From cult faves (''Popular'') to blockbusters (''Iron Man''), the actress has done it all — and now she's getting ready to take on some holy-rolling mean girls on ABC's new dramedy ''GCB''

By Tanner Stransky
February 24, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST

Oddly enough, Leslie Bibb landed her latest gig — playing the lead on a TV show about backstabbing women in Texas — by auditioning for a movie about backstabbing women in Texas six years ago. In 2006, Bibb read for the roles of Sue Ellen and Pam in a big-screen version of Dallas; although that project fell apart, she struck up a friendship with the movie’s writer, Steel Magnolias scribe Robert Harling. ”I think I really proved myself to him,” Bibb remembers. ”We told each other, ‘Hopefully one day we will be able to work together.”’

The pair’s wish came true when Harling cast Bibb on GCB, an adaptation of Kim Gatlin’s book Good Christian Bitches. Bibb may be most familiar to TV audiences as Brooke McQueen, who ruled Jacqueline Kennedy High School on The WB’s short-lived cult dramedy Popular (1999-2001). And in some ways, GCB is a return to those snobby adolescent antics. ”GCB is kind of like Popular,” says Bibb, 38. ”It’s like high school with more money, and the roles have changed.” This time around, Bibb plays reformed mean girl Amanda Vaughn, an L.A. mother who moves home to Dallas after her marriage ends in scandal and has to fend off the judgy, churchgoing clique (led by Kristin Chenoweth’s Carlene) she wronged in high school. ”My character,” Bibb explains, ”is chum in shark-infested waters.”

Making her way back to television full-time after a series of big-screen roles (in films like Talladega Nights and Iron Man) wasn’t a primary goal for Bibb, who began her career after winning a modeling contest at the age of 16 on The Oprah Winfrey Show. ”Once I did Talladega, people were like, ‘You’re really funny,”’ she says of her turn as Carley Bobby, the oversexed wife of Will Ferrell’s race-car-driving Ricky. ”Pilot season would come around, and I would say, ‘Is it really special?”’ While she waited, Bibb took outrageous roles that pleased her bawdy sense of humor — including a stint on FX’s sitcom The League as Meegan, a woman who put her finger where the sun doesn’t shine during sex with her husband. ”How often do you get to do that?” Bibb asks with a devilish grin. But when it came to locking herself into a series, Bibb was drawn to a new challenge: playing the straight man in a comedy. ”It’s scarier not to have a quirk,” Bibb explains. ”I like having something to lean on because it feels less revealing about yourself. On GCB, though, I’m that person who tees up the ball so others can knock it out of the park.”

Helping Bibb navigate Hollywood is actor Sam Rockwell, her boyfriend of four-plus years, whom she met at the Chateau Marmont. ”I find him delightful,” says Bibb of Rockwell, who lives with her in Studio City along with their German shepherd, Sadie. ”I still want to throw him through the window sometimes — and he me — but we always laugh. He says I’m Peppermint Patty and he’s Pigpen.” Clearly she’s grown up since her queen-bee days on Popular, which she says she didn’t appreciate at the time. ”I didn’t treasure how nice it is to have a really cool job,” Bibb says. ”But I do now.”