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April 11, 2016

The Big Reveal

The TV world will long be raving over Jaimie Alexander's debut on Blindspot — emerging from a duffel bag in Times Square, naked but for her tattoos. Equally revealing this season has been Alexander's amalgam of beauty and, well, beast.

Tatiana Siegel
  • Robert Ascroft
  • Robert Ascroft
  • Robert Ascroft
  • Robert Ascroft
  • Robert Ascroft
  • Robert Ascroft
  • Robert Ascroft
  • Robert Ascroft
  • Robert Ascroft

Jaimie Alexander is sitting in a trailer, having a temporary tattoo carefully removed from her clavicle.

She's transformed the generic space into a cozy nook. On this early February day, a fake cardboard fireplace adorns the wall amid Christmas tree lights and family pictures. Makeup artist Stephanie Pasicov applies isopropylmyristate, while the Blindspot star blows on an unappetizing-looking concoction — super greens soup with quinoa — trying in vain to expedite the cooling process. Alexander burns her tongue.

"It looks terrible, but it's absolutely good," the actress insists. "I'm very picky with my food." Alexander eats every two hours to meet the demands of her role: an amnesiac with a Rosetta Stone body covered in crime-solving tattooed clues.

A typical day on the Brooklyn set can last up to 18 hours, with any downtime spent whipping out a quick prison workout of pushups and crunches. If full-body tattoos are required, her wakeup call comes at 2:45 a.m.

Take episode 10, for example. During a single production day for the NBC breakout hit, Alexander's Jane Doe was waterboarded, "which happened for real," she says. "Don't care to experience that again." The grueling shoot also featured back-to-back highly choreographed fight sequences. "It was like a 16-, 17-hour day where it was just all fighting and torturing," she says,

By contrast, today is "super easy," by her estimation. Still, it's 6 p.m., and Alexander is about to return to the Steiner Studios set to shoot a scene with costar Sullivan Stapleton. Unlike the pure physicality required for much of her screen time, this segment from episode 16 highlights her character's equally compelling soft side.

In a makeshift FBI locker room, she and Stapleton do the same scene six times from six different angles. She's fingering a necklace given to her by Stapleton's Special Agent Kurt Weller. Her energy never flags. Between takes, Alexander clowns around with Stapleton but keeps her expression lethal. He mutters back, "You're going to probably hit me like this in the face if I get too close."

She's keeping the crew amused between setups, posing with the necklace like a Price Is Right model, her smile reminiscent of a hostage delivering a message at gunpoint. The new setup complete, she delivers her line: "Do you wanna buy me a birthday drink?" He rebuffs her. "I've got plans. ...Another night?" Every time, the simple scene is heartbreaking, capturing Jane's loneliness and longing to connect.

After the wrap, Alexander ducks out to shoot some promos that will run during a Blindspot marathon on USA Network. It's now past 8 p.m. What was she thinking during those takes with Stapleton? "I don't know," she says, with refreshing candor. "Honestly, I'm not a classically trained actor, so I just kind of feel it."

Ask anyone involved with Blindspot - the top-rated new series of the 2015-16 season and NBC's biggest scripted hit since The Blacklist — and the response is unanimous: Alexander is a joy on set. Her largesse is legendary.

A below-the-line crew member mentions that the 5’9” actress gives away all of the designer clothing and swag sent by stylists who seem to be under the impression that she's five-two (Stapleton is a buff 6’2”, creating the illusion that Alexander is tiny).

"Jaimie is so sweet and kind and generous and goofy, and you just fall in love with her," raves Blindspot's Audrey Esparza, who appears as FBI agent Natasha Zapata. An epic fight sequence she shot with Alexander for episode eight devolved off-camera — perhaps predictably — into hijinks.

"If I make eye contact with her during a scene, it's all over because we will both crack up laughing," Esparza says. "We all work so hard, especially Jaimie, but she manages to keep everyone light."

