A Teen's First Kiss With Fame : Actress Heather Matarazzo Looks to Future After Raves for 'Dollhouse'

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Actress Heather Matarazzo may have seemed like an ugly duckling when she shot Todd Solondz's critically acclaimed film "Welcome to the Dollhouse," but she's certainly a swan now.

The story of an awkward 11-year-old girl lurching from childhood to adolescence, the film, which opened Friday, pivots on Matarazzo's remarkable performance as the lonely, persecuted Dawn Wiener. Garnering almost universal praise from critics, Matarazzo is so convincing in the part one assumes she must have a lot in common with her character.

In fact, Matarazzo is a buoyant, self-confident 13-year-old who's not remotely like the film's beleaguered heroine. "Everyone relates to Dawn because who doesn't get picked on when they're growing up? It's happened to me and I've seen kids be incredibly mean. This film is [like] a G-rated version of junior high," says Matarazzo of the film, which is R-rated.

In Los Angeles with her mother for a 24-hour flurry of meetings with the press, Matarazzo has a nasty cold that's a result of going on all the water rides at a New Jersey amusement park. She sounds as if she ought to be in bed but is nonetheless eager to extend her first visit to L.A. and do some sightseeing. Alas, she must rush back to New York for school, solemnly vowing that "education is my No. 1 priority."

Born and raised in Long Island, the youngest in a family of three children (her brothers are considerably older), Matarazzo attends public school, loves sports and has surprisingly sophisticated taste in music. "I love Janis Joplin, Hole, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails and Patti Smith--I have a poster of her up in my room," says the actress, whose father works for Entenmann's Bakery.

As to how she made the leap from Long Island to movie screens in L.A., Matarazzo says: "When I was 7, I did an AIDS benefit concert for my dance school that my manager, Carolyn Anthony, saw. I was a weird-looking kid with braids, screwed-up teeth and a really high voice, but she took an interest in me and started sending me on auditions. The following year, I was cast in 'A Children's Story,' an NYU short about a little girl who's sexually abused by her father, then in 1993 I played Helen Keller in a production of 'The Miracle Worker' presented at the Geva Theater in Rochester. During the run of the play I was asked to audition for Todd's movie and I guess he liked what I did."

Solondz recalls that, "When I saw Heather's audition, it was immediately evident she had an intuitive grasp of performing for the camera and that she understood the loneliness and suffering this girl was experiencing. She also struck me as a beautiful child with an unusual look. In fact, my only reservation in casting her had to do with the fact that from some angles she looked too beautiful and I knew the story wouldn't be believable if she were too beautiful.

"But because Heather's such a skilled actress, she transcended that and she brought a resilience to the character that wasn't there in the script," the 36-year-old director adds. "Without that resilience, Dawn would be just too sad and pathetic and that resilience is Heather's greatest gift to the film."

Matarazzo is more ambivalent about her contribution. "When we were shooting I had no idea how I was doing, then when I saw the film I thought, 'Oh my God, I could've done so much better,' " says the modest teenager, who's never taken an acting class and says she has no plans to do so in the near future.

Shot for less than $1 million during the summer of 1994 in West Caldwell, N.J., "Welcome to the Dollhouse" is a film about but not necessarily for children; it was given an R rating primarily because of language and sexual content. That left Matarazzo unfazed, however, so it is not surprising to learn she has what might be described as advanced taste in film.

"I loved 'GoodFellas' and 'Casino'--Sharon Stone is one of my favorite actresses," she says. "She started out in 'Basic Instinct' and was classified as a tramp but she's risen above that, and to make that leap is completely impressive."

This comment prompts a question as to whether working as an actress is making her grow up abnormally fast. "Probably, because I spend an unusual amount of time with adults," says Matarazzo, who gets her first screen kiss in "Dollhouse." Of that, she says "it didn't make me nervous because it's just acting. It wasn't like, 'Oh my God, he kissed me--I think he likes me!' "

As to whether she has an off-screen boyfriend, she says, "No, I don't think I need one because the guys in my school are so immature. I had one but he turned out to be completely annoying. . . . We went out for three weeks, then he asked me to go steady! I said, 'Hey, slow down--I'm only 11!' "

Matarazzo may not be ready for romance but she's definitely ready for show business and is keeping her fingers crossed that the release of "Dollhouse" will lead to more work.

"I want to move to L.A. but I don't know how keen my parents are on the idea," says Matarazzo, who's also written two screenplays--one inspired by a song by Hole, the other the story of a man who has AIDS. "If I don't do a film this summer, I'd like to go to New Zealand because two TV shows I like are shot there. The land there is so green and everything looks so old--it seems like a country of warlords and kings and I just love that. I want to go to Europe, too--I've never been out of the United States."

One would assume Matarazzo might find the tumultuous turn her life is taking with this film a bit unsettling and she admits, "The idea of being famous is overwhelming and frightens me a little. I'm happy I've gotten this opportunity, but I'm not used to this kind of attention. Hopefully, I'll be able to handle it."

Solondz, for one, has no doubt that she can. "Heather always understood the distinction between herself and the character and she had fun with the part. She was a delight to work with, too. She would've shot 18 hours a day if her mother had let her, and her spirit made an arduous shoot much more bearable.

"Needless to say, this is a heady experience--it's heady for me and I'm not 13 years old," he adds. "But I'm not worried about Heather because she's an extraordinarily grounded and sensible girl."

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