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Thursday, Dec. 2, 2004 09:50 pm

Seeing stars

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At 21, Marissa Cerar moved from Athens, the sleepy, one-stoplight town 15 miles north of Springfield, into a duplex in Burbank, Calif., five miles north of Hollywood.

She remembers the day she left:

"I said to my family: 'See ya -- I'm gonna be famous in five years.'"

Now 24, Marissa's feeling anxious.

She came back to live in Springfield nearly two years ago when her father -- Athens' chain-smoking former mayor -- was rushed to the hospital after his second heart attack in seven months.

The decision to return home was a difficult one. She had just shot her first feature-film -- a raunchy, adolescent comedy called Sweet Potato Pie that hit local video stores in July.

"I didn't think it was going to skyrocket me to fame," she says of the movie. "But I thought it would bring me good exposure."

Today Marissa waits tables part-time at Coz's Pizza & Pub off West Wabash Avenue. She lives with her boyfriend, a local musician, in an apartment on the North End.

But she's refused to unpack her boxes.

Marissa's story is classic: Small-town girl bids farewell to family and friends and sets out for Tinseltown with a suitcase and a dream.

But sunny California proves frosty at times. Work is hard to come by. It seems everyone she meets is an aspiring actor, just like her.

She takes odd jobs to make rent; accepts roles in low-budget films for no pay.

She tries to network, but makes few connections. It seems so phony, so unlike her.

"The Paris Hiltons of the world make me so sick," she says, sipping a soda one Saturday afternoon at the Brewhaus. "And there's so many girls like that out there."

Marissa's first brush with fame came at age 13 when she won a beauty pageant held at the former Holiday Inn on Springfield's East Side. A few months later she earned a runner-up trophy at a national pageant held outside St. Louis.

She remembers the other girls "wore poofy dresses, but mine was lacey-white and form-fitting."

While enrolled at Athens High School, Marissa took modeling and acting classes in Chicago. She later earned a film degree from Columbia College, and spent her last semester in a screenwriting seminar at CBS Studios in Los Angeles.

As a teenager she landed parts in a few commercials and short films. She once played a suicidal teen in a film screened in high-school health classes. She did television spots for MasterCard and Cheeseburger Hot Pockets.

To her dismay, five years later, friends still come up to her and say: "Cheeseburger."

George and Rita Cerar adopted Marissa when she was five weeks old. Marissa had a different name then. She was called Baby No. 4.

Rita remembers her conversation with the caseworker who led her to Marissa.

"They asked what we would like to have," says Rita, seated at her kitchen table in Athens. "Some say a girl - y'know, blonde hair, blue eyes. We said we wanted a baby.

"They said the baby's biracial," Rita continues. "We didn't bat an eye."

Marissa is one of eight adopted children and the lone black member of her family. She never met her birth parents. She's told that her mother was a white cheerleader from a Catholic high school, her father a black football quarterback from a rival school. That's all she cares to know. To anyone who asks, Marissa insists George and Rita are her "real parents."

"If I wasn't adopted by them, I don't know where I would be," says Marissa. "I don't know who I would be."

Married 41 years, George and Rita both hail from large families in Carlinville, about 50 miles south of Springfield. George was the youngest of 12, and Rita the youngest of eight. They lived in Springfield when they first married, and settled in Athens in 1975.

George was mayor of Athens -- a part-time job that paid about $150 a month -- from 1989-2001. He is considering another run for office in April if his health improves.

Rita worked in the superintendent's office at Athens High School when Marissa went there. She now runs the library at Cantrall Elementary School.

After seven years of marriage and two stillbirths, the Cerars became foster parents. Marissa was 7 when her parents brought home five more kids, siblings ranging from 9 months to 9 years.

Some of the children had been abused or neglected before the Cerars took them in. All are white, like George and Rita, except for Marissa and older sister Tammy, who is part Mexican and Native American.

"The nationality, the race never entered our minds," says George, a former president of the Menard-Mason County Foster Parents Association.

Marissa says she spent the early part of her childhood color-blind, unable to distinguish her race from the rest of her family. "Until someone tells you you're different, you don't know it," she says.

It was in fourth grade, Marissa remembers, when other kids at her all-white school made sure she knew she was different.

One kid, she remembers, dressed up a doll in a white sheet and hood like a Klansman, then taunted her with it. George remembers that Marissa's older brother was once suspended from school for beating up another kid who "called her a nigger."

"I didn't belong in Athens," says Marissa. "I just wanted to be normal, to fit in.

"I remember wishing I had the name Stacy. It seemed everyone else did."

Early on in the screenplay Marissa wrote, there's a scene in which a 10-year-old black girl and her white mother are driving south from Chicago to live in a tiny, rural Illinois town. Their new neighbor steps outside to meet them and extends her hand to the mother, but quickly withdraws it when she sees the girl.

