It didn't take long for Graham, a highly intelligent individual, to realize that the job had its drawbacks. For starters, "it was extremely claustrophobic inside the suit," and while she was off duty it was used by another actor "who was very sweaty."
"And I discovered that people are very mean to mascots. They would knock me on the head and scream up my nose, `Who's in there?' and `Are you a boy or a girl?' I went home and cried two nights in a row."
But better work followed, and Graham now stars in her very own drama series, Gilmore Girls, seen on the WB (Channel 17) Thursdays at 8 p.m. The show has become a favorite of TV critics and has been named "best new drama" by the not-easily-pleased advocacy group Viewers for Quality Television.
Gilmore Girls also seems to have overcome any skepticism that may have been linked to its unusual origins - it's the first series to result from an initiative by advertisers who wanted quality family programming.
Graham, 32, plays 32-year-old ("I'm so glad that I don't have to lie about my age anymore") Lorelai Gilmore, the decidedly cool single mother of a studious 16-year-old daughter, Rory (Alexis Bledel).
Their relationship is occasionally rocked by financial problems, forcing Lorelai - the manager of a quaint inn in their quirky little East Coast town - to confront her demanding, old-moneyed parents (Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann) for relief.
"It's a modern mother-daughter relationship," Graham says, "where I play someone who had a kid when she was a kid and therefore missed a lot of her teenage and young-adult development years. She still has some of those elements and is working them out. Lorelai has learned to be a good parent," but she's still "young and fun" and trying to avoid being like her mother - "a very rigid, strict and closed-minded individual."
The show is Graham's second starring role in a series in less than a year. When she found out that she had been hired for Gilmore Girls (on March 16, her birthday), she already was headlining a planned NBC show called M.Y.O.B. as a high school administrator trying to keep the lid on a rebellious niece.
She was hired in "second position" for Gilmore Girls, meaning the producers would have to go through the expensive process of recasting the series if M.Y.O.B. - to which she was legally bound - was picked up for a full season.
As luck would have it, M.Y.O.B. bombed. Only seven episodes were shot, and the show was canceled after just five of them aired.
Graham was born in Honolulu and spent her formative years in various parts of Northern Virginia on the outskirts of Washington. It was a comfortable, upper-middle-class environment provided by her attorney father, Lawrence Graham, now the president of the National Confectioners and Chocolate Manufacturers trade association.
As a toddler, Graham had lived in Japan while her father worked for a federal aid program in Vietnam. By the time she was 5, her parents had split up, and she was raised by her single father until he remarried 15 years later. Her mother, Donna, "basically left to pursue a career" and currently lives in London, where she is working on a book detailing Western influences on Japanese culture.
"Growing up an only child with a single parent is probably why I'm an actor," Graham says. "My father read to me from the time I was born, and I skipped kindergarten because I could read at the age of 4.
"Literature just sparks your imagination. I took acting very seriously by the time I went to Langley High School near the CIA headquarters. Some people think my father was a spy but he can't find his car keys, much less keep a national secret."
Craving the New York experience, Graham majored in English and earned a bachelor's degree at Barnard College before accepting a drama scholarship to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where she emerged with a master of fine arts degree three years later.
A couple of lean years in New York followed, with stints working as a cocktail waitress and administering college entrance exams to prep-school kids before launching a respectable career in TV commercials and occasional series guest-shots. "In 1995, dead broke, my good friend Connie Britton and I squatted in the house of a person we vaguely knew for a couple of months," Graham says with a laugh.
"The house was for sale, didn't have a stick of furniture, and they were threatening to shut off the electricity every day," Graham continues. "Just before we were to be tossed out, Connie landed a job on Spin City and I got a recurring role on Caroline in the City."
Graham went on to guest-star on NewsRadio, Law & Order, 3rd Rock From the Sun and Seinfeld and to costar in three quickly canceled sitcoms, Good Company, Townies and Conrad Bloom.
Her feature films include the forthcoming Sweet November with Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron, plus Dill Scallion, One True Thing and Nightwatch.
All the hard work for the "single, never married" actress adds up to a comfortable lifestyle, complete with a beautiful home in exclusive Hollywood Hills and a handsome boyfriend "in the business - but leave him out of it. I'm being sensitive to others."
Eirik Knutzen writes about television from Los Angeles.