November 06, 1989 12:00 PM

When Kelly Lynch auditioned for Drugstore Cowboy, she was sure the odds were against her. After all, she had to overcome formidable natural obstacles. She normally radiates the cornstalk confidence of a Midwestern beauty—though the part was that of a scabrous junkie who rips off drugstores for a fix. To look more like the movie’s down-and-out Dianne, Lynch didn’t sleep the night before her audition and arrived at the casting call with dirty hair and a T-shirt sporting a picture of Donald Duck making an obscene gesture and saying, QUACK OFF, JACK. “I went after this like you can’t imagine,” says Lynch, 30. “I had been pigeonholed as always being the beautiful girl, and I was tired of that.”

After vamping her way through bimbo parts in Bright Lights, Big City; Cocktail and Road House, with Michael J. Fox, Tom Cruise and Patrick Swayze, it’s no wonder Lynch was ready for a grittier role. And although in Drugstore Cowboy she plays the wife of heartthrob Matt Dillon, this time Lynch is no sweet young thing. “I was impressed,” says director Gus Van Sant. “I thought she was a kind of cowgirl.”

Lynch knows a hard-won thing or two about the film’s disturbing subject—pharmaceutical roulette. Her own drug trip began unintentionally in 1980 when a car crash landed her in a Minneapolis hospital with two shattered legs. During treatment Lynch became addicted to the painkiller Demerol. “I got a shot of it every four hours, but toward the end I was saying ‘I think it’s time for my Demerol’ every 15 minutes,” says Lynch. “One day the doctor said, ‘You know, Kelly, your legs don’t hurt anymore. We’ve got to take you off this Demerol.’

“I spent 10 days in hell. I asked the nurses to come in and hold my arms down because I wanted to tear my skin off my body,” says Lynch, who shriveled from 125 lbs. to 85 in the eight months she spent in the hospital. Still, her perspective on life grew. “When I looked at myself in a mirror, I realized that what’s inside—what you do with your life—is what matters. What’s on the outside can come and go.”

Lynch grew up in Minneapolis and was one of two daughters of Robert Lynch, a wealthy restaurateur, and his wife, Barbara, a modern dancer. When Kelly was 7, her parents divorced, and the girls began a strange existence living in a grand house provided by their father but furnished meagerly by her mother, who preferred a bohemian life-style. It was her mother who encouraged Kelly to study dancing and acting. In those days her come-hither looks had yet to blossom. “I looked more like Olive Oyl,” Lynch says. “I was the weird, funny, smart girl. I was a ham and I’d get in lots of trouble.”

Trouble dogged the rebellious Lynch for years to come. She dropped out of college after only one week and went to work as a stewardess for Northwest Airlines until her superiors learned she had lied about her age. On her own time, she pursued skydiving, hang gliding and motorcycling (without a helmet, naturally—”I’ve always been a thrill seeker”).

Her near-fatal car crash at 20 convinced Lynch to slow down. When she recovered, she moved to New York City with her boyfriend, an aspiring model. But when Lynch tagged along on his modeling-agency rounds, it was she, not he, who was discovered, and their relationship soon fizzled. Lynch signed on with Elite in 1981 and spent the next 3½ years modeling, earning $750,000.

In 1984 she appeared in her first film, Osa, a low-budget science-fiction movie that was filmed in Mexico. The best thing she can say about the movie is that while making it she learned she was pregnant. “I was like, ‘Whoa, I’m gonna have a kid!’ ” Lynch recalls. “I was filled with all this ‘I’m a woman, I’m a mother.’ ” The baby’s father was a studio musician whom Lynch had been dating for four months. She promptly told him of her pregnancy, and although they decided not to continue the romance, they remain friends and today share bicoastal child-rearing responsibilities for their 4-year-old daughter, Shane. “I explained to her as much as I could that I love her daddy but I’m not in love with him,” says Lynch. “I don’t know how much of that she understands.”

Lynch, who says she has no “main squeeze” at the moment, is comfortable as a single mom. When she’s filming on location—her next project is Desperate Hours, directed by Michael Cimino—Shane is cared for by her father, her nanny or Lynch’s mother. Back home in her three-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles, Lynch turns the spotlight on Shane. “I come home at night from my power lunches and play with Play-Doh and do Barbies,” says Lynch. “It doesn’t matter if I blew a meeting or whatever. She’s my little anchor, my rudder.”

—Irene Lacher, Michael Alexander in Los Angeles

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