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On TV, she's gone where few women have before

Katee Sackhoff is Starbuck on "Battlestar Galactica." (carol segal/sci fi channel)

Katee Sackhoff is looking for work.

The 26-year-old actress who portrays the fighter pilot Starbuck on the Sci Fi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica" series won't confirm rampant Internet rumors that her character will be killed in tomorrow night's highly anticipated episode "Maelstrom."

But Sackhoff will say that she's currently negotiating to star in an unrelated independent film, that she's not interested in doing new science-fiction projects, and that when she read tonight's script last fall, she was "blown away."

"No one is safe on this show," she said during a recent interview. "I was shocked. This is a direction of the show that is going to cause some ripples."

Adding to the mystery, executive producer Ron Moore said that Sackhoff completed her work for the current third season "well before" everyone else had finished filming in December. After tomorrow, there are three episodes left.

Moore said that tomorrow's episode is "very much Starbuck's episode. . . . It's a pretty heavy-duty event. It's a culmination of several things that we've been setting up over the course of three years. We always talked about the fact that she had a destiny, she's not like everyone else."

Captain Kara "Starbuck" Thrace is not like many women on television, period. She is a hot-headed fighter pilot who is protecting a convoy of spaceships filled with travelers looking for Earth after their home world is attacked by a group of robots known as Cylons.

A top gun who drinks heavily and smokes cigars, Starbuck has a reputation for being tough. She punched a superior officer in the face during a heated card game, landing herself in the brig. She shot down a whopping five enemy ships during a battle to save some comrades. She tortured a captured Cylon during an interrogation. A married woman, she is struggling to end a love affair with a married man, Lee "Apollo" Adama .

"When I first got the role, I was a little intimidated," said Sackhoff. "Up to that point, I had always played pretty stereotypical blond roles. This was definitely a stretch for me. I wear high heels and dresses. I am a total girly girl. Now people avoid me at the gym."

Sackhoff faced heavy criticism initially when she landed the role in Sci Fi's 2003 "Battlestar" miniseries because the original "Battlestar Galactica," which aired on ABC in 1978 for one season, starred actor Dirk Benedict as the bad-boy fighter pilot who was Apollo's buddy, not his lover.

"The male pairing of Starbuck and Apollo was good. They were competitors. One was the nice guy, one was the rogue," said Chris Feehan, co-president of the Battlestar Fan Club . "It worked so well and then they changed everything around. I hate the new show," he said.

Sackhoff said the fan anger made her nervous initially. "If you watch the miniseries you can kind of see that I tried to overcompensate and make her too tough. By the time we got picked up for the first season, I was like , 'Screw it. I'm going to do what I want. ' I've thrown myself into it and it's become the most fun thing ever."

The actress created a character with a swagger in her walk and a slouch to her shoulders. Starbuck winks after saying something that will anger someone and sometimes makes a sucking noise out of the side of her mouth. Her laugh is loud and obnoxious. She's often drunk and always ready for a confrontation.

"Nothing is off limits to this character. She's pretty crazy," said Sackhoff, who was still suprised this season after reading a script and learning that Starbuck would sleep with someone else. "I'm like, 'You've got to be kidding me. Again? Really?' The big joke is that at one point we'll need to have a day of sex scenes with Kara Thrace just to put in the bank because eventually she will sleep with everybody."

Adam Solomon, a computer systems administrator who lives in Brookline, loves the fact that Starbuck is a stereotypical fighter pilot who "drinks and whores around" yet she's a woman.

"I remember how upset I was when Starbuck was trapped in the house with the Cylon Leoben ," he said, referring to an episode in which Starbuck was held in a jail cell that looked like a home while Leoben attempted to woo her. "I was upset because they were forcing her into a traditional gender role. Then she killed him with a steak knife."

Starbuck, of course, is not the first woman in science fiction with some brawn. Sarah Connor in " Terminator 2," Ripley in the "Alien" movies, and Trinity in "The Matrix" trilogy could all throw a good punch. "These were women who were not conventionally feminine. They were incredibly physically fit and they could wield guns," said Leigh Hallisey, a lecturer in popular culture at Boston University. "Starbuck is the next generation. She uses sex for recreation and stress relief. She cheats on her husband. She's sweaty and dirty. She's not a great person. But she's also very attractive because she's outrageous."

Sackhoff never planned to be a Cylon-trouncing actress. Growing up in Portland, Ore., she was an athlete who swam and played soccer year-round. "The Olympics was a goal and definitely swimming in college was a goal," she said. "I was planning that whole athletic slide into Stanford rather than actually getting a 1450 on my SATs."

After injuring herself, Sackhoff -- the daughter of a teacher and a developer/architect -- had to find a new dream. "I looked at my parents when I was 17 and I said, 'I'm moving to LA,' " she said.

Her parents allotted her an allowance as long as she stayed enrolled in Santa Monica College. Two months after arriving, Sackhoff began landing small parts in teen series and movies, such as "Fifteen and Pregnant" with Kirsten Dunst.

She earned money on the side waitressing at the Saddle Ranch Chop House, a western-themed bar with a mechanical bull in West Hollywood. She auditioned for the Starbuck role when she was 22. Moore was sold by her personality. "She's a live wire. When she's happy, she's really happy. Her laugh is really loud. She hasn't hit anybody but I believe she could," he said.

With her "Battlestar" work on hiatus (permanently or not, she won't say), Sackhoff is attempting to vary her image by pursuing work in film. This spring, she will appear in "White Noise 2: The Light," a thriller about a man who can identify people who are about to die. Sackhoff plays a nurse who is saved by him. This week, she leaves for Canada to shoot a Lifetime movie titled "Be Careful What You Wish For," which follows a high school student who magically turns 35 and discovers she's marrying her high school crush.

Sackhoff isn't sure what's coming after that. "I have no preconceived notions about my career," she said. "I don't want to be famous. I just want to be able to keep acting until I'm old and gray."

Suzanne Ryan can be reached at sryan@globe.com.

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