Halloween is fast approaching, so all this week, Yahoo Movies will be talking to stars who scared us silly in classic horror movies. Go here to read our complete Halloween coverage.
By Nick Schager, Yahoo Movies
Adrienne Barbeau is known for a variety of roles, from the tough-talking Rizzo of Broadway’s Grease (for which she was nominated for a 1972 Tony award), to Bea Arthur’s daughter Carol on TV’s Maude, to the nasty wife of Rodney Dangerfield in the 1986 comedy Back to School, to her more recent stint as the voice of Catwoman on Batman: The Animated Series. Yet Barbeau is arguably most beloved for her work in the ’80s — while married to director John Carpenter — in a string of horror and genre films including The Fog, Creepshow, Escape From New York, and Swamp Thing. On Nov. 12, Barbeau will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York City Horror Film Festival. In advance of that accolade and with Halloween just days away, she spoke with us about her illustrious career as one of horror’s most fierce, formidable and versatile leading ladies.
First, congratulations on your Lifetime Achievement Award at the New York City Horror Film Festival. Given that you’ve had such a long and varied career, do you think of yourself as a horror icon?
I do not [laughs]. I’ve done so many different things. For the horror community, that is my strength. But I don’t think of myself as that. It’s wonderful that I’m receiving this award, and I think part of it is, well, you just outlasted everybody else! [laughs] The ones that everyone knows most strongly are The Fog and Escape and Creepshow and Swamp Thing and the things from the ’80s, and never, in any of our minds, did we think, “Oh my gosh, 30 years from now, we’ll be signing autographs for people who say they watch these movies once a week, or once a month.” It’s just been fantastic. It’s a whole resurgence of a part of a career that I just never thought that much about.
Are those the roles you’re most recognized for? Or, considering the many parts you’ve played over the years, does it depend on who’s doing the recognizing?
Yes, it depends on who’s doing the recognizing. Certainly, when I do the horror conventions, that’s what everybody knows. I just did a Comic-Con because I was the voice of Catwoman for the animated Batman series. And I’ve done a handful of video games — God of War III, Mad Max, Halo 4 — so if that’s what people are into, that’s what they know you for. When I’m talking to the 60-year-olds, it’s, “Oh, I remember you from Maude.” And even going back to stage. I’ve just sort of jumped all over the map.
As you said, your career began on the stage (with Grease), and then in TV (on Maude, as well as other shows like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island). At that point, were you interested in horror?
Not at all. And to this day, I love doing it, but you’re not going to find me in the audience. [laughs]
You’re not a big horror buff?
No, I don’t like to be scared. [laughs] When I was very, very young, I was not a moviegoer, nor was I much of a television watcher. I started doing stage at 15, and from that time on, I was never home at night, so I never watched TV. We didn’t get a TV until I was six, I think, and I didn’t go to films that much. I do remember that one of the only horror films I ever saw was called Donovan’s Brain, and I just have this vision of a brain in a big mason jar or something. I’ve never seen Psycho. I did see The Exorcist, but I didn’t think it was a horror film — I sort of thought it was funny.
The first time I remember being terrified at a film was when I saw a preview of Halloween. I was sitting next to John [Carpenter], and by the time the film was over, I think he was totally black-and-blue because I kept striking out and screaming and hitting him. [laughs] So it’s not a genre that I choose to attend. But I do love doing them, because it gives me, as an actor, a whole range of things to play. And I’ve been fortunate that, from early on, I was cast as the heroine, or the strong woman; I wasn’t cast as the victim.
I was going to say that what differentiates your horror work from a lot of other “scream queens” is that your characters are always tough and capable. Was that part of those genre projects’ appeal?
Probably so. It all started because of John. When I finished doing Maude in 1978, it was very difficult for a television series actress to make the transition to film, because the prevailing thought among the powers-that-be was that people would not pay to see you in a movie theater if they were seeing you every week for free in their home. John was a fan of my character on Maude, which sort of fed into the kinds of women characters that he was attracted to, and wrote — the Howard Hawks-ian women. He called me in because he wanted me to do a television film that he was directing called Someone’s Watching Me! He saw something in me, probably in the character of Carol on Maude, that he thought would work for his Hawks-ian woman idea.
