IOWA WOMAN INTERVIEW (September 1988)
Four years ago she was a serious thirteen-year-old with an alcoholic, abusive father; next she was a zany teenage friend to a monkey. Since then she’s turned into a Portuguese pizza maker, a Southern belle, and a smart, self-confident girlfriend.
While seventeen-year-old Annabeth Gish has played all of these parts in movies, most of the time she’s a normal teenager caught up in her high school life. She attends school two blocks from her home in Cedar Falls, Iowa, goes to Friday night football games in the fall and walks her golden retriever to the stream near her home.
Leading two lives means flying in and out of Los Angeles on the same day for a magazine photo session in order to get home for the high school prom the following night. Or, arriving at the Waterloo airport following weeks of filming away from home just in time to join friends at a high school basketball game.
Unlike many other teenage actresses, Annabeth and her parents decided when she began her movie endeavors that they would not move to Hollywood. Rather than pounding on studio doors or answering casting calls day in and day out, they wanted to stay in Cedar Falls, select scripts carefully and wait until the right parts came along. And, they have come along. At age thirteen she starred in her first movie, Desert Bloom. This story is set in the Las Vegas of the 1950s and focuses on thirteen-year-old Rose Chismore’s reactions to the atomic bomb testing near her home and its effects on her family – an alcoholic, abusive father and a gambling mother.
Since then, Annabeth has been in four other films. Two of them, in which she played leading roles, were released in August. Shag portrays four young South Carolina women who take the last fling of their high school career to Myrtle Beach for the Shag dance contest. Mystic Pizza, filmed in Mystic, Connecticut, is billed as a story of three teenagers – two sisters and a close friend – who work in a local pizza parlor one summer; Annabeth’s character is saving money to go to Yale the next fall. Three men come into the teenagers’ lives, bringing both romance and conflicts.
In the fall of 1987, Annabeth played opposite Jon Cryer in the teenage film, Hiding Out, the story of a young stockbroker who seeks refuge from the Mafia in high school and meets Annabeth’s engaging character. A year earlier, she played in a Disney TV movie, Hero in the Family.
The Iowa teenager maintains her dual life in Cedar Falls and movieland successfully through support from her parents. Her mother, Judy, coordinated the gifted and talented program in a school district north of Cedar Falls until last fall when she resigned to make their movie life more flexible. Bob Gish, Annabeth’s father, is an English professor at the University of Northern Iowa, with specialties in Western, Native American, and Chicano literature.
The family’s foray into the movie business began as something of a lark, Annabeth relates during an interview in the Gish family living room. She had already landed several local broadcast and print media commercial jobs and had modeled for a national Seiferts poster. Too, she had an agent, Creative Casting, in Minneapolis.
"When we started in 1983, we didn’t go in with any assumptions or goals," Annabeth relates. "We read Desert Bloom and saw it as a wonderful script with a beautiful message." In the story, Rose Chismore awakens to her family realities and blooms into a confident young woman. Her growth is paralleled by the development of the atomic bomb and its potential to help and harm the world.
Annabeth read for the part in Minneapolis after her agent called her for an audition with the film company. Auditions were held in other major cities including New York, Chicago and Dallas. Out of 500 girls nationwide, Annabeth and six others were flown to Los Angeles for further screen tests. From there, Annabeth and her dad joined two other girls in Tucson, Arizona for the final difficult, anxiety-producing selection. Annabeth got the part and became Rose Chismore.
Annabeth’s film career started at the top. Not only did she play the lead character who was on screen in all but two scenes, she co-starred with Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home and Runaway Train), Ellen Barkin (Diner and The Big Easy), and JoBeth Williams (The Big Chill). In order to make the film, the young Iowan and her mom received leaves of absence from their schools and in October, 1984, moved to Tucson for ten weeks of filming.
"Desert Bloom was as monumental an experience for me as people might think it would be," Annabeth reflects on that first movie adventure. With her long legs tucked beneath her as she relaxes into the couch, Annabeth explains, "It was such a learning experience in all aspects, from the topic of nuclear testing to alcoholism to child abuse. The people I worked with are truly stars, plus I got to see how movies are made. On top of all that, I had to learn to remember my lines, hit the marks [tape marks on the floor indicating standing positions] and not bump into the furniture!"
What was it like for a young woman to star in a film with the likes of Voight and Barkin? "When you work with someone and work so intensely, you stay close to them. Even if you don’t see each other, there’s still a connection. Jon Voight said it best toward the end of Desert Bloom, when I was upset about not seeing the cast again. He said, 'People always remain in your heart.'"
This kind of close relationship forms rapidly on the set, Annabeth notes, due to the production situation. "Acting is a vulnerable craft – you open yourself up to others," she says. "It’s not like a normal relationship where you can build it. You’re forced into the relationship. It’s a part of your job."
It happened, for example, between Annabeth and Ellen Barkin who played Rose’s Aunt Starr, who comes to town for a Las Vegas divorce. During the filming of Desert Bloom Annabeth said, "Ellen Barkin and I had a very special relationship that was very much like the relationship between Starr and Rose." That relationship remained close and, even recently, Barkin called to see how things were going for Annabeth.
"On all sets you try to create a relationship with the other actors that is like the one your characters have," Annabeth states. Sometimes the actors can’t get close as two people, for the sake of the work. For example, in Desert Bloom Jon Voight played Annabeth’s drunken, abusive stepfather. "On and off the set there was always a certain tension between the two of us that he created on purpose," says Annabeth. "I didn’t know how to act around him when we were off camera; I was nervous and that’s what he wanted."
Annabeth’s relationship with her stage sister, Julia Roberts, in Mystic Pizza became a close friendship between Annabeth and Julia, as close as the sisters in the movie. However, Annabeth recalls, the day they shot the scene where Julia slaps Annabeth, "We couldn’t greet each other or even look at each other. We had to prepare for the feelings we were to have that day."
Relationships form rapidly during six to eleven weeks of filming when the cast and crew work together twelve to fourteen hours a day. These people do remain in an actor’s heart. Annabeth still keeps in touch with her first two directors for the several parts she played in University of Northern Iowa theatre productions. At age nine, she portrayed Gloria, the neighbor girl in Wait Until Dark. Later a UNI Theatre role in Arkansas Bear opened up many possibilities for Annabeth, her mom recalls. Annabeth agrees, "I was given a part by someone who trusted me. When a lot of directors do their casting they don’t want to go out on a limb. It was important to me that Scott Regan [now director of children’s theatre at Bowling Green State University] trusted me – I needed his leadership and guidance." Annabeth still keeps in touch with Regan and her other Northern Iowa director, D. Terry Williams, head of the Department of Theatre at Western Michigan University. She called both of them the night she got the part in Desert Bloom. "Even if you don’t see each other, there’s still a connection," Annabeth says.
For Annabeth, the relationship that keeps life stable, loving and solid is the one she and her parents enjoy. This connection makes it possible to film in Arizona, South Carolina, or British Columbia and return to Iowa and the life she has here.
"When you’re in front of the camera, sometimes it’s easy to forget that this is not the normal way of life," Annabeth muses. "I’m always thankful that I can come home to Iowa and get a grip on reality."
Last winter a friend from the Mystic Pizza cast, Vincent D’Onofrio, visited the Gishes and echoed those thoughts. The native New Yorker got snowed in, but he enjoyed his Midwest stay and told Annabeth he envied the good, wholesome life she could return to.
While Judy and Bob Gish avoid being cast as stereotypical stage parents, they stress that they’ve always been concerned parents – for all of their children. Their oldest, Robin Gish Butzier, teaches gifted and talented children in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and their son, Tim, is a public relations account manager in Chicago.