The mother and daughter later visit the local bar and grill. The patrons gawk at them, and they leave. The next day they awake to discover a note -- "Go Home Niggers" -- under the wiper blade of their car.

Unlike Marissa's movie, her screenplay is highly literate. It's a supernatural thriller with smart, crisp dialogue and serious themes exploring issues of racism and families not connected by blood.

The story: A mother and daughter move into a house left unoccupied for 30 years. The place is haunted by a little girl who was kidnapped from her foster parent and left for dead by the side of a road. The mother and daughter draw closer together as they uncover the mystery of the little girl's abductor.

Most of the action occurs in a sleepy town called Barn Hollow, which is modeled after Marissa's own hometown. "Everything I write is so derivative of Athens," she says.

She borrowed the name from a subdivision her father is currently building on the west side of Athens. Marissa's Barn Hollow has a population of 999 -- roughly half the size of Athens.

Other local signposts in the script include a road where "a young Abraham Lincoln worked as a surveyor," and "Menard County Hall," where the story's central character seeks out a death certificate.

Springfield makes an appearance as "Edens City," the medium-sized municipality nearby. Marissa calls it "an idealized version of Springfield."

In Marissa's imagination, Springfield has always been something of an ideal place. As a teenager, she met people here who were more tolerant and open-minded; many of her childhood friends still live in the capital city.

Barn Hollow marks Marissa's fourth feature-length screenplay. She submitted the script into several major competitions this year, where it was well-received.

It made the top 40 in the Illinois/Chicago Screenwriting Competition, and finished in the top 1,000 of the more than 5,000 scripts entered into the Project Greenlight screenwriting contest founded by actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

Marissa says she started writing stories as a young girl, and expects her themes will always be the same: Adoption, rural towns versus big cities, unconventional relationships, and race.

"My experiences have made me so empathetic," she says. "They've helped me as a writer, as an actor, as a creative person."

Don't ask Marissa about her movie. She doesn't want you to know about it. She won't even let her proud parents see it.

"It's so embarrassing," she says, covering her eyes. "I mean, it's agonizing to watch."

Sweet Potato Pie is a straight-to-video spin-off of the popular American Pie series with a mostly African-American cast. Shot in 2000 and distributed earlier this year, the movie only recently moved off the "New Releases" rack of most Springfield video stores.

Marissa says it took her four times before she managed to watch the film to its end. The story revolves around three 18-year-old men on a quest to lose their virginity.

In one scene, the main character puffs on a joint and an apparition in the form of a woman dressed in bra and panties appears at the edge of his couch. She wipes whipped cream off her bosom and tempts him with a sweet potato pie encased in tinfoil. The parents then walk in on their son, who is alone with his trousers around his ankles and the pie rubbed into his crotch.

"Oh my God!" shrieks the mom. "Our son is possessed by the horny devil himself! Quick! Somebody call the sexorcist!"

Marissa shows up toward the very end of the movie. She plays one of three 18-year-old virgins who "hooks up" with the randy guys after they meet at an afternoon barbecue. She has a make-out scene, and 10 or so lines of dialogue.

She is proud of her performance -- despite the overall product. She says she signed onto the project expecting better results, but financial woes forced a change in the producer, cinematographer, and even some actors after filming had already begun.

Her Springfield friends poke fun at her over the movie. But she lets it slide, reminding herself that many of today's stars were first cast in less-than-glamorous roles.

"I tell my mom," Marissa says, "when I'm in a movie with Meryl Streep, I'll let her see that."

Marissa's too young, too wide-eyed for regrets. But she's haunted by missed opportunities, and painfully aware that good roles for actresses, especially black actresses, are rare. With each passing year, it seems, her star burns a little dimmer.

Marissa's nervous. She plans to return to Hollywood in January. She's still looking for a roommate to split the bills, and regrets having given up her $800-a-month duplex down the street from Disney and NBC studios.

She plans to audition for roles as often as she can, hoping to land something steady, like a spot in a soap opera. It helps that she is a member of two powerful unions: Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television & Radio Artists.

In the meantime, she'll continue her occasional work as a story editor for Jaron Summers, a novelist and screenwriter who has produced scripts for shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Miami Vice. Marissa met Summers while enrolled at Columbia.

She's also met with Hollywood insiders like actress Rosario Dawson's manager, and the producer of the film Shattered Glass. But those meetings, while a boost to her confidence, didn't lead anywhere.

Marissa and her family are convinced she's returning to where she belongs. "She's not going to be happy around here," says her father.

Sometimes Marissa's able to let go of her worries and reflect on her experiences. It's then that she feels she's living a dream rather than chasing one.

"It's a blessing," she says, "being from a small town, being able to go and see what I've seen."

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