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'WITHOUT A TRACE' STAR MONTGOMERY RELATES TO CHARACTER

Poppy Montgomery has a sharp perspective on Samantha Spade, the FBI agent she portrays on CBS' "Without a Trace." "She's very driven," says the Australian-born actress. "She loves what she does. And she's sleeping with everyone in the office, apparently."

At the moment, Sam is caught between two lovers -- her married boss, Jack (fellow Aussie Anthony LaPaglia), and younger associate Martin (Eric Close).

Viewers, it seems, like a little romance with their procedural. In its third season, "Without a Trace" is beating the once-dominant "ER" so handily at 10 p.m. Thursdays that even repeats of the missing-persons drama, which ranks No. 7 in the ratings with an average viewership of 19 million, outperform original episodes of NBC's hospital warhorse.

It's obvious during the course of an interview in a lounge at the Ritz-Carlton that Montgomery has a lot in common with her character: Both are borderline workaholics who found romance in the workplace.

Like Sam, she has hooked up with a co-worker. "I met my boyfriend on the job because we played husband and wife in a film," she says.

The initials of Adam Kaufman, her co-star in "Between," a 2004 independent film, are prominently tattooed on her wrist.

One reason she likes to stay busy is the feast-or-famine nature of show business. And before "Trace," Montgomery endured some very lean years.

She says she's 29; the prominent film Web site IMDb.com lists her age as 32. "I've seen about seven different ages for me," she says in response. "I can't keep up with it all. As long as I can play the roles I want to play, I don't care."

She was born Poppy Petal Donahue in Sydney to parents who took a floral approach to naming their daughters. Poppy's sisters are named Rosie Thorn, Daisy Yellow and Marigold. She also has an older brother named (cue the flute music) Jethro Tull.

"I hated my name, I mean "really hated it, until I was about 15," she says. Perhaps it was that simmering resentment that made her a rebellious student. She was thrown out of six private academies, quitting school entirely before she was 15 to pursue stage acting.

"I didn't want to conform. If they said, 'Don't dye your hair,' I'd come to school with bright pink hair. . . . 'The school uniform has to be below your knees.' I had it practically showing my bum."

Vestiges of that hard edge remain.

"Poppy is tough," says her "Trace" costar Close. "She's got that Australian blood. She doesn't suffer fools gladly."

Yet years later, when she adopted a stage name, she held onto Poppy and switched to her mother's maiden name.

"I had reached a stage where I realized how unique 'Poppy' was. And I changed my last name because my father's name is Phil Donahue and I was like, 'You know what? I don't want to deal with that at all.'"

She came to the States at 18 because she couldn't live without a boy from Florida she had met when he was an exchange student down under. "After five days in Sarasota I realized I couldn't stand him," she says.

Montgomery took a bus to Los Angeles and began determinedly working her way up the acting ladder to network series regular.

Unfortunately, those series -- ABC's "Relativity," UPN's "The Beat," and the WB's "Glory Days" -- "all lasted like half of a first season. Not even a blip on the radar."

Her breakthrough came in the 2001 miniseries "Blonde," based on Joyce Carol Oates' novel about Marilyn Monroe. Even growing up halfway around the world, Montgomery was mindful of Monroe's mystique.

Still it took some convincing before CBS would agree to let a relative unknown -- a foreigner at that -- play an American icon.

"We really had to sell her to CBS because no one knew who she was," says "Blonde's" director, Joyce Chopra. "CBS was highly aware of her after that performance."

In fact, Montgomery was cast on "Trace" without having to audition. (The show, like the network's other hit crime franchises, "CSI" and "Cold Case," is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer.)

Montgomery is just as torn as poor Sam Spade (the name is a tip of the hat to Dashiell Hammett's seminal detective) about resolving the character's love life.

So it's Jack, right?

"Well, she and Martin are more on the same wavelength. They have more in common."

Come on, Poppy. Who's it going to be?

"I'm as curious as you are. I can't wait to read the script for the season finale (which will air next month), because I think that's when we're going to get a clue about who she ends up with."

Obviously she's mastered the network-series game: Make sure people tune in next week.

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