Star rising: Nikki James of 'The Book of Mormon'

By Mark Kennedy

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, May 17 2011 12:45 p.m. MDT

James grew up in New Jersey not far from Manhattan and was a bookish girl who adored theater. One day she informed her mother she wanted to be an actress. "What a weird kid I was," she says. "I really was a weird, strange child."

She spent $75 of her baby-sitting money for headshots (she now deems them "terrible") and landed an agent, then booked commercials in between school and made it her career, much to the astonishment of her parents, who initially thought acting was just a passing fad. James never wavered.

"I never, ever believed that I couldn't accomplish it as a young kid. It didn't occur to me that I was going to audition for jobs that I wouldn't get," she says. "I didn't know that it was difficult. And thank goodness, because it is hard. But I keep that little girl around with me a lot because she's much more brave than I am."

James was slated to return to Stratford last year to star opposite Plummer again in "The Tempest" but pulled out when her nephew Ozzie was born with kidney problems. He faced a poor prognosis, and James elected to stay and help care for him.

"The idea of leaving my family was too much to bear," she says.

Now Ozzie is 19 months old. "He is this miracle — he's doing really great. And he calls me diva," she says. "I force him to call me diva, actually. At least one person thinks I'm a diva."

At the Tonys, James will be bringing her mom. "My mom is my hero," she says. Her other big champion, her dad, died while she was in high school, though James says she feels his presence every day and sings in his honor every night.

The Tony nominations even came out on the 12th anniversary of his passing.

"I can't rule out the fact that he had something to say up there for me," she says. "I think that naive arrogance that I had as a 12-year-old is a testament to my parents always telling me that I was the best at everything I did. So my dad gets to travel with me every day. He's like an angel on my shoulder. I'm sure he'll be there."

Online:

http://www.bookofmormonbroadway.com

Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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