Interview: Catriona MacColl, The Beyond

Catriona MacColl is an English actress who has worked extensively in both film and television across Europe. For a while she lived in a small village in France, where Lucio Fulci historian Mike Baronas tracked her down and was given a strawberry smoothie for his efforts.

In 1979, Catriona made her debut in the title role of Lady Oscar directed by Jacques Demy in Japan. (I was tempted to call this interview “Catriona MacColl: Big in Japan”.) She then performed in three Italian horror films directed by Lucio Fulci — City of the Living Dead, The Beyond and The House By the Cemetery. Catriona also appeared in the British fantasy film Hawk the Slayer. She plays the character of Anne in the series “Plus belle la vie” on French television station France 3.

I had the honor to sit with Catriona on March 27, 2011 at HorrorHound Weekend in Indianapolis. Horror fans know what a legend she is, and I can also tell you that she is incredibly sweet. If you get the chance to meet her, please do… and, of course, see her work!

GS: Let’s start with a general question. How does an English actress come to be known for starring in Italian horror films?

CM: Well, in actual fact, quite simply, the usual auditioning process. Many years ago, I was contacted by my English agent who said, “Darling, there’s an Italian agent who’s been in town looking at photographs in our office of blonde, blue-eyed, slightly Hitchcockian heroines. And he’s chosen you.” He must have gone to several agents, but I was the only one who ever got chosen. My agent wanted me to fly over to Rome to meet him. And I said, “What is this? What are you getting me into?” He said, “Oh, it’s some horror film, but don’t worry about it. Go over to Rome and meet him anyway.” Rome is always a nice place to be invited to, so I didn’t refuse. After the initial interview, which was fairly daunting because it was in a rather decadent office, I went to the equally-decadent office of the agent who had chosen my photo in the first place. Lucio wasn’t really intimidating, but he looked rather respectable — which he was never really to look again. He wasn’t renowned for keeping his clothes particularly clean, but on that day he was making an effort so he was very nice in a suit and I was dressed to the nines as well. I guess I was trying to impress. I realized at the end of the interview, which consisted of rather basic questions, that I probably had the part before I even arrived because I was the only one to fly out there.

He gave me the script and told me to go back to my hotel and read it and let him know, so the shoe was on the other foot. I was the one giving the answer. I went back to my hotel and read it over dinner and thought, “Oh my God, what the hell is this?” I had never read a horror film script before. I felt it didn’t have a lot of depth to it, character study-wise. It was basically a story that had been concocted to string together some rather exploitative special effects. I had no idea how they were going to do them, because it’s one thing to read them and another to see them directly. I rang my agent and I said, “I’m not sure I should do this at all.” Because it obviously was not very well written. And he came up with the classic lines that will now go down in history. He said, “Darling, what are you doing at the moment?” “Not very much.” “Do you want to go to America?” “Of course I do, I have never been there.” “Do you want to go to Rome to shoot for seven weeks?” “That would be fantastic, absolutely.” “Do you need the money?” “Of course I do.” “Oh, darling, just go on and do it. Nobody will ever see it.” I put down the phone and thought he was right — no one will ever see it, so it doesn’t matter, does it? So I said yes and that’s how I got involved.

GS: Why is it that they seem to credit you differently in each of the three films you did for Fulci?

CM: This all adds to the mystique of Lucio’s movies and the incoherences of them. At the same interview I just mentioned, where I got the part, the agent took me aside. He, too, called me “darling”, only it was in Italian, so it was calla (?). He said, “Darling, I’m going to make you a star.” I didn’t believe a word of it because it’s such a classic line but I asked, “How are you going to do that?”. “For starters, we’re going to change your name.” And I said, “What do you mean change my name? It’s my name.” Catriona is a beautiful Gaelic version of Catherine, so I didn’t want to change my name. And I asked him why I had to. He had some difficulty coming out with the truth, but he finally did. “Because, in Italian, anything ending in ‘ona’ means big, huge or fat.” So, basically, my name meant big, fat Catherine. I thought that was incredibly funny because it was ironic, and I thought we should keep it anyway. “No no no, it’s not possible for the Italians, it’s not possible.” So, once again, I thought about what my original agent said about nobody seeing these films, and I told them to call me Katherine after Katherine Hepburn, because she’s one of my all-time favorites. And let’s just get on with it. So that’s how I came to be known as Katherine. But once the films gained popularity and I wanted to embrace them, I wanted to be Catriona, because that’s my name. It lead to a certain amount of confusion, that’s for sure.

