PASADENA, Calif. -- Confronting criminals is nothing new to actress Sasha Alexander. After all, she plays the nerdy medical examiner fighting crime with her tomboy partner in TNT's "Rizzoli & Isles," which returned Tuesday. And she was one of the intrepid investigators in the first two years of "NCIS."

But Alexander also managed a little crime busting in real life.

"When I was 19 years old I ended up in two very dangerous situations in a month. I was in a bank robbery, and I was held at gunpoint by some young gangsters," she says over a Cobb salad in a hotel restaurant here.

"When this happened to me, I was incredibly strong and clear. I was almost defiant in the way that I dealt with the situation. ... In the bank robbery there was a woman in front of me as the men came in, who was an elderly woman, and I got so scared because he had a gun trained on her. So I stepped right in front of her, not even thinking. Even my move could've made him do something. I didn't think about it. So after the fact I went into a paralyzed state of shock," she recalls.

"A month later I was coming out of a restaurant and I had one of those pull-out radios because I had a Jeep, and some gang-bangers in a car pulled up and trained three guns on my stomach and said, 'Give me your radio.'

"And I stood looking at their guns because they had some kind of strange tape on them -- looking at them wondering whether they were real or not -- not handing over my radio. I held on to it. I don't know why, maybe fear. Some big guys were walking by and the guy said, 'Let's get out of here.'

"He tugged at the radio and it fell, and they took off. Two days later they shot and killed a kid in the San Fernando Valley at an ATM. The same guys, in the same car. I got the license plate and the car and reported them, and read it in the paper. I had these really intensive experiences happen to me, and I was really strong in the moment. But afterward completely fell apart, nightmares," she shakes her head.

She says those experiences helped her in her work. "It's interesting because when you're playing a character you understand why somebody in that line of work would be very clear. But those things are [usually] outside of your life."

While it may not have been all bullets and bandits, Alexander's life has been more colorful than most. Her parents are immigrants (her father Italian, her mother Serbian) and she was an only child raised by her mom after her parents' divorce when Sasha was 5. Her father was an expert tailor who even fabricated her prom dress. Her mom was a travel writer who took the young Sasha all over the world

"I saw lots of poverty," she says. "My mom was raised in a communist society and was really influenced by wanting to see how other people lived, and I think I went on that journey with her. I didn't realize as a kid how much that would affect me because that's your experience. But when I got to college and found most people I knew didn't even have a passport, I realized that I really had a truly life-changing experience through this part of my mother's life," says Alexander.

"I remember being in Israel when I was 16 and seeing girls in the mall with machine guns who were my age ... I had family that was in Sarajevo -- where my grandma was from -- who were pulled into the horrible war there. I had a cousin who was Serbian, his best friend was Croatian and the other best friend was Muslim, and all three boys were sent into different armies.

"They made a pact if they survived they would meet back at this beach in Montenegro two years later. I was there that summer and that cousin took me to Montenegro with him to see if they were there. I was 18 and remember going with him and waiting on this beach for days to see if his friends would show. And one did show up. He was missing an arm and was selling ice cream on the beach ... That changed me because people don't have the opportunity we have here. I remember in college feeling just that I can do anything because I have seen how other people live. They're not born into what we're born into."

She attended USC where she met her future husband, Edoardo Ponti, who was studying film in the graduate program. They were only casual friends, but eight years later they met again, and it became a whole new experience. "We went out and that was it," she grins.

"We were pregnant in a year and a half and getting married. It was the easiest -- and I say that in a great way -- the easiest thing that ever happened in my life. It felt like home."

Ponti, the son of Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti, is a filmmaker. He and Alexander have two children, a daughter, 6, and a son, almost 2.

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