What was it like for the magical trio of Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy to return as high-flying sorceress sisters? They tell all.
You believe in magic, right? Because there’s no other way to explain the scene in Providence, Rhode Island, last November as Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy showed up for the first day of production on Hocus Pocus 2, the long-anticipated follow-up to their beloved 1993 scary-fun comedy classic.
It were as if a spell had been cast over the decades, stopping the passage of the years.
“Literally, it was so easy to slip back into our roles,” says Midler. “It was like we just had gone out to lunch. We went right back with our characters in such a silly way. It was like no time had passed.”
The movie magic at work was the seamless reunion of three actresses who first cast their spell over moviegoers nearly 30 years ago. And with HP2 launching Sept. 30 on Disney+, fans can finally see those comedically diabolical Sanderson sisters—Winifred (Midler), Sarah (Parker) and Mary (Najimy)—wreak more hilarious havoc in their haunted hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. “We’re very much keeping in the tone and spirit of the first,” Parker says. “It’s ridiculous and not inappropriately scary.”
As for the plot, three new witchy young women (played by Lilia Buckingham, Belissa Escobedo and Whitney Peak) are standing in the sisters’ way of domination. “We really want to get rid of them,” Midler explains. Like in the 1993 original, the returning ladies—now joined by a new cursed black cat—let the insults (and broomsticks) fly. There also will be music with all the magical mayhem, and they once again will break into song. Many songs.
This all should be music to the ears of the generations of viewers who have grown up watching Hocus Pocus every October. Despite lukewarm box office numbers and reviews (the late Gene Siskel, of Siskel & Ebert, sniffed that it was “dreadful”), the fun-for-all-ages romp about three witches inadvertently resurrected 300 years after their deaths on Halloween has become a perennial TV favorite. “There is definitely a cult following,” Najimy says. “It’s surprising but delightful.” It was even re-released in theaters in 2020.
The Three Stooges…in Skirts
The actresses think they know why the movie has become so enduringly popular. Parker, 57, likes the “sophistication” in its mix of humor and supernatural hijinks. Najimy, 65, notes that goofy Halloween-themed movies are few and far between. And Midler, 76, recalls her epiphany upon rewatching Hocus Pocus some 15 years ago. “I always thought I was the star of the picture,” she says jokingly. “And then I saw what the other two girls were doing. They were so funny! I realized, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s all about the trio! We’re like the Three Stooges in skirts!’”
There’s also something oh-so-powerful about watching witches in action. After all, a great witch movie like Hocus Pocus (or a TV series like Charmed or American Horror Story: Coven) is driven by powerful women who refuse to conform to the norm; this often conjures up a mighty, super(natural) experience. Najimy can recite witch lore dating back to the 1600s. “Women have always tried to lift themselves up, but I don’t know how the ugly warts on the nose started,” she says. The socially outspoken Midler points to a long-held fascination with women in charge. “It’s a very old trope and built in our DNA,” she says. “There’s just confusion about what women really are and why we don’t suffer fools. Men didn’t used to burn them at the stake for nothing! We’ve come a long way since then then.”
The three New York–based actresses have stayed tight with each other over the decades. Midler and Najimy and their respective longtime husbands, performance artist Martin von Haselberg and singer Dan Finnerty, enjoy get-togethers with mutual friend Gloria Steinem; Parker and Midler, fellow Broadway vets who both appeared in The First Wives Club (1996), get together socially and share mutual pals. But none of them spoke much about the movie that united them or the potential for a sequel. “I think if I had really been pointed to Bette and asked her, maybe she would have said yes, because she always wanted it,” Parker says. “But just because there’s a spirit, so to speak, around the movie doesn’t mean it’s ever going to happen.” Midler, in fact, says she had been advocating for a follow-up for years. “I’d suggested it to agents and producers, but nobody had picked up on the cues!” she says.
