San Giacomo SpreadLaura San Giacomo interview by Chet Cooper

Television viewers know her as "Maya," the warm, witty and very attractive magazine editor in the hit comedy series Just Shoot Me, now entering its fifth season on NBC Television.

But vivacious 5'2" Laura San Giacomo is much more than a TV sitcom star and a talented dramatic actress with many major film and stage roles to her credit. She is also a spokesperson for disability-related causes and a dedicated advocate for inclusive education.

Laura grew up in Denville, New Jersey, and attended Morris Knolls High School, where she first became interested in drama and played lead roles in school plays. She later earned a fine arts degree with emphasis in acting at Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University, a hotbed of dramatic talent that has produced many successful Hollywood actors and directors. Following graduation, Laura moved to New York and appeared in various theatrical productions. She also landed guest starring roles in the popular TV series Crime Story and The Equalizer.


The acclaimed 1989 film Sex, Lies and Videotape—where her eye-catching performance as Andie MacDowell's sister earned her a Golden Globe nomination—proved to be Laura's breakthrough role. Important supporting parts as Julia Roberts' best friend in the megahit Pretty Woman, and opposite Tom Sellect in the crowd-pleasing Australian western Quigley Down Under followed. The petite actress also appeared in Under Suspicion and Stuart Saves His Family before landing her first starring role as the title character in Nina Takes a Lover, an independent film that was popular with critics, if not at the box office.

Laura's television career has flourished throughout the 1990s. Major roles in the TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's The Stand, and telefilms The Right to Remain Silent and For Their Own Good led, in 1997, to her selection for the lead role in Just Shoot Me. The decision to appear in a weekly series was no doubt influenced by her desire for a stable, more conventional work schedule that would allow her to spend more time with her son Mason, who was born to Laura and then-husband Cameron Dye in 1996.

ABILITY first became aware of Ms. San Giacomo's work for mainstreaming children with disabilities in the educational system at last October's 2000 Media Access Awards, where she was recognized for her "The More You Know" public service announcement. Editor-in-chief Chet Cooper wanted to learn more about the CHIME Institute, a new, inclusive charter school the actress supports. With the able assistance of Media Access, a meeting between Laura and Chet was arranged in the casual atmosphere of a modest San Fernando Valley restaurant near her home.


Chet Cooper: When did you decide you wanted to be an actress?

Laura San Giacomo: High school. I knew that I wanted to be an actor. Then it became about whether acting wanted me. So, I gave it a shot. It hasn't worked out too bad, so far.

CC: Where did you go to school?

LS: I went to college in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University...studied acting there. Then I went to New York for about five years. I moved out here about 10 years ago.

CC: Did you perform theater?

LS: Yes. I did theater at Carnegie, and in Pittsburgh and New York. And, I've done a little bit here.

CC: What's your favorite role so far?

LS: I don't know...I have sort of liked them all. I've fallen in love with all of the women (I've played) because there is something wonderful about them, and if you empathize with them, then you kind of love them all like...sisters or something.

CC: When you are rehearsing for roles, do you get into those characters to the point that you feel like you are part of them?

LS: I think in various times of my life—certainly when I was younger and I didn't have as much going on—it was easier to be taken away a little bit. But, I don't find that as much anymore.

CC: How did you get your role on Just Shoot Me?

LS: I met with the creator and we seemed to hit it off. It looked like a really good project, so we decided to go forward.

CC: Is this your first regular sitcom role?

LS: Yes.

CC: How long do you think it's going to go?

LS: We are signed for two more years.

CC: Tell us about your work with Media Access.

LS: I haven't really been associated with them for a very long time, but I received an award last year for a Public Service Annoucement that I did for "The More You Know." I'd done a previous PSA for them about teachers. After that, I (talked to) Roz Weiman, who's in charge of TMYK. I said, "If I do this again, I'd like to do one about inclusive education," and she said, "sure." So, the next one was about diversity. I faxed her OpEd a bunch of research that I had done and I also wrote a couple of drafts of one myself, and her office came up with a really beautiful message. It was geared towards parents. You know, if your child goes to school with someone who is a little different—who maybe uses sign language to communicate or gets around in a wheelchair—(your child) might learn something new and might learn a new game and gain a friendship. It sort of infers there's nothing to be afraid of. So, what was really important to me was that it was noticed, and certainly the Media Access Office was pleased. It is a wonderful organization that not only represents actors who have disabilities, it helps producers and writers write about disabilities accurately. It helps them do research, helps supply them with a disabled actor if the role calls for an actor with a certain disability to be cast. Or if there is an actor available with a disability, it tries to get the actor, the director and the producer together. They act as a force to not only help disabled actors—to help the community write them and portray them accurately—but also to raise the awareness of the general public that if you see a person on television or in a movie it might not be strange to see them in the next cubicle in your office. So, it's also about raising awareness about persons with disabilities; they are just like anyone else.

