The Helmsley Palace is Fairuza Balk's favorite hotel, but she doesn't like it when the striking hotel workers on the picket line shout at her on the way to the limousine.
"They call you a scab. 'Scab! Scab!' " she mimics. "What does it mean?"
Fairuza's mother, Cathryn Balk, with the Disney publicist and a reporter, attempt to explain the fine points of labor negotiations. Fairuza would rather crane her neck so that she can look out the tinted windows at the sky above Madison Avenue. "The clouds here move very fast," she announces.
Fairuza Balk is a movie star promoting a film. She is tired after a day of school lessons and interviews. She is hungry. She is 11.
Back when she was 9, a Vancouver schoolgirl entering the fourth grade, she vanquished 900 competitors (every one of them older) and was cast as Dorothy in the Walt Disney film "Return to Oz," whose premiere last night featured a yellow brick road painted beneath the Radio City Music Hall marquee.
Fairuza has enormous blue eyes (her name means "turquoise" in Turkish) capable of looking terrified through two hours of storms, falls, avalanches, deadly deserts, malevolent encounters of all sorts. Because of this gift, Fairuza, who previously had made one commercial and one television movie, and her mother have scarcely been home over the past year. After filming in London, and promotion in Los Angeles and here, they're off to the premiere in London, then on to Deauville, France.
"She's the kind of person who likes diversity, a very adaptable human being, thank heavens," says Cathryn Balk.
But there are limits. Questions about how she got the part are ancient history, for instance.
"You just held up a card, smiled and had a short interview," says Fairuza. "Like, 'Did you like Oz and would you like to go there again?' " After those open auditions, 12 girls found themselves screen-testing in Hollywood, but Fairuza is vague about what that was like, saying only, "Just running around and things."
"But you had to pretend there were obstacles," prompts her mother.
"We pretended there were obstacles," Fairuza says. "They kind of said, 'This is a super-sharp razor blade and if you touch it you're gone.' Or a table with snakes on it. Not real. Just to see your expressions."
She knew how to behave in front of a camera because each Saturday for eight weeks she'd gone to a class at a Vancouver acting and modeling agency.
"You're not supposed to get really shy or immobilize your face; you're supposed to be friendly," says the actress. "It was difficult for some of the kids. Chemical Bank, what's that?"
She is en route to Serendipity, an ice cream parlor in the East 60s, but she cannot eat ice cream because she is allergic to dairy products, or tofutti because she is allergic to soy, or cookies because she is allergic to wheat.
At home in Vancouver she is already being stared at in supermarkets; the kids at the stable where she takes riding lessons want to know if she's rich now, if she's got a new car or a bigger house. But here, looking properly girlish in a pinafore and knee socks and Alice-in-Wonderland long hair -- no black rubber bracelets or winking navels for Dorothy -- Fairuza and her mother can dine with friends at La Colombe d'Or without interruption.
It was hard to have the filming end, to stop being Dorothy, Fairuza confirms with a nod. "I wanted it to keep going."
"Return to Oz," based on two of the 14 Oz books that L. Frank Baum wrote in the early 1900s, is as crammed with special effects as an Indiana Jones epic; unlike the more cartoonish 1939 "Oz," it has no singing, dancing or Munchkins to lessen its intensity. Was any of the filming scary?
"The part where I was running from Dr. Worley [Nicol Williamson]," Fairuza says after some fidgeting. "It was a night shoot. Wind machines and rain machines and it was 2 o'clock in the morning."
"No, it was more like 11 p.m.," corrects Cathryn Balk. British law permits child actors to work just five hours a day.
"Well, it felt like 2 in the morning," her daughter says.
"What about when you were washed down the river?" Cathryn Balk suggests, trying to keep things on track.
"No, that was fun. It was like taking a bath. A dirty bath," Fairuza says of the storm-swollen river whose swirling water filmmakers had heated to 80 degrees. "Oh my gosh," she says, leaning over now, looking upside down out the limousine windows. "I just saw a circle in the air above my head. I'm serious."
The car is passing a travel agency ("Is the Bermuda Triangle really awful?" the movie star wants to know) and a theater where "Rambo" is playing. "He's all sweaty and drooling and he has dirty teeth," Fairuza says of fellow actor Sylvester Stallone. "I saw the preview."
At the restaurant at last, Cathryn Balk suggests watercress soup, to which her daughter responds with a grimace.
"Do you think if I got a foot-long hot dog, I could get it without the roll?" she asks the waiter. She can. "Do you have French's mustard?" she adds, hopefully. Alas, this is the Upper East Side; there is only Dijon. She settles for a bowl of chili.
Asked about her acquaintance with "The Wizard of Oz," Fairuza says she's seen the movie 16 times, "because I loved it so." And has she read the Baum books? She is absorbed in the wavy trick mirror behind her chair.
"Speak, my love," her mother reminds her. "She's read four of them."
The Balks now collect rare and first editions of Baum books. Through a combination of brief responses and maternal admonitions it also emerges that Fairuza and Cathryn (a former dancer divorced from Fairuza's father, a California musician) live with another family in a rambling Tudor house in a neighborhood with few children, that Fairuza takes lessons in dancing, violin and piano as well as horseback riding, and that she has two cats.
What are their names? "The whole back of my throat is burning," Fairuza says. "This is the hottest chili I have ever had." She's full, she says. Also cold from the air conditioning.
If she doesn't grow up to be an actress -- how many child stars remain stars, where is Aileen Quinn, anyway, and did she ever burn that awful red wig from "Annie"? -- Fairuza Balk is going to be a chiropractic veterinarian. "She loves animals," says her mother, whose boyfriend is a chiropractor.
The two subjects that truly arouse Fairuza's interest, even at the end of a full day, are earrings and MTV, suggesting that beneath the knee socks and pinafore lurks a pre-adolescent.
"I was fed up with trying to get the nerve to stick a pin through my ear," she recalls, "so I just said, 'Okay, I'm going to get my ears pierced.' " Without telling her mother ("I almost killed her," groans Cathryn) she went off to "a makeup sort of place" with $7 from her Christmas money. "They put alcohol on and went ka-thunk. It didn't hurt, it just felt hot." Her mother made the small white bears now dangling from her lobes. "Genuine mother-of-pearl," says Fairuza.
MTV just sort of comes up in the conversation as the limousine heads back toward the Helmsley Palace and those distressing pickets. "I love MTV, it's so much fun," yelps Fairuza, who can't get it at home but catches glimpses in hotel rooms. "I used to like Eurythmics but I've listened to their songs so much I'm getting sick of them."
And what of Madonna, whom her peers ape so joyfully?
"I don't want to say this to the public," says Fairuza, guardedly. But off the record she intimates that Madonna can't hold a candle to Cyndi Lauper.
Maybe she'd love some black rubber bracelets.