Even in the stale quiet of a trailer at 9 a.m., Lindsay Lohan is compulsively watchable. There's the tough-chick look — the lush locks scalloping around her Ray-Ban aviators; the breathlessly parted lips; the faded jeans molded to her thighs and tiny butt, worn with tinfoil Lanvin flats. And there's the constant activity. If Lohan's not texting her manager, Jenni Muro, who's sitting four feet away, she's firing up a Parliament Light, carrying around an open laptop and downloading songs, or nipping into the trailer bedroom and changing clothes, for no apparent reason. For a brief while she'll wear a vintage concert tee. When I ask the name of the band on the faded shirt, Muro replies with a laugh, "Misplaced Childhood. Is that the ultimate answer?"

Lohan is almost too distracted to notice a stranger in her midst; when we meet, her handshake is limp, the fingers soft and pale as cigarettes. But while it's tempting to pathologize her nervous preoccupations, it's worth remembering that the girl, just 22, is trying to keep a lid on one full-on, nonstop mind-fuck of a life.

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Consider: As we kill time watching TV in the trailer, waiting for Lohan to be called to the set of the upcoming indie Labor Pains, the morning hen-fest The View comes on. To Lohan's surprise, today's guests are her mother and sister, Dina and Ali Lohan.

Lindsay dumps a cigarette butt in a half-inch of brown liquid in a Styrofoam cup and takes a seat on the built-in couch opposite the TV, smiling to herself as they answer questions. "I've learned from my sister what to do and what not to do," says Ali, 14, a singer, whom Lindsay describes as "a really tough cookie." Regarding their new reality show, Living Lohan, Ali explains, "We're showing people who we really are and that we're not crazy people." ("Obviously, we're just a normal family living in suburbia," says Dina, unconvincingly.) For most young women, the spectacle would constitute a mortifying mash-up of the public and the private, but for Lindsay Lohan, it's just life. Her chief reaction to the show: "I wanted to pull Ali's hair down on the left side the whole time. It was bugging me!"

There's Red Bull in the fridge and a flesh-colored thong dangling from a hanger near the bathroom. Outside the trailer, a bulldog slurps from a water dish. His name is Cadillac, and he belongs to Samantha Ronson, the proto-scenester and DJ with whom Lohan is enmeshed, although she refuses to confirm no-brainer rumors that they are lovers. Lohan's anecdotes are studded with references to Ronson; noting a star tattoo on her hand, she says, "Samantha has a bunch of stars, so I got that. And she got this" — indicating a little heart. When she tells me, with a giggle, that she's looking to buy a house "with someone," it just seems obvious who that someone is. But when I ask Lohan specifically about the relationship, she says, "Um, people can think what they want. I'm really happy, and that's all that matters." As for the newspaper item claiming she yelled at Ashley Olsen to "get your 15-year-old Full House ass away from my girlfriend" when she saw Olsen talking to Ronson at a club last April, Lohan retorts, "No! No. I never said anything like that. I would never talk like that. I mean, get me angry enough and I'm sure I'll have something to say, but I didn't say that."

With three stints in rehab behind her (and the threat of jail, if she violates her probation), Lohan has had a relatively peaceful time of it in recent months, leading me to suggest that Ronson's a good influence. "She's a great person," Lohan says. "And she's a great influence on people around her. But I think that anything that's changed in my life is because of me. I've gone through it and I've had to deal with it and I've made the decision to move forward. So, yeah, she's a great person," Lohan concludes of Ronson, who'll come loping across the parking lot to the trailer later on wearing her signature porkpie hat, plus a T-shirt, jeans, and cinder-block-size red trainers, emphatically unlaced.

Despite the apparently acute ADD, Lohan seems keenly aware of the fact that she's starting a new chapter — that she knows how much she stands to lose and that life has given her another chance. After a rebuke from a producer of her 2007 movie Georgia Rule for partying too much, after concern that she might be deemed uninsurable by Hollywood, she's methodically rebuilding her career, giving her all to a first-time film director, Lara Shapiro, for the low-budget Labor Pains, working on a danceable, R&B-type follow-up to her second album, A Little More Personal (Raw), and submitting to the family-friendly small screen, in a guest spot on Ugly Betty. It's a page out of the career-rehab playbook of Robert Downey Jr., whose return from the dark side started with a recurring role on Ally McBeal. (No word yet on whether guest spots on How I Met Your Mother can save Britney Spears.)

"He's an amazing actor," Lohan says of Downey. "Look at people like that who have gone through shit and had to work that much harder to get to where they are now." Lying on the bed in her trailer now, atop a pink comforter, looking at me through narrowed go-go-girl eyes beneath a thick canopy of fake lashes, Lohan says, "I've learned. I'll never go back. And it's not a never-say-never type thing — it's just, I know. I know."

If Lohan is any closer to attaining that elusive, soul-saving thing, perspective, it owes in large part to the shrewd, protective Muro, a 13-year ovarian-cancer survivor, who recently took over management duties from Lohan's mother. "When I open the window and breathe in the air, that's a good day," Muro tells me. "All this crap doesn't matter. Life is much bigger than that. I share my perspective with her, and I don't think anyone else has really done that." But Muro is also strategic — for instance, welcoming paparazzi shots of Lohan on the set, working (as opposed to tumbling out of a club). As such, whenever Lohan is called to the set, she dutifully does the pap walk — texting feverishly behind a curtain of hair, while grungy lensmen scamper alongside. It's a smart move, reminding the world that Lohan actually has a job, as her considerable talent is the one thing that can redeem her. Playing a secretary who's pretending to be pregnant so she won't get fired, Lohan puts a fresh, funny spin on her lines during each of the dozen or so takes — she's just a pro. "Lindsay has incredible comedic instincts," says Shapiro. "She's such a natural, and it's amazing to watch her bring things to life. The lightness and quickness she brings is just really fun to watch." As for the legendary Lohan baggage she also brings, Shapiro says, "I don't really worry about stuff like that. She's here, she's on time, she's ready. I'm focused on what's happening in front of the camera, and she's been great."

