The right equation

Math plus Mamet adds up to role on 'The Unit'

Note to all students aspiring to become actors: Hit the math textbooks -- that might be your ticket to Hollywood.

That's how Nicole Steinwedell did it. After years as a struggling actress, the 5-foot-11 blonde's gig as a math tutor led to a guest-starring role on CBS' military drama "The Unit" this fall. That turned into a recurring and then a regular role.

A daughter of Marine Corps officers and a graduate of Northwestern University with a double major in history and theater, Steinwedell moved to Los Angeles in 2002 to pursue acting. To support herself, she held three and four jobs at a time, including working as a math and SAT prep tutor in the Pacific Palisades. One of her students was Zosia, a teenager who lived with her mom, acting coach Lindsay Crouse, and her stepdad.

During the three years of private lessons, Steinwedell and Zosia became friends, so when Zosia decided to pursue acting after graduating from high school, Steinwedell gave her some career advice. That's when Zosia for the first time mentioned her father -- playwright, filmmaker and "The Unit" creator David Mamet.

"I was floored," Steinwedell said. "Here I'd been dispensing all that wisdom about acting and the business, while her dad is a staple in the performing arts, a living legend!"

Last year, Steinwedell and Zosia enrolled together into the Atlantic Acting School. Mamet came to see their showcase and praised Steinwedell's skills. She rushed her headshot to him but nothing happened.

Then last summer, Steinwedell heard that "The Unit" would be adding the first female member of the special ops team.

She wrote Mamet a brief note: "My grandfather was a colonel in the Army. My parents were both Marines, my mom outranked my dad. I can do this part. It's in my blood."

Steinwedell was invited to an audition, and Mamet introduced her and her background to the other producers.

To the delight of her family, who watch "Unit" religiously, Steinwedell landed the part. She often phones her folks (she calls them "my technical advisers") with questions when working on scripts.

The thought of how lucky she is feels "paralyzing," especially since she gets to play a strong woman, a rarity for actresses in their mid-20s. CBS spotlighted her role at its upfront presentation as an example of its strategy to attract more female viewers.

Asked what advice she could give young actors who juggle jobs between auditions, she recited the line from Russell Crowe's 2001 Oscar acceptance speech: "For anyone on the downside of advantage and relying purely on courage, it's possible."

She knows Mamet helped opened the door, but "you still have to walk through it," she said. "You need nothing else but your tenacity."