By Playing It Real On "Once and Again," 15-Year-Old Julia Whelan Stands Out From the Crowd

By Carla Hall -- Julia Whelan is crying in the hospital hallway, flailing her hands in agony. Dressed in baggy overalls---the uniform of her character, Grace Manning, on the ABC drama "Once and Again"---she is inconsolable as she confesses that she's somehow responsible for her grandfather's stroke. Camera and crew are crammed into the hallway to capture the moment.

The director yells, "Cut," and Whelan's ever-present acting coach, Geof Prysirr, dashes to her side. He gestures towards his stomach as he talks to her. The cameras roll, and the scene proceeds. This time, Whelan's voice is more plaintive. Her crying seems to come from her gut---more pained, less frenzied. Prysirr nods. Executive producer Edward Zwick, who is directing the episode, which aired in March, smiles at his fellow executive producer Marshall Herskovitz.

"Julia, that was so good," Zwich says, walking over to give her a hug. Whelan smiles and reaches for a tissue. "It's the emotion every actor is afraid to show," she later comments about crying. "I remember when I was first acting, I couldn't do it. Once I could do it, it took away all the fear I had of doing a dramatic script."

At 15, Whelan fears nothing...except driving. (She's still learning.) In a sea of bimbettes and himbettes washing over TV and movie screens, she rises about the rest with her deft portrayal of a 15-year-old girl-woman. "I can't even imagine having the emotional availability she has at 15," marvels Sela Ward, who plays her mother, Lily. Adds Zwick, "She's able to discover things in the scene as they happen. That's a remarkable quality. It's the thing actors spend years trying to learn."

Whelan stands out on several levels. While many teens in the industry now wear skimpy attire for photo shoots, she won't even reveal her hometown, let alone her belly button. An only child, she protects the privacy of her parents (her father is a recently retired firefighter, her mom a teacher), saying only that they live in the Pacific Northwest.

Whelan was stunned at her first L.A. auditions a few years ago. "Girls who were my age looked like they were about 18, in these little tube tops and looking like the Mary Kay lady exploded on their faces," says the actress, who has little to do with the hot teen-actor scene. "I think I'm younger than most of them."

Perhaps, but she's mature beyond her years. Her Grace resonates with truthfulness as she struggles to deal with her parents' split, her mom's boyfriend, Rick Sammler (played by Billy Campbell), and all the typical teenage insecurities. Grace can be casually cruel, tossing a gift from Rick into the trash, or touchingly sweet, talking into the camera about her first kiss.

"I really like getting to be the girl who plays the part," says Whelan over lunch during her first in-depth interview. "The character and I are very different. But I know that type of person." She even looks different off-screen---more slender, more cheekbones. She considers her size "average" and orders dessert without guilt: "I don't look like a skeleton."

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Whelan's life is that she lives it in the company of Prysirr, her legal guardian in L.A., virtually around the clock. The 49-year-old actor and teacher is married to Derya Ruggles, who played Robin Jacobs on "Days of Our Lives" in the '80's; the couple has no children. He left the Northwest to accompany Whelan to L.A., where they share a two-bedroom apartment. Prysirr says they each "get home as much as possible, given the extraordinary circumstances" the Whelans, he and Ruggles have agreed to.

Whelan, who pays Prysirr for his assistance, is aware that the arrangement raises eyebrows. "It's like, 'Are you comfortable living with him?'" she says. "I'll say, 'Absolutely.' I call him my Swiss Army knife: parent, coach, mentor, chef, driver, teacher." Later, she adds "friend."

Zwick says Whelan's mother wrote him a letter allaying any concerns he might have about her daughter and Prysirr. As for Prysirr's on-set coaching, Zwick admits, "It's something that I initiallly feared. What I've come to understand is that he's not trying to tell her how to do it, he's trying to help her translate what we've asked her to do."

For his part, Prysirr says, "It's not been easy because of the peering eye --- 'Who are you?' I did not seek this out. Julia sought me out." Whelan, who became involved in children's theater at 5, started studying with Prysirr at 10. Three years ago, the two began forays to L.A.. With each trip came more work, including a guest shot on "ER" and, ultimately, "Once and Again."

Now in 10th grade, Whelan plans on college to "see what else is out there." But acting will always pull her. "I don't think I could go very long without doing it. I'd miss it too much."__TV Guide (April 22 - 28, 2000)