GS: You’ve said on record before that Fulci was “terrified” of women.

CM: Did I say that? Did I? I possibly did. One says a lot of things one does not necessarily remember. Terrified, that’s a strong word.

GS: He wasn’t known to have great interactions with women.

CM: I think my opinion has slightly evolved now, but he didn’t speak a lot and he never spoke about his private life. He was a very private, discreet man, despite everything he was putting on the screen. He was possibly scared of women. We would have to go back into his childhood and psychoanalyze him to find out why. We’re not going to do that now, but I will say that he didn’t suffer fools gladly. And sometimes there were various Italian actresses imposed on him, or sometimes chosen by him, such as Daniela Dora, who had only nasty things happen to her. They don’t really happen to me. There are a couple of memorable scenes, but all I really had to do was run around and scream. I didn’t have to do any of those special effects. With regard to Lucio not suffering fools gladly, it seems to me that some of these actresses were not at all concerned with the characters they had to portray and were more concerned with the way they looked and whether they were being shown to their best advantage. Being sexy on screen was still fashionable in Italy at the time. The kind of sexy, bimbo type. We have moved on a million miles from that in France and Britain and America where the feminist movement was in full swing. The idea that you had to look sexy seems incredibly old-fashioned to me. And this annoyed Lucio. This aspect of certain actresses did not please him at all. I’m not sure if I’ve quite answered your question, but I tried to.

GS: That’s perfect. There’s a rumor that you turned down a role in “Demonia”…

CM: (turns to Mike Baronas) Was “Demonia” the film I turned down?

MB: Yes.

CM: (turns back) I couldn’t remember what it was called. I didn’t even get to reading it, the script was never in my hands. Yes, I did turn it down, because I thought this has to stop. You can have too much of a good thing, though I didn’t realize at the time it was a good thing. I thought it might be a bad thing for my career. And so, I decided. It’s kind of ironic because all these years later I’m talking about Lucio Fulci and defending my place as a horror queen whether I like it or not. I never intended to become a horror queen, but as I am one and these films have gone up the ladder… they’re not exactly mainstream, but people don’t talk about them as B-movies anymore. There’s some kind of movement in the right direction and I don’t have to be ashamed of them anymore. The kind of gratuitous violence has even become somewhat tame, if you look at the way mainstream cinema has gone. I now prefer to think of the films as fantasy films with fantasy effects. You look at big Hollywood films of the Second World War, modern warfare or even certain fantasy pictures and they are full of violence. The world, particularly at the moment, is full of violence. So it’s not getting any lesser. The films that I did seem kind of less violent as the years go by, despite the revolting effects. What was the original question?

GS: I asked if you turned down “Demonia”.

CM: Yes, that’s right. I turned down “Demonia” because I didn’t want to become known as a horror queen at the time. And also, as these films weren’t really considered, I didn’t even put them on my CV, because I was hoping to be considered as a more serious, Shakespearean type actress. Although I did do a lot of more serious work on British and French television, that work hasn’t lived on. At least not like these films.

GS: Did you ever see Fulci eat large amounts of candy?

CM: Candy? Now, where’s that question coming from?

GS: I read other interviews where they claimed he could eat a bowl of candy in a sitting, which may have lead to his diabetes.

