THE DISH ON GISH (April 1990)

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

Annabeth Gish proves you don't have to be from Hollywood to be a film star.

"Sometimes people will come up to me," says Annabeth Gish, and ask, 'You didn’t really do it with Billy Moses in Mystic Pizza, did you?' And that’s something that still haunts me – the distinction I always have to make between the me on-screen and the me in real life."

Annabeth Gish, who’s quickly becoming Hollywood’s quintessential girl-next-door, made her acting debut in her hometown of Cedar Falls, Iowa, as a swamp creature in a school play when she was in the third grade. When she was 13, she beat out 600 other hopefuls to land her first film role in 1985 -- starring with Jon Voight and Ellen Barkin – in Desert Bloom. Shortly after the movie’s release, she wrote a letter to Lillian Gish – who’s not a relative – asking for professional advice. Gish told her namesake that acting can be a difficult profession but "If you love it, you’ll tough it out."

At 19, Gish seems to be toughing it out successfully. In 1987, she played Jon Cryer’s clean-cut high-school sweetheart in Hiding Out; the next year, in Mystic Pizza, she was the brainy baby-sitter; in ’89, she starred as the nicer-than-nice dance contestant in Shag; and last fall, she was a victim of date rape in the TV movie, When He’s Not a Stranger. All her roles have required an almost old-fashioned sweetness; and she plays them with ease.

No wonder it’s hard to believe that beneath her goody-two-shoes demeanor and girlish smile, Gish might be downright hip. She’s a surprisingly stylish dresser (not an article of preppie attire in sight); she mouths off about Paula Abdul’s 'large behind' in videos (Gish is positively svelte); and sings along to the dance tune 'You Dropped a Bomb on Me, Baby' though she’d really rather listen to the B-52s’s Cosmic Thing.

Okay, so maybe her father does accompany her on publicity trips. But she’s not embarrassed about it. "It’s sometimes hard for people to believe it, but I want my parents involved," she says. "You have to protect yourself, and as far as I can see, why shouldn’t I surround myself with the people who care about me the most?"

In her new film, Coupe De Ville, Gish finally gets to break out of her straightlaced stereotype and show a little more sophistication. Set in the early ‘60s, like several of Gish’s movies ("I’m sooo sick of teased hair and pale lipstick," she complains), the comic drama stars Patrick Dempsey, Daniel Stern, and Arye Gross as three estranged brothers who drive a vintage Cadillac across the country to their ailing father. Gish, who plays Gross’s college girlfriend and doesn’t actually appear onscreen until an hour into the movie, portrays a glamorous but racy coed, a part that 30 years ago might have gone to Grace Kelly.

This month, Gish completes her freshman year at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Adjusting to the new pressures – academic and personal – of college is hard enough, but Gish’s career has made it even more stressful. Like this time last October when she was wandering around her dorm and discovered that practically everyone was watching her get raped on TV. "I was nervous because that was a pretty bare-all role," says Gish. "Then a few girls came up to me afterward and said it had happened to someone they knew."

One advantage Gish has at school that Yale graduate Jodie Foster and Princeton alum Brooke Shields didn’t is that she’s not as recognizable – despite the success of the sleeper Mystic Pizza. "It’s an interesting dilemma," says Gish. "Because when people who don’t know you ask, 'What did you do last summer?' you don’t just drop things like, 'Oh, I made a movie.' So you’re constantly trying to scope out the situation and figure out how much you can say without bragging."

Then there’s the problem of dealing with students who assume she must be stuck-up because she’s a successful actress. "I can only be who I am," says Gish, "and not apologize for what I’ve done. But the great thing about Duke is that people are from all over and have their own experiences. I just hope mine won’t separate me to the point where they’ll exclude me, which so far hasn’t happened. I’ve been really lucky. But you have to be on guard. You always have to watch your back."

With both parents in education – her father is a professor of English literature at the University of Northern Iowa and her mother teaches elementary school – Gish always assumed she’d go to college even though it would mean scaling back her movie availability to just holidays and summer vacations. Thanks to a 3.8 high school grade-point average, she got a scholarship and had her pick of top-ranked colleges. "I chose Duke because of their theory of including acting as a major part of a liberal-arts education instead of as a separate entity. I like North Carolina. So it all came together."

But being in Durham has meant missing out on most Hollywood auditions. "I’m sure when I graduated from high school, my agent thought, 'Great! Now she’ll move to Hollywood.' And then I dropped the bomb," she says, laughing. "But then I’ve always presented a problem to so many people just because I tried to have a career while living in Iowa."

Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange don’t live in L.A. either – a separation of professional and personal life that may add depth to the characters they play. Gish, too, hopes that by interacting with other people and learning about their experiences, she’ll have a wider frame of reference when preparing for a role. And if a star spends time away from Hollywood, there’s less chance of becoming old news.

Though passionate about continuing to make movies, Gish also intends to concentrate on becoming a liberal-arts major. As for her next movie, nothing’s confirmed though there is talk of a Mystic Pizza sequel. (After the original, she got letters from older men asking for her baby-sitting rates.) Even if it takes her five years to get through Duke, and if good roles threaten to disrupt her well-laid plans to finish college, Annabeth Gish will take it in stride. 'I think I’m at an exciting place right now," she says. "There are a lot of different directions I can go in. But I want to move slowly and make the right decisions."
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