Lesleh Donaldson made her feature film debut at the age of fourteen in the sports drama Running (1979) starring Michael Douglas.
And while this Canadian actress may not have set out to be one of the genre's favorite '80s scream queens, well, here we are.
Case in point: she's the girl who lost her head (literally) in J. Lee Thompson's Happy Birthday to Me (1981). Then she lost it again in the underrated slasher Curtains (1983). And she nearly lost it in William Fruet's sleepy parlor thriller Funeral Home (1980).
But this actress also studied at Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music and New York's Circle in the Square, and created a healthy resume of stage work including roles in Declan Hughes' Digging for Fire, George Kaufman's You Can't Take It With You and Doug Rodger's How Could You, Mrs. Dick?
She's no stranger to television either, making early appearances in CBC dramas like The Homecoming and On My Own, and later landing recurring roles on Night Heat, Adderly, and Street Legal. She's also done voicework for Star Wars: Droids and Star Wars: Ewoks.
We originally interviewed Donaldson way back in June of 1999. We felt the time was ripe to update and expand our original talk with her.
The Terror Trap: Thanks for sitting down with us and giving us the chance to get into some greater detail about your career.
Lesleh Donaldson: Youíre welcome. I hope I donít have Alzheimerís and can remember things! (Laughs.)
TT: Now, now.
Whatís the earliest memory you have of wanting to go into acting?
LD: I donít know if it was so much that I wanted to be an actor. I saw pictures of my mother who used to model when she was younger. She was so very beautiful. I saw her modeling photos and I said, ďI can do that!Ē
TT: How old were you?
LD: About eight or nine. I said, ďI can do that. Iíd LIKE to do that!Ē She took me to a modeling school in Toronto called International Top Models and I started taking classes. And it turned out I was quite natural at it. It came very easy to me. The posing, the whole thing. It was a lot of fun.
My mother used to take me to the theatre a lot, too. I'd to go to the OíKeefe Center and the Royal Alex, and I just loved it. Itís not that I enjoyed it because I wanted to be an actor. I just had an affinity for it when I was there. I remember I loved looking at the pictures on the walls of the famous actors in their costumes.
The touring shows would come in from Broadway and perform at those venues. This might sound weird, but I used to have what I would call a sort of ďout-of-bodyĒ experience when I would go to the theatre. I could just go into this kind of trance and leave my body. It was a really cool feeling and I felt like I was on the stage as well. That must sound bizarre. (Laughs.)
TT: Not at all.
LD: Oh, good.
So I was doing these modeling classes and at the same time, my mother kind of forced me, because I was very shy, to go to an acting class that was taught by a prominent actress and teacher in Toronto named Marjorie Purvey.
TT: What was that like?
LD: Terrifying. I remember the first day I went there, I was mortified. I didnít want to do it because it looked so scary. There was a lot of improv, and scene readings, stuff like that.
But I did my first class and I came out and I loved it. I ended up studying with Marjorie. I was about nine and I was doing all of this at the same time: modeling, taking acting class, and also singing lessons. I started doing all the things you do when you want to be an actor.
I wasnít really thinking, ďIím going to become an actor,Ē though. It was just fun and it was something to get me out of myself. I know it may be hard to believe, but I was very, very shy when I was younger. (Laughs.) I was. Really.
TT: Let's jump back to the singing for a second. This isn't something many people may know about you. Your father was an opera singer?
LD: Right, my dad was an opera singer. A wonderful tenor. He wasnít famous but he did a lot of operas, primarily in England, Scotland, Germany and France. He sang at Carnegie Hall.
My mother is a great singer as well. She has this beautiful soprano voice and could have actually been a professional opera singer herself but never pursued it. So I came from parents who could sing. And I love to sing.
I have my grade 4 with the Royal Conservatory of Toronto in operatic training, but I really didnít want to pursue it further. I didnít like singing opera. That might have been subconsciously because my father sang opera and part of me wanted to go against what he was doing. I appreciate opera but Iím not a real lover of it. I donít go out and see it. It doesnít turn me on musically.
TT: What kind of music were you into back then?
LD: I started getting into Heart. Fleetwood Mac. Rush. Stuff like that. Around that time, I went and took lessons with a woman named Georgina Johnson, who taught me how to combine the head and the chest voice. I used to fantasize that I was a rock star like Chrissie Hynde. I didnít really want to be an actress.
I couldnít play any instrument but I would write these lyrics. Unfortunately, I didnít have an original musical thought in my head. (Laughs.) I needed someone to write the music. Iíd get together with friends and weíd try something. They would write the music but it never really came to fruition.
TT: Have you ever auditioned for musical theatre?
LD: I have. I came close to getting in one but I just didnít have the enthusiasm for it. Iím not into a lot of Broadway musicals unless itís something like Hair.
TT: But of the three things you studied when you were younger -- print modeling, acting and singing -- you felt that acting was the thing that really transformed you...
LD: Yes. Absolutely. The modeling was fun, but itís very shallow. I did a lot of Sears Catalog stuff as well so youíre standing in an outfit showing it off. There wasnít much of a challenge to it.
Plus, I never grew very tall. I sort of filled out wide. I had hips and boobs but I was 5í3Ē. I couldnít do anything other than print work. It was then that I started to hear barbs like, ďOh, youíre too fat...youíve gotta lose weight!Ē I was never huge but I wasnít a thin, skinny model. So I just abandoned it. I thought, ďFuck it. I donít want to do this anymore.Ē That led to commercials.
TT: That can really mess with a girlís mind as she goes into puberty.
LD: Exactly. It really messed me up. I started doing that stuff as I was getting into puberty and it really, really played with my psyche. Even to this day, I still battle with body image.
TT: Thatís terrible.
LD: As fun as it was to do, and it was wonderful, modeling wasnít a good thing for my head. I did end up having kind of a mini nervous breakdown when I was about seventeen because of it.
LD: Because there was always an issue with how I looked. Theyíd say, ďOh, sheís too fat." Or ďher hair is too dark.Ē "Is she blonde?" "Is she dark-haired?" "Has she lost weight?" Because my weight would fluctuate a lot. This was a huge battle for me when I was a teenager.
TT: And that doesnít necessarily go away just because you get older.
LD: Right. Itís always there. Thereís always issues about how you look, maybe even more so as you get older. You do settle into yourself more, but itís still there. I look at myself in the mirror and I go, ďIíve got to lose 10 pounds.Ē Of course, Iím heavier than I was back when I was doing those films at seventeen and into my early twenties.
TT: But some of this is normal female physiology, isnít it?
LD: Right, we just fill out more. As much as I try to think, ďOh, fuck it,Ē it is still gonna be an issue. And itís because of being in the business and modeling and all of that. Women are just like that. Itís sad. A certain amount of men are, too.
TT: The crappy thing is the double standard. For the most part, you donít have middle-aged men walking around saying, ďI gotta lose this paunch.Ē
LD: Oh, I know. Especially actors. You look at guys like Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin, theyíre allowed to be heavy. Theyíre allowed to put on weight and itís considered ďsexy.Ē Theyíre still leading men and they still get great parts. Itís starting to change, but when I was acting in the Ď80s, once a woman hit forty, you were done. It was over.
Thatís a reason why I probably didnít go to Hollywood and I didnít play that sort of leading lady card like agents were wanting me to. I knew it was a short-lived career to go down that path. I wanted to be a character actor. I wanted to be the ďfriend.Ē I would rather have been the fat best friend than the leading lady because I thought...Iíll just play leading ladies on stage.
TT: Watching your films over the years, weíve never thought you were anything but a perfectly great weight.
LD: Well, thank you. I really appreciate that. I have to say that looking back at photos of myself in Curtains and Happy Birthday to Me...Iím like, ďHoly shit. Wow. I wasnít too bad-looking.Ē I didnít know it then because I was battling demons.
You know, youíre competing with these women who are stunningly beautiful and talented and great actresses. Like Lisa Langlois. Cynthia Dale. You go in and you see them and youíre thinking, ďThey look gorgeous. Their bodies are perfect.Ē You think youíre fat and then you see all the flaws in yourself. You go, ďUgh, Iím not going to get the part.Ē Like I said, itís just sad.
TT: Itís not only sad, but you have to like take a drink and laugh it off because when you talk to those people, for example when we spoke to Lisa Langlois, you realize they had insecurities at the same time you did.
LD: Yeah, thatís amazing. You cover it up well because you donít go in showing your insecurities. Lisa is so beautiful, incredibly sweet and sheís an amazing actress. She had all three great qualities. A lot of them did. Cynthia Dale, Lenore Zann...they were wonderful.
TT: Before we get to your films, let's talk a little about your stage work.
TT: Whatís your earliest memory of working in theatre?
LD: The first big theatre gig I got was The Diary of Anne Frank. I was fifteen. It was really quite amazing and an incredible coup de grace for someone that age to get that role. Because a lot of people who played that part had been in their twenties. Liv Ullmann, for example.
I think I was one of the first actresses who got to do it when I was the actual age of Anne Frank when she died. So that was an incredible experience for me. At fifteen, I hadnít really read about Anne so I didnít know too much about her.
To discover everything she had gone through in her life, and read her book, and watch movies about the holocaust and all those things...it was really an eye-opening experience.
If you read Liv Ullmannís autobiography Changing, she talks about how she felt the spirit of Anne was within her when she was doing the part. I know itís really esoteric but I have to say that I felt the same thing. There are times when I donít even remember being on stage. I feel extremely connected to that role and I still have very strong memories of it.
As an added bonus, I got to work with Thomas G. Waites, who was wonderful and who went on to do The Thing (1982).
TT: Do you think the experience of playing Anne was somehow enhanced because she was a real, historical figure as opposed to a fictional character?
LD: Absolutely. Obviously, those kinds of roles are the harder roles to do because you have to really do your research. Especially with a person like Anne. You want to try and do it justice and get it right. Sheís such a heroine to so many people. It was a very profound experience.
TT: Did it affect your mood at all i.e. did you find yourself getting depressed?
LD: No, actually I wasnít depressed at all. I felt very alive and uplifted for the most part. I had kind of rosy-colored glasses the whole time. She was really naÔve.
I always joke with my husband Steve. In many ways, heís naÔve, having been raised in a very traditional family. He led a sheltered life with a mother and father in Edison, New Jersey, in a house, and heís sort of very trusting. My mother was a single parent and we lived in downtown Toronto. So I had more of a street sense about people, and I could feel when people were throwing me bullshit and stuff like that. Iím more street-wise, whereas Steve wasnít.
People like Anne have this idea that no matter how horrible people are, theyíre actually beautiful at heart. And that was her big line at the end of the play when she gets taken away. She says, ďI truly believe that people are still good at heart.Ē And sheís saying this about the Nazis! Itís so incredible that someone could even think that about Nazis! Even though she was being sent to her death, they believed what they were doing was right. Anne didnít have anything bad to say about anybody.
TT: Would you say your Anne Frank is one of the things youíre most proud of?
TT: Let's talk about How Could You, Mrs. Dick?
LD: Yes. Another great one. It was about another person -- Evelyn Dick -- who actually lived, but was not noble like Anne. She was a very troubled person who was schizophrenic and childlike. She was very detached from her life.
TT: What was the play about exactly?
LD: Evelyn had been involved in the famous ďtorso caseĒ in the 1940s, where they found a torso in the Hamilton countryside. It turned out to be the remains of her husband, John Dick.
