Kelli Pryor
April 30, 1993 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Fairuza Balk, 18, brought higher purpose than acting to ABC’s Murder in the Heartland. ”It was my job to prove that Caril was innocent,” she says. Balk plays 14-year-old Caril Ann Fugate, the girlfriend of Nebraska’s legendary Charles Starkweather, who was put to death in 1959 after his 44-hour, .22 caliber rampage. Convicted on an accessory-to-murder charge, Fugate spent 18 years in prison — all the while and to this day maintaining her innocence.

Fugate has found an unlikely ally in the California-born Balk, who at age 11 was curtseying to the Queen and doing Good Morning America to promote her role as Dorothy in Disney’s Return to Oz. As Cecile in Milos Forman’s Valmont and Shade in Allison Anders’ Gas Food Lodging, Balk has earned respect for her soul-in-the-eyes acting.

Crafting her Heartland performance with a Streep-like singlemindedness striking in one so young, Balk devoured accounts of the Starkweather case. She crawled so completely under Fugate’s skin that after acting all day on the sets outside Dallas, she would read Milan Kundera and Hermann Hesse, she says, ”to put myself in another world, to let myself go.”

A month after finishing the movie, she flew to Nebraska for the first time ever to introduce a screening of Gas Food Lodging and once there felt an immediate, eerie sense of recognition. ”I took on Caril’s pain,” she says. ”When I was in her place, it was terrifying to know what it was like for her.” Balk tried to meet with Fugate but was thwarted by the former prisoner’s desire for privacy. Since then, Balk has composed a letter but hasn’t yet sent it.

Her performance is meant to show Fugate that at least one person believes that if your boyfriend starts shooting people, you do what he says. ”It’s her life,” Balk says. ”But for a lot of people, it will just be entertainment.”

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