Growing up, Natasha Gregson Wagner was accustomed to her parents’ friends stopping by for evening drinks and dinners that she and her siblings would crash before heading off to bed. “These people would show up, so my sister Courtney and I would have taken a shower, we were in our pajamas, our hair was wet, but we would come down with our stuffed animals,” the actress tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I was into knock-knock jokes so I would bring my joke book. And these people would completely indulge us!” (Watch our video interview above.)
That may sound like a familiar childhood experience, but with one key difference: Gregson Wagner’s parents were movie stars Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, and their guest list included Hollywood luminaries like Ruth Gordon (Gregson Wagner’s godmother), Laurence Olivier, Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra. Not that she knew what those visitors did for a living at the time. “I didn’t know these people were who they were — I just knew my parents loved them and they came over a lot.”
As a grown-up, Gregson Wagner now realizes how unique her upbringing was, but also credits her famous mother with maintaining a sense of normalcy within their Hollywood home. (Her biological father is Richard Gregson, but she also refers to Wagner as her “Daddy Wagner.”) Since Wood’s sudden death in 1981, her daughter has sought to keep her legacy alive, most recently in the new HBO documentary, Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, which is currently streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now in time for Mother’s Day weekend.
While the movie has been closely watched for the way it addresses the circumstances of Wood’s passing — and Wagner’s own account of what happened — the actress hopes it’s viewed as a celebration of her mother’s life and career, which included roles in such cinematic classics as Rebel Without a Cause, Splendor in the Grass and West Side Story. “Rebel was a turning point for her, because it was the first film she really went after and really wanted to do,” Gregson Wagner says of the groundbreaking 1955 drama, directed by Nicholas Ray and starring James Dean, who died before the film’s release. “I remember that my mom spoke almost maternally of [Dean]. She called him ‘Jimmy,’ and was very protective of him. I thought that he was almost like a child to her.”
Elia Kazan, who directed Wood in 1961’s Splendor in the Grass, proved to be another important influence on her career — not to mention a frequent visitor to the Wood/Wagner household. “That film changed her life,” Gregson Wagner says. “She called [Kazan] ‘Gadge,’ and he was always at the house, usually in his shorts, laying in the sun!” Wood went directly from making Splendor to the set of West Side Story, which had already started rehearsals. “She came later and needed to work on the weekends. She was singing thinking that her vocals would be in the film. It was a huge moment for her and really made her a superstar.” [Marni Nixon provided Wood’s singing voice in the film.]
Gregson Wagner reveals a personal connection to Wood’s role in the 1969 comedy, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. “Right after she did that film, she got pregnant with me,” she says. “I sort of feel [that movie] was close to her personality: She was very impish and mischievous and funny. That film showcases who she was as a human as well as an actor.” Not that she’s playing favorites when it comes to her mother’s work. “There’s this great Oscar Wilde quote: ‘Put talent in your work and genius in your life.’ I think that is what she did. I love so many of her roles — she moves me so much.”
Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind is currently streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now.