CM: I wasn’t aware of him eating candy like that. Most of what Lucio et, you would witness on his clothes afterwords. (Gavin notes: Yes, she used the word “et” rather than “ate”.) So most of it was on his sweater. I mean, within reason — he wasn’t completely revolting. But he always had some kind of stain. And it was extraordinary, because he was dressed okay, relatively respectably. But if Lucio turned up clean on the set in the morning, which hopefully he did, very shortly after that he wasn’t because whatever he ate would go down his front. However revolting that might sound, that was how it was. I can’t say I recall him eating bowls of candy, though possibly he did.

GS: Obviously, we’re talking because you appeared in three Fulci films. But what other work have you done that you’re proud of and hasn’t received the same amount of attention?

CM: A film called “Lady Oscar”, and you couldn’t have anything more opposite if you tried. It’s directed by a very famous French director, who you quite likely haven’t heard of here. He died a few years ago and was a friend of mine. I did two projects with him, but “Lady Oscar” was the one in which I played the lead. He was a big time director in the 60s, 70s, 80s in France, part of the New Wave of cinema in France, along with Louis Malle. And “Lady Oscar” was an adaption of a 20-volume Japanese manga, would you believe? And it took place during the French revolution. So they decided to shoot it in all these wonderful places, like Versailles Palace where half the story takes place. They shot it in English because they were aiming for an international market, rather than shoot it in French — all the characters were supposed to be French. Now the trouble with this film is that it was produced by the Japanese, a Japanese record company. It was huge in Japan, I went for a month to promote it. I was 23 at the time and had 9 bodyguards. I couldn’t believe it. It was a bit like going back to Hollywood in the 1940s. They dressed me up, gave me a limousine, and 9 bodyguards. Literally, I am not joking. So it was a shame because it was huge in Japan, I became an overnight star in Japan, but it was never shown anywhere else. It’s come out in box sets of DVDs of this director since then. It gets shown occasionally, but it never had a cinematic release. It’s shame. It might not have been a huge success at the time, because it came out around the same time as “Apocalypse Now” and films that were in your face and violent. Our film was a little bit kitsch. It would have helped my career. Aside from that, I can say I’m proud of most things I’ve done. You don’t do them thinking of the fame they’ll bring you, you do them because the role appeals to you or there’s a director you want to work with. You hope you are successful in anything.

GS: You take pride in your work in general.

CM: I do. I’ve done a lot of French television, some British television, I’ve had a fairly atypical career. I’ve had a lot of pleasure and a lot of disappointment. It hasn’t necessarily gone the way I hoped it would go, but it’s better to be known for something than nothing, and I hope it’s not the end yet. I’m told that people like Quentin Tarantino and other known directors are enamored with these Lucio Fulci projects, but I’m still waiting for that telephone call. A number of young, European directors — the stars of tomorrow — are beginning to get in touch with me for fantasy, sci-fi or horror related projects, and if they are quality projects… I’m about to do a horror-comedy spoof in Switzerland, and if I can make a comeback in some way — I feel like I am beginning to make a comeback. It’s not over yet.

GS: Do you have time for one more question?

CM: Certainly.

GS: At some point, a friend put you in contact with Barbara Steele…

CM: That’s right, that’s correct. It turned out that somebody I know — an American documentary maker living in Paris while I was living in Paris — she lived on a houseboat, Heidi Draper is her name. She was highly amused to know me because she’s a very good friend of Barbara Steele. She asked if I knew Barbara Steele. I said, “No. Obviously I’ve heard of her, but I don’t know her.” So I spoke to her on the telephone, because she called my friend while I was there. In fact, I met Barbara only once, in Chile (?). I made a point of going up to her and saying hello. She’s a fairly daunting character, so it was kind of short and sweet. But she was amused to hear that I knew this lady in Paris that was a really good friend of hers. But apart from that, I haven’t had a great deal of contact with Barbara since. But it’s interesting, kind of the meeting of two generations of horror queens. And we’re both British, I believe she’s British.

GS: She is.

CM: We’re a bit different, but why not? (laughs)

GS: That’s all the questions I have. Thank you so much for your time, it’s been an honor.

CM: Thank you for yours, this was delightful.

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