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Eliza Dushku Los Angeles
(Wendy Maeda / Globe Staff)

Star turn

She made it coast to coast and now actress Eliza Dushku is at home with the Angelenos

Email|Print| Text size + By Mark Shanahan
Globe Staff / December 17, 2006

LOS ANGELES -- When the temperature tops 100 degrees here, and the Hollywood Hills are shrouded in a noxious haze, the acre of blacktop at the intersection of Melrose and Fairfax is about the last place you want to be.

But in a gauzy miniskirt, tank top, and three-inch heels, actress Eliza Dushku appears unbothered by the heat, even as her companion, a good-looking golden retriever named Max Factor, is tugging at his leash, desperate for a spot of shade.

Dushku's too busy dickering. She wants to buy one of the African masks arranged on the hood of an old Pontiac, and she wants it at the right price.

"It's from Cameroon?" she asks the vendor. "Will you take $30?"

Dushku, 25, has been bargain-hunting at this weekly flea market called the Melrose Trading Post since she moved to Los Angeles from Watertown eight years ago. Money she's made from two TV series, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Tru Calling," and before that from such films as "Soul Survivors," "Bring It On," and "Bye Bye Love" has been exchanged here for antiques and art.

The eclectic market, an ongoing fund-raiser for the adjacent Fairfax High School, is the first stop on an entertaining tour Dushku is giving us of her adopted hometown, from Muscle Beach to the "totally chill" Getty Villa art museum. Initially ambivalent about Hollywood, she has warmed to the place in the past few years, and it shows as she tools around town in a black Mercedes CLK500 convertible.

"It's definitely a flashy ride," says Dushku, who was driving a 1989 Jeep when she arrived in LA. "But you only live once, and it's fun to wind through the Hills at night with the top down."

As we stroll through the flea market -- past a Chairman Mao alarm clock, a distressed wicker divan, and racks of vintage clothing -- it's clear Dushku digs the laid-back vibe. She furnished her first apartment in LA largely with shabby-chic pieces purchased here, and still drops by to browse now that she owns a 3,000-square-foot house in Laurel Canyon, a Spanish-style bungalow once owned by Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane.

"These would look fresh in my living room," Dushku says, admiring two large abstract paintings by a scruffy young fellow wearing an oversized basketball jersey and aviator sunglasses.

Not one to spend money needlessly, the thrifty Dushku tells me she never shops on Rodeo Drive, preferring instead to buy her clothes at the Target -- she pronounces it "tar-ZHAY" -- on Santa Monica Boulevard, and at a couple of trendy boutiques on La Brea Avenue: American Rag and Bleu.

"I have a few label-y pieces, but I'm always looking for bargains," she says. "I can honestly say I've gotten all of my Manolos on sale."

In the end, Dushku, who's already bought the African mask, two vintage picture frames, and a paperback copy of "Naked" by David Sedaris, decides to purchase the paintings. But she tells the artist, Jim Varketta, that she's leaving LA in a few days to shoot a movie in Spain, so he'll have to deliver them to her house soon.

"No problem," Varketta says, writing down her address.

Our next stop, thankfully, is the beach -- Venice Beach. Although it's become a cliché attraction on the California coast, the bohemian boardwalk is special to Dushku because it's among the first places she visited when she arrived here. On Sundays, she and her agent, JoAnne Colonna, would rent in-line skates and go up and down the esplanade.

We start at the Candle Cafe & Grill, one of many honky-tonk joints along the boardwalk, where Dushku orders pancakes, fruit, and coffee. Sitting at the next table is a heavily -- and I mean heavily -- tattooed man smoking an enormous hookah with his girlfriend. The Allman Brothers song "Midnight Rider " can just be heard above the din.

"I don't know if it's that hookah or what, but these are the softest, sweetest pancakes I've ever had," Dushku whispers as a dreadlocked waiter refreshes our coffee.

While Venice's rogues and regulars roll past, Dushku is talking about last night's Los Angeles Dodgers game. Although a committed Red Sox fan, Dushku is friends with a few Dodger players -- All-Star pitcher Brad Penny is a particular pal -- and has known Governor Romney's son Tagg, the Dodgers' vice president of marketing, since she was a little girl. (Dushku, whose mother, Judy, teaches at Suffolk University, was raised a Mormon.)

As a result, when the team is in town, Dushku and her friends sometimes drive to Chavez Ravine, the site of Dodger Stadium , and watch the game, sitting -- for free, of course -- in sweet seats behind home plate.

"Going to a game is a fun night out," she says. "I don't go to clubs much because it gets old fast. The music's so loud and booze is such an integral part of the experience that people don't ever talk to each other."

Dushku suggests we rent a couple of bikes -- they cost $10 for two hours -- and ride the quarter-mile to Muscle Beach, the seaside workout spot that has been attracting sun tanned bodybuilder types for decades. Everyone from Jack La Lanne to Franco Columbu has done chin-ups here, and there's a rumor going around that another famous former regular, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, might make a campaign appearance today.

Sure enough, just as we get there, a phalanx of men in black -- the governor's security detail -- surrounds the pit where the musclemen and women flex, and Schwarzenegger steps from a long black car. Dushku can't believe our good luck: When she was 12, she played Schwarzenegger's daughter, Dana, in the box-office hit "True Lies."

But getting anywhere near the governor, who's busy pressing the taut and toned flesh, proves difficult, so we ditch the sweaty, steroid-spiked crowd and hop on our bikes. As we pedal back, prop planes are buzzing the beach with banners promoting new TV shows and movies. The effect is annoying, and Dushku acknowledges there are better beaches for swimming and slacking.

One of her favorites is Zuma Beach, 20 miles up the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. Popular with body-boarders and brown pelicans, Zuma not only has spectacular surf, but the mile-long stretch of white sand is largely unspoiled by commerce. It's also close to one of Dushku's favorite restaurants, the Reel Inn, an unaffected seafood shack where she brings friends from Boston.

"You pick your fish and your sides, and then you sit at a picnic table and drink a cold Corona," says Dushku. "The last time I was there, we went to the Santa Monica Pier afterward, and took a ride on the Ferris wheel. Sounds kind of cheesy, I know, but it's so much fun."

Since we're not far away, Dushku recommends we swing by the Getty Villa, which recently reopened after an eight-year, $288 million face lift.

Problem is, visitors are supposed to get tickets in advance.

"Maybe if we call and use my name?" she says. "They always welcome actors and entertainers."

She's right. After a few phone calls, we're greeted at the gate by a staff member, who walks with us on a tour of late oil magnate J. Paul Getty 's magnificent, 64-acre hilltop spread filled with Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities. Built to resemble a first- century Roman country house, the Villa opened in 1974 and closed for renovations in 1997.

Dushku, who has traveled extensively for work and pleasure, is chatting about Roman busts and Elgin Marbles as we stroll the Outer Peristyle, the museum's largest and most elaborate garden featuring flora -- bay laurel, boxwood, myrtle, and ivy -- favored by the ancients and a spectacular 220-foot-long reflecting pool. When we happen upon a wreath-making workshop, Dushku crafts a garland that she wears on her head during our satisfying lunch of Tuscan soup and salad at the museum cafe.

"How do I look?" Dushku asks. "Like a goddess?"

Because she's leaving for Europe in a day or two, Dushku needs to go home and pack. Our final stop is the Laurel Canyon Country Store, a groovy grocery not far from her house. Referenced in the Doors song "Love Street" -- "I see you live on Love Street / There's this store where the creatures meet / I wonder what they do in there" -- the tiny shop stocked with high-end, hippie-inflected food and drink is something of an LA institution.

In the '60s, the likes of Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa, and Three Dog Night performed on the patio, and the store also shows up in such classic films as "Sunset Boulevard " and "The Fog ." Dushku buys a batch of sage incense and a bottle of All Shook Up Sauvignon Blanc -- the King is in full swivel on the Graceland Cellars label -- while I gaze at a signed photo of Priscilla Presley -- pre-plastic surgery, of course -- that hangs behind the register.

"When I first moved here, LA didn't seem like my kind of place at all, and any time I flew back to Boston I'd tell people here, I'm going home, " Dushku says. "But since I bought my house, that's kind of changed. I'm comfortable now."

With that, she gets into her black Mercedes convertible and, with the top down, rides off into the Hollywood Hills.

Contact Mark Shanahan at shanahan@globe.com.

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