Tired of struggling for roles after 19 years in Hollywood, Leslie Hope was feeling less than hopeful when she auditioned for the FOX drama 24 last year. The first problem was her hair. She had recently cut off her long curls, and "everybody threatened I would never work again," she says. As it turned out, network executives were more concerned about another part of her anatomy. "They told me to go home and change my pants," says Hope. "They wanted something a little sexier. But I live on the other side of town." Buying a pair was out too—when she got to her car, she realized she had left her wallet at home. But she went ahead and auditioned anyway: "I figured it'd just be another job I didn't get."

She figured wrong. As Teri, the peril-prone wife of counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), Hope, 37, is savoring the biggest role of her career—and one of the most challenging. Early in the series, whose 24 episodes follow the hours of one doozy of a day, Teri and her daughter (Elisha Cuthbert) got abducted by conspirators plotting to assassinate a presidential candidate. Things got only more intense from there. "I don't get to do anything light," Hope says. "I've been kidnapped, I've been raped, I've been almost killed tons of times, and I've had amnesia. I've tied a guy up with jumper cables and beat him on the head with a rock." All convincingly, says 24's executive producer Robert Cochran: "She can be strong and vulnerable at the same time."

What the Halifax, N.S.-born mother of one doesn't have is good luck with clothing. For January's Golden Globes—her first Hollywood awards show—Hope borrowed a Christina Perrin gown with a collar that closed with a snap. When she kissed 24 costar Dennis Haysbert, "the snap popped and the dress fell down," she says. "Thankfully, they didn't catch it on TV." Resnapped by costar Sarah Clarke, "I sat very still for the entire show," she adds.

Offscreen, Hope prefers T-shirts—often teamed with a backpack. She and her beau of six years, actor Colin Ferguson, 29 (The Opposite of Sex), have trekked through Peru, Turkey and Ecuador—where last year they stayed with members of the Huaorani tribe. "I ate ants," reports Hope. "They weren't that bad." At the three-bedroom Los Angeles house the couple bought in 2000, they chow on goat-cheese omelettes and pesto pasta whipped up by Hope's son Mackenzie, 8, an avid cook. (She shares custody with. Mac's father, drama teacher Jamie Angell, 47; married for two years, they divorced in 1996.) Hope is "a very patient mom," says Ferguson. "But when the boom has to come down and someone has to get in trouble, she's not afraid to do that."

In fact, she has been pretty fearless ever since her teen years at St. Michaels University School in Victoria, B.C. The daughter of retired navy officer Frank and homemaker Ann, both 64 (brother Stephen, 34, is a computer programmer in North Bay, Ont.), Hope wanted to attend Harvard Law School—until "at the age of 16,1 decided to rebel and become an actress," she recalls. "I wasn't happy with rules and regulations." She nabbed a part in Ups and Downs, a comedy filmed at her prep school in 1981. Then, in 1983, she moved to L.A. and began landing roles in films such as Love Streams (1984) and Talk Radio (1988) as well as TV movies. On the heels of her divorce—"We decided we would be better parents apart," she says—she met Ferguson on the set of the 1996 movie Rowing Through: "He was funny and smart, and my son adored him."

After a part as Kevin Costner's sister-in-law in this year's drama Dragonfly, Hope landed her breakthrough role in 24. "It's thrilling to be in something so well-received," she says. "I really feel I've won the lottery." In hour 15, her scuffed-up character landed a prize as well. "I've finally had a shower," says Hope, "and changed my pants." At last.

Samantha Miller
Ulrica Wihlborg in Los Angeles

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