Models-turned-actresses are a cliché at Hollywood casting calls. But Ivy League-schooled econ majors-turned-models-turned-actresses? Not quite so common. Budding starlet Rachel Nichols, 27, was just an average Columbia University student (albeit a tall, blonde one) trying to make some extra cash as a mannequin when she found herself at an audition for a guest role on an episode of “Sex and the City.” And a memorable one at that: Nichols’ character had a threesome with Samantha Jones and then boyfriend Richard. “Not only was it the first time where I had to hit marks and say lines, but I had to be in a bra and underwear and get kicked out of bed,” she laughs. Now an L.A. resident, the actress has parts in next month’s horror-thriller “P2” and Mike Nichols’ “Charlie Wilson’s War” in December, and recently wrapped her scenes in “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2.”

FAST AND FURIOUS: In “P2,” Nichols plays a businesswoman who gets trapped in an underground parking lot and becomes the victim of a psychopath, played by Wes Bentley. Not exactly a cakewalk. “We shot in a parking lot and we shot nights, which meant we went to work at 6 p.m. and then we’d stop around 6 a.m. And we were three to four levels underground. That in itself is kind of freaky,” recalls Nichols of the two-month shoot. “And then you cover Wes Bentley in blood and make him chase me with a rottweiler and, yeah, there were some elements of it that were really frightening.”

FASHIONABLY CHALLENGED: Growing up in Maine, the daughter of an English teacher father and fund-raising mother, Nichols’ fantasies were of power suits and math theory, not runways and fittings. “I was unfortunately dressed for most of my young life,” she admits. She got a rude awakening when she began work as a model. “I was basically told that my style had to change, meaning I had to get some style,” says Nichols. “I went to an agency in Paris and they said, ‘Oh my gosh you need to get some new clothes; you need an entire new wardrobe. We don’t want to see khakis.’ I basically just wore black and high heels everywhere. And I’m from Maine: we don’t have to have high heels for anything there except prom.”

This story first appeared in the October 16, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

IT’S ALL RELATIVE: The actress has a self-described “extraordinarily small” part in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” which stars Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman. But one unexpected perk is that, thanks to sharing a surname with the director, people keep mistaking Nichols for Hollywood progeny. “They get that confused a lot,” she sighs. “If I was Mike Nichols’ daughter, believe me I would have used him a long time ago!”

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