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Luck be a Lady

For NBC's Las Vegas, that would be Vanessa Marcil. We talk to her about that destiny and other secrets to the show's success.

By Amy Schmidt • Photo by Craig DeCristo

When actress Vanessa Marcil decided to audition for NBC's hot new Monday night drama, only one thing stood in her way—Gymboree class. You see, the new mother had temporarily abandoned acting to embrace parenthood. "I wanted to spend as much time as I could with my son," Marcil recalls. "I wasn't planning on getting another job right away unless it was something that I really loved and it was part of an ensemble cast."

Then a certain script came her way. "I hadn't even read it yet; I just saw that it was called 'The Untitled Vegas Project,' and I was hooked. I'm a Vegas person. I love Vegas. My girlfriends and I have been to Vegas soooo many times. I read the script, and I loved it." But when the show's producer and creator, Gary Scott Thompson, asked her to come in and read for the part of savvy casino host Samantha "Sam" Jane, it was on the one day each week that her now nearly 2-year-old son, Kassius, has Gymboree—a weekly bonding experience mother and son very much look forward to. "They said, 'Today is the only day they were seeing people,' and I said, 'OK then I am going to have to pass.' I'm a big believer that if your priorities are in place, everything else in life falls into place." After all, she had just left a show she loved—General Hospital—which she says was the best working experience of her life.

The next day the producers called to say they were seeing people again. Was it kismet? The petite brunette "very casually" went in to read for the part, when she found herself in the lobby surrounded by 20 "supermodels." "I thought, 'Wow, maybe this isn't the right part for me.'" She read anyway. Ten minutes after she left, they called and asked her to screen-test, once again on the day that Kassius had Gymboree. Marcil politely declined. A day later, she got the call that sent her straight to network testing, where she spent the next five non-Gymboree days reading scenes with Marsha Thomason. The two instantly became friends. Marcil was cast as the no-nonsense Sam and Thomason as pit boss Nessa Holt, rounding out the cast that included veteran actor James Caan (Big Ed Deline), supermodel Molly Sims (Deline's daughter, Delinda) and fellow actors Nikki Cox (Mary Connell) and Josh Duhamel (Danny McCoy). It was destiny.

Not since Vega$ lit up the small screen has our fair city looked so lush in prime time. Las Vegas is an ode to everything we love about this city. While the premise of the show is based on the high-tech world of casino security at the fictional Montecito hotel-casino, the real high jinks take place on the casino floor. That's where Marcil comes in. Her role provides comic relief whether she's recuperating from a caffeine-binging weekend with two high-rollin' brothers or thwarting the advances of a casino host from a rival property.

We caught up with the 34-year-old actress at a photo shoot in Los Angeles during which she revealed the secret to Las Vegas' success...

Tell me about Sam.

Sam is the greatest character. She's like a dude. Sam is the last person you'll ever see cry or admit a weakness. I've always played really vulnerable characters. Sam would never admit to being interested in love. In the next few episodes she gets involved with a few men, but she has some fun and then she's done. Sam does not cuddle after sex.

How did you prepare for your role?

I hooked up with a woman who was a casino host at the Bellagio and Mandalay Bay. I asked a ton of questions. I was staying at the Hard Rock on New Year's Eve, when a friend of mine decided to play blackjack at a high-limit table. I don't gamble, so between each hand I kept asking the pit boss questions like, "Does your casino host ever wear jeans or is she always in a suit?" Pretty soon she said, "I know who you are." I was like, "Really, Can I go in the back?" The answer was no. It's always no. They are so secretive.

What's it like working with James Caan?

It's unbelievable. It was the main reason I wanted to do the show - to work with a star of his caliber. He really keeps the show on target. He checks out every single word that he says, whether it's a slang term about gambling or something to do with the security angle. He's such a pro.

The other day, Josh and I were doing a scene with him and he was out on the balcony with Dennis Hopper (A guest star on a recent episode) and the two of them were in the corner laughing and hitting on the girls, and we were like, "Can we do the scene now?" It took 10 minutes to get their attention. But they can get away with that, because while we are all so freaked out and nervous, Jimmy Caan and Dennis Hopper can do this in their sleep. They talk and chat, and then like this (snaps her fingers), they are on. The scene is perfect. While the rest of us work on a scene for three hours, start to shoot and immediately screw up.

How often do you film in Las Vegas?

We shot the first few episodes in Vegas and now we shoot some exteriors there, but almost all of the interiors are shot on set or on location in Los Angeles.

Which cast member is the biggest gambler?

Jimmy is the biggest gambler. Blackjack. He plays something else that I can't think of right now. I am actually not that knowledgeable about gaming (laughs). That's what I have to keep on my toes about.

Where do you like to stay when you're in town?

I always stay at the Hard Rock. I was with Paris (Hilton) on New Year's Eve there. We partied until 9 in the morning, then three days later she was (in LA) to film the show. She's really sweet, kind, funny, very humble. She was asking for advice and asked if what she did was OK. She was great.

What's your biggest vice?

If you asked all my friend's what my vice was, they would say I don't have one. I don't smoke. I didn't drink for 10 years; I got sober when I was a teenager, and I just started drinking again, but I'm a lightweight. I'm pretty good with shopping. But my favorite thing in the world to do is eat. I love Simon (Kitchen and Bar). It doesn't hurt that the chef at Simon is hot. Yes, Kerry is H-O-T. When we were shooting (in Vegas), I would have (food from) Simon delivered to the set every day.

I found a website devoted to arguing over who was the hottest actress on the show. You won, hands down.

I always tell everyone, "I am on the show with a bunch of supermodels to give the female viewers someone to relate to." These girls are all six feet tall and I'm five-four. Josh is six-four. I thank God for Jimmy Caan, because he's the only cast member who doesn't make me look like I'm two feet tall when I stand next to him....The girls are all so fabulous. We all hand out together off set. No one takes themselves too seriously, we all love what we do and we believe in the show. We know we're not curing cancer.

Is that the secret to Las Vegas' success? (The show was recently picked up for a second season.)

That, and it's very gypsy-like. It's never the same. One week, the plot is very serious, and the next week it's really campy. My only hope for the show is that we all continue to have a really good time. I've come to the point in my career that I've realized if you're not having a good time, it doesn't matter how much money you're making. We all have fun and we like each other, and I think that camaraderie translate on screen.

Can I ask you a question?

Sure.

Would a wet T-shirt contest ever take place in a casino? (A recent episode contained such a storyline.)

Nope.

I knew it. I told them. As crazy as everything seems in Vegas, when you're in the casino, when you're gambling, it's very serious. I was walking through the casino with Kassius, and they wouldn't even let me stop in front of a slot machine because he liked the lights. But I guess that's the magic of television.