By James Ryan, Entertainment News Wire

Amy Brenneman still finds it a little embarrassing to discuss the media buzz she's created by breaking prime-time nudity taboos in her role as Officer Janice Licalsi on Steven Bochco's cop drama NYPD Blue.

Brenneman feels much more comfortable discussing her life as actress/teacher since her graduation from Harvard University. For five years she devoted her time to a traveling theater group, the Cornerstone Theater Company. Cornerstone would set up shop for several months in back-road communities, staging performances of classic plays and holding workshops.

The leap from a Nevada Indian reservation, Appalachian farm community or a Mississippi Delta hamlet to the back lot of a major Hollywood studio has been a little unnerving. And the controversy surrounding the role hasn't lessened the burden. In the first few episodes, Licalsi becomes involved in a romance with one of her fellow officers.

"I once stripped down to my underwear and smeared ice cream on myself in a stage production of Happy Birthday Wanda June, so while I was shooting (NYPD Blue's nude scenes) I wasn't really thinking about it. "When you're in it, it only makes logical sense. It's when it gets out into the world and people say, 'It's a nude scene,' that I say, 'Oh, God. It is!' " she says with a grimace.


Brenneman first auditioned for the role while she was performing onstage in a Yale theater production. "My agent had set up about six auditions in one afternoon," she recalls. "They said, 'Oh, there's going to be nudity.' But I didn't even have a chance to think about it at the time. And I didn't think about it again until the day it was shot."

The actress, who grew up in a middle-class Connecticut household -- her father is an environmental attorney, her mother a judge -- says she was too busy worrying whether viewers would buy her as an Italian-American cop from working-class Queens. She still isn't quite comfortable in her uniform, and trades it in for jeans, cowboy boots and a sleeveless print top for a short walk to the commissary.

"The whole cop thing feels funny," she says. "I know I have the toughness and strength, but I don't have the ability to shoot somebody. After we shot the second episode, where I had to do that, I was like, 'Do you believe it?' "

Brenneman says the respect she has for Bochco and the crew of writers and directors he has assembled is what carries her through the difficult moments.

"These people from day one had a feeling of sanity and serenity. I really trust them and will follow them very far," she says. "That's unusual for me. Normally I won't pick up a fork if you tell me to and I don't believe you. And more and more as the writers get to know me, and write for me, I realize that this woman is me, but a cop."


Brenneman says her experience with Cornerstone (she remains active in the company) has also "helped ground the acting thing in a place of social service and communication." "The work I did with them was really about telling stories, which is the most important part of any acting," she says. "Our favorite thing to do was adapt the classics so they reflected local concerns, as well as being a neat aesthetic lightening bolt."

The troupe, which was funded through a National Endowment for the Arts grant, lived and cooked communally, its members surviving on as little as $87 a week. She admits her decision to pursue television series work in the last couple of years has been motivated by something other than artistic sentiment. She earlier appeared in an episode of Murder, She Wrote and was a regular on CBS' Middle Ages.

"It's really nice to be able to pay back bills," she laughs. "But I'm not becoming a millionaire. Paying back debts is really as far as it's gotten."

Still, she is relieved to find the sense of community on the NYPD Blue set not that distant from what she had experienced with Cornerstone.

"I was really unsure, even when we got together for a premiere party," she says. "Then all of us got together to watch the second episode. We all laughed a lot, and it really reminded me of that same feeling of community. I really need that kind of environment in which to create. I can only get so far fantasizing in my room about my part. I need that collaboration."