Luaine Lee

All her life actress Ellen Muth had a dream. It wasn't to be the toast of Broadway, or to dance her way out of the chorus or to star in a Jerry Bruckheimer film.

She wanted to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To this day the star of Showtime's "Dead Like Me" still totes her microscope and a magnifying glass with her.

"Wherever I'm staying I have to have one because I have to look at gross things," she laughs, pushing her diaphanous dress under her as she seats herself in a hotel room in
Century City, Calif.

"I have this fascination at looking at disgusting, live organisms and stuff. Like if I start to bleed, I have to put it on one of those slides and look at all those little circles moving. Or if I find an expired yogurt, I have to pour the bacteria onto it and look at all the little cultures moving, or if I find a split hair I have to look at the end under the microscope. In high school we looked at bull's sperm, and it was alive. That was very interesting."

The slim, wan Muth, who grew up in
Connecticut, got her show business start by playing Kathy Bates' daughter in "Dolores Claiborne." And she seemed hooked from then on. Various stage productions, TV movies and a couple of miniseries later, she was cast as George on "Dead Like Me" when she was 20.

In a way the show has been part of a journey for Muth, who broke up with a boyfriend after a five-year relationship soon after the series began.

"It took a long time without him," she sighs, "so I kind of lost my identity and didn't know how to find who I was. I knew I wasn't in love with him anymore, but he'd become my best friend and he'd become me and I'd become him, so breaking away from that relationship took me two more years to do and when I finally did, I was so relieved."

Vulnerability is part of her charm, though Muth, now 23, admits that acting helps her keep her distance. "I'm able to express my feelings vicariously through other characters and combine their feelings together, so it's not necessarily me showing my emotions but it's somebody else. But it's a safe place to do it," she says.

Her show films in
Vancouver and it was on a plane to the set that she first spied actor Jeffrey Donovan ("Touching Evil"), who was to play an important part in her life.

"Here was this gorgeous guy and I wondered why he was looking at me. One night in
Vancouver he was in a bar, I was outside on the phone, and I saw him gesturing me to come in there. I looked behind me -- like in the movies -- wondering who he was talking to. And I said, 'Me?' "

With Donovan she violated her ironclad rule about not dating actors. "He's completely different. He really is different from any other actor I've ever met, and I saw that right off the bat when I met him and started talking to him. I could see a lot of myself in him. That sounds kind of arrogant because that sounds like I'm saying I love myself, but I could see how we were able to relate on the same level. I had no idea he had the same opinion that I did: 'I don't date actresses.' But I STILL go back to that law: never date another actor."

Though they're no longer together, she says she learned from both those experiences. "All my life I've wanted to love myself. I feel more confident and respect myself now. I don't think it's status at all because that's not going to help me gain respect for myself. The only way I've been able to gain respect for myself is learning boundaries because, for a while, I could never tell people what I really felt. I would just tell them what I thought they wanted to hear to make them happy. So I always felt awful about myself," she says.

"Being able to establish relationships with people in a truthful way -- not pretending to like someone, not liking someone because they can do something for me -- just truly being able to sit in a room with myself alone and be perfectly content and not needing any thing or anyone else there. I find now that some of my most tranquil moments are just lying in bed with or without the TV on, with or without my cat. And I feel the best."

This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page F24.