02/10/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
Playing secret agents on 24, FOX's real-time spy series, Sarah Clarke and Xander Berkeley have gotten pretty good at keeping secrets themselves. After all, says Berkeley, "we're in a counterterrorism unit. We learned how to do things on the sly."
Such as, oh, conducting a clandestine romance on the set. Berkeley, who plays Kiefer Sutherland's boss George Mason, and Clarke, whose character, agent Nina Myers, was exposed last season as a mole, hit it off almost immediately when the show began filming in February 2001. But they never gave their colleagues a clue that they were anything more than friends—at least not until after the show's hiatus that summer, when Carlos Bernard, who plays CTU agent Tony Almeida, asked Berkeley what he'd done on vacation. "He said, 'I went to Portugal,' and I said, 'You're kidding! Sarah went to Portugal too. Isn't that weird? Who did you go with?' " recalls Bernard. "He gave me a sly look and said, 'A friend.' Sarah finally spilled the beans that afternoon. It was great."
On Sept. 7, 2002, Clarke, 31, and Berkeley, 47, made things official, tying the knot in front of 100 guests at a 19th-century church in Millbrook, N.Y., where Clarke's godmother owns a horse farm. "We had the horse and carriage and an Irish band playing. It was the most romantic wedding you could ever dream of," says Berkeley.
Neither he nor Clarke dreamed of a career in acting until they attended college. Berkeley, who grew up in New Jersey, the younger of two children of Peter, a publishing-house artist (who died last year), and Margaret, a schoolteacher, had barely arrived at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., when he was cast in a campus production of The Time of Your Life. He dropped out after his sophomore year to study acting in New York City and in 1980 moved to L.A. After making his film debut as Joan Crawford's adult son Christopher in 1981's Mommie Dearest, he began amassing meaty character roles in Terminator 2, Apollo 13, Amistad and Shanghai Noon. Then 24 tolled.
When he first laid eyes on Clarke, she was in the makeup trailer getting prepped for her first starring TV role. The middle child of Ernest, 63, a St. Louis engineer, and Carolyn, 60, a homemaker, Clarke didn't step onto the stage until her senior year at Indiana University. Accepted by New York's Circle in the Square acting school in 1995, she landed guest shots on Sex and the City and Ed before nailing an audition as duplicitous Nina.
A month after they met, Berkeley, who had dated actress Patti Tippo in the late '80s, took Clarke to a friend's Oscar-night party. Back on the set, they kept their date a secret. "At that point Xander's role was only recurring," Clarke explains. "I was hesitant to tell anyone we were romantically involved, in case that would affect their decision on bringing him back." Berkeley proposed last Valentine's Day. "It made perfect sense," says 24 executive producer Howard Gordon, who made Berkeley a regular this season. "They have a lot of fun, but they also share an intensity about their work."
And a passion for art. Clarke worked as an architectural photographer before making it as an actress, and Berkeley is an accomplished painter and sculptor. For now they're using the third bedroom of their 1920s Mediterranean-style house in L.A. as a studio, but that may change at some point. "We definitely want children," says Clarke. Adds Berkeley: "I can't wait!" He turns to Clarke: "How many do we want? I think a perfect family is 2.5 children. But should we have the 0.5 child first? Or two at once? That's the question."
Michael A. Lipton
Ulrica Wihlborg in Los Angeles