July 29, 2002 12:00 PM

Natasha Henstridge stands in a Los Angeles junkyard, fetchingly attired in a fire-retardant jumpsuit and helmet, preparing to slip behind the wheel of a battered yellow ’80s sedan. No, the star of NBC’s summer action series She Spies (debuting July 20) isn’t going undercover as a demolition driver; she’s appearing in a celebrity edition of NBC’s Fear Factor in which she has to coax her heap across the finish line before a 10,000-lb. monster truck rolls over her.

“I’m already scared,” says Henstridge to actor Liam Waite, her fiancé and the father of their sons Tristan, 3, and Ashton, 9 months. “If something goes wrong,” she says jokingly, “take the kids out of L.A.”

Not to spoil the suspense (the episode airs this fall), but Henstridge does not get squashed. Still, when it comes to things going spectacularly wrong, the 27-year-old Canadian may be something of an expert. Species, a 1995 sci-fi thriller in which Henstridge, then barely 20 and with no acting experience, played a man-hungry space alien, grossed $113 million worldwide at the box office and made her an overnight star. So why did she follow it up with dogs like 1996’s Maximum Risk (with Jean-Claude Van Damme), Adrenalin: Fear the Rush and 1998’s Species II? “I wanted to do roles where I could make money and no one would ever find out I can’t act,” she says with candor. It took her a while to figure out that “the better the director, the better the costar, the more you are going to learn. I was immature that way.”

Lately she has found herself in classier company, costarring with Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow (in 2000’s Bounce) and with Matthew Perry (in 2000’s The Whole Nine Yards). “She has great comedic timing,” says Perry. “Now if we could just do something about [her] looks.”

Her penchant for comedy drew her to the part of She Spies‘s Cassie, one of a Charlie’s Angels-type trio of butt-kicking secret agents. “We make fun of ourselves and pop culture,” she says. “How many shows let you do back flips and play a con artist?”

She’ll also get to play an Other Woman: The night after She Spies premieres, Henstridge will show up as presidential mistress Judith Campbell Exner in the Showtime drama Power and Beauty. “She is much more talented than she thinks she is,” says Kevin Anderson, who plays JFK in the film. “She is a very humble person who can be a little tough on herself.”

She comes from humble roots. The older of two children of Brian, 48, a building contractor, and Helen, 46, a homemaker, the extroverted Henstridge grew up in a trailer park in Fort McMurray, Alta. After winning a modeling contest at 14, she spent the next five years as an Elite model in Paris before quitting at 19 to pursue an acting career.

Looking innocent yet gorgeous—and willing to do nude scenes—helped her land the part of Species alien Sil in 1994. A year later she eloped to Las Vegas at 21 with actor Damian Chapa (Melrose Place). “Damian was passionate and put me on a pedestal. But I was too young” to wed, she says. The couple split a few months later.

In the spring of ’96, she met Liam, 29, son of Ralph Waite (who played the patriarch of the landmark ’70s TV series The Waltons), through a friend. The romance got off to a rocky start. Since childhood, Liam had suffered from dyslexia and was embarrassed to reveal to Henstridge that he could barely read. “I felt ashamed,” he says. Henstridge was supportive. “I said, “Okay, let’s read together.’ We would read Shakespeare; he would screw up words and he would go on reading.”

After six years together, they look forward to new chapters in their lives. Ensconced in a two-story Mediterranean home in the San Fernando Valley with their sons, the pair plan to take things further. At pal Tom Arnold’s June 29 wedding, “we looked at each other and said, ‘Just do it,’ ” says Henstridge. They’ll tie the knot some time next summer. “We feel married. Why not celebrate?”

Michael A. Lipton

Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles

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