Ups and Downs (Literally)
After the project was finally green-lit for Disney’s then-new streaming service, the actors waited again to coordinate availability. “That took about 75,000 years,” Najimy jokes. Then it had to be shot around the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s how Parker describes her crazed schedule: “I finished [Sex and the City sequel] And Just Like That… at 8 o’clock on November 8, got in a van and drove to Providence and started Hocus Pocus 2 the next day. We finished on January 26 at 2 in the morning. I got in the van, drove back to New York and started rehearsals for the play [Plaza Suite, with her husband, actor Matthew Broderick] the next day.” (She’s talking with Parade in between her final Saturday performances; a vacation with Broderick awaits.)
And while Midler and Najimy easily summoned their respective characters, Parker admits that her prep included finally watching Hocus Pocus for the first time (!) to fully prepare for her reprisal of ditzy Sarah, whose singing voice lures children out of their beds. “I was terrified because I can’t bear watching myself,” she says. “But I had to figure it out again, especially the physical movements. And it was actually fun!”
The production itself was quite the journey. Due to pandemic health protocols, “We would film, put on our masks and then run to our cubbyholes and not see anybody,” Midler says. With no communal snacks table, she adds, the actors feasted on canned sardines, Triscuits, grapes and hummus. And when the cameras rolled in ultra-chilly New England, “Sarah was bouncing around in a costume that’s extremely flimsy, and she never complained!” Midler says. “I’m there in long underwear and two layers of nylons.”
Challenges aside, the actors rave about their “air” time—when they were hoisted aloft to simulate flying. “I think the flying is what we were all looking forward to the most,” says Najimy, whose character gets around via a vacuum cleaner. “We each have a different flying apparatus, so we had a different way to be wired up, but we got to do it three times in the film, and I would have done it every day if I could.” Adds Midler, with no pun intended, “We had our ups and downs making this movie, but it was a labor of love.”
Casting a Spell
The Sanderson sisters’ story began back in the late 1600s, during the height of the witch-hunt frenzy; the Hocus Pocus tale starts in 1992. The three stars were at different points in their careers when plans began to come together for the first film. Midler already was an icon thanks to her brassy revues, Grammy-winning music career and films like The Rose and Beaches. Najimy was a standout from Sister Act and Soapdish. And Parker was a Broadway vet and sparkling screen star of romantic comedies including L.A. Story and Honeymoon in Vegas.
“I remember I was living out of a suitcase, knitting all the time, and I had just met Matthew,” Parker says. “So I was occupied in ways that were really exciting.” She jumped at the chance to do Hocus Pocus, primarily because she’d have a chance to work with one of her idols: “When I was about 13, the stage manager for Annie took me to see [Midler’s revue] Bette! Divine Madness on Broadway. I was a great admirer, and the idea of working with her was enormously appealing to me.”
Najimy jokes that she was a full-on Midler stalker, even going so far, after one of the Divine Miss M’s L.A. concerts in the 1970s, as to run past security guards and into Midler’s dressing room backstage to meet her. “She was just sitting there, and I stared at her and said, ‘Oh, my god, I love you!’ Najimy recalls. “And Bette said, ‘Huh?’ Then she asked for my name and thanked me.” Cut to decades later when a Disney executive called Najimy and asked if she’d like to play Midler’s sister in Hocus Pocus: “That was my peak moment.”
Once shooting started on the Disney backlot in Burbank, California—only a few exteriors were filmed in New England—the actresses bonded like family. Parker says the trio would eat lunch together in Midler’s trailer every single day, with meals provided by the star’s personal chef, who insisted that his guests slow down and enjoy his creations. “The cook wanted us to chew 30 times before swallowing our food,” Parker recalls. Najimy notes that she and Parker loved the flying part so much that they insisted on “hanging out” between takes, remaining strapped on to wires. Parker would even hide a folded New York Times under her costume to read during breaks in the air.
When Hocus Pocus grossed only a so-so $45 million upon its July 1993 release, the actresses were disappointed but moved on. But over the years, they noticed that the film had hit the nostalgic sweet spot for kids and their parents. Parker says her 13-year-old twin daughters, Marion and Tabitha, couldn’t wait to meet Najimy and Midler on the set. Najimy adds that loyal fans still send her “very creative” character artwork.
“It went from doing nothing and getting not-so-nice reviews to being beloved and on television every day and night around Halloween!” Midler says. “In a way, it was very moving for us because we felt justified. We were all very attached to those women and those characters.”
Now it’s time to say goodbye. The actresses declare with certainty that they’ve hung up their capes, ready to give over their powers to aspiring younger witches. “We’ve told the story, and you don’t want to beat a dead horse,” Najimy says.
But at least they’re going out riding and flying high: “We’re talking about three women in solidarity really having a blast together, which is a refreshing correctus,” Midler says. “Our movie is fun. It’s not heavy and has something for everybody in the family. The last few years have been so rough, and I think it’s time for a breather. This is definitely your breather.”
In Hocus Pocus 2, women receive their powers at 16. What did you do for your 16th birthday?
Najimy: I collected money from my friends—and a great teacher—and we rented a bus and traveled from San Diego to Disneyland for the day. I wrangled some group discount. It was so fun!
Which witchy power would you love to have?
Midler: The ability to turn my enemies into dust would be good.
Parker: I’m scared of flying typically, but the way that Sarah gets to fly is such a good feeling. I’d be thrilled with that.
Najimy: Flying. Being up in the air is the most otherworldly, exciting feeling ever.
Real-life magic: yes or no?
Midler: I think there’s definitely some going on. I am spiritual from time to time.
Parker: I’m superstitious, but I’m not sure I believe in magic necessarily. But I don’t doubt others who do.
Najimy: Absolutely! I came from a small town, and we struggled financially, and I don’t look like a supermodel. None of those things was a surefire path to success.
Typical Halloween plans?
Midler: I have an organization called New York Restoration Project, and we do a costume ball on Halloween to raise money for gardens and programs.
Parker: Now that the girls are old enough to walk around the neighborhood by themselves and don’t really want me along, I take care of the neighbors and make sure we have as much candy as possible. But I don’t dress up. I never have.
Najimy: We used to do it really big when we lived in L.A. The whole house would be crazy, with people jumping out of things. Now that my daughter [Samia, 25] is older, we just hand out Tootsie Rolls.
Favorite scary movie?
Midler: I’m too high-strung to do scary movies. And I’m afraid of my own shadow. But my favorite is Alfred Hitchcock.
Parker: I don’t watch a lot of them. Finding Nemo is scary to me because of what happens in the beginning.
Najimy: I’m a scaredy-cat! The Wizard of Oz still scares me today.
Favorite co-star performance?
Midler: Of course Kathy in Sister Act. And Sarah in Sex and the City; that whole quartet was just fabulous.
Parker: For Bette, I can’t count how many times I saw the Divine Miss M. That show [Bette! Divine Madness] left a massive impression on me. For Kathy, I really liked The Kathy & Mo [Gaffney] Show. That was really special.
Najimy: For Bette, The Rose. I got to see Sarah on Broadway when she did Annie, and she was brilliant!
Biggest life accomplishment since 1993?
Midler: It’s been a great life, but I have to say, the Kennedy Center Honor [in 2021] was an enormous personal joy. I didn’t think it would ever happen to me. When I heard, I had to sit down.
Parker: I never knew for sure I’d have a family. But my children [James, 19, and twins Tabitha and Marion, 13] are endlessly surprising. If a family is something you want, it’s such an extraordinary but unpredictable experience and adventure.
Najimy: I’m really proud to have been a speaker for women’s issues for the last 40 years. I’ve been a keynote speaker and been on the steps of the White House. I want women to have to have respect, independence and safety.