Still, Carson must have some talent for reality. On Ally McBeal, Calista Flockhart, 33, plays the oddball—a bright, single attorney given to neurotic flights of fancy—while Carson, 28, is her levelheaded roommate Renee Radick. "My friends can't believe I'm playing the cool, calm, collected one," says Carson. "They say, 'You're crazy' " Her costars agree. "Lisa floats in and out," says Gil Bellows, who plays Ally's ex-flame Billy Alan Thomas. "That's her whole way of being." Busy beeing. The woman who has "Gypsy" tattooed on her left arm also plays Carla Reese, the mother of Eriq La Salle's baby on ER, and has appeared in a string of movies, including 1997's acclaimed Eve's Bayou, in which she played a mistress of Samuel L. Jackson's. Recently, she says, "I had to work on Ally in the morning, had an audition in the middle of the day, and ER needed me at 4." This burst of success, says her mom, Fannie Carson, a kindergarten teacher in The Bronx, N.Y., has put Lisa "on cloud nine all the time."
Which isn't to say she has lost touch with her roots. Carson, who grew up in Brooklyn and then Gainesville, Fla., is "very close" to her family, which includes two older siblings (Lynn, a fashion buyer in Carson, Calif., and Lester Jr., a personal trainer in Atlanta) and baby brother Wyatt, an actor in L.A. Carson lovingly describes her mother as a "bohemian" who wore caftans and inspired her kids to love art, and credits her father, Lester, a journalism professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, with her drive. "He's a workaholic like me," she says. Though her parents split up when she was 14 and her mother moved back to New York City alone, "they're friends," Carson says. "It wasn't that painful for me. I figured it was their business." Carson's business, even as a child, was entertainment. Her mother recalls that Lisa "would spend five hours doing the dishes—she'd wash a glass and then sing two songs." She was onstage at age 8, playing Yente the matchmaker in a grade-school Fiddler on the Roof.
"She wanted to know everything about Jewish culture," says her mother. "She was fierce." After graduating from Gainesville's Buchholz High and dropping out after a year at a local community college, she moved in with her mother in Harlem and began auditioning. In 1992, the 22-year-old joined Apollo Comedy Hour, which led to a guest spot on Law & Order and roles in movies such as Devil in a Blue Dress, opposite Denzel Washington. Her performance as an R&B singer in a 1995 TV movie, Divas, brought her to the attention of Ally creator David E. Kelley. "She has a warmth," says co-executive producer Jeffrey Kramer, "that draws you into her circle."
Her show, of course, has a heat all its own. With its mix of sex and flaky humor, Ally, which recently won two Golden Globes, is the year's most talked about show. "People come up to me all the time and tell me they love how different the show is," says Carson, who giggles upon remembering an episode in which Ally has a fling with a particularly well-endowed male model in her sculpting class. "Those guys were practically nude on-set," says Carson. "I thought it was great. Calista and I were laughing all day."
And a long day it is. A work schedule that begins at 5 a.m. doesn't leave much time for romance ("Her life is all about hanging out and ordering in," jokes Bellows), but Carson says she'd someday like to settle down with "a man with a sense of humor a little off, like mine." In the meantime she indulges a taste for pedicures and facials, shopping for Todd Oldham duds and buying antiques for her one-bedroom Hollywood apartment. Her grandmother's red-velvet sofa notwithstanding, the digs are a bit of a mess. (Carson nods toward the bedroom and says, "It's a jungle back there.") And though she can cook a sweet-potato pie, lemonade and honey are the only staples in her pantry.
Perhaps it will be more fully stocked once Carson can drive herself to the store. Thanks to lessons from brother Wyatt, she has mastered parallel parking and hopes to get her license soon—that is, if she doesn't get lost in space when she takes the driving test. "Just me on the road would be great, " she says, "but the other cars—hmmm."
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles
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