AS MADONNA MIGHT PUT IT, THE TIME seemed right for Terumi Matthews to express herself. In August, as one of 350 actresses hoping to play the Mercurial Girl in the Fox biopic Madonna: Innocence Lost, which airs Nov. 29, Matthews, 25, was losing her patience. "I'd gone through five auditions," she says. "I was really teed off. [The filmmakers] couldn't make up their minds." So for her sixth tryout, Matthews grabbed a T-shirt and scrawled an explicit sexual suggestion across the front in block letters. "I figured they'd either laugh or get mad," she says with a shrug. Instead, says director Bradford May, "I was blown away. It was something Madonna would do. I knew Terumi was the one."

Matthews's desperate measure was prompted by desperate times. Growing up in Santa Monica she always wanted to act, and was encouraged by her engineer father, James (who died last year of lung cancer), and her mother, Kazuko, a Japanese-born ceramic artist. (Loosely translated, Terumi is Japanese for "shining beauty.") For 10 years, Matthews worked as a waitress while getting bit roles in Off-Off-Broadway plays and TV series like Loving and Knot's Landing. "This year I considered quitting," she says. "I was having such a hard time."

Toughing it out paid off in her performance. "Like Madonna, she's tenacious," says May. She also bears a resemblance to Ms. Ciccone, but the similarities end there. Matthews has a steady boyfriend, and, she says, "I'm not much of a dancer." As for singing, she lip-synchs to a Madonna sound-alike. But now, at least, she's getting a shot at feature film parts. "This role has already helped me get auditions," Matthews says. "It's changed my life."