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PASADENA, Calif. -- While her school mates were watching soccer matches and British soaps on the telly, Australian actress Miranda Otto was viewing surgical procedures. "That fascinated me," she says. "I used to watch all these operations on TV and thought it would be really cool to do that."
A bright kid, Otto was on her way to becoming a doctor when she was kidnapped by acting. She should've known better. Her father, Barry Otto, is a well-known actor Down Under, and she used to spend hours watching him perform.
"The level of energy and passion in the conversations I'd see at dinner about it, that's what was so seductive about it -- to be so engaged with what you were doing," she says.
"It seemed like such a great way to live your life rather than being a job where it's 'What time do we knock off?' You never knock off when you're in that world. It was the passion of the actors that I saw I wanted to be living in the height of that passion with other people engaged together. It really got me going. It's that magic that really sucked me in, coming together and doing something together," she says.
It's a mesmerizing field, she says, seated at a small, round table in a dark lounge here. "I was cast in a film toward the end of high school. Even then I wasn't sure. I got into medicine at university, then deferred a year to see. Then I started acting and just never went back to university."
She says the more formidable the role, the more she likes it, as she proved when she played the evil Allison Carr in "Homeland," and now in "24: Legacy," Fox's spinoff of its series, "24," premiering Sunday after the Super Bowl.
The role of the former chief of Washington's counter intelligence unit on "Legacy" agitates those little gray cells, she says. "What I've enjoyed so much about working on this show and 'Homeland' is sometimes in acting you start to feel like your brain starts to atrophy, in terms of are you challenging yourself intellectually," she says.
"A lot of roles are from an emotional base, and what I enjoyed about this is that I'm actually learning new things and have research to do and there's a level of ideology that's involved in these shows."
Still she confesses sometimes she questions her decision to forsake medicine for acting.
"I ask myself, 'What is the value of acting and the attention that actors get? And yet there are so many people in the world doing incredible things for mankind and they don't get much attention.' I do question about that, but I don't think I would've been a great doctor. I think I would've been a good surgeon. That fascinated me."
Otto, 49, is married to actor Peter O'Brien and they have a daughter, 11. When Miranda was 5 her parents divorced.
She thinks that experience left her with the sense of life's fragility. "As much as it felt totally normal because I didn't know anything different, but when I was at school other kids found it weird that my parents were separated," she recalls.
"But I can't help but think what would it be like to be in a family that stays together, to have that confidence that the world is really stable? I think it gives you a certain sensitivity, you don't think everything's going to stay the same and be what you want it to be. My parents were great, and they're really good friends. So there's no animosity, but there's that thing, that awareness: Don't get used to something because it can change."
Becoming a mother also altered her perceptions. "My daughter has changed how I see the world and how I live my life," says Otto, who's wearing a bare-shouldered maroon top with a black pencil skirt, her long red hair streaming across her shoulders.
"It affects everything, obviously the love that you feel and all those things, but just also from the priorities that you have and the things that you enjoy and the things you realize about yourself.
"It's the same as getting married, it's confrontational at times," she says. "The things you can get away with. The ideas you have of yourself when you're single and no one can challenge them, are really different when you're in a marriage and get a stronger view of yourself. What your weaknesses are, where you're failing, where you're strong. That's the same with being a mother. I start to hear myself saying things and think, 'Wow, that was a really crap thing I just said. "Just because." Why am I not explaining it?' It makes you see where you're strong and where you're weak."
Otto wishes she were more self-assured. "I would like to be more confident about everything; to not doubt," she says. "I think it will plague me my whole life. A lot of actors that I really love and admire when I've got to know them, I see that they're deeply sensitive and unsure sometimes about what they're doing."