So when I kicked off this Quaz thing back in March, my governing rule was simple: No Kevin Arnold girlfriend goes ignored.
I’m being serious. I’m currently addicted to Wonder Years re-runs, which means (this is just how my mind works) I’m also addicted to finding out whatever became of past cast members. And since Kevin (played by Fred Savage) always seemed to like one girl or another, there are about 8,000 actresses to choose from.
That being said, save for Winnie Cooper (Kevin’s longtime sweetie, played by Danica McKellar), no other Wonder Years love interest stands out more than Lisa Berlini. First, she was insanely cute. Second, she was way out of Kevin’s league. And third—and most important—there’s an oft-repeated scene when Lisa’s face is frozen on the screen, just as she’s about to tell Kevin that she just wants to be friend. It’s an image few Wonder Years fans can forget, because it’s so, well, uh, goofy. Hell, here it is …
I digress: Kathy Wagner, the actress who played Lisa Berlini, has done a helluva lot more than merely one role. She’s had a varied acting career, ranging from stage to commercials to Growing Pains to—no joke—Redman’s hottie in the unforgattable How High. She also happens to be a proud UMass grad and the mother of two. This is her website, if you’d like more information.
Here, Kathy talks Berlini, olive juice, chillin’ with hiphop superstars and her status as the only person to appear in both Iron Eagle and Poltergeist II.
Kathy Wagner, The Quaz is yours …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So let’s start with the reason you’re here: Lisa Berlini. Back in the day, you were right behind Winnie Cooper as one of Kevin Arnold’s love interests. How did you land the Wonder Years gig, and what do you remember about the experience? The exposure? The time period? Also, there’s a scene in one of the episodes—you tell Kevin you just want to be friends—and they freeze your face in a truly awkward position. I was wondering how, as a young teen at the time, you felt about that? Elated or mortified?
KATHY WAGNER: I was 10-years old and went on auditions everyday. When I got the audition for The Wonder Years it was a little different—exciting because it was the new hit show. I don’t remember much about the audition process, except that at my third call-back they actually brought Fred Savage into the room to read with me and I was nervous about that. I remember my agents being very excited when they called to tell my mom I had booked the roll. Then I remember getting fit for my costumes and they told me I needed to wear a bra … which was devastating. Once I got past that, I did love working on the show very much. Everyone was really nice and it was very fun having to take 60s dance lessons. I thought Fred was pretty dreamy! One day he mouthed across the set “I Love You.” I couldn’t believe it—I was on cloud nine! Fred Savage just said he loved me! Being young and awkward I said, “I love you” back and then he started laughing and said, “I didn’t say I love you … I said ‘olive juice'” I was mortified!!! To get him back—on the last day that I was shooting I knocked on his dressing room door and said “Can I have your autograph?” He said sure and I said “Not you, your little brother Ben” and I walked right past him and asked his not-at-all-famous-at-that-time brother for his autograph. You probably had to be there …
After the first show aired I was really afraid to go back to school. I guess because it was such a big show and everyone watched it so I was nervous about what people were going to think of me. It’s not easy being a love interest at age 10! The girls talk behind your back and the boys tease you. Especially about that awesome face you mentioned. That was mortifying! I couldn’t believe out of all the frames they could have frozen on, that was the one they used! There had to have been a more flattering one.
All in all it was a great experience and although I have had much bigger roles throughout my career … this was the show that gave me the most exposure. I got tons of fan mail for years after those shows first aired and, funny enough, 23 years later I still get recognized all the time as Lisa Berlini. I was on vacation with my husband recently and group of teenage boys came up to me and asked if I was on The Wonder Years. I was floored since they weren’t even born when I did the show. Good ol’ reruns! Its a thrill to be able to say I was a part of such an iconic show.
J.P.: You first modeled, for JCPenny, when you were 3 months old, and you landed your first McDonald’s commercial at age 3. Then, until your teens, you worked semi-steadily as a child actress. Did you enjoy the life, or was it thrust upon you? And why do you think soooo many child actors wind up taking the Diff’rent Strokes route to adult turmoil?
