Ethan Smith
June 28, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

When Heather Matarazzo signed to star in Welcome to the Dollhouse, she wasn’t struck by the parallels between the film and her life: ”It never really occurred to me that I was going into seventh grade right after I did this treacherous film about seventh grade.” And in retrospect, portraying Dawn Wiener, an outcast so reviled the class nerd calls her names, wasn’t preparation enough for the real thing. Over a Coke at a SoHo restaurant, the 13-year-old Long Islander observes that seventh graders are ”nasty, disrespectful, and rude,” and that the R-rated Dollhouse, in which the boys who like you talk of rape, is still ”a G-rated version of what goes on in junior high. Kids make fun of kids in the most malicious way they know how.”

Not that Matarazzo is a Wienerdog. Lest she give too bleak an impression, the poised, blue-eyed ingenue-in-waiting adds that her classmates have been ”really supportive, surprisingly,” of her glasses-and-sweatpants feature debut. ”There are always those one or two people who say, ‘Oh, I think your movie’s so bad,”’ she notes with youthful stoicism. ”But I don’t care. I know they’re just jealous. I brush it off.”

Matarazzo started acting at 7, landing spots in an NYU student film and on Nickelodeon’s The Adventures of Pete & Pete. To make Dollhouse, she commuted throughout the summer of 1994 from her grandparents’ Manhattan apartment to the film’s New Jersey set, spending weekends at home in East Norwich, N.Y., with her parents, Camille, a homemaker, and Ray, a data processing manager for Entenmann’s baked goods. The five-day-a-week grind ”was the greatest experience I’ve ever had,” says the junior high grad, who’d like to work with Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino (”even though he’s a little nuts”) and maybe ”do a little directing and screenwriting and producing.”

But first things first. Matarazzo is gearing up for her summer job playing a tough teen opposite River Phoenix’s sister Summer in the indie drama Arresting Gena (alas, Dollhouse director Todd Solondz’s next picture ”contains all adults”) and taking a little time out, occasionally, to act her age. Like many a recalcitrant teen, she must be persuaded to eat a sensible dinner, although in Matarazzo’s case it’s her manager, Carolyn Anthony, who does the prodding. ”What did I tell you about maintaining your energy?” says Anthony, who’s been busily reading scripts and plotting her charge’s next move. ”You’ll be at your photo shoot until 9:30. Do you want to be drooping in front of the camera?”

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