I first met Sarah Clarke in seventh grade when she was a ponytailed student in St. Louis with a dimpled smile and an infectious laugh. We went to junior high and high school together.
The rest of you met Clarke last month on the Fox television show, "24," one of the most-hyped new shows of the season. She plays Nina Myers, the sexy, computer-adept colleague of the CIA counterterrorism agent played by Kiefer Sutherland.
TV Guide has called "24" the year's best new show. (It airs Tuesday at 8 p.m., with an encore Friday at 8 p.m., and on cable's FX network Sunday and Monday.)
"I have to say I've had a dream situation," Clarke said. "I couldn't feel luckier."
Just last year she was temping for a lawyer and working at a furniture store in New York to pay the bills. Before "24," her biggest acting jobs had been in Kmart and Volkswagen commercials and appearances on "Ed" and "Sex in the City."
She was always theatrical. Once, in a high school musical of "Godspell," she had to slink off the stage while singing. She spotted an assistant principal in the audience, dropped into his lap, engulfed him with her feather boa and rubbed his balding head in a mockingly seductive way.
In her "24" role, Clarke has had to tone down the levity. Nina Myers is the chief of staff and former lover to Sutherland's character, the married Jack Bauer. Nina never seems to leave the office or see the light of day.
"24" proved to be Clarke's big break.
"From the writing in the show itself, I could tell it was going to be great," Clarke said. "It's icing on the cake when everyone agrees with you."
She made an audition tape for "24" last January and didn't hear anything until March when she was flown out to Los Angeles for an interview. She was hired, and filming for the pilot began that afternoon. Fears of an actors' strike sped everything up, so much so that the costuming department didn't even have time to fit her for a shirt for the pilot.
"I ended up wearing my own shirt," Clarke said. "I don't think anybody realized that if we used that shirt, we're going to need 12 more of them."
That's because of the show's novel narrative structure. Each episode represents an hour in Bauer's 24-hour day.