So we met on Someone’s Watching Me! I played a strong woman — well, she did get killed, but…[laughs]
She was a lesbian, which was noteworthy at the time, if I remember correctly.
She was! I played what I think is the first gay woman on television. But nobody ever made a big deal about it. It was handled very nicely in the script, and it was just a part of who she was.
John and I met on Someone’s Watching Me!, and then we became romantically involved, and then he wrote the role of Stevie Wayne [in The Fog] for me, and that was my first feature. But again, he wrote it because that’s the kind of women he liked to write. The women who were capable and strong and everything that Stevie Wayne was. So I made the transition into horror with that role, and from that point on, that’s how people thought of me.
Watch Adrienne Barbeau in the trailer for John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’
How was it working with a director who was also your spouse?
I knew him first as a director, and not as a husband. And I trusted him completely, and I loved working with him as a director. The only thing that was daunting was that we showed up on set for the first day of filming, and we had just gotten married, and we were both so intent on being professional that we even took separate hotel rooms on location, and we were treating each other like actor and director. About halfway into the day, John came over to me and said, “I’m not having any fun at all.” And I said, “Me neither — let’s go back to being who we are.”
The only other time we had a disagreement was when we got ready to shoot the scene that follows Stevie bringing the piece of driftwood into the lighthouse, and she’s looking at it, and it catches on fire or whatever it does — it’s been so long since I’ve seen the movie. It was the next scene, and John said, “Okay, sit down and let’s shoot.” I said, “Sit down? John, she’s too upset, and I don’t think she’d sit down.” He said, “Oh…okay, stand up and let’s shoot.” And that was the end of it.
That sounds reasonably conflict-free. I also read that you had to shoot a particular scene in The Fog backwards. How, logistically, did you work that out?
The reason it had to be done is that we weren’t working with CGI in those days. We were working with this god-awful oil-kerosene mixture [to create the fog], and all they could do was use bellows to shoot it into the scene. They couldn’t evacuate it; they couldn’t suck it out. The scene is one in which I’m surrounded by fog, and being pursued by the pirate ghosts, and I’m going up to the top of the lighthouse, and they’re almost on top of me. And then, deus ex machina, we cut to another scene where Hal Holbrook is fighting with the pirates there, and suddenly the ghosts disappear, and the fog disappears. We cut back to me, and I’m on top of the lighthouse, and the ghosts are gone, the fog is gone, and I’m no longer in jeopardy.
Well, John came to me and said, “Look, we’ve got to do this backwards, because all we can do is shoot the fog coming into the scene, we can’t pull it out. You just have to be careful, because when we do film it, we’ll take the negative” — I could be totally wrong about this, technically — “and we reverse it,” or whatever it is they do. And so he said, just be careful not to blink, because when we do this kind of thing, if you blink, it’ll look very bizarre. So as an actress, all I had to do was to think about each one of the scene’s beats, and then I had to act all the beats backwards.
You next worked with John on Escape From New York. Any particularly fond memories from that shoot, or of your cast mates (which included Kurt Russell, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasance, Lee Van Cleef, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, and Tom Atkins)?
My favorite memories are of Donald Pleasance. My first introduction to Donald was when I was on Broadway doing Fiddler on the Roof, and Donald was in the theater next door to us. He was doing The Man in the Glass Booth, and I could hear him screaming every night, through the walls of my dressing room. And I was always like, “Whoa, that’s Donald Pleasance!”
Donald was one of the funniest men I’ve ever worked with. He just had such a dry sense of humor that appealed to me so much, that there would be times when John would say, “Rolling!,” and I’d say “Wait, wait, wait,” because Donald would have just made some remark that would have me on the floor. He was just hysterical.
I loved working with all the guys. I didn’t get to know Isaac Hayes as well — he was quite a gentleman, that was my impression of him. But I don’t remember seeing him around the hotel as much as I saw the other guys. And of course Ernie was just one of the all-time sweet people of the world. He was preparing a one-man show to go on the road with, and he was just terribly anxious that he wasn’t going to be able to memorize two hours of monologue, so he spent most of his time trying to learn his lines.
I knew Kurt — we were close social friends with him and Season [Hubley], to whom he was married at the time. It was a wonderful group of guys to be working with. I loved it.