K.W.: I did enjoy it all. My parents made it fun, though. I never felt any pressure from them. It was just a hobby that my mom and I did together. I got to meet people who were on the covers of teenie bopper magazines and I got out of school a lot. The only time I remember it holding me back was when I joined a Brownie troop and never could make any of the meetings because of auditions.
As far as why I believe so many child actors have such a hard time—there are many different reasons, I guess. You get so much praise for being cute, famous, etc. People look at you like you are different … important. You have money to burn and a lot of friends for shallow reasons. Then one day maybe your show is over or you aren’t the cute little kid anymore and you are faced with not getting jobs like you used too. Or maybe the pressure just gets to you because this is what makes you feel like you matter and if it goes away what do you have?
A lot of shady things happen in Hollywood. I had a very close family friend who had a huge career at a young age. She was the “It Girl.” Before her parents knew it, producers were helping her go to court to get emancipated. They gave her anything she wanted and because these were big Hollywood schmoozing producers, she did what they said. In the end without her parents’ protection they were able to take advantage of her. Hollywood is not always a nice place—and not a stable environment for anyone. Especially young people in their formative years.
J.P.: A bunch of years ago there was a TV show called Love Monkey. It starred a pretty eclectic cast—Tom Cavanaugh, Larenz Tate, Jason Priestley. TV Guide assigned me to write a piece on it, so I spent several hours at the studio. In my time there, they shot one scene. Literally, one. Over and over and over and over and over. From this angle. From that angle. Later on, when I was talking with Priestley, I said, “Man, I’ve gotta say, this looks really boring.” He said, “Bud, you have no idea.” You’ve done a lot of TV and film—is it as boring and repetitive as I now think?
K.W.: It is definitely a long process and there is a lot of hurry up and wait. But it’s always been nothing but fun to me. I have a pretty mellow personality and was taught from a young age to be patient and follow directions so I guess I was molded to enjoy the process. I love being on set. You really do form a family bond with your fellow cast and crew so its fun hanging out and joking around. Getting your hair and makeup done, having yummy craft service to munch on … and I’ll never complain about getting to relax in a dressing room and read a book all while getting paid. Never.
J.P.: My wife and I recently had a debate, and maybe you can tell me who’s right. I don’t recall what film we saw, but it was truly awful. Afterward I said, “What amazes me is the actors surely know this was crap when they were done, yet they still promote it as if it’s a quality work.” The wife, on the other hand, thinks performers don’t always realize they’re in a bad movie until everything is over. So please tell me—do y’all generally know midway through when something sucks? And, along those same lines, when something’s amazing?
K.W.: I know I’ve been on a set thinking that something was not going to turn out very well—but, hey, work is work and most of us aren’t in a position to turn down anything right now. On the other hand there have been times when I thought I was part of a brilliant production and when I saw the final product it was junk. So I guess you both win. It can happen both ways. I recently did a short film and I was so excited to see it because I had a lot of emotional scenes and reached places I had never been given the opportunity to go on camera. At the screening I was floored that they cut it all out! The editor said the director decided to change the meaning of the movie so he cut it out—which made some of my scenes not make any sense! Watching it you would think I was making horrible acting choices when really, so much was cut out that what was there didn’t fit together. A lot can happen in the editing room once the actor’s job is done that we’re not aware of until we see the final product. Like they can decide to freeze your face in a weird expression—which can really kill a 10-year old’s self-esteem. But I digress.
J.P.: Twelve years ago you played Susan Dey in the made-for-TV movie, “Come On Get Happy.” Was that a positive experience? And I’m fascinated by what it’s like to portray a real, living person? Are you nervous she’s gonna hate the depiction? Do you care at all about her reaction?
K.W.: That was one of the highlights of my career. I loved playing Susan Dey because I could relate to her in many ways. I had a gut connection to her emotions and what she had gone through but I also had an on-set coach who watched tapes with me and helped me get her mannerisms down. Because she was a real person who many people loved I wanted to wanted to be able to deliver “her” as best as I could to our audience. I cared about portraying her in a real way and I did care what she thought about it. I never heard what her reaction was … but I’m hoping that since some of her biggest fans gave me kudos, perhaps she felt the same.
