November 09, 1987 12:00 PM

Fresh off the red-eye from L.A., Canadian actress Sheila McCarthy hovers in the foyer of her publicist’s Manhattan office. A secretary rushes over to confirm an appointment with super-agent Sam Cohn. Norman Mailer walks in. “I hear you’re fabulous,” says Mailer. “It’s a great part, good writing,” demurs McCarthy, 31, of her first movie role in the low-budget Canadian film I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. “Only marvelous actresses ever say that,” says Mailer.

He leaves. She rolls her eyes.

“Marvelous” is only one of the adjectives McCarthy has had to get used to. Her comic stint as an office temp with oversize fantasies has also been called “extraordinary,” “original” and “be-witchingly goofy.” Nobody could be more surprised than McCarthy. The Toronto-born daughter of a radiologist, she started dancing at 5 and only took up acting six years ago. Although her stage work in Canada ranged from Little Shop of Horrors to Hamlet, she had been turned down for an American TV series just before auditioning for Mermaidsand was not in the best frame of mind. “I was pissed off because I had to drive down to Toronto on a Saturday,” recalls McCarthy, who lives in Stratford, Ont., with her husband, actor Peter Donaldson. “My attitude was so disgusting, I thought, ‘Who cares about a little Canadian film?’ But when I started reading the monologues, I said, ‘My God, this is a really good part!’ All of a sudden I got nervous, because all of a sudden I wanted it.”

Now, all of a sudden everyone wants McCarthy. The Today show sent a private jet for her. Scripts are piling up. Woody Allen wants to see her. She’s starring in a Stratford Festival production of Cabaret and has just completed a TV movie for Canadian Broadcasting. “Ooooh, believe me, it’s a great position to be in,” says McCarthy, who is expecting her first child in March. “But it’s the icing on the cake. I got married, I’m having this baby and I’m a hit in a movie—all this creation in one year.”

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