May 22, 2000 12:00 PM

When Marla Sokoloff joined The Practice in September 1998, she quickly discovered that in TV land, not everybody loves Lucy. The ABC drama’s ardent fans were outraged at her portrayal of Lucy Hatcher, the law firm’s blunt, boisterous receptionist. “People wrote, ‘If you don’t get off the show I’m never watching again,’ ” says Sokoloff. “I’d cry. I thought, ‘I’m getting fired. I’m turning viewers away.’ ” Actually, the reaction thrilled executive producer David E. Kelley: “David said, ‘That’s why she’s on this show, to stir you up,’ ” says Sokoloff. “That made me feel good, like I’m doing my job.”

She’s certainly doing something right. Some weeks, only the juggernaut Who Wants to Be a Millionaire beats The Practice in the Nielsen ratings. Viewers now even embrace Sokoloff, 19, as warmly as her castmates do. “She’s so mature for her age,” says costar Kelli Williams, who plays Lindsay Dole. “At the Golden Globes this year, we walked down the line and she didn’t need to be taken care of. It was more like, ‘Marla, stick with me in case I get nervous.’ ”

Sokoloff also kept her cool in the summer of 1998, when, at age 17, Practice producers asked her to audition for Lucy even though the part called for a twentysomething actress. “I looked like an infant compared to everyone,” says Sokoloff, who ultimately beat out such competition as recent Oscar winner Hilary Swank. “Marla’s got sex appeal, but she’s got so much more than just packaging,” says co-executive producer Robert Breech. “She brought zest and spunk to the party. You lose sight of how young she is.”

Indeed, Sokoloff grew up quickly on the show, as she found herself progressing from trading quips to locking lips with resident heartthrob Dylan McDermott during a holiday mistletoe scene. “That was the biggest challenge of my acting career because I was so scared,” says Sokoloff. Offscreen her love life is terror free. She met her boyfriend of one year, Freaks and Geeks’ James Franco, on the L.A. set of the March teen-romance film Whatever It Takes, and they began dating halfway through the shoot. “When we were doing our first kissing scene in the movie, we were doing that in real life,” says Franco, 22. “Marla’s beautiful and quirky and seems to understand things much better than I do.”

She has been a quick study since her San Francisco childhood: By the time she was 4, Sokoloff already knew her calling wasn’t in the kitchen cooking with her family of chefs, but in the bathroom, clutching a toothpaste tube and singing in the mirror. At 11, after taking voice lessons and performing in community theater, she confidently sang the national anthem at an Oakland A’s baseball game. “If I had to do it now,” she admits, “I’d probably throw up.”

Sensing Sokoloff’s potential, her mother, Cindi, gave up catering to manage her career (her father, Howard, 49, is a doctor, and brother Jared, 23, a chef), and the pair began commuting to L.A. for auditions in 1993. “I didn’t really want to pursue this because it’s so tough, emotionally and physically, on a child,” admits Cindi, 47. “But this is what she wanted to do, and I gave her every opportunity to do it.”

Sokoloff capitalized on those opportunities, landing roles on Full House, Party of Five and the 1995 film The Baby-Sitters Club before being hired for The Practice. Now secure in her role, she hopes to revive her singing career one day and has moved into her own two-bedroom Toluca Lake, Calif., apartment, where she writes music with boyfriend Franco using one of the nine acoustic and electric guitars she has collected. (“When I get a tax return, that’s usually what I buy,” she says.) “I’m trying to cut strings with her a little bit so she can evolve on her own, and she is,” says mom Cindi. “But I still watch her like a hawk.”

She can rest easy. Sokoloff is fending for herself just fine, both on-and off-camera. “I had a little crush on Steve [Harris, who plays Eugene Young] when I first got there,” Sokoloff admits. “He would make fun of me, tease me like I was his little sister. Now I can just dish it right back—to all of them.”

Jason Lynch

Monica Rizzo in Los Angeles

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