The Den of Geek interview: Dee Wallace

The Howling. E.T. Cujo. Working with Stephen King. And now talking to Den of Geek: it's Dee Wallace...

With major roles in the original Stepford Wives and The Hills Have Eyes. Joe Dante’s cult werewolf classic The Howling, Spielberg’s E.T., Cujo, Critters and The Frighteners, Dee Wallace is a known and well-loved face in sci-fi, horror and fantasy cinema. She is also a respected acting teacher and coach as well as a writer, with an initimdating current production slate that she was kind enough to put aside for half an hour for a chat with DoG…You’re known for digging deep for the raw nerve in your acting method, and it must be an excruciating process. Is that something that you’re still doing?

Well, yes. Some roles call for you to strike a much greater emotional; curve than others, but basically my technique is one of the easiest acting techniques that you can use, once you master it. It’s all based on very very high energy and making it all about the other person and not coming in with any ideas. I’ve been working this way for thirty years and now Clint Eastwood always shoots the rehearsal and Meryl Streep doesn’t rehearse now, and it’s like the new thing. Charles Conrad was a proponent of that back in the eighties – he was my mentor.I think that buying into your fear was one of the things that made the werewolf transformation scenes from The Howling so scary. But isn’t it exhausting to mine your emotions as ruthlessly as you did in The Howling?

Yes, it is exhausting – and exhilarating at the same time. When I finished Cujo they treated me for exhaustion for three weeks, because I didn’t know how to be able to access it and monitor myself, y’know, I was a fairly new young actress. And in my defence, Cujo was like…every scene was ‘When do I break down?’, ‘How much do I break down?’, ‘How do I break down?’. Cujo’s the toughest thing I ever did.Weren’t you apprehensive about such a long and restrictive shoot as on Cujo? Hardly any films have tried a narrative in such a confined space. Maybe Phone Booth…wasn’t that something that intimidated you before taking the role?

Oh no! As an actor, are you kidding? You go ‘My God!’. I get to have this role for all this time. The minute I read Cujo, I knew that mother. I am the quintessential mother-caretaker. I so understood before I ever had a child that I would give myself up entirely for a child if I had to. Now that I have a child I understood that even more. For me it was ‘My God, I’m blessed with the opportunity to bring this alive!’.Do you think the ending of Cujo should have stayed the same as the book?

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Hell, no! And I was very very active in getting that changed. Actually, Stephen King wrote us and said ‘Thank God you changed the end, I never got more hate mail than when I killed the boy at the end of Cujo’. And at least you have the three-quarters of the people who come to see this movie that haven’t read the book. You cannot ask a theatre audience to go through and invest all this love and then pulling for this little boy to be saved and then rip that away from them, in a movie. And obviously it doesn’t work in the book.

Did E.T. help to diversify your career, given that you had taken ‘screaming’ roles in quite a few successful horror films by the time that it came along?

Oh, I think so. It opened up enormous opportunities for me, and interestingly enough not so much in films, but TV. And of course I did Cujo from that, but then I went on to do a wonderful sitcom with Elliot Gould, and I did a lot of comedy. The one thing that it really pigeon-holed me into, though, was mothers. Before E.T. I’d done a lot of TV playing hookers and astronauts…a plethora of different types of roles. But again, we in America…you all don’t do it so much over there, but we love to cubby-hole our actors. ‘She does this’, and ‘He does that’…in reality, most actors here can walk in and out of roles just like you all do.

You mentioned doing comedy; do you prefer that to the rather emotional and fraught roles you’re best known for?

You know, I just had a wonderful series on a year ago called Sons And Daughters. Well, I know it played over in the UK, cos I got recognised. That to me was a dream job because it was…it was life, we weren’t playing comedy or drama. I could go from one incredibly funny, sarcastic scene into a highly dramatic emotional heart attack. In one day. It was a dream.Also on TV, you’ve been doing My Name Is Earl – is that something you’ve finished filming now?

Well, everybody’s finished filming now because of the strike! I’m hoping that they’ll have me back – I did three episodes. It’s such a wonderful, incredible set to work on, and everybody just comes in every day to have a lot of fun.

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Do you enjoy working with Jason Lee?

Well, I haven’t gotten to work with Jason very much. He’s a dear person – I talk to him in the make-up trailer, but all my scenes are with Craig T. Nelson.

You must have met every make-up and prosthetics technician in Hollywood in the last thirty years…

Yeah! [laughs]

…and I was wondering how you react so well to these latex creatures when presumably you’ve been standing in the sidelines for hours waiting for the tech guys to actually get the thing working? Doesn’t it break the spell a little? I’m thinking here about The Howling and how well you reacted to Rob Bottin’s work.

Well, this’ll be an interesting story for you because they didn’t have anything for me to react to in the big transformation. They took the transformation weeks after I filmed that. What I was acting with was air and Joe Dante’s voice walking me through it.

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The easiest understanding I can give you is…kids see monsters coming out of their closets all the time. That’s really all we’re doing – we’re just getting ourselves to an energetic pitch where we really can believe that there’s something there in front of us. We’re taking ourselves into that place that children take themselves, which is kind of giving up control and letting yourself go into that imaginary place where it’s there – whether it’s there or not.

Is that hard to do at seven o’clock in the morning?

Y’know I’ve just always been blessed with the attitude of ‘That’s just the way it is – let’s do it!’. [laughs] I think the secret to everything is energy, and if my energy is high enough to get out of my physical mind, and allow my subconscious and my instincts to take over, I’m home-free. Then I don’t have to do anything.

You’re in superb company in The I Scream Man, with Crispin Glover, Michael Madsen and George Romero – did George Romero ask you for any acting advice…?

[laughs] Well we haven’t shot it yet, but George is a friend of mine, so probably not. He’s directed some pretty big actors, so I’m sure he can direct himself.You said in an interview with Judy Kerr that you’d gone through a crisis about thinking that you might be too old to get roles. But you’re so busy now that I’m amazed you have any time to talk. What turned that crisis of confidence around?

Funny you should ask. I started asking in my life why things weren’t working for me and a number of my family and friends, and I just kind of railed at the heavens one night and said ‘I want an answer on how to heal ourselves’…so that we live the lives that we want to live. And answers just started pouring in. I just sent out eleven manuscripts to publishers with the final print of my book about all of this work.

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It’s changed my life and those of many many of the people that I’ve worked with over the years, just turned our lives around. It’s not only about manifesting – although that’s a big part of it- but it’s about being happy within yourself, no matter what is manifested, which is what manifests more, when we can remain vibrationally in balance.

So being in demand for work is just a symptom of the balance you describe?

Absolutely. Just so many of us are waiting for our jobs and our work and the outside world to tell us when we can be happy and feel good about ourselves. The world works the other way around – but most of us don’t know that. We’re not really consciously creating what we want because we’re at the whim of the world, as opposed to controlling our energy and directing it towards what we want.

Is the book in which you outline your insights going to be available in the UK?

Well, I certainly hope it will be, yes. It was supposed to be published over the internet at the end of September, and for various reasons the publisher with whom I had worked for two years had to back out of several deals, so I’m in the process of looking for a publisher right now.

What a lot of people ask me is ‘Is it like The Secret?’, and it really does go steps beyond The Secret, and for people who either didn’t get it the first time or want to go on from that, this book is exactly up their alley.

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With the acting studio you ran for a long time, private lessons and your written work, are you surprised to have reached a teaching stage of your life?

No – all my life I’ve been a teacher. When I was in high school I taught dance and at YWCA and several dance studios in Kansas city. I have a degree in teaching – I taught high school for a year. I truly think as actors that we always teach. We’re always teaching with the essence of who we are and we’re teaching with messages and the vibrations that we bring to our work.

Whenever you teach, you learn more than you teach.

So you’re listening as well as speaking?

Well, you’re rediscovering yourself all over again. When I started teaching my students to get in touch with their joy of acting, and how to open their heart and access their passions, then I got to learn it all over myself and I thought – wow! This is why I chose to do it. When you can live in your heart and your joy it open sup literally an entirely new world for you.Do you think that Hollywood is ever going to stop dismissing actresses at some arbitrary cut-off point of age – a cut-off point that seems to be getting lower?

I think a lot of your icons have helped America move out of that; Helen Mirren, Judith…in London and Europe you don’t have that stigma as much as we do here. So I think yes, you can absolutely watch the entire energy of that turning around, I think we’re all laughing at several of our younger actresses – and I use the term ‘actress’ lightly – we’re laughing at them now and we’re going My God, where is the class of the aged beauty?

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For women my age I think you’re seeing more, and even in television, especially off of the main network channels – HBO Showtime, all those…you’re seeing Glenn Close in Damages…but the mainstream is still holding onto that attitude you mention, and I think that’s one of the reasons why they’re lacking the success that they are, because they’re not moving with the energetic flow. We don’t want BS, we don’t want lack of integrity. We want actors with substance who can bring truthfulness to the screen, because as an energetic collective consciousness we are tired – sick and tired, literally, we’re getting sick, and more tired of it.

You move rapidly between films and TV, as do many other very successful actors now. Is there any remnant of the old stigma about movie actors doing TV?

Well, I don’t think so. Glenn Close goes back and forth all the time, quite successfully. It depends on the actor, but I think if you are respected for your work, then where you do your work doesn’t matter so much anymore.In The Ocean, you play a psychic disturbed by visions – is that a fairly typical Dee Wallace role, compared to your best-known work?

I would say so, yeah. It certainly is going to be a tour de force, kind of like Cujo. We’re hoping to shoot that in January, because it got pushed off from September. I am a little aware that this is going to be an incredibly physical role for me, so I’m doing a lot of Pilates and stuff and trying to get in shape for it. She’s a very intellectual character, but very layered in her problems and her emotional life and those are always the kind of characters that I love to do.

Can you tell me anything about your character in The Stalker Within?

[pause] I’m trying to remember The Stalker Within…oh oh! Sorry! I truthfully have done so much work this year that I had to kind of pull it up. The director’s father had a heart attack while we were shooting, and we had to close down. So we haven’t finished it yet. That’s why I couldn’t bring it to mind. I was down there literally for a week, and she had to close it down, so I’m waiting to hear when we’re gonna go back and finish that.

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Would it have bothered you if you hadn’t been able to diversify your career and had been typecast in genre horror?

You know, I think it might only have bothered me simply because people don’t have respect for the same work that you’re doing in those films as the work would be in any other kind of genre. Truthfully those films are some of the hardest films to shoot.

Stephen King is always so gracious; he was just on Larry King and he said that his one regret was that I wasn’t put up for the Academy Award for Cujo. Isn’t that gracious? I’m so blessed that he’s so giving of that praise. But I think he has a point that there have throughout history been some amazing performances in movies like this, but they’re not movies that the Academy really takes seriously when it comes to awards and respect.

Do you have a cherished role that you’d like to play, or a role in something particular that you’d like to get off the ground?

You know, I always wanted to play a nun. Seriously!

Any particular reason?

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I don’t know…maybe it was Audrey Hepburn when I was young. But I’ve always wanted to play a nun who was really questioning and looking at where she was and why she made that choice.

Is it a life that maybe attracted you at one point?

No! [laughs] No, never. Maybe I was a nun in another life. Maybe that’s it. Or a future life! But there’s a forties movie with Ida Lupino – the name escapes me- and she’s in an insane asylum. Can’t remember the name of it but that’s one I would like to remake also.


Find out more about Dee, her life, work, writing and projects at

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