12/07/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
FOR HER MALCOLM X AUDITION WITH SPIKE Lee last winter, Debi Mazar donned a blond wig, painted on a vintage 1940s face, climbed into platform shoes—and cinched the part of Peg, the girlfriend of Malcolm's crony Shorty. "I figured Spike would like to see what the character would look like the minute I walked in the door," says Mazar, 28. "It was a great audition."
And one that came naturally to this former hairstylist and makeup artist who has captivated Hollywood with her crooked smile, Brooklyn-bred bravado and Joan Crawford eyebrows. ("I've always liked an expressive eyebrow," she says.) In her four-year acting career, Mazar has had memorable turns as Ray Liotta's coked-up girlfriend in GoodFellas, Annabella Sciorra's Brooklyn buddy in Jungle Fever and Jodie Foster's best friend in Little Man Tate. "No part too small!" she announces with a laugh.
Now, Mazar's juicy role as Denise, the big-haired legal secretary on ABC's Civil Wars, is giving her more screen time to prove that her allure runs deeper than cosmetics. "She has an actor's ability to be real and a star's ability to jump off the screen," says the show's creator and executive producer, Bill Finkelstein.
Mazar's streetwise edge comes honestly. Her mother, Nancy Cannizzaro, who now teaches the martial art of tae kwon do in Orlando, was only 15 when Debi was born in Queens, N.Y. Separated from then short-order cook Harry Mazar when Debi was a year old, Cannizzaro moved around the city a lot and remarried three times, giving Debi three hall-siblings. Money was scarce. A self-described "wild child," the rebellious Mazar went out on her own at 15, bunking with friends in Manhattan. "It was a great time," remembers Debi, who dropped out of high school. "I hung out in the gay scene 'cause the music was better." She worked as a waitress, a dental assistant and a door guard at Manhattan's Mudd Club, but eventually the party wound down. "I was tired of being awake all night and feeling like crap the next day," she says.
So she went to beauty school, which led to freelance styling jobs for such magazines as Vogue, as well as work at salons. "I gave Andy Warhol a haircut twice," she says. "We never discussed that it was a rug I was cutting." Her most famous makeup canvas, though, was Madonna
, a friend from the club scene with whom Mazar is still close.
"Lots of the looks that Madonna
made famous Debi created on herself first." says fellow New York downtowner Fab 5 Freddy of Yo! MTV Raps. "They were like little girls playing dress-up." Madonna
asked Debi to do her makeup for the 1988 Broadway play Speed-the-Plow, and it was that backstage experience that prompted Mazar to take acting lessons. "I fell in love with it," she says.
With forthcoming roles in Toys (with Robin Williams) and I Married an Axe Murderer (with Mike Myers), Mazar is pushing closer to the big parts she covets. But she refuses to cop a movie-star attitude. She even turned down priority treatment at her New York check-cashing place recently. "The guy knew I was in movies," she says. "He's telling me to go in front of all these big construction workers and stuff. I said, 'No, I wait on line like everybody else.' "
Still, since relocating to the West Coast last year, Mazar is adapting to a California way of life in a rented West Hollywood house complete with yard and garden. There's no romance at the moment, but she says she'd be open to "a nice healthy relationship."
For good measure, though, Mazar keeps an apartment—and a piece of herself—in Brooklyn. "Thai's where I get a lot of my edge—from living the life I led," she says. "I always want to feel like a neighborhood girl."
LEAH FELDON-MITCHELL in Los Angeles