"Our family has always had a lot of respect for each other," Bob states. "In many instances, we’ve often thought of Annabeth as an adult, and for all of our kids we’ve considered them individuals, not just small possessions of ours." That leads to a parental philosophy that Bob expressed when Annabeth got the Desert Bloom role. "We wanted the kids to find what they wanted to do and then we would help them each achieve their potential."
Annabeth and her parents have learned a lot about dealing with Hollywood. In fact, they now have their own cottage industry of sorts where Bob acts as his daughter’s agent, Judy works as manager and brother Tim lines up publicity opportunities. Annabeth and her parents all sign contracts, read the scripts and Judy supports Annabeth in interviews.
"We’ve been able to do it on our own terms," Judy says. "It’s fun to call a magazine and have them know immediately who Annabeth Gish is!"
The parents’ pride is obvious and a warm addition to Annabeth’s career. "Mom and dad always find a special way to get involved with each movie," Annabeth says. "They aren’t people who sit around and watch."
For Desert Bloom, Judy tutored Annabeth and the other children in the cast, choreographed the children’s dancing and both parents were in a couple of the movie’s scenes. On the Shag set in South Carolina, Bob researched some ideas for Annabeth and his information was used for the film. In Connecticut on the Mystic Pizza set, Judy helped with wardrobe, sorting clothes and getting people into their costumes. In fact she learned the job so quickly that Annabeth jokes, "We’re thinking of putting a line in the next contract that says Judith Gish will do so and so."
Bob admits that he and Judy have enjoyed "watching vicariously as Annabeth steps into show business, because we both had that spark at one time." Bob played guitar and sang in a country music band during his college years, and Judy started dancing at age seven and continued through high school. Recently she and Annabeth took a couple of tap dance classes; Annabeth reports that her mom know all of the steps and outshone the other students – Annabeth included.
The family support eases the gap between movie life and Cedar Falls life for Annabeth. During production, actors live in a hotel and are driven with the rest of the cast to the set each day. There, each actor lives out of a "honey wagon," a mobile-home dressing room. These accommodations are usually Spartan, but Annabeth’s Mystic Pizza honey wagon sported a television, stereo, and microwave. "Your surroundings on the set really are important because you spend a lot of time there, concentrating, thinking through your role, and, in my case, studying for my high school classes," Annabeth explains.
After a typical 6 a.m. call, the actors spend at least their first two hours getting into make-up and costumes. A rehearsal follows with the director, cinematographer and lighting technicians. The actors are then released for several hours while the lights are set. Actors are called back, they shoot the scene six or seven times and then are released again for a meal or another long wait.
On films with larger budgets, actors rehearse two weeks before filming begins. On smaller budget sets, they rehearse as they film. For instance, Annabeth rehearsed two weeks before Shag, learning to dance the shag and perfecting her Southern dialect. The rehearsing paid off when Annabeth’s dancing coach, Kenny Ortega, choreographer of Dirty Dancing fame, called her "one of the top five shaggin’ girls in the shaggin’ world."
"Rehearsing and filming require a grueling schedule and there is a lot of waiting," Annabeth says with a grimace. "But once you’re in front of the camera, the work is intense and your body gets used to it because you want to be there, you want to do well."
Movie life and its relationships present a sharp contrast to Annabeth’s life in Cedar Falls, where she goes to high school at the University laboratory school with some friends she’s known since kindergarten. Alert to the fact that her other life could put a strain on her friendships, Annabeth makes an extra effort to keep everything normal. "The relationships I had with my friends before I made a movie and after that have been sustained in the change," she believes. "Sometimes it is a little hard, but I never wanted movies to separate me from my friends, because friendship is something so sacred to me."
Annabeth’s special friends, Miekka Olson and Jennifer Herold, agree that they each bring a different dimension to the trio. Miekka believes their friendship is based on trust that lets them be very open with each other. They each excel in separate fields, and she feels they don’t compete with each other. "We’ve all adjusted so far to Annabeth or another of us leaving," Miekka says. "Sometimes that has meant giving up something for our friends. I remember in eighth grade when Annabeth got the part in Desert Bloom I cried because I was sad and happy. I didn’t want her to go because I was afraid I’d lose a best friend, but I was glad because I knew that’s what Annabeth wanted."
