MISS AMERICAN PIE (October 1989)

Always cast as the girl next door, Iowa's Annabeth Gish is the real thing

There must be something about Annabeth Gish that screams to casting directors: "Iím perfect as the nice girl with the winning smile and a warm heart." There was her role as the clean-cut high schoolette who captured Jon Cryerís eye in Hiding Out, the endearing babysitter with a crush on an older man in Mystic Pizza, and the straitlaced Southern belle nicknamed Pudge in Shag. While playing one girl-next-door role after another is "definitely an issue in my career," admits the 18-year-old, "Iíd rather say that Iíve played good, likable, wholesome roles than the cheesecakey, teenager, cheerleader types."

Fair enough, but maybe thereís a reason those casting directors see Gishís face when they look up wholesome in the dictionary. After all, she has lived most of her life in a town that sounds like a Norman Rockwell backdrop: Cedar Falls, Iowa, population 36,322. "I have proven that you donít have to live in Los Angeles to have a film career," Gish says proudly.

The statuesque brunette has also proven she can act, and is proud of her role as a date-rape victim in When Heís Not a Stranger, a CBS movie airing October 17. "This is a very difficult part because itís threatening to feel that vulnerable," she explains. "Itís hard when I go home, because nearly every day Iíve had to live it [the rape] Ė its side effects, the tears. But itís making me a stronger actress."

Playing such a highly charged character has taken its toll physically. "I had to do a scene where Iím extremely upset, and I pound on a wall," she says, extending her bruised hand for inspection. "I thought Iíd broken it."

While Gishís role in the telefilm is perhaps more dramatic than previous ones, When Heís Not a Stranger writer/director John Gray had no doubts that Gish could handle it. "Besides being a first-rate actress," he says, "sheís accessible. Annabeth is genuine and you relate to her instantly."

Gish made her theatrical debut Ė albeit in the third grade Ė "as a swamp creature in a play called 'Wiley and the Hairyman,'"she says, with a laugh. "My mother [an elementary school teacher] was in the play with me." From this stellar beginning, Gish moved on to roles in productions staged at the University of Northern Iowa, where her father teaches English. Her film debut came at age 14 in Desert Bloom, the 1986 critically acclaimed nuclear-age drama, which also starred Jon Voight, Ellen Barkin and JoBeth Williams. "Ellen and Jon and JoBeth gave me such guidance," she says. "They kind of set me on the trail for my career." Gishís next project is Coupe de Ville, a comedy with Patrick Dempsey and Alan Arkin, due out early next year.

As for her biggest hit, Mystic Pizza, Gish says the experience was a piece of pie, though not as tasty as one might think. "The real Mystic Pizza parlor in Connecticut isnít really very good at all," she reveals. "I think we used Dominoís Pizza for the stuff we ate."

Most young actresses lucky enough to be working as steadily as Gish would probably make a beeline for New York or L.A. after high school. But with her bookish background Ė she reads classic literature suggested by her dad Ė it seems fitting that Gish is currently playing the real-life role as freshman at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. "I need to sort of enhance my abilities," she explains. "I mean, I have so much to learn, and even for the college experience of living in a dorm, meeting new people and being on a campus Ė I think itís a definite advantage to have." Serious as she is about her studies, it may take more than the usual four years for Gish to graduate: "Iím going on a semester-to-semester basis, so Iíll take [acting] projects as they come."

Though she is not related to the famed American actress Lillian Gish, Annabeth once wrote the elder Gish a fan letter. The reply was discouraging. "It was wonderful of her to have taken the time to write," she recollects. "But Lillian said that acting can be a harsh kind of living and that there is a lot of talent and not enough work."

"Iíve found this to be true," Gish admits. "Acting is a harsh way of living, but itís also exhilarating, and it has given me a breadth of experience that Iím really thankful for."

No one could say it more wholesomely.
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