Us Magazine - October 1, 1990, Pages 46-48

Nobody's Girlfriend
Written by Betsy Israel

6:00 p.m. in a Manhattan theater-district cafe, and Mary Stuart Masterson, two steps ahead of the maitre d', is so sorry to be late. She's sorry, too, for changing our meeting place twice, but her husband got seats for Grand Hotel, and she just `loves` the director, Tommy Tune, who went to high school in Texas with her mother. And anyway, she loves this restaurant -- the Edith Piaf songs, the Westchester ladies at the next table, fresh from buying theater tickets at discount. She unfurls a napkin, tears at a hunk of bread, and smiles -- all fine blonde hair and fair skin, a sort of ivory girl on speed.

You have to be quick, even sitting still, to keep up with Mary Stuart. ("It's always Mary Stuart -- a southern thing," she explains. "Also, it's how I tell if a person on the phone actually knows me.") Occupying a niche at the brainier end of the Brat Pack spectrum, Masterson, 24, has been "absurdly busy" since her turn as the drummer/tomboy in Some Kind of Wonderful back in 1987 -- and even more frenzied since playing the pregnant teenager last autumn in Immediate Family. She has just today flown in from Texas, where she'll be living while her new husband -- a friend from childhood summers on the Texas coast -- completes his MBA. Tomorrow, rehearsals start for Arthur Hiller's romantic comedy, Married To It, in which she costars with Beau Bridges and Cybill Shepherd. A pile of scripts ("I read everything, no matter what") awaits her, and she is "still coming down" from her "enormous" May wedding and her latest film, Funny About Love, the Gene Wilder comedy due out later this month.

"I always wanted to work with Gene," she says, her hand gestures so mimelike, so precise the waiter thinks that she wants him. "Gene, unlike so many comedians, doesn't just play for the joke. He relies on character. He understands that it's more intelligent to let the comedy arise from the situation." Maybe so, but the Funny About Love shoot was far from all cerebral bonhomie. It was, in fact, plagued by what Masterson calls endless "misunderstandings" about nude scenes.

"I thought we'd be talking about the nudity as we went along, working through my problems with it," she says. "I mean, I never thought that Showing Your Boobs would be, like, a Deal Point. But by the time we got to the set, my reluctance had been identified as a `problem` -- so the confidence and trust you need to have in your director wasn't there. And we just disagreed so profoundly! I mean, Leonard [Nimoy, the director] and the producers thought the nudity was essential. To me, yes, the man would obviously see my character naked. But the audience would not. I understand that that's a director decision, his judgment call. But it's my body!"

Mary Stuart stops, sits up very straight in her chair, suggesting the Dalton School A-student she was just six years back. "Don't misunderstand. I don't want to insult anyone because, really, these people were all `wonderful` and doing what they thought was best. And that's all anyone can do: Ask themselves, were the choices made in this role both artistically and pragmatically sound? Those are the essential questions. And I feel -- no matter what -- that I can in this case answer positively."

Mary Stuart Masterson first asked such ponderous questions at around the time she first asked for an allowance. Her parents are actor/director Peter Masterson (The Trip To Bountiful) and actress Carlin Glynn (who starred in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas on Broadway). The Masterson kids -- Mary Stuart, an older sister (now a caterer), and a younger brother (now in college) -- grew up "meeting actors, listening to them talk about work. We knew what it was like to be on the stage, backstage and unfairly kept off the stage. Acting was the given. It wasn't glamorized but seen as a job that you worked hard at."

That was the attitude Mary Stuart, all of age 8, brought to her first role in The Stepford Wives. "My father was in it and I just played his daughter -- and very professionally. Even if, by the end, I had kind of convinced myself that Katharine Ross was my mother." After that, she says, "the acting instinct" retreated to "a latent state" while she pursued "typical West Side city things" -- private-school scholarships, modern dancing, and her family's "ongoing basketball obsession." Every now and then she "got back into it" by acting in school plays and, once, doing a small part in a Broadway production of Alice in Wonderland. Then, after a summer spent at the Sundance Institute, she was signed by her mother's agent and sent up for a part opposite Andrew McCarthy in Heaven Help Us.

"And that's
what I did my senior year at school," she says with a laugh that breaks out into a girlish giggle. "Missing so much school, you know, I looked forward to college." But her college career at NYU lasted one semester. "I couldn't stand the 101 courses. No way! I wanted to get to the good stuff."

She got it surprisingly fast: First with her role as Sean Penn's girlfriend in At Close Range, a film experience she describes as "dark, intense, totally bizarre from the start. Like, for example, they wouldn't audition me. They kept meeting me, taking me to dinner, lunch, dinner. I couldn't eat one more meal with these people, I was so anxious to read! But they were content just to watch me, to see what I did in really basic situations. It took me a while to understand I was being cast on instinct."

She had another "inevitable girlfriend-appendage" role in Francis Coppola's Gardens of Stone, a Vietnam-era drama for which she immersed herself in Sixties culture, "including intense scrutiny of the
1964 Harper's Bazaar guide for young marrieds." But her efforts, she felt, were downplayed in the final cut. "The audience-response cards at the test screenings indicated that viewers wanted `softer` female characters -- so all the line
readings were changed in the looping. If you want to see my performance, watch the film with the sound turned down."

She followed this with several plays, the "more satisfying" Some Kind of Wonderful and the reincarnation comedy Chances Are ("Like everyone in the audience, I had a problem with the fact that the film lacked all logic"). But of all her roles, she seems most proud of Lucy Moore, the pregnant girl who surrenders her baby for adoption in Immediate Family. "I created that character down to her horrible clothing. I found the white vinyl boots lying out on Sixth Avenue, worked out all the Spandex stuff and used my own leather jacket in a certain way."

She stops and smiles: The waiter has come over with a glass of Chardonnay and with her husband, a tall young businessman
who is working as an intern at PaineWebber. "We don't give out his name," says Mary Stuart, placing a hand over the tape recorder. "It's my only chance for an alias." She giggles. He laughs. Together they order endive and goat cheese salads and launch a "how was your day, dear" discussion that segues into a quick review of ours. Mary Stuart urges her husband to be part of the interview.

"What," she asks, leaning forward, elbows in bread crumbs, "is your favorite of the the Mary Stuart woman/child roles?"

The president of the Mary Stuart fan club looks like he'd rather be out driving in traffic. "I try not to get too carried away with all that," he says, laughing quietly, though he admits to once seeing a trailer for Chances Are while on a date with someone else. And he did see Immediate Family opening night in Manhattan. "I went by myself because she was out of town. First time I'd ever done that. First time I ever cried in a movie. But she was just really moving." He smiles at her. She smiles back. Both remember that there's an interviewer present, that there's a theater curtain about to rise and that she has yet to answer "the obligatory, you know, What's Next question."

"I'd consider anything," she says, studying the Westchester ladies as if cribbing their middle-aged mannerisms. "Anything so long as it's not the Girlfriend, the female tagalong. It gets so unbelievably boring. Plus it means that he" -- she nods at her husband -- "has to see me up there with someone else."

And to see you, uh, naked? "Oh, he's fine about that," she says, fidgeting in her seat. "I was the one who had the moral objection. But the way I look at it, I get to play a scene [in Funny About Love] with Patrick Ewing! In my family that's like playing opposite God. So, a little nudity, like, no problem."

"Right," says her husband, rolling his eyes.

"Hey," says Mary Stuart. "Some of us do have standards."