Whereas Lohan used to live in hotels — "I didn't want to be alone, so whatever I needed I could just go downstairs and there were people there" — she now recognizes the unhealthiness of that. "It wasn't a way of life," she says. "Not very consistent." Whereas she once owned a pair of puppies, like every other high-gloss attention-seeker in Hollywood, she now admits she "got them on a whim — I wasn't in the right headspace" to take care of them (so she gave them to her mother). Whereas the petulant, postadolescent, hungover Lohan could single-handedly roil a movie set with a grimace, she now accepts the responsibility that comes with being a star of her wattage. "It's a lot of pressure, because everyone's depending on you," Lohan says. "And your mood, when you go on set, everybody feels it. On a day when you're tired, it's important to just say good morning to everyone so they're kind of aware that it's gonna be a good day. Jamie Lee Curtis" — her Freaky Friday costar — "told me that."

Problem is, when you're Lindsay Lohan, the drama tends to roll in by the hour. "There was this one day when something happened with my dad, and my best friend's grandmother passed away, and I was upset, and everyone [on set] kind of changed, and I felt it," she says. Later, back in her trailer, she pulled herself together. "But it's hard, because, then, when do you feel?"

The thing that happened with her dad, Michael Lohan, the former felon who careens in and out of Lindsay's life, leaving a trail of tabloid sludge — that would be the revelation that he might have another daughter, now 13, the result of a fling with a Montana massage therapist. "I don't know what's going on with it," Lohan says, wearily. "I haven't asked him any questions. Apparently we've been in the dark for so many years. We've gone through enough with him. Enough is enough." As a result, she's shutting down communication with Dad for a bit — "until he decides to be a grown-up."

Family turmoil's been a constant for a while now. "It was always up and down," Lohan says of her teen years—"very unpredictable. It was kind of just like whether he was gonna be there, what he would be like; we didn't know what to expect from him, which was difficult. I knew so much at the age of 12—I'd seen so much. So it's surprising to me that I got into certain things that I got into, because I knew not to." Things like cocaine.

And yes, it's hard, living on high alert, braced for the splattering fallout of some monumentally bad behavior. Perhaps it's no surprise that Lohan would ultimately welcome a reprieve in rehab. "It was like a vacation," she says, wide-eyed, in a throaty whisper, "because no one bothered me."

Lohan grabs a journal from her Vuitton bag, opens to a blank page, and starts writing in a bubbly hand the names of people she has invited to her birthday party, taking place at L.A.'s hipster haven the Roosevelt Hotel in two days. She's chosen a prom theme, because Lohan, homeschooled the last two years of high school, never actually went to a prom; furthermore, she feels she's got plenty to celebrate given that she spent her last birthday in rehab. Lohan's lanky, attentive friend Patrick is calling around, looking for some genius prom gear for her to wear.

It's hard to overstate Lohan's appreciation for clothes. "I just love fashion," she says, after lunch in the trailer, flicking a cigarette ash into her half-eaten baked potato. "I think it just expresses who you are so much. Like, if I were wearing stilettos and a black dress and my hair in a bun, it'd be like, 'Oh, Lindsay's back on track.'" For Lohan, the best part about being a cheerleader back in the day was the cute uniform. "I'd get so excited to wear it on game days," she says. "And I got my skirt shortened and didn't tell anyone. Leave it to me to adjust the uniform."

But—and here's where it gets weird—does she crave clothes so much she'd actually steal them? Among the loopier Lohan stories to pop up in recent months is the one about her making off with a Columbia student's mink coat after a party they both attended, and another about her helping herself to armloads of a model's clothes while at a party at the model's home. "That's bullshit," Lohan says of the model incident. "That's all bullshit. It was just a misunderstanding. I'm not the kind of person that does stupid stuff like that for fun. I don't get off on that." Meanwhile, the owner of the mink coat has contacted a lawyer.

The truth? Who knows? For what it's worth, Lohan can certainly afford her own clothes, and she's been the butt of countless baseless rumors, like the one about her getting breast implants. "When I lost weight, they were like, 'She got them taken out!'" Lohan says. "And then, 'She got them put back in!' What am I, a crazy person? I mean, come on. Calm down!"

While she's clearly in a better place than she's been for a while, Lohan still maintains that quietly chaotic aura, the whiff of mischief that has made her so much fun to watch on-screen. And so it's touching when she says she'd like to be a mom someday. "At some point I want to adopt a kid as well," she says. "A child in need or a newborn from another country. I'm not sure." I ask what she remembers about being a kid herself, all traces of which have been banished from her seen-it-all face, with its vampy, cinematic contours. She was working, of course, doing commercials, one with Bill Cosby. Lohan smiles. "Kids go ape for Jell-O grape!" she says, with a tiny gasp of a laugh, remembering the line she was asked to say.

She's eager to get into the recording studio after Ugly Betty "Obviously, I want to sell records," Lohan says, "but I do it because I find it therapeutic. In music I can be myself." Besides, it's good to have something to do between movies. "This business is very go, go, go, and you're constantly surrounded by people, and then everything stops. So you kind of feel invalid, in a weird way. And it can get depressing because it's like, What do I do now?"

With any luck, what she'll do now is fulfill the promise of her outlandish potential and get back to being one of the most exciting actors of her generation. A force, a survivor, as opposed to LiLo, the global plaything.

"It's weird," Lohan says of having been granted that tabloid moniker. "It's like, Where do they get those things from? Whatever—it's fine. I know my real name."

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