September 26, 2005 06:00 AM

Wonder Woman has gone to the dark side – and Lynda Carter is loving every minute of it. “Playing a bad guy is very cool,” she says about her role as a conniving con woman on back-to-back episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order (on Sept. 27 and 28, respectively).

After devoting years to her family (her husband of 21 years, attorney and businessman Robert Altman, and children James, 17, and Jessica, 15), the Potomac, Md.-based actress returned to the spotlight in the summer movies The Dukes of Hazzard and Sky High. And now Carter – a former rock singer! – is getting back to her musical roots as prison warden Mama Morton in a London stage production of Chicago (opening today). Carter, 54, talked to PEOPLE.com about showing her dark side, her personal balancing act and the superpower she wishes she had.

After saving the world as Wonder Woman, what’s it like to be a villain?
I’ve been playing heroines for 30 years. About three or four years ago I decided I really wanted to start playing much more out-of-the-box. It is so much fun to play a bad guy.

Tell me about playing a grifter on the Law & Order shows.
I did Law & Order and SVU and they decided to make it a double episode, which was thrilling, because she’s a great character. I play opposite Estella Warren – this gorgeous, very talented young lady – as my daughter. We had a lot of fun. My character is a narcissist who thinks that what she does doesn’t really hurt anyone. She’s insecure and self-involved, but still I think she’s got a certain likeability. You can’t be a very good grifter unless you’re likeable.

You got your start singing in rock bands when you were a teenager, and now you’re returning to the stage.
I got this phone call to do Chicago playing Mama Morton, who’s the Queen Latifah part (in the movie). I just jumped at it. This has been the greatest challenge – it’s not easy. I’ve got a lot of respect for these stage actors. Three weeks ago I didn’t know I was going to be in London. I just would’ve liked another week of rehearsal (laughs).

How was working with Jessica Simpson and Willie Nelson in The Dukes of Hazzard?
Such a blast. Being with Willie – everybody loves Willie because he’s so lovable. And Jessica was as sweet as she could be.

"I asked my kids how they felt about me leaving for two and a half months (to do Chicago) and they said, 'You go for it, Mom,'" says Carter (with husband Robert Altman and children Jessica and James at the L.A. premiere of Sky High in July).

It seems like you’re having a renaissance in your career.
Renaissance – I love that word. This year’s been great. I think that what I am most interested in as my life moves forward is a balance. I know that doing all this work, that’s all cyclical. I want to make sure I meet my obligations and enjoy the people in my life. Before, work was all I had that made me happy. And then I built a real life. Now it’s about balancing those two.

You must still have people come up to you to talk about Wonder Woman.
I’m so woven into her. Every day of my life since playing Wonder Woman I have had people want to relay their stories to me about Wonder Woman or what she meant to them in their lives. I like Wonder Woman, too, and I decided a long time ago that I was just going to embrace her and enjoy it. As long as I’m not crazy and think that I am Wonder Woman.

There’s talk of bringing Wonder Woman to the big screen. Who could you see in the role?
I think they really need someone who doesn’t have fame baggage and someone who is about 19 or 20 years old, really fresh – so the audiences are discovering her as she discovers her powers. I’m so connected to the role that I hope they don’t think they have to go too far from me just to make a point. I hope they make her very accessible.

Would you want a part in the movie?
To do a real part, I would definitely consider it. I wouldn’t just want to play a shopkeeper. On some of the Web sites there’s a wonderful group of my dear fans who have been gathering signatures to insist that I am cast as something in this movie, which I thought was great.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Without question, the lasso of truth. I live in Washington, D.C. – could you imagine? Those guys would be terrified. Oh my God, we would have fun. Wouldn’t that be great? The lasso of truth, baby!

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