The Den of Geek interview: Adrienne Barbeau
The formidable star of Escape From New York and other cult classics chats with DoG about writing, bats, therapy, and kicking ass...
Adrienne Barbeau negotiated a successful broadway career – during which she originated the role of Rizzo in Grease – into a successful television career in the 1970s on the hit comedy Maude. A meeting with John Carpenter, who was casting his popular TV thriller Someone’s Watching Me, led to a role, marriage, their son Cody and yet another career as a celebrated ‘Scream Queen’ in the likes of The Fog, Creepshow, Swamp Thing, Two Evil Eyes and Escape From New York.
Following the acclaim of her 2006 memoirs There Are Worse Things I Could Do, Adrienne has now written a horror novel together with author Michael Scott, in which heroine Ovsana Moore is a rather Barbeau-esque actress…who is also a vampire! The novel follows her efforts in concert with an LAPD detective to find the serial killer who is slaying the ‘A’-list stars of Hollywood …
[ n.b . Vampyres Of Hollywood did not arrive on my desk until four hours before this interview took place, so I had only read the early chapters at the time – M.A.]
Is Vampyres Of Hollywood the first time that you’ve really looked for that creative voice inside yourself?
It’s the first time I’ve applied it to fiction, yes. I guess I found a voice when I was doing There Are Worse Things I Could Do, and tried to bring it into this one as much as I could.
You seem like a really social person, so how does the writing life suit you?
There’s a part of it that I love, and some of that is not being dependent upon anyone else for my creativity. I don’t have to wait for the script to come, I don’t have to wait for the offer to come in or for the money to be raised [laughs]. So it’s wonderful just to be able to get up in the morning and get the kids to school, and then come back and sit down and trying to fashion something that didn’t exist before. Because there’s so much else that I have to do in terms of being a mom and continuing my acting career and all of that, I don’t sit at the computer for days on end without talking to other people. We have a house at the New Jersey shore, and we’re here for about five weeks - my husband has been loving enough and gracious enough to take the kids on some four-day field trips [laughs]. They’ve gone off to Boston, so I am able to just get up and sit down and just write straight through – but I’m able to balance the communication with other people with the communication with the computer [laughs].
So you’re developing your own routines?
Yeah, I guess I am. It’s still new enough to me that I don’t trust how much time I can take away from it, if you know what I mean. So if my husband says ‘So-and-so’s having a party on Friday night and I think we should go’, I tend to think ‘I don’t know – how many words am I gonna get written this week?’ [laughs]. So I worked out a monthly deadline and when I get there and realise that I’ve written as much as I’ve supposed to have written, then okay – I can go off and go shopping.
Many writers say that they surprise themselves at what they come up with when they’re writing – has that been your experience? That you have access to creative resources that you can’t normally get to..?
Yes, it has, and the way I would explain it is that I’ll go back maybe sixty or seventy pages, or back to the beginning or whatever, and I’m reading through it and I find myself thinking ‘ Did I write that?’ [laughs]. Where did that come from? Out of me? There are other times when I’ve written something and I think ‘Oh, that works’, and I’m sorta proud of that; but even as I’m aware of that, I’m also aware that it wasn’t anything that I thought of before I put my fingers on the computer. And it’s really fascinating.
You’ve said that you didn’t turn to George Romero or John Carpenter before the novel was completed- so was the feedback loop during the writing process between you and Michael Scott, or was there someone else to turn to?
Hmmm…I don’t want to get confused between the first one and the second one, which I’m writing all by myself. That one I have definitely shown to my husband and I have two other friends, both of whom are writers, that I’ve sent chapters to asking ‘Am I still on track? ’, that kind of thing. Vampyres Of Hollywood I’m sure I showed to Billy – my husband – but I don’t think I showed it to anyone else as I was going along. I think there was one night when I got together with a bunch of girlfriends [laughs], and I read the opening pages so that they’d know what I was doing.
With Vampyres, Michael and I were bouncing it back and forth. He’s an expert at these things, and that was enough - except for my husband.
Speaking of the opening pages, which I’ve read- ‘Death By Oscar’ [in which a deplorable actor who has just won an Academy Award is found dead in a taxi with the statuette shoved up his rectum]…man, that’s a nasty death! [Adrienne laughs] Is this maybe a case of having a little bit of payback on one or two real characters from your own life?
I hadn’t thought of that part of it being a case of getting revenge! I have a feeling that if I go back and look at it, there’s probably a few things in there …[laughs]. I hadn’t really realised this about being a writer, but a friend of mine told me that another well-known author has always said to her ‘I’m the Goddess! I can do anything I want! ’. I’m just coming to realise that. If there’s a book I like that I’m reading, I can have my character read that book, and I can give that author a boost. And that’s great fun.
But it’s quite therapeutic as well as creative…?
I think so. You know, because you read the memoirs, that I’m not looking to drag too many people over the coals [laughs] , but it’s fun to be able to get those little details in there that some people will recognise.
There’s a nice division in the book between Ovsana’s voice and the detective’s voice – is that how the work divided between yourself and Michael Scott in practical terms?
No, actually – the voice is a real amalgam of the two of us. I think that the final chapters, the battle and the monsters and the Vampyrs and the Weres, more of that came out of Michael. We sat down and outlined the whole thing together, in the same room, saying that this was where we wanted to go and this was what we wanted to have happen. The structure of it is really Michael – he wrote the first draft of the chapter and then he sent it to me and said ‘This is your book, just do whatever you want with it’.
So the voice, the actual words on the paper…the voice is more mine. The dialogue, the way they speak – that’s more me. But when we went back over it, we both agreed that we couldn’t tell where I had left off and he had picked up and vice versa. I had to look something up the other day and I thought ‘Is that in Michael’s first draft or mine? ’. I couldn’t figure it out. We really found a way to blend the two, I think.
Ovsana seems like a melding of all the roles that you’re loved for, like in Escape From New York, Swamp Thing and The Fog…surely there’s got to be a film, and you’ve got to play her.
[laughs] Well, I think she looks younger than I do! Well, you haven’t read it all the way through yet; but maybe I can play the villainess at the end – who looks like Betty Davis as Baby Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane!
Did you hesitate to put so many real-life Hollywood stars of the past as vampires in the book? They’ve even got dialogue…
No, I just had to do a lot of research. We didn’t hesitate [laughs]! I didn’t always use these specifications, but I tried to find people who had died in a manner where I could logically conceive of bringing them back, like Olive Thomas, who died so young that she never aged, that kind of thing. In the end I don’t think I succeeded al the way. I just went back and I looked at the some of the bios for the characters that we used – some of them did live quite a while! I tried to pick ones that had died of a death that could be faked, that kind of thing. But it was great fun.
How far advanced are you on the sequel?
I’m almost half-way through. I’ve got a deadline of January, and I’ll make it!
I’m asking blindly, since I haven’t read the whole of Vampyres yet, but can you tell us anything about the direction that Ovsana will take in the new book?
There’s a relationship that develops between Peter and Ovsana, much to Maral’s distress, so I’m gonna explore that a little bit. But it’s a true sequel, picking up not long after this one ends, and dealing with the fall-out of this one.
Would it have been harder to originate this first book alone?
Yes…definitely! I don’t know if I would have! Michael was the driving force right from the beginning. I met Michael through another friend, and the first night I met him, he had read my memoir, and he knew my film history and my career, and he said you should be writing a novel for your 18 - 34 fan base, all the guys -
18 - 41. Please.
[laughs] Ah, thank you! Since I’ve been doing these conventions, I’d say it was like 18 – death! People who like horror films, they don’t stop liking them! They are fantastic fans; it’s an incredible…support system! So he said ‘You should be writing a horror novel for your horror-genre fan base. And I said that I didn’t know, I’ve never written a novel, just this non-fiction book, and he said ‘Oh, I’ll help you – that’s nothing!’ [laughs]. Okay – fine! So we sat down and he said ‘Okay, what do you want to write? Science-fiction, like Escape From New York, or a ghost story like The Fog..? ’.
And I honestly don’t remember how I settled on vampires. But what I’ve come to realise, now that I’ve written one and we’re in the middle of writing the next one, is that Ovsana’s character – a female vampire – is very much akin to the characters that I read all the time. I read Lee Childs, the Jack Reacher novels...he’s one of your countrymen, actually, although I think he lives here in the states now…but I read detective novels, or mysteries or thrillers or whatever you’d say, and Jack Reacher is one of my favourites. And when I think about it, Ovsana, she can kick ass [laughs] just like all these guys that I read, and like the characters that I usually play. So I guess that’s where she came from. What better format to write the kind of woman that I would like to be – and like to think that I am, on occasion, and that I play in the movies…the strong survivor, fighting for justice…[laughs]
Of course I was going to ask, is that tough 'Adrienne Barbeau' character - for which you’re celebrated - someone that you’ve grown into or someone that you maybe admired and would like to be? Is it a fantasy or a reflection of how you’ve lived your life?
You know, I think it is. I think it’s a reflection of my heritage, in some ways. I’ve dedicated the second book to my Armenian aunts and my grandmother. I’ve come from a culture of women – at least my relatives – that were survivors. They survived the holocaust. You’ve read the memoirs, so you know that I have on relative that walked away from her two year-old son and never saw him again in the hope that he would be taken in and survive; she escaped and she eventually lived a very long life.
So I think some of it is in the DNA – and we use that with Ovsana, as she’s an Armenian vampyre. The rest of it, I guess, is the person that I became, or maybe that I grew up as and then became. I’m not a victim [laughs]. I’ve sort of spent my life trying to grow into…if I say a strong person, I mean a capable person, or a person who can take care of herself and hopefully take care of the people around her.
I would like to think that if I were in a terrifying situation that I would act the way the characters that I’ve portrayed act [laughs]. I’m never tested. But I value strength in a person.
Aside from your physical attributes, do you think that it was the independence and strength of your on-screen characters that made you a sex-symbol?
I don’t know, Martin. You know, you’ve read the book. I never set out to be a sex-symbol, and I don’t know what makes a sex-symbol. I think that it was the camera, or the media or whatever, that made me a sex-symbol. I wasn’t playing those roles, but they just …[laughs].
You talk about the visualisation that helps you get the things that you need and want – where you visualising something like the Vampyres project when Michael Scott turned up?
I don’t know if I was visualising something like this project. I think that years ago, before I ever started writing, it was in my head as something. I read a lot, and whenever I read somebody that I love I always thought ‘God, I wish I could write like that’. And I know that for years, going back, I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be a writer, and you could do it anywhere ..’ . You could go sit on a beach, you wouldn’t have to be in Los Angeles New York, on Broadway. So I was putting that kind of thought out at least, that it would be a wonderful career to have.
I had a friend years ago, he was a therapist, he used to say ‘Adrienne, someday you’re going to reach a lot of people in some other way. I think you’re going to be a teacher or something, but you have something else you have to say that you’re not saying as an actor’. And I just thought ‘I don’t know what that’s all about’. But maybe this is it.
I get the impression that your own lifelong struggle to find your voice has given you character and attitude that you might have otherwise struggled hard to find…?
Yeah, probably so. The struggle or the search was always to understand myself, I think. And to communicate. I’ve always been fascinated with communication. I’ve taken a course...there’s a fella whose name just went out of my head [laughs] who teaches all over the world and has written a book called Non-Violent Communication, I think. I went and took a couple of weekend seminars with him. I remember back even before my first son was born, so that’s about twenty-five years ago, reading Parent Effectiveness Training, and they talk about methods of communication, ‘active listening’, things like that…and it’s what I was in therapy for, I think…to learn to communicate. I hadn’t thought of it until just now, when you asked me the question [laughs]. I’m communicating again!
