Lounging in the courtyard of L.A.'s legendary Chateau Marmont hotel, Rebecca Gayheart is on her best behavior ("Mind if I smoke?") as she explains how she got into show business. In 1987, on her first day in New York City, she met aspiring director Brett Ratner at a mutual friend's apartment. "He said, 'Lets go do a short film together,' " says Gayheart, who has been engaged to Ratner since 1995. That film, 1989's What Ever Happened to Mason Reese?, was only 10 minutes long, but it changed Gayheart's life. "When we finished it," says Ratner, who directed the hit 1998 Rush Hour, "Rebecca was like,' I really have to be an actress now."
An acting career might see like a farfetched goal for a girl who was raised with two sisters and a brother in tine Pinetop, Ky., where her mother, Flo, sold Mary Kay cosmetics and her father, Steven, was a coal miner. But when Gayheart won a local beauty contest she used teh $300 in prize money to finance a move to New York, snagging her early roles in soap operas and eventually relocating to L.A., where she acted in such films as 1997's Scream 2 and 1998's Urban Legend.
This fall, Gayheart gets her big mainstream break, playing an assistant in a New York City district attorney's office in writer-director Kevin Williamson's Wasteland, an ABC drama about friends dealing with life after college. "To me, Rebecca is the chameleon of the cast, " says creator Williamson, who gave the world Dawson's Creek and Scream. "You look at her from one angle and she's drop-dead gorgeous, but you see her from another side and she looks like a duck. And she doesn't want to be pretty, which is great - because as part of her character's journey, we're definitely going for the seamy side of life." Michael Angeli