Rising Star: Debra Christofferson is Making it Big in Hollywood

Debra Christofferson has been performing for as long as she can remember. Home movies of her growing up in the Black Hills of South Dakota reveal a born actress, always dressed up in homemade costumes and singing or creating a dramatic scene for her “audience.” “I wanted to be an actor from time immemorial,” she says, her blue eyes twinkling. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be Carol Burnett, Danny Kaye and Gene Kelly.”

Christofferson may not be singing in the rain, but she’s making a name for herself in Hollywood with guest shots in shows like Chicago Hope and Ally McBeal, and co-starring in movies such as Wild Wild West and Mouse Hunt.

Her road to success-like that of many actors-has had its share of ruts and bumps, and even a detour along the way. The warmly genial Christofferson initially planned to go to college, then move to New York and do theater. But seeing Star Wars had such a profound impact on her life that she instead moved to Los Angeles to become an actress. “I wanted to make the kind of magic that I’d seen in Star Wars,” she says with feeling.

While she didn’t partake in the typical actor gig of waiting tables, Christofferson did work as a legal secretary for a dozen years. “I’m grateful to all the lawyers who put up with me,” she says, her face forming a dimpled smile. Her employers allowed her to schedule her work around her auditions and performances. “One or two (acting) jobs a year isn’t very much, but I had the stubbornness and tenacity to keep going and never give up.”

Her perseverance paid off when, in 1995, she auditioned for a guest role in Murder One and got the job. Her critically acclaimed performance as a crazed fan who confesses to a murder was so inspired that the producers suggested Christofferson submit her performance for Emmy consideration. Although she didn’t get the nomination, that role was a turning point for both her career and her self-concept. “When I saw (the show) on TV, it was an epiphany. It was the first time I saw myself as the character, rather than seeing myself acting,” Christofferson recalls. Likening her experience to that of her father, Bob, who is both a farmer and a construction contractor, she says, “I finally saw myself as a craftsman. My dad can create something like a beautiful staircase, and can admire it apart from himself. This wasn’t about me as a personality, it was about my work.”

Murder One aired in January 1996; six months later, Christofferson auditioned for a recurring role in another Stephen Bochco production, NYPD Blue. “I was the only one they saw for the part,” she says, adding, “It was very flattering.” Her portrayal of Geri-an assistant who sexually harasses Dennis Franz’s character-was so compelling that the producers kept Christofferson on. “Originally, the character was written for only three episodes,” she says, “but I ended up doing six or seven.”

Christofferson lauds both Bochco and David Kelly (producer of Chicago Hope and Ally McBeal) for casting actors who look like real people. “They’re wonderful in their diversity of casting,” she exclaims. “I played roles in Chicago Hope and Picket Fences and there was nothing in the description about (the character’s) weight. To me, that says there’s a smart casting person who wants the best actor, and doesn’t have limitations on size, color, age or anything.”

Still, Christofferson says, Hollywood has a long way to go before plus-size women can tune in and see characters that look like them on a regular basis. “When Camryn (Manheim) won the Emmy, I thought there would be more opportunities (for large actresses) opening up, but that hasn’t happened. That’s been disappointing.” Indeed, she asserts, that while there’s been a lot of talk in show business circles about diversity of casting, “The thing that gets me is that they only talk about diversity in terms of color. What about size? A group of people that represent a majority of the nation is excluded from being considered a minority in the industry. You look at TV, and where are the fat people?”

In Christofferson’s eyes, it’s even worse when producers take what could be a positive plus-size role and distort it. A couple of years ago, she was being considered for the lead in a TV movie. “I was the only one that the directors, producers and lead actors were considering. I was the only one they took to the network for approval,” she says. In the end, the part, which was written for a large woman who comes to realize she can be beautiful, was played by a thin woman. Christofferson was irate. “They have a terrific movie where she discovers she’s fine the way she is, but they cast a thin woman and padded her and ultimately dressed her so that she looked unkempt. It was heartbreaking for me to see a project that had so much potential to touch people become a travesty.”

Saying, “That’s what people of size are up against in the industry,” Christofferson notes, “I know the industry is a business of illusion, but the more that film and TV become real, the more they need to incorporate real-looking people into those stories.”

Even when Christofferson auditions and doesn’t get the part, she’s philosophical about it. While there are weeks when she has three or four auditions, “It’s such a rare chance that you’ll book the job that I don’t look at it like auditioning. I look at it as performing. If I get the part, I get to perform it again, and if not, well, I’ve done it.”