There were some really good actresses out there kicking ass in the eighties – and you were amongst them – but it really kind of took off in the nineties and beyond. Do you feel that you kind of paved the way for that, or maybe regret that it all happened later?
What I feel is that I wish someone was still interested in seeing somebody like me doing it again [laughs]!
Ahhh, thanks! Did you see The Convent?
That came along just at the time I was saying to my husband ‘Ah, nobody’s gonna hire me to pick up a gun again’. But yeah, I wish that kind of character or those kinds of roles had been as popular when I was doing them as they are now. Or as ‘mainstream’ as they are now. What with the advent of the popularity of videogames and everything, so that you’ve got…well, I’m going back a ways now and thinking about Lara Croft, there must be something more recent…but you know…big films. Because I still love doing ‘em. But I’m just glad I had the chance, you know? [laughs]
One of the things I loved in your memoirs was the story of ‘the trapped bat’, and I was wondering if you’d tell it again for our readers…?
Oh, poor John! [laughs] We had just moved into a home that we bought, up in Inverness , where we shot The Fog. A gorgeous part of the country, and this house was in the middle of the woods – there was nothing around. It was Labour Day weekend, which meant that Jerry Lewis was doing his telethon, for muscular dystrophy or whatever it is that he does. John [Carpenter] had to stay up and see it – that was his annual night-time watching. So I went to bed and I was sound asleep, and all of a sudden I hear John’s voice saying ‘Adrienne! Adrienne! ’. And I looked around and I didn’t see him…and he was on the floor, on his knees with a towel over his head – the master of horror! And he said ‘There’s a bat in the living room! ’. And I said ‘Well…yeah? ’. And he said ‘There’s a bat in the living room! ’. So I got up and got to the living-room and opened the door and this little bat flew past me and flew out the door [laughs].
So cool – someone who makes horror movies is bound to be frightened of bats! Totally makes sense…
You talk about the hard time you had making Unholy at the end of your memoirs, and I kind of expected you to finish with ‘Oh boy, never again’, but instead you take it all in your stride. How do you get to think like that?
This sounds sort of hokey, but for me it always begins with the words. So I’m always aware that something could come along and be really valuable because of the words, the script. But it may not necessarily be the one that somebody with a lot of money wants to finance. I just did another one last November that was just a wonderful character for me to play, and I’m so glad that I did it. But it was low-budget. What I learned from The Unholy is that I make sure I have a dressing room [laughs]. There were kids in that movie who were dressing in a tent at 18 degrees, and I sort of draw the line…I’ve got to have at least a heater in a room [laughs].
I could feel the cold as I was reading it.
Oh, it was a nightmare. But then you turn around and do one like I did last year [Reach For Me]; Seymour Cassell is starring, and Alfre Woodard and LeVar Burton, and LeVar directed it. I loved the character and I got to do some work that I wouldn’t have gotten to do if I wasn’t willing to put up with the low-budget aspect. I just like to work.
Have you ever wanted to take the reins yourself and do some directing?
Never. It doesn’t interest me at all. What I think I might be good at would be directing an actor, maybe onstage or in a scene, but I don’t understand film-making at all [laughs]. I know what’s wrong… I know what an actor needs to do to get him where he needs to be, and I could probably impart that, but I’m not interested in directing.
Do you like horror any more now than you used to? In your memoir, you say that you’re not a great fan…
[laughing] No! My husband wanted to see The Happening, which just came out, and the previews looked really good. But I said ‘I don’t wanna go in there’ [laughs]. I don’t want to have them do that to me! I don’t like it. I love action-adventure – I’m right there for James Bond or thrillers or anything like that, but if it’s gonna make me jump and scream…
We went to see Get Smart yesterday [laughs], and my poor kids were sitting in front of me…I don’t know what happened, somebody stepped out of a closet or something…and I screamed!
Adrienne Barbeau, thank you very much!