May 04, 1998 12:00 PM

As a typical teenager with a new driver’s license 10 years ago, Natasha Gregson Wagner admits she “used to back out of our driveway really fast.” But when her adoptive father, Hart to Hart star Robert Wagner, took her aside, her response was hardly typical. “My dad said, ‘If anything happened to you, I don’t know what I’d do. So I would be so grateful if you could drive slower.’ I melted,” Wagner recalls. “He never had to ask me to slow down again.”

What went unspoken, of course, was that father and daughter had both lost someone they loved dearly in a tragic accident years before. On Nov. 29, 1981, Wagner’s 43-year-old mother, Natalie Wood, fell off her yacht and drowned while sailing with her husband and their friend Christopher Walken near Catalina Island. Natasha, whose biological father is screenwriter and producer Richard Gregson but who had been legally adopted by Robert when he remarried Wood in 1972, was 11 at the time. “Her death was probably the most defining part of me,” she says. “I’ve spent the rest of my life dealing with it.”

Part of Wood lives on in Wagner, now 27 and an actress herself. In the new film drama Two Girls and a Guy, her fiery performance as a street-smart bisexual who discovers that her boyfriend (played by Robert Downey Jr.) is cheating on her recalls her mother’s bewitching turns in movies such as Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story. “She has the same nose, mouth, smile, laugh and same essential spirit as her mother,” says James Toback, the writer and director of Two Girls. “It’s almost eerie. At times I felt I was in the presence of her mom.”

Wagner just hopes that both her fathers—”Daddy Gregson” and “Daddy Wagner,” as she calls them—will not be upset by the film’s frank themes. “I don’t mind them seeing me talk candidly about sex,” she says. “I’m just glad I’m not naked.” Costar Heather Graham (Boogie Nights) does have an explicit sex scene, however, and the movie had to be recut several times to avoid an NC-17 rating. Daddies aside, Wagner welcomes controversy. “I like working with bold people who want to make an impact,” she says. “I’m not interested in being just another pretty face.” Daddy Wagner, for one, admires her spunk. “Natasha steps out there,” he says. “And I like that about her. I think she has the magic.”

She has also come to terms, finally, with the inevitable comparisons to her mother. After Wood’s death, she recalls, “I had to find out how you continue to have a relationship with someone who isn’t here anymore, at least physically.” She leaned heavily on her stepsister Katie Wagner, 34, a freelance TV reporter (whose mother is former actress Marion Marshall Donen) and halt sister Courtney Wagner, 24, an artist (the only child Wood had with Wagner). And therapy, she says, taught her “not to be afraid to cry and to acknowledge when I feel sad or lonely.”

She also learned to acknowledge the happy times. Growing up in Beverly Hills and Pacific Palisades, she says she had a normal childhood with Robert Wagner and a mother who supervised piano and ballet lessons and read The Little Prince and Winnie-the-Pooh to her. “I knew she was special,” Natasha says. “But none of that had to do with her being an actress. I related to her because she was my mom.” (Gregson, who married Wood in 1969, now lives in Wales.)

After graduating from Crossroads High School in Santa Monica, Wagner went on to Boston’s Emerson College, then transferred to the University of Southern California. She always loved acting, says sister Katie: “She has an old piece of paper from when she was first learning to write that says, ‘When I grow up I want to be an actress just like my mommy.’ ” In 1992, Wagner dropped out of college to do just that, to her father’s initial concern. “I always wanted her to have an education,” says Robert Wagner, who married actress Jill St. John in 1990. “I wanted her to be able to handle the disappointments. But I think she’s pretty secure about herself.” She made her film debut in 1992’s huffy the Vampire Slayer, broke out as a two-timed girlfriend in last year’s surreal thriller Lost Highway and has just finished shooting the drama Another Day in Paradise, with James Woods.

Still, Wagner is determined not to let her career take over. “I’m going to do more than just act,” she vows. She likes to read novels or just watch the whales that cavort in front of her two-bedroom Malibu beach home, where she is learning to cook from her boyfriend, Adam Storke, 35, an actor on the ABC series Prey. Wagner also enjoys organizing the correspondence her mother kept with friends like Ruth Gordon (Natasha’s godmother), David Niven and Mia Farrow—plus “all the love letters my Daddy Wagner ever sent her.”

After that, who knows? “The world is so big,” she says, “I could go anywhere and do anything.” Katie agrees. “She’s so independent and evolved and emotionally together,” she says. “I think her mom would be really, really proud.”

Dan Jewel

Todd Gold in Malibu

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