By People Staff
September 11, 1989 12:00 PM

Seconds inside the chic Hollywood restaurant, Laura San Giacomo is already the center of gush. Well-groomed heads turn. A slick-looking dweeb mutters praise. The maitre d’ slides up to her and coos, “I just wanted to tell you how wonderful you were in the movie. I saw it for the second time last night” San Giacomo, suddenly acutely aware she’s dressed in torn jeans, shyly smiles. Or is it smirks? “This is very Los Angeles,” she says, arriving at the table. “I would normally not come here. I’d probably go to some scummy place.”

Some other time, perhaps. At the moment, her salad days appear to be over. In very short order her film debut in the sleeper smash sex, lies, and videotape—playing a woman whose sexual voracity extends to her sister’s husband—has taken San Giacomo from obscurity to Hollywood flavor of the month. “It’s very overwhelming,” says the 27-year-old actress, who, despite her low, sultry voice, is infinitely more demure than her character.

A low-budget film made by first-time feature director Steven Soderbergh, sex, lies, and videotape captured the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and has grossed more than $4 million in just four weeks—particularly impressive since it’s currently playing on only 101 screens. And much attention has been focused on San Giacomo, the complete unknown among a cast of relative unknowns.

The change has been jolting for this eldest daughter of a Denville, N.J., paper mill owner and his insurance processor wife. Prior to sex, Laura’s credits were limited to stage roles in off-Broadway and regional theater and guest shots on TV series like Crime Story and Spenser: For Hire. Now she’s being barraged with new scripts (her second film, Vital Signs, is due out Sept. 15), admiring fans and demanding reporters.

That means she has been in L.A. five months on what was supposed to be a three-week visit (“I’m getting used to being in a car”), and she’s eager to return to her actor boyfriend and to her barely furnished two-bedroom apartment outside Hoboken, N.J.

Director Soderbergh, 26, feels some concern about his discovery’s new fame. “I worry about her getting overwhelmed by what’s going on around her,” he says. “But I think Laura’s pretty grounded, so I don’t think she’s going to have a problem. You can tell she has her wits about her.”

San Giacomo is keeping her sudden celebrity at bay with a defensive mixture of modesty and cynicism. “It wasn’t like I wanted to go off and be a big star,” she says. “We do this [acting] to tell a story, that’s the bottom line. People forget that a lot. People forget for grand illusions, or grand delusions. It’s easy to get caught up in that negative stuff. It’s a strange game.”

And for her the first round has only just begun.