LAFAYETTE -- Actor Kelcie Stranahan, a waiflike Lafayette native and former ballet student, will appear in her debut starring role in "Last Hours In Suburbia," a Lifetime film airing on Saturday, Sept. 22.

Directed by John Stimpson and also featuring Maiara Walsh ("Desperate Housewives," "Switched at Birth"), Stranahan takes the lead as Grace, a 17-year-old girl accused of causing the death of her BFF, Jenny. Facing jail time, Grace desperately seeks exoneration by calling on the ghost of her lost friend to help her retrace their terrifying, fatal car accident.

Like the best of dancers, Stranahan disguises the arduous task of tiptoeing through the competitive minefield of a performing arts career with disarming simplicity.

"I had a girlfriend who was going to L.A. to take acting classes and went along. I just did it for fun," she said in a phone interview from her part-time home in Southern California.

Stranahan, 19, is the daughter of Chapman Stranahan and Gail Rivard, an electrical engineer and dental technician, who raised their three children in the comfort and affluence of the East Bay.

"They helped me grow up with a great education that taught me to take in differing perspectives," Kelcie said.

Early dreams of becoming a professional ballet dancer were replaced by acting, after the initial summer workshop helped the shy, 13-year-old actor break down her resistance to being in front of an audience.

If East Bay theatergoers don't recognize Stranahan, it's likely because of her limited appearances in the area. Other than modeling work in San Francisco, three educational videos about cyberbullying and cheating in school and ensemble roles in one high school musical and a community theater play, her work has all been in L.A. She signed with one agency at age 15 and now is represented by Innovative Artists.

Along the way to her first leading role in the Lifetime film, Stranahan has hit several high points.

"The audition for (television's) "Without A Trace" was quick because they said they were in a hurry. I went in, read my lines, they said come back in an hour. I read again, but when two days went by, I assumed I hadn't gotten it," she recalls.

Instead, Stranahan had landed a "co-star" position, meaning she had more than five lines, which bumped her pay to close to $1,000. Shooting happened in one day and doing "so many takes, with different angles, readjusting extras, fixing wardrobe and changing lighting" was astounding, even to the by-now veteran actor.

For films, the amount of work is even more extreme.

"People underestimate what it takes to make a movie," she insists. "Even for tiny scenes where someone says one line, you might have to do it 10 times. It takes a huge amount of people, or they're not going to get the shot. Unless you're there on set, you don't have any idea."

Filming "Last Hours In Suburbia" was incredibly draining.

"I'd never been to the East Coast and, starting off, it was so difficult to adapt to being in a strange place," she said. "The people were different: they were so 'get it done.' so 'just do the work,' and finish quickly!"

The film's content was another hardship.

"It's about a girl who kills her best friend," Stranahan moans. "Every single scene was emotional, depressing. I was in a terrible, never-happy place for a month."

A week in sunny California after the film wrapped helped her shake off the gloomy cobwebs and catch up on sleep lost during frequent all-night shooting.

"Union rules say you can only work 12 hours, but basically, we shot from early morning to late at night," she remembers.

Stranahan admires actors like Kevin Spacey, whose intensity she says "makes acting go beyond what is written on the page." Films like "American Beauty," which she studies multiple times with varying objectives like physicality, relationships and pacing, are her favorites.

"I love watching comedy, but I don't think I'm funny," she admits. "I'm drawn to drama and horror because I want to make people feel something in the moment."

Temperamentally suited to film's more internal, intimate format, she is less at home with what she calls live theater's "loud and less subtle" demands.

"Besides," she added, "In theater you only get one chance in each performance. In film, you can go back, change, go back, change."

With a new acting coach and larger roles, Stranahan says college can wait. For now, she's content to let a camera capture her search for feelings behind words and emotions beyond the page.

'Last Hours in Suburbia'
Who: Kelcie Stranahan
When: Saturday, 8 p.m. (Pacific), Lifetime network
Info: http://www.mylifetime.com/movies/last-hours-in-
suburbia