Natasha Gregson Wagner is cold. She’s been sitting in the Jefferson Hotel for hours, talking about her new film, and the inactivity has begun to chill her. “I’m just going to pull on my tights,” she announces.
I look away as the tiny actress adjusts her hosiery. This discretion seems only proper, yet also a little incongruous, considering that Wagner’s new film is Two Girls and a Guy. Initially rated NC-17, the movie features scenes in which Wagner’s character, Lou, confesses her bisexuality and proposes a ménage à trois with Carla (Heather Graham) and Blake (Robert Downey Jr.). It’s the film for which Wagner is already known for refusing to masturbate while the other two characters make love on the other side of a New York loft’s bedroom door.
“I was like, ‘Oh God, I totally disagree with you. I’m not going to do that,’” she says of her discussion of the proposed scene with writer-director James Toback. “I just couldn’t see how any woman, no matter how sexual she is, would find that particular moment exciting.” The director, she remembers, called her a coward. “I was like, ‘No, I’m not a coward. Make sure this isn’t your own perversity before you damage your movie with this idea.’”
Such exchanges are actually one of the things Wagner enjoyed about working on the film, a sexual-fidelity talkathon shot in 11 days on one set. Graham and Wagner play women who have just discovered that their boyfriend has been seeing both of them, and decide to confront him.
“It was very intense,” says the actress of the shoot. “We all got along really well, and we all had really distinct opinions about all the issues that are raised in the film. So sometimes we’d spend, like, two hours just talking about our different opinions, not even shooting.
“The interesting thing about shooting the movie in 11 days,” she continues, “is that maybe the characters don’t start to make sense until the eighth day, and by that point you’re halfway through the shoot. So that was something that was a little unnerving at times. It was just one of those situations where you just have to go in feet first and pray. For us, it was like an exercise. As an actor, it’s a great way to learn more about your craftbeing thrown in a room with four people, a camera, and lots of dialogue, talking about issues that matter to you.”
Wagner was initially cast as Carla, so she “originally read the script for [that] role. I was figuring out in my mind what I would change, what didn’t work for me. I had actually liked the Lou role better, but [Toback] had wanted to meet me for Carla. So when he called me a few days later and said, ‘I can’t find anyone to play Lou, but I think you could,’ I was happy.
“So then I had to reread it from that point of view. I think a lot of it worked. I think with any movie, once the actors inhabit the characters, it’s going to be different. And the cool thing about Toback was that he was really open to hearing our opinions and wanting feedback.”
Wagner actually began her study for the role by watching many of the director’s previous films. “That wasn’t so much for preparation,” she says. “I was intrigued by him, you know? We rehearsed a lot, and I worked on it with my acting coach. One of the issues I was curious about was the bisexuality of my character. I really wanted to show that she had vulnerability and these feeling of alienation or rejection or whatever that created this bravado exterior.”
Toback and Downey were pals because they had worked together before on The Pick-Up Artist, but Wagner says she and Graham didn’t feel excluded. “It never really felt like that. I’ve worked on movies where it’s been like that. But it wasn’t with Jimmy and Robert. It never felt like a boys’ club.”
Understandably, much of the interest in the film has centered on Downey, who had just come out of rehab when shooting began. “He was completely professional and focused,” Wagner avows. “He was always there. The thing about Robert is that he’s an incredibly mercurial creature. You can’t talk to him or work with him and not think, ‘Wow, this guy is intense. He has a lot going on.’ When he did the scene [where he addresses himself] in the mirror, a silence went over the set. It was very…haunting.”
It’s actually easier to be intense, Wagner suggests, when making a film under such constricted circumstances. “We were in one location, so there wasn’t a lot of downtime. We didn’t have to wait around for a lot of stuff. So the energy was constant. We were ready to play ball every morning.
“I come from the independent world, so I’m used to that fast-paced stuff. But Lost Highway, which had a bigger budget, was paced much more slowly. If we didn’t get it all one day, you’d get it the next day. David [Lynch] is a very calm, mellow man, where Toback is like, Aaaaaah!” She giggles.
Wagner is the daughter of Natalie Wood and producer Richard Gregson; her stepfather is actor Robert Wagner. Acting, however, is a career that didn’t occur to her until she got to college. “As a child, I was never conscious of thinking about it,” she recalls. “Then as a teenager I thought it was lame and stupid. I was very academic. I was into school; I loved it. So I never thought about it.
“I grew up in a very unshowbiz-y environment,” she explains. “My parents made sure that it was as normal as possible. I’ve heard other children of famous people say, ‘Oh, we were always on the set,’ or ‘They were always coming home with makeup on.’ It wasn’t like that at my house. They were cooking dinner and asking, ‘Did you do your homework?’ It was that kind of a thing. Which I’m actually wildly grateful for.”
The decision to investigate acting, Wagner remembers, didn’t get rave reviews at home. “When I made that phone call to both of my fathers, to tell them of this epiphany of mine, my Daddy Gregson hung up on me. And my Daddy Wagner said that he thought it was great that I had figured out what I wanted to do, but that it was a business filled with rejection. But now both my dads and my sisters are incredibly supportive.” She pauses. “When I think about having children, I wouldn’t want them to go in it.”
If the controversial Two Girls and a Guy suggests what sort of career Wagner is pursuing, her upcoming films confirm it. She recently finished Another Day in Paradise, a film about ’70s heroin addicts directed by Larry (Kids) Clark. Her next movie, due in August, is First Love, Last Rites and is based on a story by Ian McEwan, a frequent source of creepy cinematic material.
“When I go to the movies,” she explains, “that’s what I’m interested in seeing. I like working with freethinkers and doing things that are going to provoke strong feelings. I love working with irreverent people. That’s very liberating. I have nothing against studio films, and I’m sure I’ll do one. But I just feel that independent films have allowed me to spread my wings a little bit more.
“The last few movies I’ve done have been so rich,” she marvels. “I feel like I’ve got to find something else that’s going to make me feel as excited as those movies have. I just want to be involved a little more than, ‘Stand there. Say this. Wear that dress. Look at him that way.’” She laughs. “I would rather just be a decorator or something.”Mark Jenkins