August 17, 1998 12:00 PM

On Aug. 12, 1980, electrical engineer David Swain floored his Datsun along the Santa Monica Freeway, desperate to get his wife, Cindy, to the maternity ward in time. But the baby onboard had other ideas. “It was high noon, and we pulled over, and I delivered my daughter,” says Swain. “When we got to the hospital parking lot, the doctor came over, handed me scissors, pointed to the umbilical cord and said, ‘You’ve started the job, you might as well finish it.’ ”

Eighteen years after making that dramatic entrance, Dominique Swain still prefers the fast lane. “It’s how I live life,” she says, “to the extreme.” That may sound like adolescent self-dramatization, given what sounds like a pleasant upbringing in Malibu, where she played sports (soccer), practiced her art (sculpture) and listened to music (Snoop Doggy Dogg). But Swain has rushed in where even fallen angels might fear to tread, beating out some 2,500 young actresses to play the spiciest of all spice girls. She’s the sexually precocious 12-year-old title character in the controversial film remake of Vladimir Nabokov’s scandalous 1955 classic novel, Lolita. “If I had been famous already, I probably would have wondered whether I should play the part,” admits Swain, who had zero prior acting credits. “But it was an opportunity to be in a big movie.”

Both as a novel and as Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 movie version, Lolita has always been a moral hot potato; but in an era of heightened awareness of childhood sexual abuse, director Adrian Lyne’s (Fatal Attraction) $58 million production, which stars Jeremy Irons as the obsessed middle-aged professor enamored of the girl, was radioactive. Although he finished Lolita in 1996, Lyne couldn’t find anyone willing to show it in this country. (Swain, meanwhile, played John Travolta’s daughter in last summer’s Face/Off.) Lyne’s Lolita is hardly more explicit than Kubrick’s. “But people were expecting a salacious movie,” he says. It finally premiered two weeks ago on Showtime, prior to its national theatrical release this fall.

Swain is bothered neither by the role nor the headlines. “I was having a grand old time the whole time,” she said at the July 15 L.A. premiere, which she attended with her boyfriend Charlie Bambrook, 19, and their pet ferret Snoop. On the set she startled everyone with the gusto she brought to several kissing scenes. “She was totally unfrightened,” says Lyne. Swain was uncomfortable only performing a solo dance. “She really couldn’t dance,” says Lyne.

But Swain, who has two sisters—Chelsea, 15, and Alexis, 19, a UCLA sophomore—as well as a stepbrother and stepsister from her father’s first marriage (he is currently separated from her mother), is otherwise surefooted. Recalling the time she successfully tried out for the intramural boys’ soccer team at Malibu High, where she was an A student for three years (after that, she was tutored), dad David, 68, says, “If she wanted something, it had to be the way she wanted to do it.”

Although she has wanted to act since age 7, when she was spellbound by the children’s film The Neverending Story, the teenage Swain had no luck breaking into show business until she triumphed in Lyne’s Lolita casting search by reading aloud from the book in a strikingly simple homemade video. “She did it in the kitchen, with the dog wandering in and out,” says Lyne. “She was a little eccentric.”

Although Swain has since finished the yet-to-be-released Girl, in which she plays a rock groupie, much of her summer has been devoted to turning her father’s three-room Malibu guest house into her private quarters. Unlike Lolita, whose adult life sours, Swain seems ready to tackle adulthood on her own terms. “My parents raised me to make my own decisions, and they trust me,” she says. “If they didn’t trust me, I’d kind of take the driver’s seat anyway.”

Tom Gliatto

Elizabeth Leonard in Los Angeles

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