NEW YORK — Whether she likes to remember them or not, Elizabeth Berkley has had many a career milestone. Starring for four seasons as Jessie Spano, the overachieving class president, on “Saved by the Bell” was one. Thrashing around naked in a pool with Kyle MacLachlan in “Showgirls” was another. Now Berkley, who married Ralph Lauren’s nephew, Greg, in November, has entered a new phase. She’s starring on Broadway in the revival of “Sly Fox” opposite Richard Dreyfuss and Eric Stoltz.
In the play, Berkley stars as a virginal young bride who serves as a pawn in Foxwell J. Sly’s plan to steal as much money from his friends as possible. Being a period piece and a slapstick comedy, it’s a far cry from the kind of work the actress has been used to. She hasn’t had to wear a bustle before.
“I’ve never let anyone pigeonhole me,” says Berkley, sipping an iced tea in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel, coming straight from a dance class. She’s currently living in an apartment around the corner, though she splits her time between New York and L.A. “I’ve always wanted to do Broadway. It was part of the dream.”
The dream started in Michigan, where Berkley grew up taking dance classes and performing in community theater. At 15, she auditioned for “Saved by the Bell” and her casting led to games of “Saved by the Bell” trivia in high schools around the nation. “It wasn’t sophisticated comedy,” Berkley ho-hums. “But it was our little conservatory.” (Her favorite episode? The classic one in which Jessie, while trying to lead her friends in the musical group Hot Sundaes and keep up with her studies, overdoses on caffeine pills, of course.)
Not everyone from the sitcom has had the career that Berkley has — Dustin Diamond, who played Screech, is rumored to be putting together a chess video and occasionally hits the stand-up circuit. But Berkley tends not to keep up with her fellow cast members. “It’s like after high school or college — we’ve all gone our own paths.”
By the same token, no other “Saved by the Bell” cast member went on to make a pseudo-porn movie generally thought of as the worst film of the Nineties. “I was the ‘Showgirls’ poster child,” Berkley says, recalling that her naked body graced the cineplex one sheet. “I was alone out there.”
But there are no regrets. “I know why I took that role,” Berkley says now. Ten years ago, before “Showgirls” went into production, Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas were the most successful team in the movie business. “I took a risk and at that time it didn’t seem like a big risk,” she says. There have been a few interesting roles since then: She played opposite Campbell Scott in “Roger Dodger” and Woody Allen in “Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” with Al Pacino in “Any Given Sunday” and as a budding actress in “The First Wives Club.” But she hasn’t really had to carry a movie since “Showgirls” and seems to know a lot is riding on her performance in “Sly Fox.” “From now on, I’m going to do interesting movies,” Berkley insists. “I don’t waste my time with negativity.”
She’s also planning to finish her degree from UCLA where she’s on “the seven-year program.” Though she says she’s 28, Internet sources have her at 32. “I didn’t want to stop acting, so I keep having to take incompletes,” she explains.
Beyond that is married life. She and Lauren, an artist who has a T-shirt line at Scoop and regularly paints female figures, have been together for four years. They married on the beach in Esperanza, Mexico. “Gwyneth [Paltrow] had her honeymoon there,” Berkley quips. Ralph Lauren designed the dress, of course. “It was such an honor. He totally captured the place. It was a bias cut with a train, spaghetti straps and a low, low back — clean and simple and elegant.” Though she’s encouraged to wear Ralph Lauren clothes, “there’s no pressure,” and she insists she’s loyal to Joie jeans and moccasins, which she “loved before they were hot again.”
More than clothes, however, right now Berkley is concentrating on her craft, and she’s made over her dressing room at the Barrymore Theater accordingly. “I’ve decorated my room like it’s a retreat,” Berkley says. “I now have a Zen den.”
— Marshall Heyman