Being three close friends helps maintain the relationship, says Jennifer. "It means there’s not one person left out. We’ve all changed a lot, especially this year, and we’ve talked out the need to meet other people – we don’t have to spend every minute together. Still Annabeth and I have a lot of similar thoughts and we get into deep discussions. One of the strangest things about seeing Annabeth in the movies is to see her act with some of the same mannerisms that she has in real life. Her laugh in the movies is the same one we hear and it sends us into fits of laughter."
The three friends separated again this summer when Miekka attended a swimming training camp in Madison, Wisconsin. The friends spent a farewell visit at the Village Inn over cups of hot chocolate and a piece of French silk pie – split three ways, of course.
Even though Annabeth thrives on a normal routine and her friends in Iowa, the camera draws her and she misses the acting challenge. On a spring evening when she and her parents took a short walk, the air, the smells, the feeling reminded her of Connecticut where she filmed Mystic Pizza last fall. "I wanted to work in front of the camera again. I know I want to make acting a part of my life forever – it’s a good feeling to work. Even when I read Hamlet and other literature in school, I think into the inside of a character and I get the same kind of feeling. It’s a fulfillment that algebra doesn’t give me," the teenager says with a grin.
But, her mother points out, "It’s a harsh life to be an actress in films. There are not many good roles for women, and it’s very competitive." For some, Judy explains, that harsh life means going daily, hourly to reading after reading. "It’s painful to go into a reading and be one of six or seven girls every fifteen minutes. We’ve been selective in the roles and we go to readings only when the script is very good and we’re interested. This is unique because Annabeth is barely seventeen, but she’s not out pounding on doors."
Annabeth does not want that kind of door-pounding life for herself. She has also learned in auditions "there are a lot of fish who look and talk like I do. I always remember that I’m not that special."
Directors and producers, however, say there is much that is unusual and special about this young woman who’s making it in the movie business without compromising the rest of her life. Her present agent, Triad Agency, sends scripts in spurts and the Gishes read an average of two a month. Too, Annabeth is known well enough that directors call her personally to come to readings.
She’s played serious roles, comic roles, and would consider doing a western. Her dad explains that it’s not the type of role that’s important, but rather that the film have some substance, artistically and socially. Judy Gish adds, "We’re looking for roles that depict women strongly and intelligently."
Even during her first film, Annabeth realized that acting was not like a high school course with a final exam and an ending. “"on Voight at forty-seven is still trying new techniques, new materials. I have so much to learn," the actress observes. "It’s an art that has to be nurtured, fed, studied – you have to read, listen to music, watch people. When I go to college, I don’t think I’ll major in theatre because I want to be well-read, well-rounded – theatre can be so all-consuming."
When asked about her future, Annabeth quotes her Desert Bloom friend, Ellen Barkin, who says, "I don’t look any farther ahead than the next shopping day." In the movie business, Annabeth restates, you can’t set goals because things change so fast. "For now, I want to finish high school and do well, and ideally, balance my two worlds."
Like the playbills advertising Mystic Pizza, Annabeth is a teenager on the threshold of life. "Sometimes it’s hard to know who I am – I do become confused," she admits. To help sort through her feelings, she keeps a journal in six notebooks and sometimes just jots comments to herself on scraps of paper. "I need time to absorb what’s happening to me. Writing it down is a good way to learn about myself."
In her films, Annabeth has opened herself to new experiences and shared that process with her audience. She shows all shades of personality and vulnerability when she steps behind the camera. "In acting, you take a lot of risks and chances. But, when you step back from it, you think what you did was good. If I can learn something and share it, I hope to convey that to the audience. You have to reach out to people."