It isn't every day that a third-grader spends time in a coffin on her birthday or shares a birthday cake with vampires and movie stars.

That's what Vanessa Pierson did on her ninth birthday this year, afterward bringing home pres-ents and cards from big-time movie people from Hollywood.Pierson was "discovered" in Moab and landed a role in a major motion film when Sundown Productions Inc. came to town this fall to shoot "Sundown: The Vampires in Retreat" for Vestron Pictures.

More than 20 stars and character actors had been cast by the time the movie people got to Utah, and casting director Jack Jones was looking for two girls to play sisters in a happy little family that innocently moves to a vampire haven in the West.

Several hundred hopefuls auditioned in Salt Lake City. The film-makers wanted a girl between age 6 and 8 who was blonde, blue-eyed and outgoing.

In Moab, someone recommended Yvonne and Dale Pierson's feisty blonde daughter and showed pictures her grandmother had provided (much to her mother's surprise) to the Moab Film Commission for commercial and film recruiting.

"They interviewed me, and I got the job," she said.

Just like that, sweet and simple. "You know, if you're going after something, you can't get it. Something like this you're not expecting and it just happens," her mother philosophized.

Said Jones, "It takes a certain quality. She could talk to me eye to eye, and after a few lines of dialogue, she didn't change; she was still herself. That said she could act."

There was one small problem. The part Vanessa chose required a brunette. If she'd chosen the role as little sister, she could have stayed blonde. But the role of big sister was a dream come true for Vanessa, so Mom brought home the hair rinse.

"There were no qualms about it, because I thought this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance," Mrs. Pierson said.

For Vanessa, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to have a little sister to boss around and terrorize. She dearly loves her older sister, a student at Weber State College. But there has always been a desire to be the one in charge.

With a change in hair color Vanessa became Gwen, the 8-year old daughter of Sarah and David Harrison (played by Morgan Brittany and Jim Metzler), and big sister to Juliet (Erin Gourlay).

Jones said the role was demanding even for a professional child actor, with lots of scenes, dialogue and action. Vanessa said she messed up only once, the first day, forgetting two lines addressed to Metzler that hinted at sarcasm.

In the movie, she considers her dad "a jerk," Vanessa said.

She said she would just try to act normally and get into the role, encouraged by compliments from everyone. "I practiced my lines real hard and everything just came natural," she said.

She was also naturally jittery at the prospect of working with movie stars, especially Morgan Brittany, "the woman with the widow's peak" who is Pam's sister on TV's "Dallas."

They day they met, Vanessa got Brittany's autograph three times and later received a model horse from the movie star for her birthday. Mrs. Pierson said the rapport between Vanessa and her movie mom grew from day one and never waned.

Vanessa discovered, she said, that Hollywood stars are not bigger than life. "I always thought they wouldn't be normal people. They'd be strange, different. But they're actually ordinary people. They're normal."

Most of all, she remembers the coffin scene. She was tucked snugly inside with flashlights, a radio and pillow, cuddling the stuffed horse Hickox gave her, and Erin had her teddy bear while vampires on horseback raged outside. The little girls eventually escape through a secret passageway - the stuff of nightmare thrillers.

"It was my birthday when we got in the coffin," Vanessa marveled. "The very night of my birthday."

Will this role lead to others? Vanessa's mother is unsure. She planned a trip to Salt Lake City to show Vanessa's pictures around for possible commercials but said she would never push her daughter. It would have to be up to Vanessa.

Vanessa said she had lots of fun and got along well with all the movie stars, but making movies is not where her heart is.

She wants to be a veterinarian. And she'll be able to, with the money she made in the movies.