STEEL FEMME (September 1997)
Ironisides Fatale - Gish plays a lethal wheelchair-bound beauty opposite Shaquille O'Neal's Steel.
"My character Sparky is kind of a bad ass in a wheelchair." That is how Annabeth Gish (Wyatt Earp) describes her role in Steel, the super hero movie from Warner Brothers which opens August 8th. Gish plays Lt. Sparks (aka Sparky), a friend and co-worker of John Henry Irons (aka Steel). In the beginning of the film, Sparky is paralyzed in a military weapons testing experiment. She has a hard time adjusting to her new situation but, in the end, joins Steel to help get those weapons off the street. Gish took her role seriously and spent time studying for the part. "I was with a woman who has lived with paralysis and has overcome it. She worked with me for two weeks prior to filming. It was an incredibly intense experience. She became a role model for me."
Playing a character in a wheelchair didn’t just mean not using her legs. "In one scene I fall out of a wheelchair and then have to get back up. I had to develop my upper body strength to do those maneuvers. The consultant showed me basically what it was like and how I could make it appear that my legs had no feeling."
Being in the wheelchair had other challenges as well. One particular challenge lead to some light moments on the set. Reports Gish, "Trying to maneuver the wheelchair around the set wasn’t easy. I had to be very careful about Shaquille’s toes. One time I came close to them and Shaq said to me, 'I’m going to have the owner of the [Los Angeles] Lakers calling you!' I could just see the headline, 'Annabeth Gish sued for running over Shaquille O'Neal’s toes!'"
Working with the NBA superstar was a pleasant experience for Gish. "Shaq was very collaborative. If he didn’t understand something he wasn’t afraid to ask about it. He knows his forte is on the basketball court, but he has a desire and ambition for being on screen too. I think he has a talent for it also." She enjoyed working with her other major co-star, Richard Roundtree, as well. "Talk about legends! I had Shaq and Shaft! Richard Roundtree is a great guy. He was very calming to be around and to work with."
Sparky is an electronics whiz and uses all kinds of advanced technology to help her super hero friend. Many of Gish’s scenes in Steel called for her to be in the master control room acting as Steel's eyes and ears. This presented some acting challenges for Gish. "It was hard to act with a computer screen as your partner or with all those gadgets." Director/writer Kenneth Johnson was a great help to Gish during the technical scenes. "His energy level day after day was consistently high. He was very helpful when I only had the computers and didn’t have any of the actors to play off of."
While the actress states that she is not a big science fiction fan, she certainly does know good science fiction when she sees it. "I saw Ken’s Alien Nation TV series and was very impressed. He has a great love for filmmaking too, and it is infectious."
Gish appreciates the creative qualities of her character. Like any good actress, she describes them almost as if her character was real. "I become very cool at the end of the film. I design weapons to attach to my wheelchair and get to save us and blow stuff up. The scene where I get to fire my lasers was really fun."
As with many movies nowadays, there are several commercial tie-ins planned for Steel. One of them involves action figures. Her character, Sparky, will be one of the first action figures produced which spotlights a handicapped person. "I feel honored and think it is wonderful," says Gish.
While she enjoyed filming the scenes where she gets to blow stuff up, Gish has another scene which is even more important to her. It involves a dramatic scene where Sparky falls out of her wheelchair and must get back up by herself. "John Henry sees it and she knows he sees it. He makes me get up on my own, though. It is a very poignant scene, and it is really meaningful in the development of my character."
Asked about her involvement in possible sequels, Gish replies with excitement, "Who wouldn’t like the idea of doing a movie with Shaq? I’d definitely return to the role."