In the event you didn’t already know, Dee Wallace is a delight. Attaining popularity through performances in a number of now classic horror films, The Hills Have Eyes and The Howling just for starters, Dee has become one of the totemic genre stars. Her personae is tender, dynamic, and entirely specific to her personality; complete with a comedic sense of self-deprecation and a natural confidence that permeates her roles and extending toward her work as acting coach. Dee was generous enough to give us some time to discuss her career, her latest role in the Asylum mock-buster Hansel and Gretel, and what she hopes to see herself doing in the future.
Andy_BGH: You’ve maintained an incredibly prolific career, consistently working in television and film for roughly 35 years. And while there are certain similarities between the two mediums they also hold their own unique set of challenges. As an actress, how have you seen these challenges change over the course of your career? Has the transition between the two been something that came naturally to you?
Dee Wallace: I think acting is acting. You do it whether you’re on stage or TV or you’re doing a film. You’re acting doesn’t really change rather than maybe creating a different volume or playing to a broader arena on the stage. But the core of your work is always the same. So technically you may adjust how big, small, or internal it is but the acting itself is always the same. I don’t look at it much differently.
When I was coming up once you made it in film, unless it was a tour-de-force performance or “movie-of-the-week” you didn’t cross back over to TV. But that stigma isn’t there anymore. People go back and forth and it becomes cool. “Oh, this film star guested on Two and a Half Men…We [actors] never had the freedom to do this because of the way the system was set up…You create your career differently depending on what your circumstances are, including your age. Certainly older women have much more opportunity then they ever have I think. You see a lot of actors now going into a series because they want some kind of consistency. And also maybe they’re married now with kids. And they don’t want to fly off to Timbuktu twice a year. We’re human and we make decisions for different reasons. It’s always been this way in Europe, but now America is finally (more accepting). Now you can do anything as long as you’re good.
The one thing that I have a little bit of a problem with is that all of the writers have become television producers now. Because of that, allowing an actor to bring their own stuff to the table—say the words as their written but make them their own—has been lost a little bit. And that takes away a little bit of the fun. That’s why I love working with people like Rob Zombie and Anthony Ferrante who did Hansel and Gretel. Steven Spielberg never cared if we played around with the lines a little as long as they were true to the essence of (E.T.). Moments happened that weren’t in the script and some of those are the most magical moments. So I would like TV to be a little more open like that.
ABGH: When creating a character or performance style do you actively collaborate with directors or writers or do you prefer to cultivate a character on your own?
DW: It depends on the project. I think by the very essence of what we do it’s a collaborative effort. And if it’s not then its never going to be as good as it could be. If you don’t have a great script to start with you might as well walk away from the project.
ABGH: Sure, there’s very little for you to work from if you don’t have that script.
DW: Exactly! And then you want a producer that can put together a great team. A director that has a vision, that can communicate. So many (directors) have difficultly communicating to the actor what they want. A director secure enough in themselves to allow the cinematographer, the writer, the actors, and the editor—the editor is such a vital part of our process!—(let them do what their job). The directors that have the guts to know what they want and allow other people to bring in their creativity that’s when you get the best product. And all the big directors that I have worked with can do that. It’s the smaller directors who are scared, that think they need to know exactly what’s going. They say, “You can’t change the script! Here are the marks and you got to play it that way.” That’s not collaboration and that’s not when you get your best stuff.
ABGH: Let’s talk about your latest role as Lilith in Hansel and Gretel.
DW: Have you seen the film?
ABGH: I have, yes!
ABGH: I had a lot of fun with it actually!
DW: Yea! I think it’s great!
ABGH: There are a number of scenes that turn out to be a little grossier and funnier than what I was expecting.
DW: We had no money and no time and I think we made a damn good movie! And I hardly ever watch a movie for the first time and like it. And certainly don’t like me! But I watched it I thought, this is a really fun movie and I really like what I do in it. Nobody was more surprised than me.
ABGH: You said that you had very little time to make it. How long did the shooting take?
DW: Well I think I worked a total of 6 days and 1 pickup day.
ABGH: So very fast then.
