"Now, I would never go and beat up nobody. I would never go back to dealing drugs. That's what I did when I was young. Now, I'm older and wiser. I've grown."

So in a week, she will move to Los Angeles. She has a plane ticket, a place to live and enough acting projects to provide her with an income for now. (She'll return to Baltimore regularly to fulfill her probation.)

She recently finished filming "Must Be the Music" in Philadelphia, a movie written by and starring Charles Dutton. (Pearson portrays his daughter.) .

She's working on a sequel to "Grace After Midnight."

And Burns is crafting a screenplay with Pearson in mind about the relationship between a woman from a privileged background and one who grew up disadvantaged. If the script gets filmed, he says, she will star.

The actress also has made the rounds as a motivational and educational speaker. She's spoken at schools up and down the East Coast, and recently participated in a panel discussion at Harvard University on the topic of urban revitalization.

Burns thinks it will be good for Pearson to leave a place where, he says, she's likely to be hauled off in handcuffs if she so much as jaywalks.

"I've been asking Felicia to leave Baltimore for four years," he says. "This town is a petty little town, and the whole point of locking her up was because of who she is. In L.A., actors more famous than she is get locked up all the time, and it's no big deal."

Of course, success in a career as brutally competitive as acting is by no means assured. Pearson is gifted, but she's also untrained and relatively inexperienced.

"The rejection rate is 90 percent," Moran says, "and that's being optimistic."

"I think there's a place for Felicia in show business if she stays within her range. I'm not expecting to see her in 'Twelfth Night,' but she may do well in music videos."

Pearson is blessed with a questioning mind and many talents. She likes to cook, she's good with her hands and she's adept at household repairs. But she has only a high school diploma (she earned her GED in prison) and few marketable skills. If acting doesn't pan out, how will she survive?

"If she's dedicated to her craft, I think she'll find work," Burns says. "If she can't support herself acting, she'll try something else. She could teach. There are a lot of things Felicia could do. But, being a drug dealer is not on her list."

When Pearson is asked the same question, she responds obliquely, by telling a story.

"Before I was 2 weeks old, I almost died twice," she says.

"They were saying I was gone. They'd given up hope. But I came back. Every time the odds are against me, I've come back."


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