It is nearly impossible to look at Natasha Gregson Wagner and not think of her mother, the late Natalie Wood. And yet it's not fair to compare the two actresses simply because of their bloodline. For although they share an uncanny resemblance, Gregson Wagner is managing to build a distinct body of work in her own right.
While Gregson Wagner does feel a certain pressure to measure up to her legendary mother, who died at the age of 43 in a drowning accident in 1981, it is not the pressure to achieve stardom, but rather the obligation to be a decent person on and off the set.
"I just hope that I live my life in a way that makes my mother proud," said the 28-year-old actress of Wood's influence. "She made a conscious effort to pay attention to her children and give them as much as she could. So my pressure is to be decent and peaceful and smart and kind to the people that I love, and to everyone. And that has less to do with acting and more to do with the nature of the human spirit."
The daughter of British screenwriter Richard Gregson and stepdaughter of actor Robert Wagner, Natasha Gregson Wagner was not raised with the intention of following in her mother's footsteps. It was not until her freshman year at Emerson College in Boston that she first delved into acting. She moved back to her hometown, Los Angeles, to attend the University of Southern California, but dropped out to study and work as an actor full time.
"I started to pursue acting, but very uncertainly and very clumsily," described Gregson Wagner of her early years of performing. "It wasn't until the last three years that I've really understood acting. Not that I understand it, but I have some sort of idea of what in the world I'm doing."
She told Back Stage West that training continues to play an important role in her development as an actress. In Los Angeles, she's studied with Larry Moss, Ivana Chubbuck, and currently David Farkas, her vocal coach. She also credited respected New York teacher Harold Guskin for passing along wise advice.
Shared the budding actress, "Harold said to me, "You have to have a little patience and a lot of courage,' which I always thought was a great line. He meant: A little patience not to say your line until you're ready to say it and a lot of courage to say what you mean and to mean what you say."
Courage is a key word when describing Gregson Wagner's current choices as a young actress. While she began her career in such mainstream fare as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, SFW, and High School High, in the past few years Gregson Wagner has carved a niche for herself as a risk-taking actress.
Last year, she starred in two provocative films: James Toback's Two Girls and a Guy, with Robert Downey Jr. and Heather Graham, and First Love, Last Rites, with Giovanni Ribisi. Her other credits include David Lynch's Lost Highway and a recent episode of Ally McBeal. Currently she co-stars in Larry Clark's follow-up to Kids, Another Day in Paradise, in which she plays a teen drug addict and surrogate daughter to career criminals, played by James Woods and Melanie Griffith.
Gregson Wagner said she has every intention of continuing on the unconventional indie film route.
"Those are the films that touch me," she explained. "There's something about Jesse Peretz (director of First Love, Last Rites), Larry Clark, James Toback, and David Lynch‹I have such admiration for their bravery and their ability to not conform and to have strong voices. I like people that push the envelope, that make the audience question what feels comfortable or safe for them. In these last few movies I've done, I've had the opportunity to do that. I need to feel like I'm doing something where I feel really alive. Otherwise I get restless and bored. I can't just sit around on a set and be "the girlfriend.'"
She's also raised eyebrows for her lack of inhibition when it comes to shedding her clothes for these indie roles. For the young actress, nudity is not something she has ever felt ashamed of.
"My parents raised me quite liberally and if you look at pictures of me as a child I was always naked," said Gregson Wagner. "I was lucky with my parents, because we talked about sex and it was never a dirty thing. It was always a beautiful, empowering thing. I want to share that view."
The actress also believes that sexuality is so much a part of her characters' lives. She sees no reason to shy away from exploring those issues on film.
"I play these young girls and I feel that sexuality is such a huge part of a young girl's life, because you start to define how you feel about your own sexuality and where your power lies. Do you have power over men? Do you not? Do you use it? Do you manipulate it? I find those issues really interesting and I probably will do more roles that explore that."
While Gregson Wagner has secured more solid ground in her career lately, she admitted that she continues to question her abilities. For her, uncertainty is not necessarily a negative.
"I have days where I feel comfortable and I have days where I feel really uncomfortable. And I have days where I think, I feel connected today, and I have days where I think, I suck. But I like that I never know. It's good not to know. The minute you start to think, I'm the shit, I'm the bomb, you lose it. The great thing about acting is that you're in the moment and you're experiencing whatever is coming at you. And that's what's interesting about life. It's uncertain."
One thing is certain, and that is that Gregson Wagner has a promising career ahead of her.