There were parts of Anna that came easily to Lesley Ann Warren.

The religion part, for instance. Like the character she plays in "Evergreen," Warren is Jewish.

And the plucky part. Both are strong-willed women in a world that does not always honor pluck in females.

But there was one part that came very hard -- the looking- in-the-mirror part.

"Evergreen," an NBC miniseries based on Belva Plain's novel, airs Sunday through Tuesday at 9. The saga spans 50 years in the fictional life of Anna, a Jewish girl who arrives in America from Poland in 1909. In six hours over three nights, she goes from penniless maid to wealthy matriarch, torn most of the way by her love for two men, her husband (Armand Assante) and an aristocrat (Ian McShane).

The half-century time span required that Warren age from about 20 years old to 70. Being made to resemble a woman much older than she is bothered Warren. "I dreaded it," she said.

Her makeup man, with whom Warren has worked for five years, assured her everything looked good as he put in the appropriate lines, shadows and wrinkles of an older woman. That's where the mirror came in. "I got up and walked into the bathroom and sobbed," she recalled. "It was just really shocking to see myself take on those years."

The specter of advancing age is particularly ominous in a youth-oriented business, over and above any personal agonies.

"Playing the older part was difficult emotionally," said Warren. "I was having a hard time seeing myself at that age -- and didn't want to. The business has been based so long on the youth market, though I think women are changing that today."

If actresses are indeed changing that aspect of the business, Warren may be one of the movement's best -- and most reluctant -- warriors.

Warren won't discuss her age, admitting only to being in her mid-30s. A slightly yellow newspaper clipping from 20 years ago indicates she was 18 when she played Cinderella in a television special.

But while closing in on 40 and raising a teen-age son, Warren has kept herself highly visible in a recent series of strong roles. That part is made easier, of course, by the fact that she looks a lot more like the younger Anna than the older one. "I just happen to photograph in my late 20s," she said of a form shaped by a stiff regimen of exercise and a face dominated by perfect eyes. "It's just luck."

And hard work. It started at age 6 with dance lessons and a strong desire to be a ballerina and continued into New York's High School of Music and Art and the Professional Children's School. She became the youngest person to gain admission to the Actor's Studio and studied under Lee Strasberg. At 16 she made her Broadway debut in "110 in the Shade."

Then came "Cinderella" and her first movie, "The Happiest Millionaire." She won a Golden Globe Award as best actress in TV's "79 Park Avenue," a role she considers a turning point for her being taken seriously as an actress. Her part as James Garner's dumb-blond girlfriend in "Victor/Victoria" earned an Oscar nomination, and her current work in "Choose Me" had some critics complaining that she should have been nominated for that too.

Now comes "Evergreen," which will showcase her for a prime-time audience for three nights.

"I hadn't read the book," she said. "It was sent to me in script form, and I fell in love with the character. I went to meet (the production staff) in New York and decided almost immediately to do it."

But not without some tinkering with Anna. Early in the story, said Warren, Anna is a feisty, curious woman who's full of life. "But she quickly sublimates that, in the book, after she's married. The main difference I worked on with the writer was to maintain her quest for knowledge and her independence in the world. She has her own evolution and did not accept traditional rules necessarily if she felt there was a better way to do it for her family." This meant turning Anna into a woman unafraid to buck both turn-of-the-century American sexism and the Jewish tradition.

Warren also worked on a Polish accent with Alina Baccho, the same woman who coached Meryl Streep for "Sophie's Choice." "We spent three to four hours a day initially, everyday, just speaking with her instructing me. And I carried on the rest of the day speaking Polish-accented English wherever I went."

Anna's background is Polish and orthodox Jewish. Warren is from a Reformed Jewish family from New York, with some roots in Russia. Her maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather were from there. Her American-born father is in real estate in New York and California. Her English-born mother was a singer before Lesley was born. Her brother Richard scores music for television shows, including "Dynasty," "Dallas" and "Remington Steele."

Warren's son, Christopher, is 16. "He's thinking about acting and has an agent," Warren said. "It's a very hard life. I'd like for him to avoid some of the pain . . . the rejection, constantly having to prove yourself. It's an unstable profession, and you never get to rest on your achievements."

After more than 20 years in show business, Warren has enough savvy -- and success -- to know that a rejection here and there does not invalidate an actor's talent. "I finally feel that I'm past all of that," she said. "It's taken a lot of work, a lot of internal work, to arrive at the point where the rejection no longer hurts."