Finding Dignity in a Pregnant Teen, Mary Stuart Masterson Waits to Be Discovered—Again

updated 11/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Mary Stuart Masterson—and please, use the full name, "it's a Southern thing," she explains—is buttering muffins in her Connecticut kitchen. Eagerly she shows off her stove, which when taken apart can serve as a grill. Luggage and laundry are scattered across the floors of the sparsely furnished, two-story Cape house she bought last spring. Only a framed movie poster, tucked in a den corner, gives one a clue that the owner is not a preternaturally successful 23-year-old but a star just beginning to rise.

The contrast to her current screen character could not be more complete. In Immediate Family, Mary Stuart plays the forlornly pregnant, emotionally abandoned teen, Lucy Moore, who solicits a childless middle-class couple (Glenn Close and James Woods) to provide a home for her baby. To get the look, Mary Stuart strapped on a "pregnancy pad with an eight-pound birdseed sack so that it would be firm and heavy." To get the feeling, "I used the image of a dog my family had gotten years ago when she was pregnant and abused. She had this physical way of being that gave me something for Lucy." The result is a performance that all but steals the movie from her formidable co-stars, making Masterson the center of the film's Oscar buzz.

She should be used to the critical commotion. In the 1985 teen comedy Heaven Help Us, she swaggered through Brooklyn as the streetwise soda jerk Danni. A quick change of psychology and she was sinking into the dark and dangerous terrain of Sean Perm's At Close Range (1986). Then another upbeat swing, toward the part of a noble tomboy in Some Kind of Wonderful (1987). "It seems I keep getting discovered," says the actress matter-of-factly.

It happened the first time when she was just 8. The middle of three children of writer-actor-director Peter Masterson (he co-wrote and co-directed The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) and actress Carlin Glynn (who won a Tony playing Whore-house madam Miss Mona), Masterson made her film debut opposite her father in 1975's The Stepford Wives. Although the movie wasn't always a pleasant experience (at one point she so identified with her movie role that she got upset when she had to leave her screen mother, Katharine Ross), Masterson was hooked. "I was more gung ho than my parents about my acting," she says.

Her parents' own experience gave them pause. "I've worked with a lot of children who were damaged by acting," says Glynn. "Yet when someone is as talented as Mary Stuart, it would be criminal to stop them." There were limits, though. In the late '70s, Masterson was offered an Exorcist-style role. "Mary Stuart read the scene with her father in the living room," Glynn recalls, "and in the scene the kid starts screaming, so Mary Stuart started to scream. Her older sister, Lexie, came running and said, 'Mommy, don't let her do that, please.' " Glynn didn't have to put her foot down. "Mary Stuart looked at me and said, 'Mama, why don't they make movies like Judy Garland used to do?' That put that one to bed."

Concerned that Mary Stuart receive a good education, the Master-sons, who met and married in their native Houston and moved to New York City in 1967, enrolled her in Manhattan's private Dalton School. She maintained a mostly A average through high school while performing in TV and Broadway productions. "Living in New York allowed me to be as creative and weird as possible," she says. The creativity extended to her clothing: "I wore gauze skirts, different colored bobby socks, cut-off sweatshirts, high tops and, underneath it all, boxer shorts."

Her "crazy time," however, came shortly after Heaven Help Us finished filming. At 18, she enrolled in New York University, and later she moved into her own apartment. "But midway through the first semester," she says, "I had to ask myself what I was doing. I was just in this weird head. I was unhappy in general and totally confused, and it was probably the low point of my life."

With some counseling, Masterson overcame her depression. "The problem was, I felt the romances I had been in were really bad," she says. "I won't name names, but people that you were working with would break your heart on purpose. It was just stupid to get involved with them in the first place."

Her heart now belongs to a University of Texas MBA student whom Masterson met when they were both 14 and she was visiting her parents' Houston-based families. "He was my first love," she says. The couple got back together this summer, and now Masterson spends more time in Texas than in her brand-new home. "He's terrific," she says. "It's like we're going fishing and we don't have to talk about acting."

When she's not working or romancing, Masterson writes papers for a degree program she's pursuing in absentia from Vermont's Goddard College. She's also searching for a non-teen role. "After a while you don't want to go to the prom one more time," she says. Immediate Family director Jonathan Kaplan doesn't think she'll have to. "All the brat packers talk about is: 'Now I'm through playing a high schooler, and I want to play an adult part,' " he says. "That sounds I good, but how many will have that longevity? I see in Mary Stuart what I see in Jodie Foster. She's here to stay."

—Cynthia Sanz, Sue Carswell in Fairfield County

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