showcased in one Practice episode) helped boost her self-esteem. And she dreams of having Oscar winner Marlee Matlin appear on The Practice as Ellenor’s younger sister. Practice and Ally McBeal creator ”David Kelley and Marlee recently had a conversation,” Manheim reports. ”Marlee was saying how much she loved Ally. And David said, ‘I can’t put you on Ally. Camryn’ll kill me!”’

Don’t sweat it, David — as her friends attest, Manheim (whose off-camera relationship with Gregory Hines has become gossip-page fodder) is actually a softy. During last April’s PracticeAlly McBeal crossover, ”she was the first person to come over to Ally McBeal’s side of the dressing room and introduce herself,” says Jane Krakowski, who plays Ally’s gossipy secretary, Elaine, and who recently traveled to Europe with Manheim. ”She came down the hall and went, ‘All right, everybody come out, I’m Camryn Manheim!’ That’s exactly who she is.”

And she’s not budging. After the success of her 1995 self-written Off Broadway show, Wake Up, I’m Fat (soon to be published by Broadway Books), Manheim was offered sitcom deals at several nets (including Fox) but turned them down. ”I decided it would hurt me to be the fat funny girl for the rest of my life,” says Manheim, who had her fill of that in films like The Road to Wellville and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.

Next, Manheim appears as an enigmatic loner in Todd Solondz’s controversial drama Happiness (out in October). For now, she’s understandably proud of her stereotype-bucking Practice creation: ”It’s an alternative image to the 85-pound lawyers we see on other networks.” (Who on earth could she be talking about?) And though she’s realistic about the Sept. 13, 1998 Emmys (her take: Innes should win; Reuben will), she still put her most calculating foot forward in selecting her Practice tapes for Emmy voters. ”I sent the episode where I find out that my boyfriend is a criminal: ‘Look at her being vulnerable! Let’s pick her!’ And then I sent the one when I represented a fat woman: ‘Fat girls never get nominated! Look at that fat girl go!”’ Exactly.

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