In her big scene in Scarface, newcomer Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, wearing a flimsy, unfastened robe, walks toward her gangster brother, played by Al Pacino. As she fires bullets at him, she taunts him, in a manner both hysterical and unprintable, to make love to her. What was Mary Elizabeth thinking? “I thought, ‘If this robe opens, I’m going to die,’ ” she says. Shooting a gun for the first time also horrified her. “What was frightening is that it was so easy,” she says. “I could have been using my plant mister.”
Had she been employing her plant mister, Mary Elizabeth might have felt more comfortable with the finished movie. Pressed for her opinion of the blood-spattered, obscenity-riddled epic, she dodges the issue by talking about director Brian De Palma (“not at all intimidating”) and Pacino (“very professional and reassuring”). Although Mary Elizabeth easily holds her own opposite Pacino, Scarface was her first movie. “For an introduction into the film world, I’m very grateful,” she says. “I was proud to be up there with all those actors.” Her parents saw it back home in Illinois, having braced themselves by reading both the screenplay and the novelization. “They were ready for it, and they’re troupers,” says Mary Elizabeth, 25. “I don’t know if it’s their kind of film. I don’t know if it’s my kind of film. I was surprised.”
Even more astonishing to Mary Elizabeth is the skyrocket trajectory of her career. She won the meaty role of Gina in Scarface without even a screen test. When asked to read for director De Palma, she was planning to embark on the national tour of Amadeus. Then De Palma spotted her. “I was looking for someone who could play a virginal younger sister and transform herself into a wild Latin sexpot,” he explains, “and also had a tremendous amount of acting power to go up against Pacino in a couple of crucial scenes. We spent at least four months looking for someone. There was no one else who could do it.”
That combination of wholesome-ness and sexiness won Mary Elizabeth her current role as a 1940s college girl in an off-Broadway musical adaptation of William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy. The show is at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, where “there’s a real family unit, which is not something you feel often in New York,” she says. The Human Comedy also exploits a talent of hers not called upon in Scarface—Mastrantonio’s clear soprano voice.
It was the voice that first attracted attention when Mary Elizabeth was growing up in Oak Park, III., the fifth of six daughters of a bronze-foundry worker. She was steered toward an operatic career and entered the University of Illinois as a music major. But her enthusiasm was soon deflated. “I don’t want to be compared to someone else’s high C,” she says. “I don’t like doing the same material over and over.” While working in a summer show in Opryland U.S.A., the Nashville theme park, she realized she preferred Opryland to opera. She dropped out of college after her sophomore year and for two seasons worked in Nashville.
When a friend called and urged her to fly to Chicago to audition for Camelot, Mary Elizabeth thought it was a long shot—but won a part in the chorus. While performing in Chicago she caught the eye of a casting director who helped her land the understudy slot for Maria in the Broadway revival of West Side Story. Two ill-fated musicals—Copperfield and Oh, Brother—led to half a year on Broadway with Amadeus, where she understudied for Amy Irving in the role of Mozart’s wife. Then came Scarface.
Going off to Hollywood for the first time, Mary Elizabeth thought she was making a 10-week commitment. Production difficulties stretched the filming to six months, but she has no regrets. “It was bigger than me, and it’s one of those things that doesn’t come along every day,” she says. “Sometimes all you have to ride on in this world is your gut reaction.”
Mary Elizabeth hopes to do more films—”something a little calmer, perhaps”—and more musicals. “I need a little bigger challenge,” she says. Marriage is not one of them. Sharing a brownstone apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with another actress, Barb Walsh, she has no steady boyfriend. “I think getting married will probably be the biggest challenge,” she says. “That’s not something that lasts six weeks or eight weeks or until they put it in the can. I’m not ready for that yet.”