You also starred in George Romero’s Creepshow, which featured a number of actors (Hal Holbrook, Tom Atkins, E.G. Marshall) with whom you’d made prior — and would make future — horror films. Did it feel, at the time, like you were part of a larger horror-movie ensemble?
That was more the tone with John’s films, because he used not only a lot of the same actors, but certainly the same crew, and the same producers, line producers, location managers, and assistant directors. I had met most of those people going back to [Carpenter’s 1979 TV movie] Elvis. And then they continued on with The Fog and Escape. On George’s film, I did know Hal from The Fog, and Tommy [Atkins] and I were dear friends. I was the one who initially introduced Tommy to John. Tommy was the one who was responsible for my agreeing to do Creepshow. Because when I read the script, there was no way I was going to do that movie! [laughs] I thought it was vile and gory and bloody. And there’s John, saying to me, “Are you kidding?! You’re going to turn down an opportunity to work with George Romero, the master of horror?” I didn’t know who George Romero was! [laughs] I hadn’t seen Night of the Living Dead. And even after I saw it, I was like, well, I don’t know…. [Creepshow] is really a gruesome, bloody, gory script.
But Tommy had already been cast. Tommy’s from Pittsburgh, and I don’t know if he knew George prior to Creepshow — I suspect that maybe he did. I called Tommy and said, “You’re doing this thing? I don’t know if I can do it.” And he said, “Oh, no, you’ve got it all wrong. It’s going to be very stylized, it’s going to be a comic book, it’s going to be fantastic and very funny. You’ve got to do it.” And I said, “Okay…”
I met George on the film, and his wife at the time. We became very close friends, and have remained so.
Then you worked with Wes Craven on Swamp Thing. Was it Craven’s horror reputation that drew you to that project?
With that one, it was the original screenplay. I thought it was just lovely, and I loved the character. I really thought, “Oh my god, this could be really big! This could be Star Wars!” It was really just a beautiful screenplay. Then, from the time that I read the initial screenplay to the time that Wes finished filming, he just had his budget cut out from under him, on a daily basis. You should read my memoir [There Are Worse Things I Could Do, 2006], because there are stories in there, like — we showed up for work one day, and there was no makeup trailer, because they hadn’t paid the rent on it! There were people getting arrested for doing cocaine!
Every day, Wes was having to rewrite, and throw out entire scenes, because he couldn’t afford to film them. The fact that the film turned out as good as it did, and is as successful as it is with the genre audience, is a real tribute to him. He really had his hands full. He made the best possible film that he could. We had the completion guarantor on the set, and he insisted on having a role in the film, and every day, he said, “You can’t do that, you can’t do that, lose that.” And it still came out okay!
Did Creepshow lead to Back to School, where you again play a really, really nasty wife.
In all seriousness, though, were you looking to get back into comedy, after all your horror work?
They offered me the role, and I thought it was hysterical. Obviously, there’s some part of me that can do those kinds of absolutely unmitigated bitches, and make them work [laughs]. And she was just fun. I had a good time with her. I didn’t think much about it.
You’ve done a lot of voice acting too, most notably with Batman: The Animated Series. How did you get into that field?
When my first son Cody was born in 1984, I didn’t want to work full-time — I wanted to be a mom — so I was just looking around, thinking, “What’s going to come next?” An agent from William Morris who had seen me on The $20,000 Pyramid called and said I had a great voice for commercials, and she’d like to represent me. I thought, “Okay! Why not?” So I started out doing commercials, and books on tape, and documentary narrations, and things like that.
Eventually, I changed agents, and one day, they said they had an audition for me as Catwoman [for Batman: The Animated Series]. Now, we mostly do voiceover auditions from home. But back in those days, you went to your agent’s office, walked into a room, they handed you the copy — which was all of 30 seconds’ worth of dialogue — you did three takes, and said “Goodbye.” And that’s what I did with Catwoman. About a month later, I got a call telling me they wanted me.
There are brilliant animation voice actors, like Frank Welker from Scooby-Doo — and I actually did a Scooby-Doo movie. But I tend to audition for the queen, or the witch, or, nowadays, the grandmother. I love doing it. It’s great fun, and you don’t have to get made up, or wear a costume. That makes it great in my mind!
You’re also an author. Did you ever envision moving into writing? Or did it come about because of some event, or moment of inspiration?
