November 19, 2001 12:00 PM

There’s something about Jessalyn Gilsig that potential boyfriends should know: “It takes someone pretty persistent to stick it out with me,” says the Canadian actress, who plays sociable social studies teacher Lauren Davis on FOX’s Boston Public. “I met a guy a few weeks ago, and it was disastrous. I didn’t have the guts to talk to him, so I had to leave. I’m too shy to hang out and flirt.”

The same cannot be said of the libidinous Ms. Davis, whose extracurricular activities at fictional Winslow High last season included hopping into bed with fellow teacher Harry Senate (Nicky Katt) and then having what she thought was a harmless fling with a former student—only to see him turn into a stalker. “Lauren has extremely good intentions,” says Gilsig, 30, “but she’s not perfect.”

Gilsig, however, seemed a perfect fit for Lauren, at least in the eyes of executive producer David E. Kelley, who wrote the part with her in mind after an impressive 1999 guest turn as an assistant district attorney in Kelley’s The Practice. “Jessalyn has a certain grace that’s very appealing,” says Jonathan Pontell, Kelley’s co-executive producer on Boston Public. “She’s also very compassionate. She’s always interested in how you’re feeling.”

Gilsig’s friend, actress Julie Dretzin (who has guest-starred on Judging Amy), can attest to that. After she and her boyfriend broke up, “Jessalyn was there, every day, to make sure I would get through it,” Dretzin says. Adds Public costar Rashida Jones (Louisa Fenn): “She’s very patient. She would have been a great teacher.”

Maybe. But Gilsig has only wanted to act. “She’s been a ham all her life,” says her sister Deborah, 33, who trains 911 operators in their native Montreal. As a child Jessalyn would knock on the front door of her family’s home dressed up as various characters, including, says Deborah, “an older woman who’d come in and drink tea with us.”

By then she was begging her parents, Toby, an engineer, and Clare, a writer and translator, now both 60, to let her go on auditions. When she turned 12 her mom said yes—to a local tryout at the National Film Board of Canada. There she landed her first professional gig as the voice of a puppet in Masquerade, an animated short. “From there, I never stopped working,” she says.

That included doing voice-overs for Canadian TV cartoons while majoring in English at Montreal’s McGill University and later gaining stage experience in a graduate program at Harvard in the mid-’90s.

Then it was on to New York City, where she made ends meet with TV commercials and obscure stage roles, while sharing a tiny apartment with her college beau, a theater director.

In 1998 Gilsig had a supporting role in Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer. “It was a great education,” she says. “I learned less is more. That’s what he taught me. He taught me to trust that sometimes your presence alone is interesting.”

That same year she voiced the character of Kayley in the animated film Quest for Camelot. But after several months in Los Angeles, the offers dried up. “I was really rock-bottom,” she says. Back in New York, she got an unexpected windfall in the mail: a royalty check from Quest for $8,000. She used the money to fly back to L.A., where she won her Practice guest shot and caught Kelley’s eye. He cast her as a replacement for departing star Paula Marshall in his 1999 series Snoops, just before it was canceled. Her consolation prize was Boston Public. “I never left the David E. Kelley lot,” she says with a laugh.

Now she’s happily ensconced in her first house—a two-bedroom contemporary in the Hollywood Hills. “I’m proud that I can be single,” she says. “I think it’s good to be alone.” In fact she shares the house with Phil, a deaf dalmatian she adopted last year. “I was walking by a dog give-away one day and I thought, ‘Someday I’m going to have a dog.’ Then I thought, T keep saying, someday I’m going to have a house, get married, have a baby. What am I waiting for?’ ” she recalls. “So I got the dog. The rest of the stuff I need a little help with. I need another player. Anyone?”

Michael A. Lipton

Ulrica Wihlborg in Los Angeles

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