In Cedar Falls, Iowa - halfway across the country from Hollywood - lives a recent high school graduate with the perfect name for an actress: Annabeth Gish.

She shares the last name of one of the cinema's greatest stars, Lillian Gish, and decided quickly on a career in movies. But walking the streets, she feels pretty much like any other resident, even if some have not forgotten last year's Mystic Pizza, in which Gish plays a baby sitter who falls in love with the child's father.

"I was baby-sitting for this family at the time," she recalls.

"They saw this movie and thought, 'uh, oh.' I got a lot of razzing about that. When you're in a high school environment and people are seeing you play an older character having more mature things happen, it's pretty confusing."

After her latest movie, Shag: The Movie, Iowans may be tempted to award blue ribbons and break into dance upon spotting Gish. The actress plays Pudge Carmichael, one of four high school senior girls in 1963 who sneak off to Myrtle Beach, S.C., in search of a last adventure before going off to college and the "real" world.

The film's title comes from a popular dance that Pudge masters.

"I read the script and just fell in love with the liveliness," Gish said in an interview. "I wanted to be a part of it, and did a lot of background on the Shag because I had never heard of it. It's a very big deal down in Myrtle Beach and it kept getting more and more fascinating."

Gish's brief career in show business has also been far from Hollywood. Desert Bloom, her film debut, was made in Tucson, Ariz., while Mystic, Conn., was the setting for Mystic Pizza.

Shag was primarily filmed in Myrtle Beach.

"I went down a little bit earlier and had the luxury of learning from some authentic shaggers," said Gish, a proud member of the Shag Hall of Fame. "It was a different experience for them. I think they were a little bit wary of what this Hollywood movie company was going to represent their dance as."

The cast includes several relatives of Hollywood stars: Bridget Fonda is the daughter of Peter Fonda and niece of Jane Fonda; Tyrone Power Jr. is the late actor's son; Page Hannah is Daryl Hannah's sister; Carrie Hamilton is the daughter of Carol Burnett.

But Gish is not related to Lillian Gish and set out to be an actress before even knowing the significance of her last name.

"When I was in first grade I went to the Halloween parade as a movie star. When I was in third grade, I wrote that when I grow up I would like to be an actress in the movies. I was very into watching movies. I really enjoyed reading aloud, performing."

By the time the aspiring actress turned 13, she was fully aware of her namesake and wrote for advice.

"She discouraged me from getting involved in the business. She said there was too much talent and not enough work and it was better to stay in an environment where you were loved and cared for."

But the young Gish had her mind made up. She had been acting in community theater since age 8 and fell in love with movies, especially the Cary Grant - Katharine Hepburn screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby, and Lillian Gish's silent classic The Wind.

"I think Katharine Hepburn was great, being a strong, individualized woman, playing these great characters," she said.

Gish's stage debut, however, was more humble.

"My first play was called 'Wylie and the Hairyman,'" she recalled. "My mom was the Hairyman and I was the swamp. I wore tie-dyed long johns, but it was fun. I got to gurgle and bubble."

She was soon playing real people and, in 1986, starred as the perceptive stepdaughter of an alcoholic (Jon Voight) in Desert Bloom.

"Having that as my first experience was really a blessing," said Gish. "It kind of set my path in the right direction. When you're surrounded by people who are passionate about their work, it made all the difference."

She followed with Hiding Out, and appeared on television in Hero in the Family, and ABC Disney Sunday Night Movie. Last year, Gish stayed in Cedar Falls, finishing her high school education. This fall, instead of heading for the West Coast, she will begin classes at Duke University.

"I've strived to maintain some normalcy in my life, some groundedness," Gish said.
7thSky Design Studio