Rachel Nichols is an actress, a former model, a sports fan, a foodie, a frequent traveler and an avid Twitterer. She is not, however, a reporter for ESPN given to undue amounts of hand gesticulations while talking. Well… that’s Rachel Nichols, too, actually. But a different one. The real Rachel Nichols — genuinely easygoing, and possessing of a developed personality of someone much uglier — is more apt to have names for her hands.

Her latest project is the independent-minded “A Bird of the Air,” in which she plays a free-spirited librarian, Fiona, who upends the life of a solitary loner, Lyman (Jackson Hurst), when she takes it upon herself to help him track down the past owners of a parrot that randomly flies into his trailer. Recently, ShockYa had the chance to speak to Nichols one-on-one, about the movie, the work Nichols put in to get her role, changing hair colors, and exactly why she calls her car Darth. The conversation is excerpted below:

ShockYa: “A Bird of the Air” is based on a novel by Joe Coomer, and as a script it’s been around a while and cycled through several different combinations of attached talent in development hell. How and when did it come your direction?

Rachel Nichols: I found out after I met Margaret Whitton, the director, that Oprah (Winfrey) had actually had the rights to the book for three or four years before they let the option lapse. And Margaret was able to swoop in and get it. It’s so weird how things happen — originally Margaret wasn’t going to direct the film, she was producing it. I went to meet with her the day that I read the script, and it made me laugh out loud, which I liked a lot. Plus, Fiona was a character very, very different from anything that I’d previously played. And then I sat down and fell in love with Margaret, who’s just brilliant. She’s obviously a seasoned performer, but she’s so smart and nice and easy, and also a total hard-ass who will kill you. She’s the best of both worlds. [She asked] if I would be willing to come in and audition, and I said absolutely. So the next day they bring in Jackson Hurst, we auditioned together, and then a couple weeks later we’re on the way to Santa Fe. So I didn’t actually have to deal with any drama with (different versions of) the script or anything.

ShockYa: At one point Matthew McConaughey was actually attached to star.

RN: (laughs) Wow! Oh, wow. (laughs) I can’t even imagine… not that he’s not lovely, but I just can’t imagine it.

ShockYa: A sort of two-part question that you can fold into one answer — is auditioning something you feel comfortable with, or maybe finally arrived at a place of comfort with? And because this was so different a character was it perhaps any more nerve-racking than a typical audition?

RN: Auditioning is something that I really used to be really nervous about. I was always a good auditioner because memorizing lines has come pretty easy to me, even if I was nervous. But enough time has passed so that now I actually genuinely like auditioning, and I think that plain and simple happens with the more work you get, the more experience you get, the more confidence you have walking into a room to audition for another project. Work begets work begets work, you know? So you become a better auditioner. Now, I still have days that I’m a disaster in a room. (laughs) I’m by no means invincible at this point, it’s definitely a point that I’ve come to. I certainly didn’t start out saying, “Oh, this is fun! I’m not nervous!” I was shaking in my boots most of the time. But the more experience you have, the more calm you can be in a room. But the idea that Fiona was somebody so different than characters I’d played [made me a bit nervous]. I had to put in a lot of work. I have an acting coach in L.A. that I just adore, and I’d taken the script to her and said, “I really want to work on this character with you because I really want this job, and this is something that I’m kind of unfamiliar with.” Fiona’s quirky and wild and kooky, and kind of obsessed with this guy, and a little bit of a stalker. She’s kind of the most annoying thing ever for the first 20 minutes of the movie, and nobody likes her, but then people fall in love with her. There were all these elements that were totally new to me, so I put in a lot of work. And Margaret was great, because she was very supportive in the collaborative effort, and very much wanted to know what Jackson and I wanted for our characters. So the trust I had in Margaret enabled me to feel that since I had put in all the work, and since we were all on the same page, that no choice I made would be wrong because at that point I was Fiona. So if you walk into a situation where nothing you do as the character is going to be totally wrong, you’re golden. It just takes a while to get there.

ShockYa: One of the things that struck me is that Fiona speaks in kind of an accelerated meter. There’s a pinch of screwball to the proceedings.

RN: Yeah, the thing that Margaret did that was brilliant was rehearse us. Even on big movies you don’t usually have time to rehearse, [but] we rehearsed the whole week leading up to starting to shoot, and because of that we were able to find things and put them into every iteration of our character that we wouldn’t have had the luxury of doing had we not that rehearsal time. That’s when you’re finding out all these new quirky things about your character. …She had all these weird exercises for us to do, which was fascinating because I’m not from the theater and Margaret is, and a lot of the mechanisms she put to work were very theatrically-based. So in that week we found [our characters], and I have to say that without that week of time I don’t know if those same elements would have been as hammered out as they were. So the voice and her pattern of speech definitely goes along with Fiona, especially when I’m in scenes with Lyman, and I have to fill in silences because he’s quiet.

ShockYa: There’s that meet-cute in the library where Lyman tells Fiona that she’s very forward for a librarian, and she’s so very proud of herself, and just says, “Thank you!” In real life, are you a go-get-’em type of gal?

RN: You know, it’s so funny, growing up I was really shy and much more of an introvert. It wasn’t until I left Maine and came to New York and Columbia, and my mom and dad dropped me off at school that I remember my mom saying, “Rachel, no one knows you here, so you can be whoever you want to be.” And I remember thinking (channeling washed-away uncertainty), “Well… well, OK!” That’s why I think going to college is important, because it’s this interim period where you’re away from home but you’re under a protective roof, essentially, and it allows for that middle period of growth between being a teenager and being an adult.

ShockYa: Adulthood lite, I called it.

