02/23/2004 at 01:00 AM EST
Playing idealistic young Harvard law school grad Jamie Stringer on ABC's revamped courtroom drama The Practice, Jessica Capshaw conjures up what costar Camryn Manheim calls "puppy-dog excitement."
It's not just acting. "She is so grateful, happy and enthusiastic about her work," says Manheim. "She even gets depressed when she's not in the script very much, while the rest of us are grateful for a few days off. We were going into our seventh season when Jessica joined us, and when you're on a show this long, you get cranky. We really needed her young spirit."
Capshaw, who knits scarves on the set when she's not chatting away with the crew, pleads guilty to first-degree perkiness. "I open up all my scripts like it's Christmas morning," she says. But don't mistake her enthusiasm for unworldliness. Capshaw, 27, grew up a child of Hollywood. Gwyneth Paltrow
is an old friend ("We've known each other since our baby teeth were falling out," she says), her mom is actress Kate Capshaw (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), and her stepfather is director Steven Spielberg. "He has gone to bat for me, waited up for me at nights. He has given me so much love," says Jessica of Spielberg, who cast the younger Capshaw in 2002's Minority Report. Though she also remains close to her biological dad, Robert Capshaw, 57, vice president of a trademark research company, it was her mother who inspired her to become an actress. "Jessica saw that I enjoyed what I did," says Capshaw, 50, who has appeared in three films with her, "and that it wasn't so difficult a life."
For Jessica, it has been an eclectic one. Her parents split up when she was 3, and she spent the next 11 years shuttling among her dad in New York City, her mom in L.A. (where Kate, then a model, began to spread her wings as an actress) and her paternal grandmother in Chaffee, Mo. "Small-town life gave her a foundation," says Kate. As Jessica sees it, "I always had a sense that what my mother did was different from what other people did. But in Chaffee, nobody was different from anybody else. If you were in line for a Blizzard at the local Dairy Queen, the girl behind you was having the same thing. It was very easy."
As a result, it wasn't Spielberg's rep as a director that impressed Capshaw the day she met him but rather his skills as a babysitter. He had agreed to look after his Indiana Jones leading lady's daughter at his L.A. mansion while Kate was off prep-ping for the movie. "He paid so much attention to me, told me stories and made me ice cream," says Jessica. "For a 7-year-old girl, what was not to love?"
"The way to a single mother's heart is through her child," says Capshaw; who married the director eight years later, following his divorce from first wife Amy Irving, with whom he had a son, and raised four more children with him. "I was lucky enough to marry both my parents off," jokes Jessica. That same year, "my dad found Claudia, a wonderful woman," with whom he has two sons.
After majoring in English literature at Brown University, Capshaw graduated in 1998 and returned to L.A., where perseverance and pluck, more so than family connections, helped her land what she calls "a pupu platter" of small roles in TV and movies. Similarly, Capshaw won her Practice break on her own, beating out three other finalists. "Alias and The Practice were the only shows I watched," she says. "I am so lucky!"
In love too. In 2000 she met Christopher Gavigan, 29, a Ph.D. candidate in child psychology, at a party and thought, " Wow, that man is beautiful," she recalls. Though both were dating other people, they kept in touch. Two years later, each learned the other was available. "We realized we had been checking each other out all this time and it was time to do something about it," she says. They got engaged the day after Capshaw's birthday in 2003, moved in together and plan to wed later this year.
For now her career takes priority. Practice creator David E. Kelley is writing a major story line for her. "It's funny," she says. "I used to help my mom practice her lines. Now she helps me practice mine." Fame may take even more getting used to. Watching her debut with friends, she says, "When my face and name came up on the credits, I just thought, 'Oh my God, that's me!' "
Michael A. Upton. Alison Singh Gee in Los Angeles