November 12, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

It’s supposed to be her day off, but Nia Long — sultry seductress on the big screen (Alfie), do-good cop on TV (Third Watch), full-time mom in real life — can’t come out today. There’s her 3-year-old son, Massai, who must be taken to preschool and later bathed, fed, and lulled to sleep. There’s the unplanned visit to the Brooklyn set of her NBC crime drama. There’s some serious tidying up to do because, the 34-year-old sighs, ”I am neurotic about a clean house. I can’t even go on an audition if my apartment is dirty — I’ll be thinking about the five loads of laundry that I need to do!” And if there’s time, she may get to squeeze in a pedicure. ”I work really well under pressure,” Long makes clear during a late-evening phone call from her TriBeCa home.

And right now, she couldn’t be happier.

But five years ago, Long had reached a crossroads. ”I didn’t feel I was growing as an artist,” she admits. ”I was the It Girl. If there was a black girl in an urban film, that was my job. . . It was just sort of available to me. That’s not a bad thing. But you want to get better, you want to be challenged. I thought, ‘The only way I’m going to break the glass ceiling and have the opportunity to do some different types of roles is to step back and take a look at my game plan.”’

The daughter of an artist mother and a poet father, Long moved as a kid from New York to Iowa to L.A., where she went into movies after attending Catholic school. By 1999, she was a Hollywood veteran of 10 years and some 20 movies and TV shows (Boyz N the Hood, Made in America, Guiding Light, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), familiar especially for a number of what Essence magazine has dubbed ”Black Pack” films — Hav Plenty, Soul Food, love jones, The Best Man. ”I felt like I was sort of spinning out of control. I was very uptight,” she says, recalling how she went repeatedly from one movie to the next, up to 2000’s Big Momma’s House. ”I was looking for something to center my life.”

Just then she found it. Long ”hit it off” with a man outside of Hollywood and, quite intentionally, got pregnant fast — the perfect impetus to setting her priorities straight. ”I didn’t want the pressure of having to be skinny, ” she says of the two-year sabbatical that followed (she never wed her son’s dad). ”I needed that sense of, This is my world, this is who I am outside of my work.” For her, the change is palpable. ”I’ve become a lot more forgiving and definitely more patient and tolerant.”

That new level of comfort proved vital as Long patiently waited for six months after her planned return date before she landed three big parts. ”It was as if I was starting over again.” She recently starred In Mario Van Peebles’ blaxploitation ode Baadasssss!, and her ongoing role as straight-arrow officer Sasha Monroe on Third Watch netted an NAACP Image Award last March.

Now comes Alfie, her most mainstream film yet. ”She’s a very loose actress and doesn’t get intimidated,” says director Charles Shyer. ”There aren’t a ton of actresses who can make you laugh and make you cry.” Or, well, excite you, as when Long woos Jude Law’s lothario in a slinky Foxy Brown getup and matching Roberta Flack Afro. She’s Alfie‘s only woman of color. ”I mean, listen, if the guy’s a player he likes all flavors,” she laughs. ”I’m definitely the chocolate surprise!”

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