Keeping the vibe sunny is something of a coping mechanism for Alexander. "If I have to bawl my eyes out and it's a heavy scene, I always goof off in between," she explains. "Maybe it reminds my soul that it's not real, so I don't take it home with me."

The cast and crew, working on fumes as they slog through a 23-episode first season (a second season has already been confirmed), are more than appreciative. In fact, Alexander is such a draw that actors are known to show up on set on their days off just to watch her make the extraordinary look ordinary.

The scene most fitting that description is undoubtedly the opening of the pilot. Blindspot creator, executive producer and writer Martin Gero remembers the day the crew shut down Times Square for that jaw-dropping debut.

"She was completely naked in the middle of Times Square," Gero says of his star. "There're not a lot of people who can say that. And Jaimie's performance coming out of that bag [Jane is found in a duffel bag] was so visceral and terrifying and beautiful. That was one of those, 'Oh man, I have the best job' moments. Everyone came by, even Sullivan and Rob [Brown, who plays FBI agent Edgar Reade], People came by because they were like, 'It's such a crazy thing to do.'"

Not surprisingly, Alexander downplays her feat that day,"I did have a patch over my lady part down there," she says. "But everything else was completely bare and painted. And then I was in the bag for quite a while. It was the creepiest thing I've ever been a part of."

If Jane Doe was born into the TV universe with more questions than a Sunday crossword puzzle, there are still few answers, even for Alexander. She knows nothing about her character's identity and how it relates to the supporting characters.

"Who is this Oscar guy?" she muses of the informant played by Francois Arnaud. "And the guy from episode two who ends up dying in episode three, the mystery man with the burly facial hair? I [also] wonder where Jane grew up — [I don't] know anything about her." CUT HERE

Alexander's own identity is a bit more straightforward. Born in Greenville, South Carolina, she moved to Grapevine, Texas, with her mother and two brothers when she was a toddler.

"I had kind of a rough upbringing," she says. "I don't really know my dad."

Her mother worked various jobs, and they just scraped by. But the family, which grew to include a loving stepfather and two stepbrothers, enjoyed a tight bond. Today, Alexander's mother is her biggest fan and "got these dorky shirts made that say Blindspot on them with my picture all tatted up," she says, laughing. "And my brothers are so supportive — they have Blindspot watching parties."

She pauses and smiles. "Yeah, they're awesome."

Having four brothers also taught her to challenge female conventions. In beauty pageant-crazed Texas, Alexander never quite assimilated, despite her striking bone structure and enviable frame.

She admits she's never worn pink in her life, preferring a Motorhead T-shirt and ripped jeans — a style she still adheres to, though she admits, "I can definitely rock a dress." (At this year's Golden Globes she turned heads in an emerald-and-black gown with a plunging neckline.)

Even more appalling to her high school principal: she wanted to form a girls' wrestling team. '"It's a barbaric thing for a woman to do,'" she recalls the principal saying. "I went and started it anyway. We ended up winning a lot of tournaments, and it was a really good way to keep a lot of young women out of trouble and teach them a little bit of self-defense and discipline."

The family's financial struggles, too, had a silver lining, offering Alexander an early lesson in self-sufficiency. She started working at 14 as a hostess in a restaurant. But she was strategic with her job choices, even after moving to Los Angeles five months after graduation.

"I always had three jobs: I worked at a restaurant so I could eat free food, worked at a gym part-time so I could train for free and then I worked at a clothing store," she says.

In L.A. she waitressed at places like Gladstones at Universal CityWalk ("Frankie Muniz was a great tipper," she offers) and the Daily Grill at the Burbank airport, and she sold clothes at Abercrombie & Fitch at the Grove, a trendy outdoor mall.

She was pulled from the storeroom floor once to appear in a campaign for the edgy retailer. But modeling was never her thing, calling it a job she "sucked at." During some earlier catwalk work, she distinctly remembers feeling bored. "I walked to the end of the runway and turned around and walked right off. I was like, 'I'm not interested in that.'"

