The swank lobby of the Viceroy hotel in Santa Monica is a long way from Battlestar Galactica and the concrete austerity of a laser-scarred spaceship, but Katee Sackhoff looks like she belongs anyway. Her military-drab TV persona Kara ''Starbuck'' Thrace, the cocksure fighter pilot of the Sci Fi series is tucked away......behind a fashionably casual outfit of a tailored shirt, denim skirt, and red lipstick. She's very nearly the typical Hollywood starlet, but only ''nearly,'' because when Sackhoff starts talking about her exceptional culinary skills, about riding motorbikes with best friend and Galactica costar Tricia Helfer, about how she could be fine selling real estate if the whole acting thing fell through it becomes clear that the 27-year-old actress has a different type of stardom in mind. ''If I could trade everything and be a character actor for the rest of my life, that's what I'd do,'' says Sackhoff. ''It's just more fun. And when your skin sags and your boobs drop down to your waist, you'll still have a job.''
That's Katee Sackhoff for you: a dynamic blend of brash and bright, jocular and wise. If you're among the loyal few devoted to the Galactica cult, you've seen many of Sackhoff's bold colors in her portrayal of Starbuck. And if you're among the many more who suffered through NBC's shoulda-been-cooler Bionic Woman, you know her scenery-chomping turn as angsty-psycho villain Sarah Corvus was easily the best thing about the show. Thanks to both buzzy roles, Sackhoff has set TV's new standard for action-heroine cool and complexity. ''You'll see I tend to cast Katee in everything I possibly can,'' says David Eick, exec producer of both Galactica and Bionic Woman. ''She's a very special find. Those actors who can combine the qualities of strength and vulnerability they usually call those people movie stars.''
Before she can tackle the big screen, Sackhoff's got some unfinished TV business to tend to. Galactica's fourth and final season, launching on April 4 at 10 p.m., has provided her with her most formidable acting challenge yet. In the premiere episode, Starbuck has returned from the dead, bringing news (and pictures!) of the long-sought planet Earth. Mystery will surround Starbuck's resurrection for most of the season: Is she still human? Could she be a Cylon? (See sidebar.) Is she something else altogether? Sackhoff admits playing the character's profound ambiguity has been tricky. ''Sometimes I just want to tell the girl to man up,'' says the actress. ''But it's funny hearing [people say] that I know who I am, because the whole reason I got into acting was to figure that out.''
The road to self-discovery began in the suburbs surrounding Portland, Ore., where Sackhoff spent her teen years ''trying to excel at anything that would get me out.'' She washed out at becoming a swimming star because of bum knees. In acting, however, she found something that appealed to her restless, adventurous, DIY spirit. But her initial brush with Hollywood working as an extra on Mr. Holland's Opus, which was shot in Oregon left her so bored she quit halfway through the first day. ''But before I left, I walked up to Richard Dreyfuss and said something like 'You haven't seen the last of me!'''
She made good on her boast six years later when she was cast as Dreyfuss' daughter on CBS' 2001-02 drama The Education of Max Bickford. She says her nine months working in New York on the TV series with award-winning actors like Dreyfuss, Marcia Gay Harden, and Peter O'Toole schooled her professionally and personally. ''I was a 21-year-old kid who had never had money before. I went a little crazy,'' she says without being specific. ''At one point, Richard Dreyfuss straightened me out. But I learned the bones of a good acting career on the show. Peter O'Toole [who guest-starred on one episode] gave me two rules. We were out drinking cosmopolitans, and he said, 'My dear, never s--- where you eat and never f--- a fan.' I said, 'I like you! You're good people!''' She credits Harden with giving her the best advice of all: ''Always trust your instincts.''
After Bickford flunked out, Sackhoff's agent sent her the script for the Galactica reboot. Word was out that producers wanted a thirtysomething actress for the role of Starbuck. ''I said, 'Oh, that's cute. But it's my part, I promise you.''' She showed up to her audition in jeans and heels, looking more like a fighter pilot on shore leave than one ready for Cylon-smashing combat. ''Everyone told me to take my high heels off,'' she laughs. ''I said, 'No! This is who I am! I will not be taking off my high heels!''' That spunk helped Sackhoff get the part, and more: Executive producer Ronald Moore says her ''magnetism'' inspired the show's writers to craft a more volatile and complex character. Eick elaborates: ''We saw this whole other side that was all because of Katee vulnerability, insecurity, desperation. We started freeing ourselves up to explore the weakness of the character, because we knew Katee could express those things without compromising the character's strength.''
Sackhoff's enthusiasm over her breakout turn as Starbuck is tempered by Galactica's inability to convert cult buzz into mainstream popularity: Season 3 averaged a mere 1.8 million viewers. ''A bummer,'' Sackhoff calls it, adding that it was uncertainty over Galactica's renewal that inspired her to take work on Bionic Woman. But she quickly gained a richer regard for her Galactica experience as she saw her bionic-badass role watered down as part of a behind-the-scenes struggle to engineer a mass hit. ''She was soooo much crazier than what ended up on the air,'' says Sackhoff. ''She kept being pulled back. That's the norm for network television, as far as I'm concerned.''
At least with Galactica she had one of TV's most critically acclaimed shows to fall back on. And as for the future...well, Sackhoff who's dating movie producer Scott Niemeyer has never exactly been one to obsess over her career trajectory. Acting ''is what I do for work,'' she says. ''My father used to say I could sell water to a drowning man. If it all ends tomorrow, I'll go sell real estate. Or produce. Maybe I'll just have babies! I don't know. But I'm not worried.'' For now, she's reading some pilot scripts. Films would be great too. ''Something with a corset,'' laughs Sackhoff, who has also squeezed into some movies (the direct-to-DVD White Noise: The Light; a Lifetime romantic comedy called How I Married My High School Crush) during her Galactica run. At the same time, she recognizes that ''I might not have the luxury of choice. At this point in my career, people want to see me shoot people and beat up guys. That's how they see me. And that's fine for now.'' But then the charming swagger kicks in. ''At some point I'm going to get the opportunity to do something completely different,'' she says with a smile. ''And I'm going to shock them.'' Consider yourself warned.