.: Charmed Life :.

"What are we going to see this season?" Holly Marie Combs asks aloud as she sits in a director's chair on the Charmed set. "What are we going to see?" Just as she ponders the question, her train of thought is interrupted by an assistant director. "Ms. Combs, we need you to die, please," he says. Combs smiles. "Get away from me, I'm trying to be serious," she protests. "Our crew is horrible to me," she says playfully. Combs then smiles again as a costumer helps her slip into a long black Burberry coat for her next scene, a moment in "Styx Feet Under"-episode five of Season Seven-in which the Angel of Death (Simon Templeman, reprising his role from Season Three's "Death Takes a Halliwell") kills Piper and transforms her into his reluctant aide.

A couple of rehearsals and a few takes later, Combs is back in her chair and picking up the conversation where she left off. Around her on an outdoor location at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, the show's crew readies the next shot. "There are going to be a number of guest cast members this year," Combs says. "We have Nick Lachey, everybody's favorite Newlywed [on board as Phoebe's love interest, Leslie]. There's Charisma Carpenter, one of my personal favorites [who'll appear as a seer in at least two episodes]. We did a TV movie together, See Jane Date. And we have Kerr Smith [as an FBI agent, Brody, who could expose the Halliwells but is romancing Paige], which I'm really, really happy about. It makes me happy because I'm so glad that people are still interested in doing our show. They make Charmed better and easier for us. You never know, because after seven years, people in the industry could be saying, 'Oh God, is that show still on?' So we're lucky. We're still on, we're still doing well and people like Nick, Charisma and Kerr want to be on with us on Charmed."

Despite all the guests, the WB's Charmed is still very much about its leading ladies. And over the years, Piper-who married Whitelighter Leo (Brian Krause) and had baby Wyatt and Chris with him-has emerged as the mother figure, the character who most grounds the show in reality. "Piper has gone through so many changes," Combs notes. "she started out as a very insecure modern woman trying to control everything, and was kind of neurotic. But Piper has evolved into a mother, a wife and the head of the family. And she has greatly matured. That was very important to me -in the midst of all this supernatural stuff that we do every week on the show, we also portray real women with real problems and show the evolution that everyone goes through in life. It's kind of hard for people to relate to being a witch; it's much easier to relate to a woman who has sisters, a husband and children. All the other stuff is fun, but there needed to be a human element that viewers could relate to." Combs upped the human element for herself after giving birth to her own son, Finley, in April 2004. Her husband is a former Charmed key grip David Donoho. Being a mother, she notes, makes it much easier to play one on TV. "Before, I was just kind of imagining what it would feel like," Combs says. "Now, as an actress and a person, it has completely broadened my horizons because I have such a deep level of empathy for everyone. It opens you up and you're like a bleeding heart. It's funny, because you can such a guarded person in your personal life and try to protect yourself from all these worries and hurts, but when you have a kid, you're suddenly this feeling being. When Finley gets his vaccinations, it kills me, and you can't protect yourself from that. My heart is being ripped out with every shot. It's a deeper level of emotion that I wasn't prepared to feel, but it's completely amazing. It has opened me up both as a person and as an actress. Everything has a deeper meaning now."

Those good feeling extend to Combs' co-stars as well. "We work very long hours in very close quarters," she says, referring to Alyssa Milano and Rose McGowan, who play Phoebe and Paige. "What I've learned from being on this show is how to deal with people under those kinds of circumstances. we get along great. We work together well. Outside of work, we can't spend every minute together. But Brian and I actually knew each other beore we started this show, so we go way back. It's always kind of creepy, because I feel like I'm doing love scenes with my brother -I've just known Brian for so long and there's nothing nearly romantic about us. He was married when I met him, and I'm married now. But it's also comfortable, because we know and trust each other so much. Brian was supposed to be a recurring character, but he sort of worked his way in and never left."

Back on the set, director Christopher Leitch films Combs' stunt double, Nancy Thurston, collapsing hard to the ground. In a few moments, Combs will step into the shot, as Piper's soul looks at her lifeless body. "Nancy has been my stunt double for a really long time," Combs says. "Stunt people deserve all the credit in the world because they make us actors look so good. And I'm getting a little less ambitious as I get older, as the aches and pains set in. I was pregnant all last year and had a C-section this year. My stunt double is going to be real busy."