CC: Tell me about the film you recently completed in Canada.

LS: I just did a movie about Jennifer Estes. She is one of the founding members along with her sisters of Project ALS. It's (an organization) doing research with stem cells for ALS—Lou Gehrig's Disease—a degenerative motor neuron disease. That was a pretty wonderful thing to work on. She's a wonderful woman, her family is amazing, a very smart and funny group of women. I was lucky enough to share their lives and to get a chance to know this incredible woman—her strength, her drive—and form a strong friendship with people in her life. A lot of the people that worked on the film have known her for a long time. It is wonderful to be around them and to get to know them, and try to make an accurate portrait and honor the people who have this disease that has basically been ignored for so long. Because it is such a rapidly degenerative disease, there are not that many people that are living with it at one time—they degenerate so fast. So, it's very wonderful that...they have done such a wonderful job to put together amazing researchers from around the country and have had a great chunk of money donated to them through fundraisers. I think they raised five million dollars in the last five years, or something like that. And they've made some real progress. Information from their case studies was provided to the floor of Congress—a couple weeks prior to the President making his announcement—indicating the progress of stem cell therapy for ALS and ALS-like symptoms in mice.

CC: Have you talked to Christopher Reeve?

LS: No, I haven't talked to him. I know that Jennifer (Estes) testified along with him and Michael J. Fox, who's a very eloquent speaker on the subject. It's one of the new frontiers in medical research. Used wisely, like anything else—just like something as simple as anti-biotics—it can be beneficial to many people. And it will funnel down as all medical research does. It'll be wide reaching.

CC: Chris Reeve said he expected things to happen so much quicker, not knowing the bureacracy would be so slow to act. Have you experienced this as well?

LS: Oh, my Lord, yeah. The last time I talked to Valerie Estes she said they were very close to putting out some conclusive evidence. They have to do many trials before it's considered conclusive. And then they have to apply for all kinds of things. And I know someone else who is into medical research and it has been really difficult for him as well.

CC: How did you find yourself getting involved with disabilities in general?

LS: I have a son, Mason, who is disabled—cerebral palsy—and he does not walk independently, sit independently or speak. He uses a talking computer. I started becoming an advocate for him when he was three years old. He was soon going to enter the school system. A lot of health care professionals that I work with—doctors, physical therapists and occupational therapists—told me that I should research inclusive education for him...that it would be very important for him to have typical peer role models. (They told me about) a wonderful program here in California called "The CHIME Institute" which is affiliated with CSUN (California State University, Northridge). They run a lab group for pre-school and kindergarten. And, they include two to three children with disabilities per classroom of 17 or 18 typical children. I was very fortunate that there was a space available for my son.

CC: How old is he?

LS: He's now five. He has done wonderfully, and I have seen many children over the past almost three years he has been going to that school do wonderfully. I've also seen typical children really develop all kinds of wonderful attributes—communication skills, patience, the ability to recognize an accomplishment and celebrate it, compassion, sympathy—and I think that is really important for conscientious citizenship. To have this kind of environment at such a young age where you see your peers as well as teachers who have disabilities...what kind of great citizens and leaders will these children become! The world is changing and the physical barriers are down now. It's time for the emotional barriers to go down. And what better place to start than school? So, we decided to start an elementary school. We've been working on it the last year. We open in two and a half weeks. We're all a little weak in the knees, but, it's going on rather well.

CC: How many students do you think will be attending the school?

LS: In our first year we will have 100 students. We also have deaf and hard of hearing classes as well. It's quite an amazing little program. Here, in Southern California, inclusion is the law; least restrictive environment is the law. But, it's a little tough in Los Angeles. There are amazing schools and amazing educators that are doing a wonderful job. And then there are a lot of educators that are not prepared to deal with inclusive education. They haven't been trained. It's really quite lovely and easy when you understand how to do it. It doesn't take away from anybody else. The class doesn't slow down for my son; he speeds up. He is given the opportunity to reach his academic potential...to develop self esteem and a sense of social consciousness.



More stories from Laura San Giacomo issue:

James Cameron; PCRF Saves Coral Reefs

ADA Watch; Protecting Civil Rights

National Recreation & Park Association; Inclusion

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