May 26, 1986 12:00 PM

It was two years ago, and the customers at a tiny Manhattan restaurant called Dunleavy’s were teasing the waitress. “Kelly [Witness] McGillis had worked there,” relates Patricia Charbonneau, “and everyone was saying, ‘Kelly made it. When are you going to do it?’ ” Shortly thereafter Charbonneau went to Reno to star in Desert Hearts, a lesbian love story. The film opened to mixed reviews last month, but the critics have been unanimous in their praise for Charbonneau. Rex Reed described her as “an alluring and captivating new screen presence,” while the Washington Post’s Paul Attanasio asked, “Who couldn’t watch Charbonneau for hours?”

It is a stroke of good luck that the public is getting to watch Charbonneau at all. The 27-year-old actress got an audition because the director came across her picture and thought she looked like the character. Once she got the role, Charbonneau worked making change in a Lake Tahoe casino for a week to prepare for the part and wondered why she felt so tired at night. “Two days before shooting,” she reports, “I found out I was pregnant.” She decided to go ahead with the filming. “That’s what the movie is really about,” she says, “taking risks.”

Born in Valley Stream, Long Island (her father, a retired businessman, is French, her mother Austrian), Charbonneau is the youngest of 10 children. She had always wanted to act and went to Boston University as a theater major. After a month she left for the family farm in the Catskills and got a job with a local repertory company. In 1978 she went to New York and met rock musician Vincent Caggiano, 29. They were married four years later. Charbonneau’s daughter, Hannah Catherine, is 13 months old now, and Mom hopes an NBC pilot called C.A.T. Squadn which she plays the female lead will become a series. Charbonneau has yet to go back to Dunleavy’s, “but I will,” she says. “I must go back.” For now, though, she’s more concerned about going forward.

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