Legal Eagle's Nest
By Rachel Abramowitz

(This article was published in the December '99 issue of In Style. It is copyright protected and no copyright infringement is intended by this duplication. This is for entertainment purposes only.)

It took a full year for Kelli Williams of The Practice (and her jack-of-all-trades husband) to turn their L.A. home into a modernist retreat. The verdict? Perfect.

"Eeeeeyyyyyyeeeeeee!" squeals 18-month-old Kiran Sahgal as he squirms in mom Kelli Williams’s arms. Newly emerged from his bath, Kiran places two wet hands on Williams’s lashes, leaving a black makeup smudge under each of her bright blue eyes. She hardly seems to notice. Though she may refuse to budge an inch as The Practice's hyperarticulate, whip-smart lawyer Lindsay Dole, here in her new home in L.A.’s groovy Silver Lake neighborhood, Williams is the softest touch around—soother of boo-boos, dispenser of kisses, and all-around champion ball tosser. Williams matter-of-factly wipes under her eyes, keeping up a running mommy patter as she carries Kiran into the nursery for diapering. Self-assured and relaxed, the 29-year-old actress seems remarkably adept at meeting the demands of both an inquisitive toddler and a much lauded, Emmy-winning TV drama. The only real problem, she jokes, is that Practice writer-producer David E. Kelley wins so many awards, she has a hard time keeping herself stocked in evening wear. "It’s nice that the show has gotten such recognition," she says, but striking the pose of a glamorous actress can feel like a bit of a charade. "In real life, I look nothing like I do in some of the pictures." Well, not exactly nothing. Despite the bare feet, black sweatpants and black tank top, Williams exudes an aura of quiet strength. She’s a combination of perfectionist and earth mama, a woman who prides herself on both nailing her performances on the first take and not getting her head spun by the intense Hollywood whirl. "Actors and actresses, usually we’re pretty much a mixed bag of neuroses, but Kelli is the calm in the storm," says co-star Dylan McDermott, who, as her on-screen boss and recent fiancee, Bobby, spent much of the last TV season courting—and clashing with—her character. "She’s always cool."

Williams’s new home, which she shares with her husband, writer Ajay Sahgal, is cool in its own right. Tucked away on a winding, hilly street, the house balances crisp contemporary design with livability and warmth. "I like simple things," explains Williams. "Sort of modern, but not ultramodern, which can be uncomfortable." Ajay gets a lot of the credit for the sophisticated look of the house. "He’s all about design. He’s also a jack-of-all-trades. We joke that when he’s having writer’s block, he builds something — designs a couch — or he paints the deck."

Indeed, it’s the personable 34-year-old Sahgal (a former owner of the popular L.A. coffee bars Java and Joe) who directed the renovation of the 3,000-square-foot house, which has taken the better part of a year. Along with their decorator friend Ashley Quaine, Sahgal designed much of the sleek furniture and supervised the addition of both a TV room and a combined office and baby’s room. Sahgal hates clutter, and the couple has been precise in choosing mementos and art. A huge French Barry Lyndon poster hangs in the living room (he’s a big Kubrick enthusiast), alongside a series of L.A. landscapes by local artist Steve Hodowsky, a photo montage of old police mug shots, and a sensual Nelson bubble lamp. There are quirky finds from their travels — and links to Ajay’s Indian heritage — such as old-fashioned teachers’ aid posters from Bombay. One focuses on dogs; the other details the peoples of the subcontinent. "We found them in the Chor Bazaar, which is the thieves’ bazaar in Bombay," says Williams.

When it came to planning the renovation, a walk-in closet ranked high on Williams’s priority list. "She’s not a big clotheshorse," say Sahgal, "but because of her job she’s got to wear different stuff when she’s out." The bathroom sports an oversize, oval tub, twin porcelain basins imported from England and a bottle-green double shower — a splurge Williams at first felt reluctant about. "You know, the conservative accountant mentality," she says. "But we figured, why not give ourselves the indulgence?"

Although the couple had known each other peripherally for years, they didn’t connect romantically until the night of Sahgal’s 1994 book party for his Hollywood novel, Pool, held on the roof of the Chateau Marmont. "I would see him at Victor’s our local deli, so he invited me," recalls Williams, who was a struggling actress at the time. "I was kind of nervous about being there—like, who am I to go to this fancy book party? We ended up talking the whole night." Two years later they were wed in an outdoor ceremony in Montecito, Calif.

Despite her down-to-earth air, Williams is very much a child of Hollywood. She grew up in Bel-Air, the daughter of a prominent plastic surgeon and an actress. "We would be watching TV and a newscaster or an actor would come on, and my father would say, ‘Oh, I did his nose,’ " recalls Williams with a laugh. The urge to perform came early. "I was putting on plays at, like, 3." When her mom, Shannon Wilcox (co-star of the film Six Weeks), brought home scripts to study, "I would play the other person." Williams attended elementary school at the Lycee Francais, where an older classmate was Jodie Foster. "I was 7 or 8, and she was probably a sophomore. I knew that she had been in Taxi Driver, and of course I had no idea what Taxi Driver was about, but I knew that I wanted to one day be like her." At Beverly Hills High, she also crossed paths with a celebrity-to-be, Monica Lewinsky. "I think she was my dresser for a play, and I gave her a ride home a couple of times," says Williams. "I haven’t seen her in years. Maybe one day I’ll bump into her, but what do you say?"

At 18, Williams ventured into acting full-time. "I got cast on two jobs the same day. It was a sitcom called Day by Day and a movie of the week, The Case of the Hillside Stranglers, where Billy Zane killed me. I had two scenes and then I was dead under a tree. But I remember looking through the camera, and it was so beautifully lit. Everything was so perfect. I was forever hooked." She went on to star in a series of TV dramas, usually inspired by lurid true stories. Then in 1996, Kelley cast her in The Practice. Between the success of the show and raising Kiran, there’s scant time for kicking back, but now that the house is finally finished, Williams is savoring it fully — particularly the rectilinear back deck perched over the yard where Kiran plays in the sandbox.

Given her newfound experience in joint-partnership home renovation, Williams has a hunch about what’s going to happen now that her character, Lindsay, has moved in with McDermott’s Bobby. "Well, Bobby is very masculine, and I think Lindsay’s going to bring a little femininity into his apartment. Frankly, it’s a little small, so maybe we’ll have to move." Raising an eyebrow, she adds, "I’m sure we’ll argue about it. "

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