She’s been fortunate that, for the most part, when she does book the job, her character is well dressed. “I have been blessed with costume designers who are really sharp, where my size isn’t an issue,” she declares. Christofferson especially enjoyed wearing “the most beautiful suits and gorgeous fabrics,” in a recurring role on Picket Fences. Yet, she says, “I have worked on other shows-not many, but some-where they don’t have a clue about how to dress a woman who’s not a size 2 or 4 or 6.”

Costuming Christofferson could take an adventuresome turn, should roles come up where she can utilize her swashbuckling skills. Calling fencing “a lifetime love,” Christofferson recalls with a laugh, “When I was a kid, the first letter I learned to make was a Z for ‘Zorro.'” She’s also NRA certified in pistol shooting, which she thinks may come in handy for police shows, and is a concert whistler. “I can whistle in pitch, harmonize and whistle without breathing,” she reveals.

After her stint at NYPD Blue, Christofferson was hired for her first major movie, Mouse Hunt, and three years ago was finally able to “leave secretarial work behind me.” These days, when she’s not performing or auditioning, Christofferson can be found puttering around the house in Southern California she bought a year ago. “I’m a big HGTV fan, and in my spare time, I’m in decorator heaven.” She’s also landscaped her backyard, putting in “plants, an herb garden, rock trim and stepping stones. It’s been a fun experience.”

Christofferson also spends time with her circle of friends, who run the gamut from industry types to real estate agents and healers. Her closest friends, DeeAnne Santos and Craig Campobasso, share Christofferson’s love of film and theater, as well as her deep interest in metaphysics. Of Campobasso, a casting director and writer-director, she says, “We attend lots of screenings and other industry events together, and have taken some wonderful spiritual treks to Mt. Shasta, California and Sedona, Arizona.”

Spirituality is a central part of Christofferson’s identity. Along with brothers Bob and Steve and sister, Jane, Christofferson was raised by her father and kindergarten teacher mother, Carol, in the Pentecostal Four Square Church. No longer affiliated with a particular religion, Christofferson believes that “Everybody’s individual way with God is the right way for them. My personal quest for God is the right way for me, and that involves accepting everyone and everything as it is.”

A spiritual light bulb went on when Christofferson saw Star Wars. “When they talked about the Force binding us all together, I thought, that’s what God is-not an old man with a long beard on a throne. God is everything. It’s the awareness we all have as a Wholeness.”

For Christofferson, part of spirituality means believing in yourself. She says it took her years to internalize the message that, “Whatever you look like, you are perfect just the way you are,” especially working in an industry where appearance is everything. Nonetheless, she says, “If you can look at that as a possibility, it can change your life.”

And Christofferson’s life is only changing for the better. While her cat, Obiwan Kenobi, is her companion these days, Christofferson says, “I would like to be in a loving relationship.” As an actor, she also wants to be on a successful series, and to “touch people’s hearts and souls.” Her star is on the rise, and there’s no doubt she will achieve her dreams.

debra1Q & A with BBW

BBW: What’s the most fun, funky item in your closet right now, and when was the last time you wore it?
DC: A silver and black zebra striped Carole Little vest and jacket. I wear it for auditions when I’m supposed to be way over the top-it’s great!

BBW: If you were chief of the fashion police, what would you outlaw?
DC: Tongue piercing.

BBW: If you were the gardener of Eden and were allowed to plant only three varieties of flowers, which would you choose?
DC: Roses, lilacs and night-blooming jasmine.

BBW: If you had a magic wand and could change one thing in this world, what would it be?
DC: Judgments. I’d wish for everyone to stop making judgments.

BBW: Which historical figure do you most admire?
DC: Collectively, explorers-who face the unknown and go for it.

BBW: What legacy do you want to leave to the world?
DC: To have been inspirational.

BBW: If you were to design one article of clothing that most truly reflected your personality, what would it look like?
DC: Lots of silky, shimmery, flowing fabric in turquoises, teals and purples.

BBW: What’s your most treasured childhood possession that you still have?
DC: A sterling silver Tinker Bell necklace I got at Disneyland when I was four.

BBW: When was the last time you had a good belly laugh, and what caused you to laugh?
DC: I recently saw the movie “Bowfinger,” and howled throughout it!

BBW: If you could go back in time, which classic movie role would you have jumped at the chance to play?
DC: Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds’ character) in “Singin’ in the Rain.” (Or
Princess Leia….)

This article initially appeared in a 2000 issue of the print magazine.

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