Welcome to the New Heather Matarazzo

Heathe Matarazzo (center) in The Princess DiariesBesides wishing she could do musical theater, Matarazzo dreams of playing Mary from The Well of Loneliness. "It's a project I've been trying to get into the works for a little bit of time now,” she says.

This is someone who has long loved center stage, taking the mike at age 6 at a dress rehearsal for an AIDS benefit and asking her impatient fellow volunteers — many of them adults — what are you guys doing? If you're going to be cranky go home! It's an important cause and we're doing this for a reason.”

Matarazzo says she always had visions of gliding onto the stage if she ever won an award, but in reality things didn't work out that way at the Independent Spirit Awards ceremony in 1997, when she was honored for Best Debut Performance. I hear my name called and I'm like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ I had no idea I was going to win. And I go up the stairs and I trip on my skirt. I almost fall flat on my face,” she recalls.

"That's me in a nutshell,” Matarazzo says. But she feels like she's starting over now that she's in her twenties, and looks forward to her thirties and forties. She's happy she gets to play characters that are interesting, attributing this to a self-impression that "I'm not that pretty girl next door.”

Matarazzo has always struggled not to feel like an outsider, much like many of the characters she has played — people who are ostracized for various reasons. Besides Dawn ‘Wiener Dog’ Wiener, she has played Helen Keller in a regional stage production and a mentally retarded girl who is gang-raped by a group of football players in the 1999 TV movie Our Guys. The latter, based on a true story, is the work she says she is most proud of.

Matarazzo has had roles in parts 1 and 2 of The Princess Diaries as well as in Sorority Boys, Scream 3, and Devil's Advocate Another of her films, Home of Phobia, screened at Sundance in 2004 and is rumored to be released later this year. Her television credits include Law & Order, ER, Roseanne and Strangers with Candy.

Believe in Me is Matarazzo's latest movie. Now in post-production, it's about a long-shot girls' basketball team in 1964 Oklahoma.

Matarazzo recently finished shooting the first episode of Exes & Ohs (formerly titled The Rules), which she refers to as "a lesbian Sex and the City.” Her co-stars are Megan Cavanaugh, Angela Featherstone, Michelle Paradise, Cathy DeBuono, and Marnie Alton. She says DeBuono likens working together to being given "spiritual contracts,” and Matarazzo concurs: "It's like we were all meant to work together, and this is the beginning of something amazing and special and fabulous.”

Spirituality is central in Matarazzo's life, even though she turned away from religion when she first came to terms with her sexuality. She found solace in born-again Christianity for several years, but says she now has a personal relationship with her own concept of God that suits her best.

"At the end of the day it's just about compassion, justice, honor and humility — all those really great things we take for granted," she now believes. It's a spirituality with room for being a lesbian, something that also led Matarazzo on a winding path before she came to terms with it.

The beginning of that path was both exciting and scary for her. She remembers the first time she kissed a girl: "We were sitting in my pink room with pink carpeting. It was summer and we were sitting Indian-style across from each other and I was so incredibly nervous. And I thought, ‘Yeah, I am definitely gay.'”

Matarazzo also recalls intense nervousness the first time she kissed her first girlfriend, around age 15 or 16. "I had to excuse myself and I threw up in the bathroom. I had such butterflies,” she says.

She's come a long way since then, both on-screen and off, and it will be fascinating to see what she has in store for us next.

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