May 2, 2020 - 11:41 am
Natasha Gregson Wagner will never forget that November day in 1981.
“It was the Sunday morning after Thanksgiving, and I had spent the night before at my best friend Tracy’s house. Clock radio went off. I heard a news report saying that my mom’s body had been found off the coast of Catalina.
“When I got home, I got into my mom’s bed. I said, ‘Maybe she just has a broken leg.’ Then my stepdad (Robert Wagner) came back, and I could tell when I looked at his face that something awful had happened,” Wagner said. “My entire world shattered.”
Her mother was actress Natalie Wood, star of classic movies including “Rebel Without a Cause” and “West Side Story.” Wood is also the subject of the HBO documentary “What Remains Behind,” debuting Tuesday. It’s executive produced by Wagner, who also narrates and conducts interviews about her mother’s life and death.
Review-Journal: How have you been holding up during quarantine? And what does a typical Sunday look like for you during normal times?
Natasha Gregson Wagner: My husband, my daughter and I are up in northern Michigan in a cabin by a lake. That is the greatest Sunday during any times. We’re building forts, playing with the dog and collecting worms. But now we add home schooling. I do the English part of the school day with our daughter (Clover, age 7). My husband does the math.
What was your goal with this doc and upcoming book ‘More Than Love’?
I wanted to tell the true story of my mother and our family. The narrative has been so screwed up by this ridiculous fiction over the years. I wanted to clarify for everyone what happened the night my mother died. I wanted to bring the truth forward.
You interview your stepfather, Robert Wagner, and ask him deeply personal questions about what happened the night your mother died. How difficult was it for him?
My dad was willing and open. The time was right and there he was in all his humanity. It was quite incredible. All we had in the room was two cameras, sound and makeup. We cried together. In no way did RJ try to control anything. He was really generous and courageous.
How do you deal with the never-ending speculation about that night?
When you deal with something your whole life, you just deal with it. It’s like diabetes or allergies. You accept it. I know how to turn it off. All the speculation doesn’t ruin my day or even ruin an hour of my dad’s day. My dad says it so eloquently. He says, “I know who I am.” Likewise, I know who my parents are. I know what my childhood was. I hold onto that.
Let’s talk about your mom. Was she a feminist?
She was one of the early feminists. She fought for equal pay and LGBTQ rights. She was so much more than the actress who starred in “West Side Story” or “Splendor in the Grass.” She was a powerhouse and someone who believed in equal rights and equal pay.
What is something few know about Natalie Wood?
She was fun, silly and loved animals, from our dogs to the little chicks in the yard that swam in the pool. She loved to sing and had an incredible memory. To make us laugh, she would make all these funny faces and cross her eyes while making this monkey face.
Your mother and Robert Wagner had an amazing love story. Were they romantic?
When RJ turned 50, she bought him a four-door Mercedes, which was the fastest passenger car at the time. They got all dressed up and my mom opened the front door. He walked outside to find this car parked in front of our house with a big, red bow on it. She handed him the key and said, “Here, RJ. Why don’t you drive?” He was blown away and we were jumping up and down, laughing.
Has telling your story been cathartic?
When you bring the darkness into the light, it doesn’t feel so dark anymore. Being able to speak about the darkest day of my life means it doesn’t hold power over me anymore.