Yes, it did come about from a particular event. I met a woman [Suzanne Pettit] who became my closest friend on the first day of pre-school for my oldest son, Cody. Her son was the same age, and they started pre-school on the same day. She and I spent that afternoon sitting at the playground both hysterically nervous because our little ones were going off to school. And we just bonded and became the best of friends. She was a film editor — she did ‘Night Mother. We were extremely close, and she passed away from breast cancer in 1998.
Four years later, on the first day of preschool for my younger boys, a woman walked onto the campus who looked just like my girlfriend Suzanne. I was so taken aback that I grabbed onto something, because I really felt the blood draining out of my face. This woman said, “Are you okay?”, and I said, “Yes, you just look like someone I know. It just took me by surprise.” She said, “Oh really, who?” I said, “You wouldn’t know her. She was a film editor, and she was my closest friend, but she passed away from breast cancer.” And this woman, who looked just like Suzanne, said, “Well, I’m a film editor. And I have breast cancer. We could be best friends.” It was, as you can imagine, so bizarre, and I just said to her, “Well, what are you doing tomorrow? Let’s go have coffee.”
I’m sure in my mind, it was like, “Maybe I’ll have another friend to take Suzanne’s place” or something. We went and had a three-hour coffee, we talked about everything, and in the course of that conversation, she mentioned that she had attended a writing class that was peopled primarily by actors and actresses I knew. I was in my early 50s, and I swear to God, I had never heard of a writing class. I knew there was this guy who taught screenwriting, but I always thought, you’re either born Stephen King or you’re not — nobody could teach you to have that kind of writing talent.
So as soon as this woman talked about this class — and she had a flyer from the teacher — I thought, “I’m supposed to do this. This is Suzanne telling me I’m supposed to go and take this class.”
Had you ever tried to write before that?
I’d kept a journal all my life, but I’d never written. It’d never once crossed my mind. So I started taking this class. If you’re going to take a writing class, you’ve got to write, and I thought I’d write about funny things that had happened in my career, which I sort of take for granted but which other people might find humorous. The first piece I wrote was about doing what I have always referred to as “The Rat Movie” [aka 1995’s Burial of the Rats], which was a low-budget Roger Corman film I accepted because it was filming in Moscow, and I always wanted to go to Moscow. I landed in Moscow on the day of an attempted coup, and the government declaring martial law. And we proceeded to make this film, where I’m supposed to be working with 50 trained rats. Of course, I show up on the set, and there are 16 rats, and these rats had been trained to only eat anything that smelled like fish. So whenever they needed these rats to swarm all over me, they took fish heads and squeezed fish juice all over my costume. And it just went on and on and on like that. You had to have a sense of humor!
So I wrote about that, and then I wrote about dating Burt Reynolds, and making The Fog, and being married to John. I just kept bringing these little pieces into the class. After six months, the teacher said to me, “You need to get an agent, because you have a memoir here. Not an autobiography, but a series of stories about your life.” And it went on to become There Are Worse Things I Could Do, which was a Los Angeles Times best-seller.
Then you moved into actual fiction, right?
Another author read my memoir, approached me, and said it’s a great book, but that I wrote the wrong book. I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “I think you should write a horror book for your fanbase, all the people who go to these horror conventions.” And I said, “I don’t think I can write a novel. I don’t think much about story.” He said, “Well, I can. Let’s do it together.” So I basically created the characters, and we decided what genre we wanted it to be in, and he did a first draft with the storyline, and then he handed it to me, and said, “Do whatever you want with it.” That turned into Vampyres of Hollywood, which is about a scream queen who’s the head of a small production studio — she’s the writer, and the star, of 17 blockbuster horror films. And she also happens to be the leader of a clan of vampires that includes A-list Hollywood actors like Orson Welles, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Rudy Valentino. Then I went on to write the sequel by myself, Love Bites, and then the third one, Make Me Dead, which takes place at a horror convention.
A producer has optioned the second one, Love Bites, and I’ve co-written the screenplay for that, and it looks like the financing is almost all in place. That may come to the big screen!
So it all comes back around again.
Yes! But in the meantime, I just spent the last nine months on stage, playing Pippin’s grandmother in the national tour of Pippin, where I was singing and dancing and hanging upside-down from a trapeze doing my song. [laughs] So whatever comes along!