RN: Exactly, it’s adulthood lite — you’re making a lot of choices that you weren’t in a position to make before, but you’re still going to school and I think that completely changed my personality. Anyone that didn’t know me then would find that hard to believe, but… I was quiet and kind of dorky, and played sports but not particularly well.

ShockYa: Fiona has a bassett hound, Lyman finds and falls for a parrot. In real life, which would you prefer? Or is it cats, I don’t know?

RN: Well, the birds were cool, but they made a lot of noise. I think I’d be much more inclined to have a dog. We had a labrador growing up, so if I was going to get a pet I guess I would get a lab or a golden retriever. But I feel bad because I live in L.A. and travel so much that I feel like that’s animal abuse, and any pet that I had would be morbidly depressed. They’d be pulled around to other people’s houses all the time.

ShockYa: You’ve mentioned Fiona being very different from characters you’ve played before, but in the movie Fiona has a name for her car, Sacagawea. And as you’ve discussed on “The Kevin and Bean Show” on KROQ, you have a name for your car, too.

RN: Oh, “Kevin and Bean” is my favorite! I’m on there, like, all the time. And yes, my car’s name is Darth, like Darth Vader. I had a discussion/fight with an ex-boyfriend, years and years and years ago, and he called me Darth and said, “You feel no guilt.” And I kind of liked it, I took to it. I was like, “Fine, Vader’s awesome, man. I’ll be Darth.” And then I got my car, and it was gun-metal grey, and I felt as though it was the Darth Protector. And then it just became Darth, because I couldn’t go around saying, “Oh, it’s the Darth Protector and I’m Darth.” (laughs)

ShockYa: Well of course not.

RN: And so I recently pimped it out a bit, and put some new shoes on it and some tint and brakes. And now it’s Super-Darth! (laughs)

ShockYa: Nice! I’ve had some other interviews recently where I’ve talked with actors and actresses about how they tend to accumulate wardrobe from all the movies that they do. And Fiona has some, well, rather unique fashion sensibilities. So —

RN: Yeah, I didn’t keep anything. (laughs) There’s one scene where she’s wearing a mustard-yellow J. Crew cardigan, and I love that, and that I actually do have. But Fiona kind of rubbed off on me in a way, because two weeks into shooting in Santa Fe I found myself at a consignment shop buying really cool jackets and hats — none of which I’ve worn since, by the way. But I totally wore them when I was there. I was Fiona-ized.

ShockYa: In this film your hair is sort of chestnut brown, in others it’s been blonde and in “G.I. Joe,” of course, it was red. Is there a preference there?

RN: Well, blonde is my natural color, and I like that just because I’m a low-maintenance hair girl and going to the salon is not what I want to spend three hours of my day doing every two-and-a-half weeks. So I would usually choose the blonde since that’s what I was born with. The red is a total pain in the ass, and that color was trouble! I had a lot of trouble with the red hair. And the brown — which is what I have now, because I’m shooting “I, Alex Cross,” in Detroit, and playing a cop, and it seemed more fitting — I really like. With [my] fair skin and the blue eyes, it’s kind of striking. So I always say blonde, but the dark brown is a close second. And it’s not true that blondes have more fun.

ShockYa: Well, personal experience on my end has born that out as well. The question that makes me sound like a total girl, then, since you mentioned the red hair on “G.I. Joe” being trouble with a capital T — does all that dying back and forth court hair damage?

RN: Yeah, I had never dyed my hair ever in my life until “Star Trek,” when J.J. Abrams asked if I would. And for J.J. Abrams you kind of agree to do anything that he wants. If he’d asked if I would shave my head I probably would have said yes. So I dyed my hair for that and while I was shooting it I booked “G.I. Joe,” which was great because they wanted me to have red hair but just a slightly different (color of) red, which was fine. Then I went back to blonde, and that’s a long process to get the red color out of the hair. And then I was blonde for less than a year before I went back dark, which I really liked. I was going to keep that, but I was going on “Criminal Minds” and they wanted me to be blonde, so I had… well, I call it “the re-blonding experience,” because we had to re-blonde me quicker than we would have liked. So then it got a little bit damaged, and I was actually happy to go back to brown with “Alex Cross.” I’ll probably stay brown for a while and give my hair a chance to heal. But wearing a wig is also not super-fun either.

ShockYa: The character of Fiona is something quite different for you, and I’m struck by another parallel since you mentioned “Alex Cross,” and Tyler Perry’s casting in that seems to be something very different. What’s sort of been your insight or take on how he’s tackling a role already made famous by Morgan Freeman?

RN: I’ve always contended that any actor that can do comedy can do anything. I think comedy is the most difficult thing to do. I actually went to the theater for “Madea’s Family Reunion” because a friend of mine wanted to see it. Tyler is lovely and sweet and taking it very seriously. He’s got a very expressive face, and it can be subtly expressive. It doesn’t have to be comedically expressive. I know it’s a departure from everything he’s done recently, but I’m excited about it because maybe that will open up a whole new audience of people who get to know me, too, because his built-in audience probably has no idea who I am. And I think his built-in audience has already received fair warning that this isn’t a comedy, and that it’s carrying on the Alex Cross character. I remember when I saw Will Ferrell in “Stranger Than Fiction,” and I went, “Oh my gosh, he’s amazing!” He totally blew me away, even though I initially wasn’t sure I’d like Will Ferrell outside of comedy. I think people that go in willing to give Tyler a chance will be really impressed.

Written by: Brent Simon

Rachel Nichols in A Bird of the Air

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By Brent Simon

A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International, Newsweek Japan, Magill's Cinema Annual, and many other outlets. He cannot abide a world without U2 and tacos.

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