LOS ANGELES – As a vegetarian waiting tables at a steakhouse, Devin Kelley couldn't wait to escape the smell of cooked meat. So when she got the phone call that she had hooked a lead role in a pilot for a Fox series, she immediately quit her West Hollywood job and prepared for stardom.
But the Eagan-raised actress was about to learn a fundamental lesson in show business: Don't count on anything.
When her show, "The Chicago Code," was canceled after just 13 episodes, Kelley cried a lot.
"Only one of the cast members would listen to me talk about how devastated I was," she recalled. The rest were like, 'Dude, it happens. It's all part of the business.' "
The chances that Kelley will have an emotional breakdown tied to her latest effort, "Resurrection," are considerably less. Part of the reason is that ABC is pummeling the airwaves with ads, granting the drama more airtime on Oscar night than Ellen DeGeneres.
More important, in the three years since "Code" got the ax, Kelley has toughened up.
"I've got a healthy amount of distance this time around," she said while working an ABC cocktail party earlier this year. "It doesn't mean I don't love everyone associated with the show, but if it doesn't happen, I'll be OK."
Kelley's pragmatic nature was apparent during her years at the Youth Performance Company (YPC), where she acted when she wasn't attending classes at Apple Valley's Eastwood High School, from which she graduated in 2004.
"She's got wisdom beyond her years," said Jacie Knight, the founder and artistic director of YPC, which counts Josh Hartnett and Nick Swardson as past participants. "There's a beautiful humility about her. If you try to give her positive comments, she'll deflect them and turn the conversation back to you."
After graduation, Kelley enrolled at USC and spent a semester studying in London, an experience that provided discipline and sharpened her skills.
"London has such an unbelievable respect for theater, where L.A. does not," she said. "You go to a play here and the dude next to you is sleeping. In London, if you're not in your seat when it starts, they lock the door. In Los Angeles, you can stroll into school late with a cup of coffee. In London, you get your butt to class on time."
Kelley's training gets quite the workout on "Resurrection," which takes place in an insular small town that is rattled when dead residents start returning, not looking a day older than they did on their supposed expiration date. Kelley is not seen in the promotional commercials — that honor is reserved for her bigger-named co-stars, Omar Epps ("House") and Kurtwood Smith ("That '70s Show") — but her character, a snoopy doctor whose 8-year-old nephew is among the first to reappear, figures prominently in the action.
She gets to show off a wide range of emotions, especially when butting heads with her on-screen father, the local sheriff who stubbornly believes the seemingly walking dead are all players in some elaborate con game.
Matt Craven, who plays the father, was so impressed with his co-star that he recruited her to join him in a series of readings for a new play by his friend, Tom Schulman, an Oscar winner for his "Dead Poets Society" screenplay.
"She doesn't behave like a newcomer," said Craven, who has appeared in nearly 80 TV series or movies. "She's very smart, very pleasant and very open, three things you don't see in most young actors. She's a very old soul."
Kelley embraces the "old soul" label.
"I don't mean this to sound pretentious, but I've always felt like a 40-year-old woman," she said. "I've always known what I wanted to do, and now I'm here."