This grave, attractive young woman sitting across from me, this person who seems like someone to whom I could turn for advice, is 17 years old.
I know that for a fact, but I cannot believe it. She is a high school senior in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and I'll bet the guys in the senior class don't know what to make of her, because I sure don't. Her name is Annabeth Gish, her dad is an English professor, her mom teaches gifted children and she is in the movies.
This is the kind of person for whom good things fall out of the heavens because she so clearly deserves them. When she was 13, she "enjoyed acting and wanted to pursue it if I could." So she went to an audition at a casting agency in Minneapolis, which is the big city when you are from Cedar Falls. They were looking for a girl to play Jon Voight's stepdaughter in "Desert Bloom," a movie about a disturbed family in Nevada in the early 1950s. It was an important role - in some ways, the most important in the movie - and there were 600 girls at the casting call, but Annabeth got the role, and when the reviews came out, almost all of them singled her out for a performance of stunning power.
Since then, she has appeared in "Hiding Out," a dumb teenage comedy; the still-unreleased "Shag," said to be an intelligent teenage comedy, and "Hero in the Family," a Disney made-for-TV movie. Her current film, "Mystic Pizza" (opening Friday in Chicago), is an observant and heartwarming film about three teenage girls in the summer after high school graduation. One of the reasons the film is wonderful is Annabeth Gish, who still lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and might possibly become a great American movie actress.
She looked at the menu and decided on the Cobb salad. When I was 17, I would have had to ask what Cobb salad was, and then I would have given the menu a funny look and asked if they had hamburgers. She was on a press tour to promote "Mystic Pizza." Her next stop was Dallas. Then she was going to fly home to Cedar Falls, where she was a member of the homecoming court for the big game on Friday night.
"My parents called me their wise little baby," she said, after I asked her how she had developed so much self-possession at such an early age. "I was mature when I was 4 or 5. My brother and sister were older, so I was raised by four adults. I don't know if any of us were prepared for some of the things we had to face in the movie business. We've learned as we went along. We're trying to create a balance between the two worlds. For example, I decided not to move out to Los Angeles and plunge into the business and totally give up my education. I'm going to Northwestern next fall. I am going to prove that you can be in Iowa and not be in L.A. and not be in New York and still be a movie actress."
So far, that is exactly what she has proven. And she has done it on her own, even though when "Shag" opened in London in August, one of the reviews assumed she was related to the famous Gish family.
"I am a member of a completely different Gish family," she said. "I'm no relation to Lillian or Dorothy Gish. Not even way back. But when I first became interested in acting, I wrote a letter to Lillian Gish. She wrote back, discouraging me from entering the business. `Stay in a place where you are loved and supported,' she wrote me. `There's too much talent and not enough work in the movies!' She said her life had been so used, since she began working at such a young age, that she knew nothing else but acting. And she wished that she did. It was kind of shattering to me that here was this wonderful actress who I respected so much, telling me such terrible things about the business. And basically what I found out was that everything she said was true."
Annabeth Gish found that out in the same place where most actors discover it - in auditions.
"It was a shocking time for me, when I began to audition with all of these girls in New York and L.A. - younger, the same, older, they were auditioning all the time. It's a way of life. I'd been singled out for `Desert Bloom' and there was some resentment from people who wondered how I got such a lucky break when I hadn't paid my dues. I was fortunate. But then the hard time came. Auditions are so competitive, so hard and discouraging, that they wear people down.
"A lot of the girls I saw had lost any natural appeal they might have had, through the cynicism and bitterness of being rejected so often. You're just laying your life out on a table for people to reject you. Logically, I can deal with it; my head says it's OK to be turned down, but my heart sometimes feels so small. Sometimes I wonder if it's masochistic or something, if actors get off on having people say these awful things about them."
One of the things I was noticing about Gish, as we talked, was that she has spent her last four years in the movie business as essentially an observant outsider. She may have some kind of a book in her. She centers herself in Cedar Falls and makes forays into the movies, and thinks about what she sees.
"One trend you see today," she said, "is that they're not always looking for an actress to play a part. They're looking for the real person, to play herself. Surely the whole point is that I can play someone else. In `Desert Bloom,' they thought I `was' the character. That's why you can't win at a lot of auditions - they're not looking at your ability, they think they can find the real person they've written about."
And yet Gish has worked as often as she could, while still keeping up with her class in high school. And it is likely that, like Brooke Shields and Jodie Foster, she will continue to work through college, as a model as well as an actress. She is tall, about 5 feet 8 inches, with brown hair and a face where you see the intelligence immediately and the beauty after a moment; her presence strikes you, that is, before her appearance. Of the three teenage girls in "Mystic Pizza," she is not the bouncy one who is always climbing all over her boyfriend, and she is not the gorgeous sex bomb who turns the head of the rich boy. She is the smart one who baby-sits for a 30-year-old architect whose wife is in Europe, and of course, they meet when he joins her guided tour at the local planetarium.
In the movie, the three girls (played by Lili Taylor, Julia Roberts and Gish) work in the Mystic Pizzeria, in Mystic, Conn., a fishing town where the Portuguese-American locals coexist uneasily with the rich summer people. Gish, heading for Yale in the fall, begins baby-sitting for a good-looking Yale graduate (William R. Moses) early in the summer, and immediately develops a crush. He likes her, too, would rather they judged my emotions or my acting. The body is a beautiful thing, but because it is beautiful it should not be cheapened with public display. I cringed when I saw `Fatal Attraction.' I pitied Glenn Close for what they put her through at the end. It was so unnecessary."
The whole business of sex and dating and romance must be tricky for you, I said. Are the kids back home intimidated because you're in the movies? Does anybody ever ask you out on dates?
"I'm still in school with the guys I went to kindergarten with, and they know the weird side of me, so they know I'm basically normal. But I haven't been into the real dating place yet. Maybe that will happen at Northwestern. I have had young men approach me, knowing that I was an actress, and thinking of things other than their interest in just me."
Thinking of their careers?
"In some circles, that's all they think about. I made a real friend in the cast of `Mystic Pizza' with Vince D'Onofrio (remember him in `Full Metal Jacket'?), who said in a lot of marriages involving actors, the big argument is over who's the first one to get the bathroom mirror in the morning. So I ask myself, will I ever fall in love with an actor? Or anybody? It's hard for me in high school, because I can't always share all of the things that have become part of my world. The boys I know, their world is school and football games and stuff like that for now. And I'm too young to get involved with older guys. I am, however, a very romantic person, and I want to fall in love with someone."
Anyone can claim to be a romantic, but Annabeth Gish is willing to demonstrate it. She paused, and then said she had just come from an exhibit of Gauguin's paintings.
"I felt totally away from the earth for an hour. I stopped in front of a painting of a woman who had lost her virginity, who was holding a wilted flower, and it spoke to me. When I see a painting like that, it fills me with so much longing or something, and that's when I realize how much I want to continue acting, which is the only thing that gives me that feeling."