LOS ANGELES - Rachael Leigh Cook was chatting in a hotel lobby about her supporting role as a tough-as-nails FBI agent in TNT's new drama "Perception" when she heard that Wilson Phillips was singing in an adjacent ballroom.
"Let's go!" she said, dashing over without hesitation.
The Minneapolis native's appreciation for the 1990s pop trio is telling -- and not just because "Hold On" was a megahit during her impressionable tween years. Like the musical group, Cook has gone from being a marquee name to a Trivial Pursuit answer. The talent is still there; the rabid attention is not, a fact that she referenced when the paparazzi just outside the hotel went wild as a contemporary starlet stopped to pose for pictures.
"That was the worst part of it," Cook said, her expressive brown eyes seeming to grow as big as her 5-foot-2 frame.
"That time never felt real to me when it was happening," she said. "By the time you realize it, it's over. That it didn't continue didn't feel weird at all."
Cook, 32, didn't altogether disappear. In addition to getting married in 2004 to actor Daniel Gillies ("The Vampire Diaries"), she paid the bills by guest-starring on established TV dramas ("Psych," "The Ghost Whisperer") and lending her voice to a variety of characters on Comedy Central's "Robot Chicken." She also shot a couple of sitcom pilots that failed to get picked up.
But she's nowhere near the level of fame she rose to a little over a decade ago. She was still attending Minneapolis' South High School when she taped an anti-drug commercial, featuring the pixie-ish actress tearing apart a kitchen with only a frying pan and Schwarzenegger-like determination. When asked what she now thinks about that spot, she joked: "Do you do heroin? No? You're welcome."
That ad was followed by lead performances in 1999's "She's All That" and 2001's "Josie and the Pussycats," not to mention a yearlong fling with People magazine's future choice for Sexiest Man Alive, Ryan Reynolds.
But Cook quickly decided she didn't want to be the next Julia Roberts. She preferred to follow the path of her "Pussycats" co-star Parker Posey, an actress who continually straddles the line between commercial and independent film.
For a while, Cook was banging out four movies a year, joking that she preferred working on a small-budget projects, if only because the terrible catering service helped keep her weight in check. But when indies took a financial hit, Cook discovered that studios considered her as dated as Carole Lombard.
"You're not really on their radar anymore," said Cook, whose last studio film was 2007's "Nancy Drew." "I can step outside of myself and sort of see why people think I disappeared for 10 years. I did, by their perception, and I'm totally fine with that."
Despite being eager to work more, Cook told her agent there was one genre she had no interest in: procedurals.
"I didn't want to get chased by a serial killer in the woods," she said. "I didn't want to say 'Freeze!' or 'Stat' or 'Your honor.' That's just not where I thought my happiness would be."
But she surprised herself by signing up for "Perception," a series about neurology Prof. Daniel Pierce (Eric McCormack), who helps the FBI solve a new crime every week, at least when he's not hallucinating characters and paranoid scenarios, much in the way Russell Crowe did in "A Beautiful Mind."
"I realized after a while that I was looking at it the wrong way," Cook said. "You can't judge a character by his or her job. You have to approach everything as a character piece."
In "Perception," she's Kate Moretti, an FBI agent who's demoted because she cares too much about her cases. Oh, and she also has a daredevil streak that compels her to leap two stories off a fire escape to pounce on a fleeing suspect.
"We saw a lot of terrific actresses that were believable as cops, but we were looking for that one thing that made them odd, and what Rachael brought into the room was a sense of humor," said McCormack, best known for his Emmy-winning role on "Will & Grace." "She reminded me of Jodie Foster in 'Silence of the Lambs.' You look at her and go, 'Wait a minute. She's going to come in here and bust this big guy?' But she does it in a surprising way, and it was having those odds stacked against her that I loved."
One gamble that Cook says she can't afford to take is moving back to Minneapolis, although she'd love to, especially if she and her husband decide to have children. Her parents no longer live in the area (although her father still writes a column for the Minneapolis-based Hill & Lake Press), but she frequently returns to visit friends.
"Oh, man, I would love for my hypothetical kids to have the childhood I had," she said. "But I'm not Harrison Ford. I can't just up and leave L.A. My career is not at that point. Professional hazard. I'm stuck here."
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 • Twitter: @nealjustin