J.P.: Here’s the oddball question of the year. I mean, it’s really out there. So when I was growing up, my brother used to make fun of me—relentlessly—because I had a beauty mark on my face. I mean, he was vicious. Nicknamed me “Mark,” made me try and hide it, made me feel 1″ tall. Finally, my wife was like, “If it bothers you so much, why not have it removed?” So I did—and I sorta feel like a sellout (odd but true). You have a tiny beauty mark above your lip, and you work in a business where appearance and, to a certain degree, homogeny seems to matter; where magazines airbrush any little mole/wart/scar/etc and imperfections (even if they’re not, as in this case, actual imperfections) are scorned. Again, I’ve never asked anyone this, because it seems so trivial and stupid: But have you ever thought about your beauty mark—either as something that gives you character (a la Cindy Crawford) or defines you or that you love or that you don’t like? Or am I just mental because of my dickhead sibling?
K.W.: No, I never really think about my beauty mark—thanks for putting it in my head (Just kidding)! However, when I was in the fifth grade some girl told me I had a big butt and that insecurity stayed with me for a long time. I’m happy to say I grew into my butt … but agents have pointed out other things about me in the past and those comments have definitely stayed with me. Damn people and their negative comments!
J.P.: According to your website, you went to college (UMass), returned to acting, then had your two kids (Oliver and Kate)—and now you’re getting back into the acting game. In the real world, being 33 is nothing. Young. Fresh. Still youthful. In acting, especially for women (sadly), it’s up there. Have you found it difficult getting the roles/opportunities you want? And why is it so much harder for women over, oh, 30 to stay hot than it is for men?
K.W.: Yes, I have found it very very difficult. When I got out of college I had absolutely no problem getting back into the game right away. In fact, I landed the Partridge Family just three months after I graduated. This time getting back in the game has been a struggle. Why? Well, for one there are less roles written for women in their 30s. I guess we’re not very entertaining to watch. And when there are roles that fit me, the competition is fierce. A casting director will put out a notice to the all the agents for a role and they will get thousands of submissions. At the end of the day they can only bring in maybe 20 people to actually audition. If you aren’t already known and liked by the specific casting director, it’s hard to get in the room. Not to mention a lot of huge actors are now taking parts they never would have taken before—which only pushes us lower level actors down the chain. You see a lot of movie stars doing cameos and guest parts on TV. That didn’t happen 10 years ago.
J.P.: Best moment as an actor? Worst moment as an actor?
K.W.: I think my best moments have been while I was doing theater. There is something about the thrill of a live audience and telling a complete story in sequence from start to finish. My favorite show was The Wizard of Oz and I played Dorothy. It was a thrill to live in that world with the colorful sets and fun characters.
Worst moment—I was doing an episode of Growing Pains. I think I was 12. They just gave me the part without an audition. I only had one line and I couldn’t remember it for the life of me. “Isn’t it true that most TV reporters are vapid news readers without any real journalism credentials.” I felt so stupid for not being able to memorize this stupid line. I was friends with a bunch of the actors on the set and they were all making fun of me. As the pressure got worse it became harder and harder to remember the words. Luckily when we did the actual taping I was able to spit it out. But it was traumatic and embarrassing. Now I realize I didn’t understand what I was saying, which is why I couldn’t remember it. If someone would have just explained to me what “vapid news readers” were and what a “journalism credential” was it might have been easier.
J.P.: You were in How High with Method Man and Redman. I would like to type that again, because it’s so odd: You were in How High with Method Man and Redman. How the heck did that happen? And, well, what was it like working with the two rappers?
