When 17-year-old actress Claudia Lee landed a role on the 1991-set sitcom "Surviving Jack," she set out to discover what that neon-soaked, scrunchie-lovin' decade was all about. Born in 1996, Lee was 3 when partying like it was 1999 gave way to Y2K fears.
"I was looking up Tori Spelling, Kelly Bundy and all the 'Saved by the Bell' girls to see what they wore and how they did their hair," Lee said recently at the Four Seasons Hotel while in town to promote the show. "I was very specific about my character. I wanted to create a look for her, and we really did that."
With her character's quick quips, gold medal-worthy eye rolls and closet full of denim and spandex, Lee's research paid off in spades. Indeed, her version of the popular, too-cool-for-school '90s vixen is just as "fly" as either of the Kellys (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen's Kapowski and Jennie Garth's Taylor, of course).
Lee plays Rachel Dunlevy, the oldest daughter of Christopher Meloni's titular Jack, on Fox's newest comedy, "Surviving Jack." The sitcom's fourth episode, which will center on a homecoming dance, airs Thursday. The show follows the Dunlevy family as the matriarch (Rachael Harris) decides to start law school, leaving Jack, an oncologist, former military man and parenting newbie, to take on a larger role in raising their kids, Rachel and Frankie (Connor Buckley).
This arrangement — and Jack's abundance of unforgiving, blunt advice — isn't preferable to anyone involved, especially not wild child Rachel.
"It's funny, because on the show our father is surviving us just as much as we are surviving him and his new parenting skills, which the kids are not used to whatsoever," Lee said.
Out of her character's '90s makeup and clothes and in a stunning Ted Baker dress, Lee carries herself with a maturity and poise that is rare in teenage girls. And, frankly, she looks much older than 17.
"I know, I get that a lot," she said with a smile.
Lee, whose full name is Claudia Lee Mirkowski, grew up in West Lafayette, Ind. Her father, Klaudius Mirkowski, emigrated from Poland, and Lee said that culture has always been a big part of her life. Her family often traveled to Chicago to visit friends in the Polish community, and Lee spent her summers between the ages of 8 and 13 living in Poland and studying the language.
For as long as she, and her dad, can remember, Lee has been obsessed with the arts.
Claudia "would always perform at home," Mirkowski said. "She would have me build stages in her bedroom with full backgrounds."
She began taking dance classes at 3 and started singing, playing piano and acting with the Civic Theatre of Greater Lafayette at about 10. The activities "fed the beast that was growing inside me," Lee said.
"I remember watching TV when I was younger, knowing that was what I was going to do for the rest of my life," she said. "I would ask my parents, 'Why am I not on TV?' and my mom would say, 'Well, we don't live in California,' and I would say, 'When are we moving there?' I was 5, asking for an agent and a manager."
At 13, Lee begged her parents to go to an arts camp in Vermont sponsored by the New York Film Academy. A fellow camper's parent introduced her to an agent, who told Lee that if she really wanted to make a go of performing, she needed to move to LA.
Her parents gave her three months to prove she could make it in show business.
By the end of her first week in California, she booked a national commercial opposite Zachary Levi, who was starring on NBC's "Chuck." (The commercial was for Comcast.)
Four years later, Lee has recorded an album, filmed a major motion picture ("Kick-Ass 2") and landed regular roles on two network shows: "Surviving Jack" and "Hart of Dixie," on which she plays Magnolia Breeland, an uptight, slightly arrogant Southern belle.
"I think Claudia tackles every role, regardless of what it is, with this fearlessness and desire to really walk in someone else's shoes and show the journey of the character," said Kimberly Crandell, Lee's acting coach in LA. "She really loves what she does, and that shows in her work."
By all accounts, Lee nailed the audition for "Surviving Jack." Producer Bill Lawrence (who also created "Scrubs") said Lee "crushed" the reading, and fellow producer Patrick Schumacker said he had "never seen someone, especially a 16-year-old girl, come in that poised."
Think of "Surviving Jack" as an amalgam of the rawness and grit of "Married … With Children" and the virtuousness and innocence of "The Wonder Years." The sitcom is based on Justin Halpern's 2012 memoir, " I Suck at Girls," though Lee's character is totally fictionalized. Halpern and the writers thought the interactions between self-assured Rachel and equally self-assured Jack would be ripe for comedy.
"We formed this character around the idea that (Claudia) could play this girl who is sort of supremely confident," Halpern said. Halpern's first sitcom, "$#*! My Dad Says," was based on his Twitter feed. "She says (things) that she thinks are nice things to say but are actually horrific insults. Stuff like, 'I think that you are really great for how pretty you are.'"
On the show, Rachel dishes out insults and opinions as directly as her dad: "She is the female version of her father," Lee said.
Out of character, Lee could not be more unlike Rachel, her fellow cast members said.
"She's smart. She's savvy. She's unaffected," Christopher Meloni said. She has "a clarity about who she is, what she wants (and) what she's doing."
Harris added, "She's very professional and can still maintain being a 17-year-old. … She's just a very smart gal, and I've always said I want to be Claudia Lee when I grow up."
Being on two series takes up a lot of Lee's time, but the young actress said she would like to explore doing more movies.
"I am focusing on film and building that part of my career," she said. "I love … to do film because it's cool to see a story being told from start to finish."
8:30 p.m., Thursday, FoxCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun