Gavin Schmitt Interviews Dee Wallace
Dee Wallace was pursued by a clan of cannibal killers in Wes Craven’s 'The Hills Have Eyes' (1977) (affiliate link), terrorized by a pack of werewolves in Joe Dante’s 'The Howling' (1981) (affiliate link), briefly got a break from horror films as a sympathetic mother in Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi hit “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), and nearly ends up lunch for a rabid St. Bernard in the heart-stopping “Cujo” (1983).
And those were just the first few years. With over 200 credits to her name (and counting), fans will recognize her from “Critters”, “The Frighteners”, “Halloween” and countless others. If there was someone who needed no introduction, it would be Dee Wallace.
She kindly took a few minutes out of her day to chat about her film on the SyFy channel, “Hansel & Gretel”, as well as a few odds and ends.
GS: Dee Wallace, it’s great to talk with you.
DW: Hi, Gavin. Did you like the movie?
GS: I did. I know the reviews are mixed, but I liked it.
DW: Well, believe it or not, even “E.T.” got some bad reviews. But let’s get on with the interview…
GS: Dee, you’re appearing in an average of ten films per year. How do you find the time?
DW: Well, if you’ve seen them all, you know that even though I do a lot of movies, on many of those I only work a day or a week. I’m turning projects down. I get about five scripts each week. If it’s a part I want to do, or somebody I want to work with, or a talented friend that I think I can help, I’ll usually say yes if I have the time. That’s what actors like to do; they like to work!
GS: How would you compare or contrast the directing styles of Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante?
DW: (laughs) Well, Spielberg had a lot more money when I worked with him. I think both of them are incredibly talented. Joe has more of a sense of humor when you’re working with him. Both are very creative, great directors, and know what they’re doing. Both of them are secure enough in themselves that they have a specific vision and, yet, they will allow their cinematographers, actors and editors to bring in their ideas. This expands their vision out.
Gavin and Joe Dante, 2018
GS: Same question, but with Peter Jackson and Rob Zombie…
DW: They appear to be such different people, but in my working experience, they’re not really. They’re both truly nice guys who are totally down to earth, who respect everybody they work with. And again, brilliantly creative. Certainly, so far everything Rob has done so far has been in the horror genre, and Peter explores more of the sci-fi and fantasy, even with “Heavenly Creatures”. That’s where they differ, but they’re both very much the same and very willing to have input from anybody and everybody they work with. One of the things I love about Rob, other than that he’s just a frickin’ genuinely beautiful, nice guy, is that he lives in the moment on the set. If he has an idea or something hits him, he’ll change on a dime. All the really good directors that I’ve ever worked with have that one quality in common — the confidence in themselves to know that others’ ideas will enhance what they’re doing. You’re only as good as the people surrounding you. A new director might want to have total control, decide where your marks are and when you’ll turn and when you sit… that doesn’t work for most professional people.
GS: You’ve said, “A dancer knows how to move naturally. Dancing allows me to do almost subliminal things as an actress that the audience might sense, but yet not be fully aware of.” Can you elaborate?
DW: If you’re not comfortable with your body, can’t embrace the physicality of your body, expressing a certain character through your body is harder, it’s harder to convey. Through all my years of dance training, my body just automatically takes on or channels the physicality of the character. It also helps me do my own stunts. I did all my own flying in “The Frighteners” and did most of my own stunt work in “Cujo”. They wouldn’t let me do the attack scene, but I did most of the stuff with the dog. My body just kind of knows if I’m emotional, frightened, vulnerable… my shoulders curve automatically and I take on the physicality. I attribute a lot of that to my body being trained to address these issues without my even thinking about them.
GS: When the script for “Hansel & Gretel” arrived, what made this be one of those projects you accepted?
DW: Actually, this time, that’s not the way it happened. The first thing that arrived wasn’t a script, but a call from director Anthony Ferrante. I had worked with him on “Boo” (2005) and thought he was a very talented up-and-coming director. He had a very clear vision, wouldn’t give up and was just a really nice guy. I don’t want to work with assholes. I’ve been in the business too long for that. I don’t care what level they’re at, I won’t work with assholes. That’s an important part of how I make my choices. But anyway, Anthony called and said he had “Hansel & Gretel” and he wanted me to play the witch. I told him I didn’t want to come in and do the typical witch with the long nose and warts… that’s not my bag. He said that was why he called me, because he felt if I signed on we would be able to play the part differently. I told him to send the script over, and I really liked it. I think they did a great job of taking the original story and updating it. I could see right away how I would play the witch, and the huge arc that she has. We had several conversations about what Asylum’s vision was and what they would allow us to do. I said okay, and I really, really like this film. I’m very happy with this film. Do we have the special effects budget that Jeremy Renner’s “Hansel and Gretel” has? Of course not. Did we have the time? Hell no. Yet, when I watch this film I really like the character arc and the part that I play. I really love the scenes between me and the beautiful young actress Stephanie Greco. Anthony pulled it off beyond all odds, given the time and money we had. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t be doing press about it.
With Asylum, I worked with them to achieve what I wanted. Did I say to them, if you don’t let me play it my way, it won’t happen? Hell no. I never do that. But I give my input. Even on “Cujo”, I told them they were crazy if they were going to kill the kid at the end of the picture. I said, “I don’t care what Stephen King did in the book. After putting them through two hours of this, we’re not going to do it.” And after some discussion, even Stephen King agreed. Film is a collaborative effort. We come together, bring our best ideas, and see which of those ideas congeal. If that doesn’t happen on the set, I don’t want to play.
GS: Was the witch physically described in the script?
DW: No, no. Not at all. The script was being evolved while Anthony and I had our discussions about it. That’s the beauty of our business. You can read a line on a page, and you can take it a million different ways. You can add effects, you can add makeup. You can add a different sort of performance, so then it’s never the same line. You could’ve taken the script exactly as you saw it, add makeup, and it would be a different take on it. We didn’t want to do that, and we were supported in not doing that.
GS: You’ve done a lot of horror films, but it’s not very often you’re the villain.
DW: I was a pretty badass villain in “The Frighteners”. (laughs) And in “Lords of Salem” I play a witch, but a very different kind of witch. But you’re right, I have a history of playing the more vulnerable roles and playing the victim rather than the villain. It’s a lot of fun for me to do things like “Hansel & Gretel” and just let ‘er rip. You know, let that other part of me go out and play for a while. It was fun.
GS: And, correct me if I’m wrong, besides “The Hills Have Eyes”, your characters don’t really die.
DW: That’s right, I don’t die. Or at least I didn’t use to. There was a huge reaction in response to “Halloween” from my fans. I guess Rob just started the trend, because we all know the story of Hansel and Gretel…
GS: No spoilers, but yeah. We know. Thanks for the time, Dee, it’s been a pleasure.
DW: Gavin, you’re a sweetheart. Take care.