LOS ANGELES - After her stint on "Melrose Place," playing a Playboy bunny may not seem that far a cry for Daphne Zuniga.
There's more than that to her new role, though, as the actress joins the 1960s-set NBC drama series "American Dreams" Sunday, Oct. 3. The second episode of the show's third season introduces Zuniga as single mom Shelly Pierce, who moves with her teenage son Chris (Milo Ventimiglia, "Gilmore Girls") into the Pryor family's neighborhood.
Her liberal behavior is sure to impact the elder Pryors (Gail O'Grady, Tom Verica), just as Chris's rebellious streak will affect young "American Bandstand" dancer Meg Pryor (Brittany Snow), whose social awareness already is expanding in the era of the Vietnam War.
"She's traveled a lot and has had several husbands," Zuniga says of her new alter ego, who eventually will show up squeezed into the famous Playboy-bunny outfit. "I'm going to the gym every day, trust me," Zuniga confirms with a laugh. "I've been searching the Internet to find 'ex-bunny' sites, and I watched a Playboy documentary. I've waited a long time for such a good part. It's not a lawyer, it's not a cop, it's not even someone particularly book-smart. I just wanted to play a happy, sexy gal, and that's what really attracted me to this."
Hugh Hefner remains famous (or notorious, some may say) for the Playboy empire he built, but Zuniga stresses "American Dreams" deals with it "at a time when the clubs were the hottest thing around. Everyone went, men and women alike, and they were very glamorous places to be ... especially if you had a key (which entitled the holder to special privileges). To play the part in that time is not to play a 'bunny' who has been through hell and is at the end of her rope. The Playboy organization has been good to Shelly; she was a Playmate, and now she's more of a 'bunny supervisor'."
Zuniga also appreciates the mother-and-son relationship depicted by her "American Dreams" stint, which is set for at least eight episodes. She reports series creator-producer Jonathan Prince promised her she was "really going to have fun" with co-star Ventimiglia. "I wanted to have some sense of on-screen familiarity with him, so we got together and hung out before we started filming. He's very spiritually centered, and he doesn't drink or party, so this whole `bad boy' image he has is just an acting thing.
"Our characters aren't even aware what fish-out-of-water they are, and they shock the Pryors without even knowing it, just with the things they say and the language they use. As a single mother who had a son when she was so young, Shelly relies on Chris so much. They have to be very close without a crossing a border. There has to be a real best-friends, simpatico thing between them. It's just the two of them against the world."
The first season of "American Dreams" was released recently on DVD, but the series was basically new to Zuniga when she was hired: "I know Tom and Gail from the past, but I had seen the show maybe only once or twice, though I knew people liked it. I don't watch a lot of television, but when I got the call about this, I knew it was a quality show. That was the first thing I got excited about. Also, with the era that it's about, it's an interesting show visually."
It's also ripe with musical nostalgia, offering current celebrities in guest appearances as classic singing stars; Zuniga's first episode also features Nicole Richie ("The Simple Life") as a member of the `60s girl group The Exciters ("Tell Him").
A fan of oldies tunes anyway, Zuniga admits, "I'm learning more and more of the specifics. Since I was so young then, I wasn't aware of the cultural clash in the country in 1965. It was the end of innocence and the beginning of change, and it wasn't just rock music changing, it was everything. I get flashbacks when I remember a certain song. Music is somewhere in our emotional DNA. It just touches us."
Except for the occasional miniseries ("Pandora's Clock") or TV movie ("Ghost Dog: A Detective Tail"), Zuniga has done relatively little acting lately, so "American Dreams" marks her first big career move since leaving her "Melrose Place" role as photographer Jo Reynolds in 1996. At that point, she had been working steadily for well over a decade, also in feature films like "The Sure Thing," "Gross Anatomy" and the Mel Brooks "Star Wars" parody "Spaceballs." She felt she needed a long break, and she has no regrets about having taken one.
"The biggest thing that can bring change to an actor, or anyone else, is that a change has to happen internally first," Zuniga reasons. "After I finished'Melrose Place,' I figured I'd just go right into indie movies, but the Sundance gang didn't really want to hear from 'Melrose' people.
"Most importantly -- and I know this sounds like a cliche -- I really needed to find out who I was. 'Melrose' was so huge, I looked in the mirror and became confused about who I'd become to give people what I thought they wanted. I needed time to just travel and hang out and fade away a bit. I didn't necessarily want it all the time, but I know now how much I needed it."
Good news for Daphne - Mel Brooks wants to make a sequel to Spaceballs. May the Schwartz be with you!