Over the years, Combs has been called upon to do some pretty wild things. She has kicked demon ass,wielded swords and appeared in all sorts of costumes and guises. In the seventh seanon opener "A Call to Arms," she played Shatki, the Goddess of Creation, but Combs hardly raises an eyebrow as some of her exploits are read back to her. "As you know, there are no limits to what we can or can't do here on Charmed," she says. "We make up our own rules as we go along. But you have to remember that I did some strange things on Picket Fences, too. This has been a great training ground, because in ant given episode I can go from Glinda the Good Witch to Guinevere doing the King Arthur thing in shorts. We've had leprechauns, mermaids and all the fantasy stuff you could think of, but then we do real stories with human emotion. We've done stories about fear and death and crime and anger. We've also done comedy episode. "So, on any given show, we can be laughing, crying, scared or in love. We do everything. It's not like Charmed is a medical or courtroom drama. It's not just a sitcom where things are funny. And it's not The X-Files. We're a combination of everything! And a single episode can have many of the elements that I'm talking about. We have an episode ["Cheaper By the Coven"] where we revert back to being children. I have to do a scene with Grams [Jennifer Rhodes] as a 10-year-old girl. What other forum gives you you the opportunity to play a 10-year-old and then, inthe space of the same hour, the chance to be an adult? We do some funky stuff." And Charmed fans eat it all up. The more outlandish, the better. The more revealing the outfits, the better. The sadder and more desperate, the better. But not only do the fans covet the coven; they adore the stars, follow their evert move and have launched websites devoted to the series, characters and actors. Combs appreciates the adoration. It's like lightning in a bottle." she says. "If anyone could figure out the formula -what it is that works so well for us -then every show would be on as long as we've been on. I hope it's partly us [actresses]. We try to do our best, and have a very loyal fan base, so it's important to me to do them justice, even after seven years. As much time we've dedicated to working on Charmed, the audience has devoted their free time to watching us. So, in that respect, we owe them our best."

To ensure that the best gets put up on screen, Combs makeuse of her executive producer title. Both she and Milano are credited as such and, if Charmed returns to the Wb next season, McGowan will probably join their ranks. "that was something they had to do because we were just so bossy," Combs admits. "We had to put our two cents into everything -from the casting and the lighting to the music and the look of the sets. After a while, they were like, 'They keep talking, so we might as well give them the title.' It's nice, because now they have to take us more seriously when we speak up. And I do put my two cents in. Oh God, yeah! I probably do it a bit more than they would like." Asked what sort of closure she want to see if Charmed were to end. Combs replies: "Everyone wants to know the answers to Piper and Leo questions. If the audience is really pulling for us to get back together, I think we should give them that happy ending. After all the struggles the characters have gone through and all of the energy that the audience has invested in them, I really feel we owe it to them. But who knows? We don't."

Ratings will determine whether or not Combs, Milano and McGowan reconvene for one more year. Combs -citing loyalty to the fans and producer Aaron Spelling, who fought for her to win the Piperrole -is open to an eighth and likely last season. As the conversation ends, the actress peers down the road, to life after Charmed. "I love to work and I love my job, but something has entered my life that's more important than that," she says referring to Finley. "I'm having so much fun, getting to know my little boy and watching him grow up and change every day. Working these long hours, I definitely feel like I'm missing out. I give credit to every working mom out there, because it's really tough balance -being an adequate parent and still having a career and being a part of the workforce. "I've got it good here. I can bring my son to work and see him on the set. He's here from 11 a.m. until 4:30p.m., so he misses all the rush hour traffic that I sit in. I get to see him for a large part of the day, which I might not if I had another job. So the producers have made it really easy to have him here. "When he's older, it will be tough decision to do another show after Charmed," Holly Marie Combs says. "It would have to be the right combination of things so that I could be a good parent and do good work. That's really hard. Maybe a sitcom would be nice. Talk about a golden schedule. I would not know what to do with myself with all that free time!"