By
October 13, 1997 12:00 PM

AT AGE 6, JESSICA CAPSHAW WOULD sit at Pac-Man video games in clubs where the bands her father managed played, awaiting prey. Eventually a passing adult would take pity on the poor kid. “They’d be like, ‘Little girl, can I play with you?’ ” says Capshaw. She’d let the newcomer win the first game, lure him into a rematch—then zap him again and again until he ran out of quarters or dignity, or both. Then she’d resume looking innocent, a spider awaiting fly No. 2. Says Capshaw: “I guess I can trace my first desire to be an actress back to that.”

She has come a long way since. This month, Capshaw, 21 and a senior at Brown University, will make her major-role, big-screen debut playing a homely small-town girl in The Locusts, a film about family secrets in 1960s Kansas, costarring Ashley Judd, Swingers’ Vince Vaughn and Kate Capshaw—Jessica’s mother. To the obvious question, Kate, 43, says she let Jessica read the script and kept her apprised of casting decisions but didn’t lobby on her daughter’s behalf. “That was easy,” says Kate. “The director never brought it up. And I told Jessica that I would never bring her name up.” Kate’s husband and Jessica’s stepfather, Hollywood megaforce Steven Spielberg, says he also stayed on the sidelines—and suffered typical parental anxiety. “I have kept back and absolutely not imposed myself on her career,” says Spielberg. “It’s important that she goes through the entire ordeal of suffering for a part. Auditioning. Waiting for the phone to ring. Making it to the finals…and then not getting the part.”

And, sometimes, getting lucky. Enthusiastic and quick to smile, Jessica doesn’t come off as a been-there, done-that Hollywood brat. During a studying stint in London, she carried a cell phone but was embarrassed to use it in public for fear of appearing “show-offy.” Yes, the Spielberg-Capshaw home in Pacific Palisades is big—it has to be with seven kids, ages 21 years to 9 months, running around—but “my parents aren’t grandiose,” says Jessica. “There are not gold fixtures everywhere.” Sure, it’s fun to look out the back and see Forrest Gump barbecuing steaks—Tom Hanks lives next door—and a thrill to spend the night in the White House, as Jessica, her mom and Steven did after the Washington premiere of Schindler’s List. (“I stole some stationery,” she admits. “But I didn’t take any towels!”)

Other elements of her life are less than extraordinary. She was given a car while at Harvard-Westlake High School, but the gift was conditional on her GPA. (“I did well,” she says. “I got a red Volkswagen.”) When she got hooked on acting and talked about skipping college, Spielberg—who dropped out of California State University, Long Beach—leaned on her hard. “Steven was the most stern about it,” says Capshaw. “He told me to finish college for him. To this day I tell him it was the greatest gift he could have given me.”

In fact, Capshaw had led a relatively normal life even before her mother became romantically involved with Spielberg in the late ’80s. Born in Columbus, Mo., Jessica moved to New York City with her parents—her father, Robert, 50, is now a marketing director—when she was 2. The two divorced soon after, and though Jessica lived mostly with Kate, who was working as a Ford model and beginning an acting career, she has stayed close to her father. “She’s a joy,” says Robert Capshaw, who thinks Spielberg has handled a potentially difficult role with sensitivity. “From what I’ve seen, he’s selfless with his children,” says Capshaw. “He has treated Jessica like one of his own, and he’s never tried to take my place. He has just been a good friend.”

Jessica says she was ecstatic—”screaming and crying”—when she got the Locusts part. She also landed a small role in Denial, an upcoming low-budget film. “I play a student—a stretch,” she jokes. Professionally she isn’t sure what will happen next; one personal goal—to start raising a family soon—is in abeyance “pending the right guy.” Raised an only child for her first decade, she didn’t discover how much she enjoyed “molding little minds” until her mother and stepfather started filling their house with kids. When her stepbrother Max, 12, picked her as the subject of his school essay “The Person I Admire Most,” says Jessica, “you could hear my heart breaking.”

NICK CHARLES

BRYAN ALEXANDER in London

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