For about five years, she struggled to find film or TV work, booking commercials like Clean & Clear acne scrub. "I was this very young-looking girl at the time, but I had this very deep voice," she explains, attributing the throaty rasp to vocal cord polyps that her mother thankfully refused to have removed, given there was no medical necessity. "They all wanted the Mischa Barton, the O.C. California bombshell. And I was tall, flat-chested, with a deep voice and dark hair. I just didn't fit their mold."

Eventually, Alexander landed the lead in a Warner Bros, direct-to-video horror film, Rest Stop. The project showcased her hand-to-hand combat skills, and casting agents noticed.

Around the same time, the action girl protagonist became a pop-culture phenomenon, led by Angelina Jolie and her string of ass-kicking roles in films like Salt, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Wanted. But only a small pool of actresses could pull it off with credibility.

"I started getting all the smaller bits for action, and I would play a killer or something like that," she says. "I just kept doing it and then I ended up getting Kyle XY [a series for ABC Family] and then Thor [which turned into a film franchise]."

When it came time to cast Blindspot, Alexander was already on NBC's radar (sources say she was offered — and turned down — the part of James Spader's Blacklist sidekick, which eventually went to Megan Boone).

Then someone slipped NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke a copy of Alexander's audition for Clint Eastwood's American Sniper. Ironically, Alexander had lost out to the more established movie star Sienna Miller for the role of Bradley Cooper's wife. But Salke saw on tape exactly what she needed to launch a new series.

"Her audition was so incredible and heartbreaking and soulful that we were like, 'Yes, it fills the full package.' And we loved her in Thor," Salke says of Alexander's turn as Marvel superheroine Sif. "She's definitely the badass, the female Jason Bourne. She embodies all that power. She's beautiful and sexy, but so strong. And equally important, we needed that vulnerability."

Adds executive producer Greg Berlanti: "She was on a very short list of individuals who you think and hope might be interested in network television that year." (Executive-producing with Berlanti and Gero are Sarah Schechter and Mark Pellington.)

But Alexander wasn't convinced — at least not yet. Over the past few years, she had read many promising pilots calling for a tough female lead with some abnormal ability. "I said, 'Okay, I can see what I'm typecast as,'" she quips. "But unfortunately, the result would be the female being quite weak, a bit uneducated and always relying on her male counterpart."

Instead of taking those previous offers, she embarked on a series of interesting indie films, like Loosies and London Fields. And though Blindspot would take her away from the home she shared in Los Angeles with her then-fiance, actor Peter Facinelli (they split due to the long¬distance relationship), she had to admit that the script delivered something she hadn't seen before.

"Just the first couple of scenes about this girl waking up in Times Square not knowing who she is and she's covered in these tattoos.... Then all of a sudden she's thrown into a situation where she starts to remember a sensory type of thing with the fighting. I thought, 'Man, I can really do something with that. I don't see it getting boring.' And even today, we did our table read for episode 17, and it was so unpredictable to me."

Alexander loathes predictability and is willing to embrace danger, much to the frustration of her Blindspot stunt double, Ky Furneaux. Though the two are close outside work, Furneaux often has to plead with Alexander to sit back when it comes to particularly risky maneuvers, like a scene that required Jane to whip around New York City streets on two wheels (Alexander owns a motorbike back in L.A.),

"The producers actually stepped in more than me," says Furneaux, who has been doubling for the actress for 10 years. "They just didn't want to risk their star riding a motorbike around those corners. So, I ended up doing that one."

And perhaps befitting a woman who tools around L.A. on two wheels and is more comfortable in a hoodie than couture, Alexander has nine tattoos of her own. They have to be either covered up or carefully incorporated into Jane Doe's body ink.

But Jane's tattoos have inspired Alexander, and she's mulling adding one more to her real-life collection.

"I'd probably get this bird on my neck. I just like the placement and the way it frames my jawline," she muses, fingering the makeup artist's creation. But that will have to wait until the series runs its course. "Obviously, I can live vicariously through Jane and wear her tattoos until then."

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