K.W.: How High was a really fun and unusual experience. I got a call for the audition one day and I was really really sick. I told my manager I couldn’t make it—could he try and reschedule. I was literally in bed and out of commission. He said that this was the only day they were seeing people and I was a direct request from the director. The director was Jessie Dylan—Bob Dylan’s son. I had no idea how he possibly knew me. It turns out he was the director on a Pizza Hut commercial that I had auditioned for a few months before but didn’t get (My counterpart in the movie was the girl who actually did the commercial). My manager begged me to go and I was flattered that Bob Dylan’s son knew who I was, so I dragged myself out of bed.
It was originally only supposed to be two scenes but once we started they kept writing more and more scenes and I ended up shooting about 16 scenes. They didn’t all make it into the movie but it was a blast. I didn’t know who Method Man and Redman were but I quickly learned. They had a whole entourage on the set at all times. They were so funny to work with—always making jokes and didn’t take anything too seriously. Including themselves. We did have one scene where I was in bed with Redman … that was pretty awkward. I kept in touch with Redman for a very short while after the filming. He invited me to a bunch of parties but it wasn’t really my scene so we lost touch.
J.P.: I’m guessing this won’t be your favorite question, but I have to ask: On your reel, there are scenes from the 2006 romantic comedy, You Did What? which you co-starred in with Edward Kerr (and which was written by your husband, Jeff Morris). I’m not a huge fan of the genre, but your parts look strong. And yet—what the hell? On Netflix, the film is unavailable. It doesn’t exist on Wikipedia. There’s a trailer on YouTube … but nothing else. Please solve this mystery for me, Kathy. What happened to the movie? And was it any good?
K.W.: The movie was great if I do say so myself. We shot this film with great actors for next to nothing. We actually got one of the editors from How High to edit the film for us. We sold it to a distributor and it has played all around the world—except for the U.S. It had a video release date for the U.S. which is why you can find the title on Netflix, but then something happened between the distributor and the video label and it’s now in limbo. Our contract is up with them this year and when we get the rights back we will try and get a new distributor. Hopefully you’ll be able to rent it soon …
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH KATHY WAGNER
• According to your website you trained with Joseph Pearlman. Any idea if he’s related to the New York Pearlmans? And if, so, could you ask him to send me some dough?: I have no idea. I can ask … but if he is I’m first in line for the dough!
• You were in The Ryan White Story—a very well-done TV movie. Why do you think so many made-for-TV films stink?: I’m not in them. 🙂
• Five favorite smells: Hawaiian Tropic suntan oil, popcorn popping, night blooming Jazmin, California Baby Bath and Body Wash and my husband’s cologne (it doesn’t matter what kind it is).
• Peter Cetera or A Tribe Called Quest?: Peter Cetera—Tonight it’s very clear/As we’re both lying here. I loved Karate Kid!
• You are the only person to appear in both Iron Eagle and Poltergeist II. Emotions?: But how much better would Poltergeist II have been with Jason Gedrick?
• A director says, “I want you to star as Martin Lawrence’s love interest in Big Mama’s House IV: Mama Makes Good” but you have to gain 80 pounds—do you do it?: Um no—losing baby weight was hard enough.
• Captain Kirk, Luke Skywalker or Axel Foley?: Luke Skywalker. I’m trying to think of a witty reason why but all my life saber and force jokes just don’t seem funny right now …
• Why UMass?: I’m a romantic and to me college meant bricks and ivy and snow. I think I watched Love story one too many times. I applied to all East Coast schools and was actually going to go to Boston University, but when I went to visit I realized I didn’t want to be in a city. I really wanted to go somewhere very different from Los Angeles—UMass’s beautiful campus won me over. I loved the snow … the first two years. Then I just made the best of it knowing I only had two years left.
• Most famous person you know?: I’ve met a lot of really famous people in passing but Jorge Garcia from Lost was a really good friend of mine. We were in an acting class together for a couple of years and he was in my husband’s first short film before he moved to Hawaii to become a star. He is one of the nicest people and deserves every bit of his success he’s receiving.
• Fred Savage is across the street? Do you yell out to him, or keep walking?: I probably would say keep walking for a lot of people … I can be kind of shy. But I think I would yell out to Fred. Everyone else recognizes me from The Wonder Years … I’m sure he would, too.