ANNA GUNN HAS OBVIOUSLY READ WHATEVER DOG-EARED underground manual on celebrity conduct changes hands in L.A. She chose a trendy Hollywood café for our meeting, ordered a frothy (overpriced) cappuccino and, dressed casually in a T-shirt and jeans, praised her colleagues on cue. But she's an actor; nailing down the moves is her job — a job she does particularly well on the boards.

“I really have a special love for the stage,” she says. “I feel most at home there.” Tall, composed and naturally radiant — with a long, enviable neck that gives her a magisterial quality — Gunn is the type you'd expect to see doing Shakespeare, which may be one of the reasons Sir Peter Hall cast her as the central character, Isabella, in his staging of Measure for Measure at the Ahmanson.

Preparing for the role was both energizing and draining. But after two months of rehearsals — the standard is three weeks — she was able to unearth similarities between herself and Isabella, who, having just entered a convent, must literally prostitute herself to the deputy of Vienna in order to save her brother from a death sentence. “There's a quickness to her emotions that I think we share. And I connect with her struggle between belief and doubt — and her absolute, astonishing sense of standing up to this world. I don't think I'm anywhere near as strong, but that's part of what drew me to the character.”

While she's single-minded in the pursuit of her craft, Gunn's career path has taken some haphazard turns; she never expected to end up in Los Angeles. “I always thought I'd go to New York, mainly because of theater. But things happened differently.” Since moving here seven years ago after landing a part in Fox's Down the Shore, 30-year-old Gunn has carved a niche for herself on the L.A. stage. She's appeared in several productions at the Matrix Theater, including Larry Atlas' Yield of the Long Bond last year and, more recently, as Lady Macbeth. A smattering of guest roles on prime-time TV shows and two Movies of the Week adorn her résumé, but she is best known as Assistant District Attorney Jean Ward on The Practice.

Still, Gunn came from the theater and still seems committed to it. “It's a great thing to be able to tell a story all the way through to a different audience each night, and take that journey.” And yet, after portraying Shakespeare's virtuous nun with a seemingly endless supply of integrity and strength, Gunn is ready to branch out. “I'd [like] to play someone really low-down — go completely opposite,” she says. “A vixen of some sort.”

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