Dan Snierson
February 26, 2010 AT 05:00 AM EST

For Lauren Graham, it’s another walk in the park. On this gloomy morning, she’s filming a scene in Santa Monica for NBC’s new dramedy Parenthood (premiering March 2 at 10 p.m.), in which her character, harried single mom Sarah, is taking an undercover stroll with her daughter’s teacher (Jason Ritter) — and feeling guilty about it. The two engage in flirty banter before negotiating a test kiss to make sure this is a bumpy road worth traveling. As raindrops fall, a magnetic make-out session ensues. Graham slowly pulls her lips away and deadpans: ”Nothing.” They kiss again. ”No chemistry,” he agrees. Another kiss. ”Oh — there’s something!” Unfortunately, it’s a downpour. CUT! Everyone scrambles for cover.

”At first I was like, ‘Well, that’s the reality of the show,”’ chuckles Graham later, safe and dry in a nearby hotel. ”We went with it.” The 42-year-old actress is learning to go with the flow these days. Nearly three years after wrapping her stellar role as tart-tongued mom Lorelai on Gilmore Girls, Graham is returning to TV in a way she never expected: as a last-minute replacement. When ER‘s Maura Tierney left the series in September to focus on her breast-cancer treatment, producers reached out to Graham about assuming the role. ”I felt all kinds of pressure on myself…. I didn’t want to disappoint anybody,” says the actress. ”But there is nothing that compares to someone dealing with a health issue, so my s— is no big deal.”

While the part of Sarah — a broke single mom forced to move back home with her parents (Craig T. Nelson and Bonnie Bedelia) — has the potential to be a downer, in Graham’s hands it’s endearing and quirky. Says series exec producer Jason Katims: ”She brings such warmth and humor to what she does. But it’s much more than that. What she’s doing with the role is funny, but it’s also very poignant — she’s tapped into something that feels very fresh and different from how I’ve seen her before.” One quick chat with the actress and it’s clear how charming and disarming she can be. Like when she talks about the absurdities she included on her first acting résumé: ”In the hideous world of ‘special skills’ that you wish you never said you did — alongside roller-skate and drive a stick shift — was Rhonda Weiss impressions, which is a Gilda Radner character. Why was that on my résumé” Graham began her career in comedy with guest gigs (NewsRadio, Seinfeld) and lead roles in short-lived sitcoms (Townies) before landing Gilmore, which she calls ”an incredible training ground,” in 2000. After the show ended in 2007, she shot movies (Flash of Genius, The Answer Man) and terrified herself by starring in a brief Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls. When producers approached her last year about Parenthood, it wasn’t how Graham planned to make her TV comeback, but she fell hard for the script: ”It was a gut, more than a rational, decision.”

Now she’s happily settled into her new TV family (which includes Six Feet Under‘s Peter Krause as her brother), and she’s enjoying playing Sarah’s struggles: Find a career beyond bartending! Deal with her kids’ sexuality and SAT issues! ”For the most part, Lorelai approached it like, ‘I am a winner,”’ observes Graham. ”[Sarah] feels like a loser and is trying to realize any of her potential.” Of course, Parenthood hasn’t quelled her passion for another dream project: a Hart to Hart remake with longtime pal Matthew Perry. ”It’s a joke,” she says, ”but kind of also I’m serious.” Details, please. ”We are probably recently divorced, because we are best when we are snippy. We get called for one last big case. And I would like to scale some cliffs.” Making Hart to Hart 2.0 might be difficult, though, especially if Parenthood becomes another seven-season success like Gilmore. ”I mean, how old can we be doing Hart to Hart? Do people really want to see us in our 50s?” asks Graham. Pause. ”Your answer is yes.”

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