CALL KARI WUHRER HARD TO DISCOURAGE. En route to an audition in 1983, the actress, already called Crash for her tendency to bend fenders, drove off the road in Danbury, Conn., her car coming to rest upside down. When her mother, Karin, arrived at the scene, she heard Kari, unhurt, telling a policeman, "Just flip it over and I'll be on my way." The officer explained the subtle difficulties of "just flipping" a Honda, so Kari hopped a train and made her appointment. "The only thing that upset her," says Karin, "was that she had a run in her stocking."
That same unflappability helped Wuhrer, 29, win the part of a sexy gypsy villainess in the recently released Stephen King's Thinner. "I needed someone who is strong, not a shrinking violet, and physical," says the film's director, Tom Holland. "I also needed someone who is sexy. She is all of those things." She is also a diamond in the rough. Despite roles in The Crossing Guard and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Wuhrer, says Holland, "is more of a performer than an actress—you have to rein her in. I tried to get her to be more restrained. I kept saying, 'Pull it back, dear, pull it back.' "
But pulling back isn't her style. Growing up in Brookfield, Conn., with two older siblings and a younger brother, Kari always wanted attention. Her parents—Karin, 53, a payroll accountant, and Andrew, 55, a police officer turned car salesman—remember her once making a fashion statement by going to school in her brother's pajamas. Her mother accepted Kari as "not quite the same as the rest of us," but her father, Wuhrer says, "gave me a lot of reasons to be insecure. Sometimes I wasn't good enough: my ears stuck out, my butt was too big." (Now, she says, "he is very supportive.")
In 1983, Wuhrer faced those insecurities head-on, persuading her mother to take her to the Ford Talent Agency in Manhattan. She was signed on the spot, and commercials (for Clairol, among others) and modeling work followed. In 1988, while enrolled in drama classes at New York University, she was hired to front (with Adam Sandler) MTV's TV-trivia game show Remote Control. "I became a so-called celebrity for a little while," she says. "It wasn't for anything creative—I wasn't doing anything to earn it. I got very depressed."
But she got over it, perhaps because lately she has had plenty of encouragement. During filming of The Crossing Guard in 1994, Jack Nicholson (with whom Wuhrer danced naked in the movie) once phoned her at 5 a.m. to compliment her on her work, she says—and the film's director, Sean Penn, once showed up on her doorstep at 7 a.m. to chat. On the set of Thinner, director Holland notes that every time she came into the room, Stephen King "perked up." Actually the author told dirty jokes, says Wuhrer, who good-naturedly calls King a "goofy pervert" but hastens to add she was not offended.
Neither is her husband—usually. "It's part of her job, what can you do?" reasons Daniel Salin, 30, of the attention his wife of two years gets from other men. "Sometimes you get jealous. We talk it out." Salin, a rock musician, met Wuhrer five years ago at a mutual friend's party and knew instantly he was in trouble: "I said, 'I am not going to let this happen; she is too wild and crazy.' But I fell in love with her spirit."
Lately, while Salin records what Wuhrer calls dragster punk music with his band, Ascot, in a studio in their two-bedroom Hollywood Hills home, Wuhrer has been making her own modern folk music and has a deal to release albums in Asia and Europe. She will appear next year opposite Jon Voight in Anaconda and has also completed filming Sex and the Other Man with Stanley Tucci. Always, she says, she is looking for those "smart, sexy, sassy, I-have-power-over-man roles. That is a woman's fantasy, to have power over men." For her, of course, that's more like reality.
VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Angeles