Only a half decade ago it was, yet it seems like a cultural eon. A young star, fresh from the produce section, could still venture out at night without fear of being pecked to pieces like Tippi Hedren in "The Birds."

- James Wolcott, writing in Vanity Fair in 2008
 

For an actress in a 24/7 Mean Girls media culture, with vultures beaking at her weight, wardrobe, and arm candy, Amanda Seyfried keeps her private life private and her priorities straight.

"I know what and who I feel most connected to," says the spirited star of HBO's Big Love and the new film Dear John. "My family and friends. It's easy to stay grounded when you're surrounded by good people. I know where to go to get photographed, but I don't need the attention," says Seyfried (SIGH-fred), perched at the edge of a wing chair at a Philadelphia hotel.

The Bambi-eyed kewpie from Allentown, who is 24, has proved herself in comedy, drama, and musicals. She is best known as the Mean Girls dimwit who claims her boobs can tell the weather, the independent-minded Mormon on Big Love whose dad has three wives, and the free spirit of Mamma Mia! juggling three possible dads.

Like many Hollywood It girls (and boys), Seyfried is built like a lollipop with outsize features on an outsize head atop a slim and curvy body. On a gray afternoon, she is a rhapsody in blues, with slate-blue eyes, a navy-blue blazer, jeans of faded blue-gray, and rain boots of teal-blue rubber.

A specialist who brings normality to depictions of unusual social arrangements, Seyfried gracefully handles the romantic and dramatic challenges of Dear John (which opened Friday). She plays Savannah, a college student who conducts a love affair via letters with soldier Channing Tatum, in the moist drama from Nicholas Sparks.

"Savannah was the first romantic lead that I had the opportunity to audition for," Seyfried reflects. "I felt that she was confident and knew what she wanted. I'm coming to that point in my life."

One thing Seyfried wanted very badly was to unwind her relationship with Big Love. "I'm no longer committed to the show. It's a relief. Sad, but a relief," she says of the series. The show has kept her in Los Angeles for six months a year, far from her family in the Philadelphia region and even farther from her beau, London-based Dominic Cooper (her character's fiance in Mamma Mia!).

Another thing she's certain about at this point in her career: "Any romantic comedy, I pass on. I have two coming out," Letters to Juliet and the Oscar Wilde adaptation A Woman of No Importance. "You've got to hide in your characters. If you're too much the same as the character you're playing, the audience won't believe you if you play someone different." Spoken like a student of the careers of her costars Meryl Streep (Mamma Mia!) and Julianne Moore (the forthcoming romantic thriller Chloe).

As for college - she deferred her acceptance to Fordham because she was juggling so many movie and television offers - she is less certain. "No idea. Top thing on my to-do list is traveling. I learn through travel more than I do through books. I'm lucky I have the means to."

She is open about missing Cooper, who's in Malta making The Devil's Double. Polite but private, that's all she reveals about him.

The word lucky comes up a lot in Seyfried's conversation. "I've been really lucky, that's why I'm here," she says, explaining away the success she's enjoyed since she was plucked from Allentown's William Allen High seven years ago to appear on daytime television's All My Children. When she tells you her story, it seems less a case of luck than of pluck, talent, and sparkle.

The younger daughter of an occupational therapist and a pharmacist, Seyfried is a happy product of Allentown. "Life was easy, school sucked," she admits with the flush of a baby fresh from the bathtub.

"I wasn't very good academically, and I was awkward socially," she recalls. "My Spanish teacher called me Anita la astronauta because I was such a space cadet."

But when she came to Philadelphia's Forrest Theatre to see a production of Les Miserables in 1996, it rocked her 11-year-old world. "I can't tell you how blown away I was and how it emotionally felt to be swept up in the French Revolution."

So Seyfried stopped taking piano and started taking voice lessons from an opera teacher in Allentown. Her favorite aria: Zerlina's coquettish "Batti, batti" from Mozart's Don Giovanni, which suited her coloratura range and effervescence.

Before long the aspiring singer began modeling for Limited Too and for Italian Vogue, and won a role on All My Children. She knew she needed training.

"I hadn't really been in drama classes at school, just singing, so in New York I studied the Meisner Technique," the methods developed by guru Sanford Meisner, who guided actors as diverse as Sandra Bullock, Robert Duvall, and Grace Kelly.

Seyfried auditioned for the role of Regina in Mean Girls, but lost it to Rachel McAdams. McAdams was up for the ingenue role in Mamma Mia! but lost it to Seyfried.

"Initially, when I was up against these other actresses, I was quick to judge them," she says. "Now I have a better idea of who and what they are, so when one of them gets a role I might have wanted I'm able to say, 'Good for her!' You don't want to judge. You want to see them do well."

It was easy for Seyfried to bloom, she says, because she was so "grounded" by her parents and older sister, an artist and University of the Arts graduate. Seyfried's mother, "very craftsy," according to the actress, taught her to knit, which has helped her chillax on the set and on cross-country flights. She specializes in hats.

No sooner does Seyfried mention big sis - "She paints, she draws, she sings, she's amazing!" - than Jenni, 27, bounds into the suite. Her familiar, teasing presence visibly loosens up Seyfried, who relaxes back into her chair and pitches into a giggle fit as Jenni recounts how "as Amanda's big sis I was focused on ruining her self-esteem."

"Jenni spent a year telling me I smelled bad, and I was constantly checking my breath and armpits," Seyfried recalls, hugging the tormentor of her teen years. The body language suggests their teenage competition has mellowed into sisterly supportiveness.

Still, when Seyfried explains that her artist sister moonlights at Center City's Las Vegas Lounge "pouring drinks," Jenni teasingly corrects her: "Amanda! The word is bartender."

Seyfried rolls her very large eyes, and the sisters fall into each other, sharing the chair and much laughter.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl.