Heather Matarazzo swirled into the Push Café, a dark, smoky coffee hole near Gramercy Park. It was a midsummer afternoon, and Elvis Costello was ranting grandly from the stereo.
Ms. Matarazzo, who is 18,took a seat in a ratty chair, fired up a Camel filter and began talking about her new movie, The Princess Diaries . She did a throaty impression of the film’s Bronx-born director, Garry Marshall, like everyone who has worked for Garry Marshall does. She talked about greasy diners, her desire to find an apartment in the West Village and wanting to see Bully at the Angelika. But it wasn’t long before she started talking about Wiener Dog.
Seven years ago, a novice director named Todd Solondz chose Ms. Matarazzo, then a squirrel-cheeked 11-year-old from Long Island, to star in his independent film Welcome to the Dollhouse . At the time, Ms. Matarazzo’s acting résumé included a stint as a munchkin in a community production of The Wizard of Oz , a part in an N.Y.U. student short and a handful of commercials, like one for those dopey Capri Sun drink bags.
In Dollhouse, Ms. Matarazzo played Dawn Wiener, a.k.a. Wiener Dog, a bespectacled, painfully awkward seventh grader stumbling through a tormented life at Benjamin Franklin Junior High School in suburban New Jersey. Ridiculed for her looks, shunned by her family and plagued with naïveté about boys and sex, Dawn’s darkly comic tour through adolescence was a rebuke to all the bubbly cinematic portrayals of teendom. Dollhouse became a smash, winning the Grand Jury Prize at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, and Ms. Matarazzo emerged as a Sarah Michelle Gellar for the rest of us–an antihero for anyone who’d ever been teased, given a wedgie or forced to eat an entire bowl of mustard during lunch period. (Said Mr. Solondz: “Many people say, ‘I was Dawn’–regardless of the gender of the person. It’s a time of life that nobody really forgets.”)
Ms. Matarazzo has kept acting since Dollhouse, though not always in big movies or big parts. Here’s a partial list of productions you may have missed her in: 54, The Devil’s Advocate, Cherry, Getting to Know You, Scream 3, Strike! and the short-lived television series Now and Again . She currently has a supporting role as Anne Hathaway’s best friend in The Princess Diaries , which opened Aug. 3.
While Princess Diaries looks to be a hit and Ms. Matarazzo’s career is by no means lackluster, there’s some irony to her struggle to find more prominent roles. After making a name by playing a young girl savaged by the cruel world of junior high, Ms. Matarazzo, now almost a woman and looking nothing like a Wiener Dog, finds herself navigating an even crueler version of junior high: Hollywood.
” Dollhouse has been great for me and it’s been bad for me,” she said. “Great in the sense that people know I’m a serious actor and I do good work, but bad for me in the sense that they don’t think of me as a leading lady. I don’t know whether they don’t think I’m attractive enough or I could draw in the money or whatnot …. ”
Ms. Matarazzo exhaled a puff from her cigarette. She was wearing a crisp white tank top and a long pink skirt, and her shoulder-length brown hair was flecked with blond and slightly punky. Her eyes, once hidden behind Dawn Wiener’s chunky specs, are an almost translucent blue. She’s considerably taller and the baby fat around her cheeks is gone, but she wasn’t the least bit Actress Barbie. She looked like she should be working at a used record shop on Avenue B.
“I want to have the kind of career that Susan Sarandon or Meryl Streep or Glenn Close have, where they are not the quote-unquote beauty but they are so elegant,” Ms. Matarazzo said, leaning forward. “Not that I’m saying that I will be that, but look at Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons : Here you have a lead character who is so gorgeous and beautiful and powerful. It’s not the Julia Roberts-Catherine Zeta-Jones-type deal; it’s serious, and not just cheesy.”
Ms. Matarazzo hasn’t seen many movies lately. She saw Pearl Harbor . “Beautiful special effects,” she said, then suddenly looked a little nervous about saying more. She also saw A.I . “I was mixed about that,” she said. “I thought it could be a lot dirtier .”
The last word floated into the air and hung there like a smoke ring. Ms. Matarazzo grew up on the North Shore, but it’s nearly impossible to divine the origin of her airy, whispery voice. “The Long Island sometimes does creep out,” said playwright Evan Smith, the author of Servicemen , a play about World War II soldiers returning to New York, in which Ms. Matarazzo performed this Spring. “But it’s a very sexy voice, [that] she doesn’t use to seduce.”
“Nobody knows where I am from,” Ms. Matarazzo admitted. “Some people think I’m Southern. Other people think I’m from England.”
Someone behind the counter plopped on an old Cure album. Robert Smith began to loudly moan. Over the din, Ms. Matarazzo was asked if a lot of people bugged her about Dollhouse . After all, she’s already made her Taxi Driver , her Midnight Cowboy– a film that delicate people related to maybe a little too much. Did her fans ever get a little, you know, freaky?
“No, not freaky,” she said. “It makes me feel good. It’s like getting a big, warm hug when people come up and say they are a fan of that film.” She recalled one weepy woman, but she wasn’t so bad. “I wanted to be maternal and say, ‘O.K., O.K., O.K. You’re beautiful, you are fine, you are here,'” she said. “‘I’m just like you.'”
The music was crushing. Ms. Matarazzo agreed to go for a walk. Outside, she said that between making films, she’d been taking film classes at a local college–which she didn’t want to name. She talked about writing a piece about angels for Jane magazine, and also confessed to being an unabashed karaoke-er. “I lo-ove karaoke,” she said. (A Broadway devotee, Ms. Matarazzo said she might do Judy Garland’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” while “everybody else is doing TLC or ‘Bootylicious.'”)
Ms. Matarazzo said her idol is Bette Davis, and admitted to a mild diva streak: She said she isn’t afraid to pipe up on the set, and once refused a director who insisted she do a nude scene. “What is so important about seeing my breasts?” she asked, sitting on a bench near the Gramercy Hotel. “They’re not that big; they’re not going to get that much of an ooh-ahh.
“I just go out and do my thing,” she said. “I’m not obsessed with how I look and how my body is. I’m happy with who I am. I’m not like, ‘I need to get a push-up bra so I have cleavage when I go out tonight, and I need to get tight black pants so I look really hot …. I’m just like, ‘ Hey .'”
Heather Matarazzo laughed confidently and stood up to leave. As she swung a black bag over her shoulder, one could sense a change. Mr. Smith, the playwright, would touch upon this sense later, when he talked about the night he was standing by the dressing room with a friend after a performance of Servicemen and Ms. Matarazzo strolled past.
“My friend knew who she was, and he said he felt cheated,” Mr. Smith said. “Dawn Wiener had grown up to be cool and pretty.”
The MediaBistro.com message board–an online kvetch group for underemployed journalists, most of them toiling in New York–has lately become something darker. ” Hallmark Hall of Fame to Hitchcock-caliber paranoia,” one member exclaimed.
It began in June, when a message-board poster calling herself “Catseye” offered a sad-sack tale. She was a freelancer living in New York who’d been published in national magazines, but when the Nasdaq crashed, yadda, yadda, she couldn’t find work anymore. Her career was going really badly. She’d been pitching article ideas–including a “great” one for a “reader-produced” column–but editors weren’t biting.
“I’m so scared,” Catseye wrote. “I have rent due, bills due and no money whatsoever. I feel like I am teetering on the edge …. [I]n one month, I’ll get to join the ranks of the homeless …. I can’t go to my family–I am an orphan …. If anyone has a kind word, please drop me a line.”
At first, Catseye got buckets of sympathy. Readers shared their own unemployment stories, pointed her to job openings and gave advice (one poster advised: “sell EVERYTHING you don’t absolutely need on eBay”).
Then, around message No. 76, there was a whiff of suspicion. “Malconklin” wrote: “Why does Catseye list a fake e-mail address? Although it’s delightful to see such effusive support for anybody in this predicament, I must, as a curious person, question the intention and, indeed, the veracity of this posting ….”
“Blackbird coming” followed with: “Backlash!! … Sorry little girl, but your allotted ‘poor me’ time is up.” Another poster, “JamesCT23,” doubted Catseye’s “orphan status.”
A mob began to form. “Melijo2” wrote: “From the very beginning I suspected that Catseye was either a spoiled little brat or a fraud …. Mmmm, perhaps this is someone researching a story on what it’s like to be unemployed in the big city?”
“Hopedare” recalled Catseye’s “great” idea for a “reader-produced” column.
“The column is this thread ,” Hopedare suggested.
Malconklin loved it. He called Hopedare’s notion “brilliant” and said he’d suspected it as well.
“Haljordan3600” demurred. “Most of this thread is pretty tedious,” Haljordan3600 wrote. “I can’t imagine any editor would want to print it.”
Catseye herself had long since stopped posting, but the debate raged on without her. “Monicas” swore she knew Catseye personally. “Giselashore” castigated everyone for acting like fourth graders.
By Friday, Aug. 3, the Catseye thread ended with a neat summary of the skirmish courtesy of “Vtrost.”
“She just hasn’t what it takes–that’s why the posts stopped,” Vtrost wrote. “That’s why she stopped working. If you … can’t defend yourself at a board–what are you going to do when you actually are in New York journalism? Commit suicide?”