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Shue in Chasing Mavericks
John P. Johnson/Twentieth Century Fox

With three upcoming films and a meaty TV role on her plate, Elisabeth Shue is enjoying a well-deserved career revival.

No one likes to be pigeonholed.

After defining all-American, wholesome and the girl next door in 1980s big-screen hits like The Karate Kid and Adventures in Babysitting, Elisabeth Shue was looking to shed her goody-two-shoes image and discover a deeper, darker range. She found it, along with an Oscar nomination, in the tragic 1995 big-screen drama Leaving Las Vegas, which had her starring opposite Nicolas Cage. After the Vegas hype ran its course, Shue took time off to soul-search and return to Harvard University, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in government.

“I knew that the cosmic happening of Leaving Las Vegas — with that level of script and director and actors — would only happen once in a lifetime. And I was right,” laughs the 49-year-old actress. “I try to imagine those kinds of great parts again, but that might have been my big moment. I am so grateful I had that at least once in my life, and now I have my college degree too.”

Fans need not worry that the actress will employ her Ivy League pedigree anytime soon. In the second half of 2012, not only will she reprise her role for a second season of the CBS smash CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, she also starred in the feature films Hope Springs and House at the End of the Street and can be seen in the new inspirational surfing drama, Chasing Mavericks.

Better than busy, Shue is deeply gratified by the flood of fresh work. In Chasing Mavericks, she plays the single mother to a teenager intent on becoming a big-wave surfer. Though the film shot on location in Santa Cruz, Calif., home to some of the world’s choicest curls, Shue kept her feet on dry land. “It was best for my character to stay beached. That’s where she exists, emotionally and spiritually,” Shue says. “But it was hard, hearing Gerard [Butler, her co-star] and the guys say how they were becoming ‘one with nature’ and enjoying that blissful feeling of riding the waves. I really need to do that.”

On CSI, however, Shue cuts loose and busts chops as highly combustible detective Julie Finlay, another change of pace she finds exhilarating. “Julie is totally unafraid, loves to go toe-to-toe with a man and really enjoys the chase,” she says. “I’m loving how physical the role is. I just got to kick the butt of this young, hot cop. I’ve never done that before.”

As for what feat Shue will next attempt, the actress plays coy. “Now that I’m beating up pretty boys on TV,” she laughs, “anything is possible.”