Erika Christensen has a face that is quintessentially cherubic: cupid's bow lips, pink high on the cheekbones and gleaming blue eyes that gaze up at you, happy and expectant, as if waiting for more good news. It is hardly the face of a die-hard junkie selling herself for a fix, but that may be why Steven Soderbergh cast her in his latest film, Traffic. As Caroline Wakefield, an over-achieving high school honor student who just happens to have a vicious dope habit, Christensen embodies the unspoken side of drug abuse, the users who are able (at least for a time) to hide their habits behind money, prestige or good breeding. "It's amazing how long something can be hidden," says Christensen, "how long something can be going on without anyone knowing it."
Growing up in the suburban outskirts of Los Angeles, Christensen began her acting career early, but the extra jobs and modeling gigs ended when her mother felt she wasn't interested in the industry anymore. "She said, 'I don't want to be the type of mother that pushes you into it.' But later on, I realized it was what I wanted to do. It took a little bit of convincing her, but luckily my parents have been very supportive." Trained in both dance and music, Christensen has sung back-up on Neil Diamond's Christmas album and appeared in the Michael Jackson video "Childhood." "I didn't get to meet him, but he did send me an autographed picture," she says. "He seemed like a sweet guy."
Despite dabbling in music, Christensen's first love has always been acting. "Ever since I was twelve years old, it was what I wanted to do. It just seemed natural to me."
Once Erika had set her mind to it, it didn't take long for offers to come in. She began making television appearances, showing up on everything from The Practice to Frasier, usually playing the part of the sweet, straight A-student or the milk-fed girl next door. In her film debut as Wally Cleaver's girlfriend in Leave it To Beaver, her cheerleader looks and perky demeanor came in handy. One would never have guessed that the freshly-scrubbed innocent of Universal's remake was headed for a coveted role in a gritty, quasi-documentary take on US-Mexican drug trafficking. "You never would have seen this coming," says Christensen. "I've done some more dramatic roles, but nothing came close to this -- it was absolutely unprecedented. My parents were a little bit nervous and obviously the role was a little bit R-rated and a little bit difficult for them to stomach. But after meeting Soderbergh, they walked away thinking that he was the greatest guy in the world and that it would all fine."
In her role opposite That 70s Show's Topher Grace, the 18-year-old actor's character does everything from smoking to snorting to shooting up to sleeping with strange men in seedy hotel rooms for quick cash. As her habit grows, Caroline's desperation becomes more and more pronounced, despite the fact that she's got nice clothes, a swank suburban home and a dad (played by Michael Douglas) who just happens to be pals with the President of the United States.
Ironically, Douglas' character has just been made head of a government task force bent on stopping drug trafficking. While Papa Wakefield is busy discussing drug war tactics with pockmarked Mexican generals, daddy's little girl is sleeping with her dealer for discount fares. "The drugs become the most important thing in her life," says Christensen. "She does whatever is necessary to get her fix at the end of the day and so morally, anything is justified." Although she claims to never have had a drink, done drugs or smoked a cigarette -- "except for herbal cigarettes on the set, just so I could exhale something" -- Christensen plays Wakefield's glazed-eyed nod-outs with surprising authenticity.
To research the part, the young actress visited rehab centers and spoke with several former users about their experiences. "I spent hours and hours with the president of a center," she recalls. "He had been treating addicts for years and he not only knew all about the physical aspects, what happens to your body, but the emotional side as well, how drugs affect addicts' lives and how they deal with it. That really helped me. I talked to a girl who was 19 and had only been clean for a matter of weeks. She told me of how it had gone from weekend partying until eventually one weekend it just didn't end. I talked to a woman who had been clean for twenty years. Both of them had perfect recollections of what it felt like. So I felt like I had the necessary experience." In addition to toking up, Christensen also did her first sex scenes for the film, an experience she claims was "hilarious."
"I don't want to be taking it lightly, but it was all laughs, then 'action' and suddenly I'm in bed. It's funny, because I should have been nervous, but I don't think I was because everyone else was. The set was kind of tense. I ended up feeling like 'relax everybody, I'm a young girl, but I'm an actor and I know what I'm doing here, you don't have to worry about me.'"
Forgoing the inevitable barrage of teen comedy scripts and Disney network dreck that flew her way following Leave it To Beaver, Christensen seems bent on playing more interesting characters, although whether or not they'll be in film or television remains a question. "I've been trying to figure that out," she says, "I like them both so much. If I had to choose one, I guess it would be film. I'm just so happy to be doing what I want with my life. For most teenagers there's this pressure of trying to figure out what you're going to do. I'm lucky to not have that. I know what I want. I want to be an actor."