December 09, 1996 12:00 PM

SHE SITS, CROSS-LEGGED, IN HER Hollywood Hills living room across from a poster of her parents’ famous rock band, dressed in black, chain-smoking and talking nonstop. China Kantner is very much her mother’s daughter. Like Grace Slick, who sang in the Jefferson Airplane with Kantner’s father, Paul, China, 25, has found a home onstage. And like Slick, now 57, she has struggled with alcohol, possesses a formidable will and speaks bluntly. But Kantner is quick to point out that she’s her own person. For one thing, she says, “I can’t sing.”

But she can, apparently, act and will next be seen as Shirley MacLaine’s granddaughter-in-law in The Evening Star, the Terms of Endearment sequel opening Christmas Day. “I love her gruff quality,” MacLaine says. “She has a very funny, hard edge to her.” In fact, the friction between MacLaine’s and Debra Winger’s characters in the original 1983 film reminded Kantner of her relationship with Slick: “We’ve never been mother and daughter; we’ve been friends since I was born. My mom’s supportive, but it’s so complex.”

Kantner was born and raised in San Francisco amid the psychedelic turbulence that was part of the Airplane’s world. Slick, one of rock’s most influential singers of her generation, and Paul Kantner, the band’s guitarist, who rode to fame on such songs as “Somebody to Love,” named their daughter “as a tribute to Bruce Lee,” says China. They never married and broke up amicably when she was 4, after which China spent alternate weeks with each. “She’s had a tough life,” says Jennifer Courtney, her close friend. “It’s not easy being raised by an icon.” Says Slick: “It’s rock and roll. It’s not like having a parent who’s an accountant. But she was loved by everybody.”

One who loved her was Pat Dugan, China’s nanny for nine years. “Pat was balanced and sure of herself and very motherly,” the actress says, “so that kind of rubbed off.” But when Jefferson Starship, as they were then known, split bitterly in 1984, the 13-year-old, seeking approval from her mother, sided with Slick and moved in with her. Although China didn’t speak to her father for the next three years—”it was a real bad breakup”—she says they now enjoy “a wonderful father-daughter relationship—I’m a daddy’s girl.”

But China “grew up very fast,” she says, and was drinking heavily by age 13—partly, she suggests, in response to her mother’s problems with alcohol. “I wanted not to feel my feelings,” China explains, describing what it was like when her mom drank. “A child doesn’t know why Mommy is being an insane, verbal maniac one minute, and the next moment telling you how great you are.” But she also credits her mother, who joined a 12-step program at a critical moment, with helping her to stop drinking.

“She said to me calmly,” remembers Kantner, who was 14 at the time, ” ‘China, you’re an alcoholic. Either you’re going to die, go insane or end up in jail. Or you can get sober and live a happy life.’ ” Kantner ignored the lecture. But a year later, drunk on cooking sherry at a friend’s house, she called her mother and said, “Pick me up, please. I need to get sober.” She began going to recovery group meetings with Slick and says that, with one exception, she hasn’t had a drink since.

Soon, says Kantner, she found she was “more into [acting] than anything” and at Redwood High School in Larkspur, Calif., became increasingly serious about it. “I thought, ‘Oh, God, I hope she doesn’t suck,’ ” says Slick, recalling China’s stage debut. “Because how can you tell someone that, ‘Uh, maybe there’s something else you can do?’ Fortunately, she’s good onstage.”

And, soon enough, on TV Family friend Les Garland, then MTV’s chief programmer, hired her at 15 as a veejay. She left two years later to do a series of small parts on TV and film before winning The Evening Star role. “I was looking for someone who would be a threat to Shirley MacLaine, and that’s no small task,” says director Robert Harling. “China has a presence. I think she’s the real thing.”

So does video director Nikhil Paniz, 26, her live-in boyfriend of three years. “He comes from a family that’s grounded and solid,” she says. “He doesn’t freak out and get dramatic, which is what I grew up seeing and being like.” Marriage, they say, is a possibility—something Slick would love to see. “He’s just marvelous,” says Slick.

Meanwhile, Kantner takes classes at Santa Monica College and aims to get a psychology degree. Her acting success, though, hasn’t surprised her mother. “When she was a baby,” says Slick, “we were driving around and she pointed up to the sky and said, ‘Moon, I’ll get it.’ Her first sentence was so specific and metaphorical. She said she could get the moon, and I thought, ‘Go on, girl’ ”

CALVIN BAKER

PAULA YOO in Los Angeles

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