June 17, 1996 12:00 PM

ONE OF THE EXCITING—PERHAPS too exciting—things about driving in L.A. is that you just might encounter Vanessa Marcil. The actress, best known as bitchy Brenda Barrett on General Hospital and the host of Friday night’s ABC in Concert, tools around in her black BMW convertible and, every so often, rears back and “scream-sings” a pop song at full volume. “It’s good therapy,” she says, “to let things out in a dramatic way.”

If so, Marcil, 27, must be feeling centered and serene. She has just made her movie debut in The Rock, a thriller in which prisoner Sean Connery and FBI agent Nicolas Cage team up to battle terrorists (see review page 21). Marcil says she enjoyed her role as Cage’s fiancée even though “I’m not the kind whose dream is to have a husband and a house, like my character. I see too many kids whose parents don’t want to spend time with them.”

Marcil, who often volunteers at L.A. rehabilitation centers for adolescent girls, says her own childhood has lead her to feel a kinship with the clients. “I’m a recovering drug addict. My problem was drinking. I haven’t had a drink for 5½ years now, and I want to show these girls that I could achieve my dreams.”

Marcil, the youngest of four siblings, won’t say much about her Palm Desert, Calif., childhood except, “I didn’t live in a surrounding that taught me to express myself.” Her mother, Patricia Ortiz (Marcil is Patricia’s maiden name), agrees. “I was young, her father [Peter Ortiz, a contractor from whom she is separated] was young,” says Ortiz, an herbalist. “It was children raising children.”

Marcil started drinking as a teen. But after attending the College of the Desert in her hometown, she says, “I got involved with people whose lives have been torn apart” by substance abuse. Watching them struggle, she says, frightened her enough to find sobriety on her own. Around that time, she left school and pursued an acting career. An agent spotted her in a 1992 L.A. production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and two months later she landed her role on General Hospital.

Despite her acclaimed beauty, though, Marcil says she has no time for romance. When The Rock was shot last winter, she left her two-bedroom house in the Hollywood Hills at 6 a.m. to fly to the movie’s San Francisco set, then flew back to L.A. to tape her soap each night. She always gets a thrill, she says, when pulling into her GH parking spot. “I sometimes look at my car, my name, the ABC sign, and I start crying,” she says. After her hard times, she explains, “I’m really appreciating things.”

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