DW: We shot a lot in very little time. Everybody had to be prepared, cast and crew. Sets had to be ready. Special effects had to be ready. The actors certainly had to be ready. And we really moved on that set. I kind of like shooting that way! I don’t like sitting around.
ABGH: As Lilith, the film’s main antagonist, you are required to be simultaneously humorous yet menacing. Specifically I’m thinking of a “Family” dinner scene and a hallucination that Gretel has. One sequence is overtly comical and the other overtly horrific, but each with undertones of terror or humor. How do you approach that balancing act between comedy and horror?
DW: That’s an interesting question. All of the comedy that comes out of Lillith was scripted for the most part with some minor improv. It really comes out of her anger…a demonic place more than a comedic place. The audience gets the joke because they’re meant to. But Lillith doesn’t play it for the comedy. She plays if for what is really going on in the scene and the audience gets to say, “Oh my god, that was bad! But it was so bad it was so good!” Laughs…She speaks with such venom that if you get it the film can play on many levels.
ABGH: Much of your work has attained some what of an ethereal quality. More specifically, your performances in many now considered “classic” horror films inhabit a particular nostalgia for many fans. You’ve also mentioned that for a time following the success of ET you were saddled with a mother-figure persona. Being such a large-scale commercial boon to marketing it’s unsurprising that typecasting is so prominent in Hollywood. Is there something comforting about entering roles with such extra cinematic influence or was it something you resisted? Does having such a fan base influence your decisions as an actress as well?
DW: I just want to do a really good part in a good script! Whether it’s comedy, horror, suspense, sci-fi, or drama, I don’t care. I know my fans will follow me and see whatever I do. And that’s because I have so many awesome fans from the horror genre. They are the greatest fans in the world. When I go to conventions I love to meet them. I love to spend time with them. They’re incredibly faithful to the people that they love. There is no actor that will tell you they don’t appreciate that. Or their crazy!
Bottom line, that is so out of most actor’s control. What ultimately happens to a project is out of our control (once it’s complete). What’s in our control is, “Do I resonate with this material and is this a part that my energy and my talent can really serve.” And then you commit all the way and you do the best you can do under some of the most impossible conditions sometimes but that’s your job. And then what happens with the picture is up to the public.
ABGH: You’ve mentioned that Cujo was perhaps the toughest role you’ve had. I can certainly see why as that role is so intensely physical and emotionally draining. Are there other specific roles or types of stories that you would like to challenge yourself with at this stage in your career?
DW: There’s a script that J. T. Molner has written for me that we’re looking for financing for. It’s about an aging truck-stop hooker. And it’s a brilliant script and something I would really, really like to do.
Hansel and Gretel was interesting for me because I’ve been going in and doing smaller parts. Sometimes to help out people. Sometimes because I really liked a cameo. But Hansel and Gretel really brought back how much I loved starring in a film. And I would like to do that again now. It’s like I’ve cleaned myself up but someone’s given me a shot again! Laughter I remember the high, ya, know!
And ever since I’ve been young I’ve wanted to play a nun! And I’ve never been able to play a nun. I don’t want to play a nun that goes around murdering people I want to be very clear about that! Laughter
ABGH: Yea, if you get a flood of scripts about a murderous nun I am not to blame!
DW: Yea, no thank you!
ABGH: In a recent article Andrew O’Heir of Salon proposes that the horror genre may be in the midst of a new “Golden Age”. Having worked in so many now considered classic genre pictures over the years where do you see the horror genre going? Do you agree with this notion that recent trends in horror represent a new era?
DW: I think TV is serving the rebirth of horror in a lot of new and creative ways. And I think this rebirth is because of TV quite frankly…I think we have to be really careful about the difference between true, classic horror and slasher films. They’re very different pictures. They’re completely different genre. So for iconic horror I think we have seen a resurgence. The popularity of Twilight has a lot to do with that. But there’s also more characters and story development and there’s something at stake rather than, “here’s some characters, we’re going to show you how we can butcher them differently and quickly.” That’s not a real horror film. So, yea, I think horror is having another Golden Age and more in TV than in film.