Caroline Williams: Texas Chainsaw 2, Days Of Thunder

We interview actress Caroline Williams about her work in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Days Of Thunder, and much more...

More than a decade after he traumatised a generation with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in 1974, director Tobe Hooper was coaxed into creating a sequel by Cannon Films, whose reputation for cost-cutting and swiftly-produced B-movies turned the outfit into something of a legend. Shot over an incredibly intense few weeks – due to Cannon having announced the  sequel’s release date before the film was finished – the result was a chaotic, comedic and entirely unexpected follow up to the 70s Chain Saw.

Acting as an inversion of the original film – all gouts of gore instead of suggested horror – and a bludgeoning satire of 80s greed and, weirdly, John Hughes teen movies, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 received mixed reviews at the time of release, but has endured as a ferociously entertaining cult oddity.

Chainsaw 2 also provided the first leading role for actress Caroline Williams, who played the gutsy Stretch – a heroine who manages to keep her head (and other limbs) as the characters around her constantly lose theirs. Not only did the movie provide Williams a launch pad for a long and varied career in film and television, but it also gave her the chance to work with the late, great Dennis Hopper.

As Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 arrives on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK, we caught up with Ms Williams to talk about the film’s somewhat arduous production, working with Tobe Hooper and Dennis Hopper, plus her work on Days Of Thunder, Murder, She Wrote, Hatchet III, and what she’s starring in next.

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Oh, and be sure to look out for her anecdote about how she got the part in Chainsaw Massacre 2 – it’s quite unique…

I was fascinated to learn about the production of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 on the Blu-ray extras. I didn’t realise what a tough shoot it was.

Well, it was very demanding. Especially the last 20 days, first of all because we were operating under the supervision of a production manager who was sent over by Cannon Films, and the production manager was very, very demanding, and had a hard exit date for us. So we had to meet that exit date, which happened to be the 4th July of that year, and we were going for virtually 24 hours. We were shooting first and second units for that last 20 days.

It was exhausting, but I have to say, because of the opportunity that film represented for me at the time, and because I was young and unknown, I never lost a moment of enthusiasm. Any requirement that was asked of me was completely within my comfort zone, because I so wanted the movie to be successful. I had such a tremendously good time working on it, so going those additional days and sleeping in the trailer and never really taking a shower – and I was dirty and beat up the whole time – didn’t really bother me anyway at all.

Given the time pressure he was under, what was Tobe Hooper like to work with?

You know, he was also editing Invaders From Mars at the time [also for Cannon Films]. So he was in even more of a high pressure situation than anyone else, but it seemed to just hone his focus. And he was focused, like a laser beam. And we just ran through. He’s not a multi-take kind of guy. He’s not going to go through 30 or 40 takes on something, it’s just not going to happen. He wants it all in the first take – he wants your very best work right out of the box, which meant we all had to be completely on our game every single time we got on set.

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Everybody was so devoted to the film, and so excited that there was a sequel to the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and that it was written by Tobe Hooper and Kit Carson. We were so enthusiastic about doing the work, everybody was on their toes the whole time. 

Is it true that, when you went up for the role, you ran into the room screaming?

[Chuckles] I did. That’s one of those great audition stories that actors love to chew on. I’d gotten just a few pages of the script, and not the entire thing. The first thing I noticed was that there was very little dialogue, and I just sort of thought through it logically: clearly, they’re looking for a physical performance, and they’re looking for an action performance – they want to know that the actor’s very engaged in the physical action, and that she wants to do it.

The actresses sitting in that very lo-o-ong hallway outside the audition room, they were all going in quietly, very docile. I heard no noises. Yet the pages are filled with screaming! The rooms were silent as actresses were going in and out – they went in very composed and came out very composed.

I thought, that’s not what the role’s about. And I knew I wanted to make a strong impression, and get across that physicality. I figured, if I go down, I’m going down in flames.

So I ran screaming down the hallway, and burst into the room. I pulled the chairs out – right out – from under Tobe and Kit. And they went with it, thank God. I pulled those chairs in front of the door, and then I backed myself into the corner and did the few lines of dialogue that were in the script.

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Of course, Tobe and Kit had no place to sit, so the only thing they could do was just stand there. And I knew I’d gotten to them, because they walked closer and closer and closer to me until they were standing right in front of me. Then they looked at each other, and that’s when I knew I had it. 

That’s a fantastic story! It sounds as though you captured the tone of what they wanted, because it’s quite an anarchic film, isn’t it?

Well, it’s a kick-ass film, man! Just as the first one was. The first film was hyper-kinetic, and once the action begins, it stays at a very high level. The second film is exactly the same. It is full of sound and fury and emotion and action. And it doesn’t really let up for a minute – once the action begins in the radio station, it doesn’t stop. It just goes all the time.

So they knew they needed an actress who was athletic and engaged and ready to work at that level. I knew that was the mark I needed to hit, so I got worked up a little bit!

Did Tobe Hooper talk to you or the rest of the cast about these satirical ideas he had for the film? That it was meant as a parody of John Hughes movies?

It was a symptom of that very 80s sensibility, and at the same time it was a send-up of the original Chain Saw, as well. He wanted to combine those sensibilities. He wanted to take that crazy little group that are in the van in the first film, and do a demented Breakfast Club on that group. And I think he did that.

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Also, he wanted to send up what was then considered to be the crass materialism of the 80s. The go-go 80s and those boom years. What was considered the greedy 80s, as embodied by the chainsaw family.

How did Dennis Hopper get on with everyone?

As I learned from my interactions with him, because we socialised a little bit off campus, he wasn’t a terribly gregarious or social guy. At the time, he’d been sober for about 18 months, and I think he was trying very hard to change the  programs and play mates. I think he wanted to be in a social group that wasn’t drag him into the abyss that he’d emerged from. And also, the character of Rusty was a very isolated man, and I think he was living that out a little bit.

The thing that was wonderful about Dennis was that he was incredibly cultured and educated and well read. He had a real, genuine artist’s sensibility. He loved art and sculpture and painting, and had begun his modern art collection when he was in his late teens and early 20s. When he first started, I think, he began buying art. I don’t know if his collection’s been dispersed by his heirs, but for the longest time, his art collection was on loan to various prestige galleries around the world.

He also had a great musical taste, and he knew Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, and many prestigious jazz and new-wave fusion musicians, so he was very in front of the curve on that stuff. He didn’t socialise a lot with any of us on the set, but I took him out one evening on Sixth Street in Austin, which is well known for its music venues. There was a terrific saxophone player named Kirk Whalum who I thought he’d find interesting.

When I asked him, “Hey, do you want to go see this musician with me?” He was, all “I know Thelonious Monk, I know Miles Davis. You’re not going to impress me.” But he was on his feet the whole night long, so that was one of the finer moments I got to have with Dennis. 

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He was quite a brave performer as well. Wasn’t he running around with a real chainsaw at one point?

Well, you know, he fully embraced the physical demands of the role. He also had a stunt double who was an uncanny physical double for him. But naturally, even though you have stunt doubles, you still have all those cut-aways where you have to perform. Dennis was in great physical condition when I met him. He worked out, he prepared for this role. And like I said, he was nearly sober, so he’d gotten off on a health kick, and truly embraced the entire physical health ideal.

He devoted himself to his golf and to his physical fitness while we were in Austin. He knew Willie Nelson, and they’d play golf at Willie’s Onion Creek golf club at weekends, and on any off days we had. So he embraced the role and was very enthusiastic about it.    

Given the little amount of time you had to shoot – and the set, as well, which I understand was really hot – what was the most difficult aspect of making the film?

I think the most difficult aspect of it was the physical demand. We were running and jumping and fighting throughout most of the film, and it was nearly shot in a linear fashion. My first days of shooting were all the dialogue scenes, and once we got into the radio station, that’s where the physical demands began.

My first day on the set was the chilli cook-off scene. Everyone was very civilised, and my hair was clean, my clothes were clean, my make-up was great. But once we got into the radio station, that was where everything turned. After that, we went into the underground lair which was made by Cary White, who even to this day is a phenomenally talented art director.

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He constructed this magnificent set inside the press room for what was the old Austin American Statesman [newspaper]. It was three stories high, an absolutely cavernous, hangar-like environment, and he sprayed concrete all over the interior and created this phenomenal set.

It was challenging, and it was hot – at one point, we had a little fire break out because of the lights. And it was hot summer – and in Texas, it’s always hot – so we were going through gallons and gallons of water every single day.

Cary White’s talent is prodigious, and he can’t be complemented enough for the achievement that set represents. 

It does look great. How did the experience of Chainsaw 2 compare to the film and TV that came afterwards? Was there anything else that was as difficult as that?

Not to my memory, really. I think the closest I’ve come, in terms of working in an environment that challenges you, and challenges the director, was Hatchet III. We were working in a hot summer, right in the Bayous of Louisiana. We were deep in the swamps, working in a rainy season that just wouldn’t let up. We had rain every single night, which sank the set by about four inches every single night. The ground we walked on every single day.

BJ McDonnell, who was the director – and this was his directorial debut, by the way – he was an experienced shooter and DP, but we had to wrestle with the elements. And I have to say, that guy’s attitude, his concentration and his stalwart attitude… if it’s raining, we shoot. If it’s muddy, we shoot. If the mosquitoes are eating us alive, we shoot.

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Night shoots are always difficult, but that represents a completely different level of challenge. BJ is a happy warrior. He always had a smile on his face and a very strong spirit. You know, I’ve never met John Milius, but he’s about as close to being this generation’s John Milius as you’re going to find. His love of action sequences and his love of challenge – you know, he embraced the challenge… I have to say, this was the next biggest level of challenge and exhaustion that I’ve had to meet.

That sounds really tough. In any film, there has to be a level of trust between actor and director. But would you say that’s even more true in horror?

I think there has to be, because, depending on the part you’re playing, and especially if you’re relying on a lot of prosthetics or special effects make-up, or CGI, or continuity, it’s a different level of challenge than something that’s talky. Or television, where you’re going on a set, you’re wearing great clothes, you’re in a contained and controlled environment. It’s totally different.

Like I said, the physical challenges that horror brings are different from anything else – the closest you’d get would be action films. And horror films and action films are so very similar. Their themes are frequently similar. There’s a lot of cross-pollination that goes between those genres. You’re going to be dealing with heavy material – life-and-death situations, lots of violence and engagement that you don’t find in normal films that have lighter themes. It’s very different.

You have to know that the director and the production team has put into place a level of expertise when it comes to production design and outdoor conditions, so the actors have a safe environment to work within. 

So how did working on something like Days Of Thunder compare, then, because that was a big-budget film with Tony Scott, but there were also quite a few delays in production.

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Listen, when you’re working with that kind of budget, everything’s so tightly controlled by the studio. On Days Of Thunder, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer literally created a racing team from the ground up. They built a guitar for one of the musicians to help create the score.

The excess was legendary. The parties were legendary. I went to a party one night out on the speedway in Charlotte, and the band was Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash, I think. And that was just for a party! [Laughs]

That was one of the more extraordinary environments that I’ve ever been in, where the levels of control are like that. I got a phone call one night, I was watching television at eight o’clock, and they said you’ve got a midnight flight to Florida so we can shoot some stuff here at the Daytona race track. Only in a studio situation like that, on a multi-million dollar budget can you get away with stuff like that. There’s no comparison!

What were your memories of Tony Scott?

I didn’t grow to know Tony in a personal way, although I greatly enjoyed being on set. I would show up and hang around on set just to be around Tony Scott and Robert Towne [the screenwriter], and the various principals on the show. And partly because Tom Cruise was very given to generous gestures, such as flying in chilli cheese steaks for lunch for the cast. I really didn’t want to miss out on those meals.

My memories of Tony will always be of his sunny disposition. He loved being a film director, and he so loved his smoky shots, you know? He was just a man of enormous heart, which made his passing all the more jolting, because it’s difficult to believe that someone with his sunny spirit would… would kill himself like that.

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It was absolutely tragic.

I was there when he and his wife were falling in love. She and I would go to the gym every day. We’d go shopping. We didn’t have anything else to do, but she too was a lovely girl, a North Carolina girl. It was just heartbreaking.

It was, it was.

Looking back through your catalogue of work, you’ve done some amazing TV. Loads and loads of great shows. Including Murder, She Wrote…

[Laughs] Twice!

Twice, playing different characters! So how on earth did that happen?

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It was twice within a four month period, which no performer, frankly, had ever done. Murder, She Wrote was noted for casting directly from tape – they never had live auditions. So when you were a guest on Murder, She Wrote, you were invited to appear. It was the classiest show business experience I ever had – and the most generous.

I remember one of the scenes we shot for the show was a party scene, and my wardrobe for the day was an Oleg Cassini original – I don’t know if you know who he was [NB: I didn’t], but he was one of the foremost fashion designers of the 50s and 60s. I’m wearing this extraordinary cocktail dress that looked fabulous on me.

And we worked our way through the party scene, and Miss Lansbury walked up to me and said, “Oh, Caroline, Mr Shaw and I have just been discussing how stunning you look in that gown. We’re going to box it up as a gift to you and let you take it home.”

To this day I have that dress. I’ve worn it a couple of times in situations where it can be shown off to its absolute advantage!

You’ve been doing some more horror stuff lately, haven’t you? Haven’t you just wrapped on a couple of films?

I haven’t recently wrapped on anything, but I do have something that’s going to be screening very shortly, which is called Contracted. It’s an eagerly anticipated film directed by Eric England, whose cinematic style is frankly more reminiscent of Tobe Hooper than any director I’ve encountered in my career to date.

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Their styles and composition styles, the music they choose to use, their dialogue – there are so many ways they’re similar. Eric’s best known for a film called Madison County, and that’s how he made his reputation at the age of 22. He just turned 25 this summer, and Contracted has been to festivals all over the world to great reviews. It’s opening in certain select theatres in the US and the UK, as far as I know, and will be going to VOD on the 22nd November.

I also worked on a film for a young German director named Marcel Walz. He’s doing the continuation of Ewe Boll’s Seed. I will star in Seed 2, which will be opening towards the end of this year or the beginning of next year.

Oh, and next summer, I’ve got something called Tales Of Poe, which is a wonderful film by Bart Mastronardi. It includes two of Poe’s most noted short stories, and incorporated into the film is a poem called Dreams.

I’ll be featured in that sequence, which binds together the Cask Of Amontillado and The Tell-Tale Heart. It’s going to be a very exciting and experimental film itself.

Caroline Williams, thank you very much.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is out on DVD and Blu-ray now from Arrow Films.

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