LD: It was. And nobody ever found out exactly what happened. Back then, of course, they didnít have DNA. In this case, they didnít have his fingerprints, or his teeth, or even his head. They didnít have anything. The only way they could identify him -- and this is really weird -- is that he had one testicle.
LD: Yeah, basically she left his dick on. She did do prison time but she did more time because they also found the body of her daughter.
TT: Wow. That uniball will get you every time.
LD: (Laughs.) It will! Absolutely. Thatís how they knew it was him. Thatís why that schoolyard song goes: "You cut off his legs / you cut off his arms / you cut off his head / How could you, Mrs. Dick?"
"How could you MISS. HIS. DICK?!"
TT: Oh...! Got it.
LD: Yeah. Evelyn was quite the scathing character at that time in the Ď40s in Hamilton, and even in Toronto.
TT: Sounds like the Lizzie Borden case.
LD: Sure, similar thing. I think I was drawn to Evelyn because she was fascinating and if she lived in a different part of the world, say Hollywood for example, she would have been a star.
She was incredibly beautiful and enticing. She probably could have done parts in movies. I played her kind of as a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Scarlett OíHara. She told different accounts of what happened every time she spoke to a police officer. She always changed her story. And then she blamed the "I-talians." Thatís what she called them.
I felt like I was winging it most of the time because I had only studied transcripts. But people who knew her would come up to me and would say, ďThatís what she was like. That's really what she was like.Ē So I was thrilled.
TT: She sounds like a fun part to play. What was the dark side?
LD: Evelyn was very troubled and there was a lot of incestuous stuff going on in her house with her father. Iím not excusing her for what she did, but she was very troubled and if she had gotten help, maybe nobody would have been killed.
TT: Tell us about Digging for Fire.
LD: Oh, wow. What a great play. Amazing experience. Jeannette Lambermont staged that. Itís a great, great play. Are you guys familiar with it?
TT: Isnít it about a bunch of thirtysomethings who get together in hopes of having a light-hearted high school reunion but things turn ugly?
LD: Yes! Thereís blood on the wall by the end of it. Itís like The Big Chill meets...oh, I donít know...Happy Birthday to Me! (Laughs.) Itís not that anyone gets killed, physically. But emotionally, wow.
It was based on real people and I loved doing the Irish dialect. I had this great monologue in it, where I end with me telling someone to ďsuck my dick.Ē
LD: Yeah. (Laughs.) So you can kind of get a feel of what kind of character she was.
TT: What else can you tell us about that role?
LD: My character was a feisty artist who was gay. Or bisexual. And she had AIDS. So she was dealing with a lot. She was in love with another character who was married to one of her friends. There was a lot of anger in her but she was acerbic and funny. She dealt with her pain by being humorous.
They set up the stage in an interesting way at The Factory Theatre. It was in the middle of the theatre with the audience on either side. We would actually go into the audience. There was a scene with a bar and I would walk through the audience to get a drink in the back.
It was loose and cool and hip. It was a blast. And a huge hit. People would mention it to me when they saw me in the street. It could have run for a long time but there was another show coming in and we had to vacate the theater.
TT: It sounds like an emotionally intense play.
LD: Very emotionally intense. But also funny. A lot of heavy shit comes out. The music was great. The Pixies. The Clash. The Sex Pistols. That kind of stuff. Thatís apparently what this real-life group of people listened to in Dublin. And of course, it was named after a Pixies song.
Digging the Fire was metaphor for digging the dirt...getting to the "fire" of their relationships.
TT: Would that be one of your favorite theatre experiences as well?
LD: Very much so. Another would be Criminals in Love written by George F. Walker. And also Burn This by Lanford Wilson. There are a few that I just loved doing.
TT: Those all sound terrific.
Letís talk about your first film role, in the CBC television production of Homecoming (1979). You were fourteen?
LD: Thatís right. I had a great agent at the time with an agency called Characters, who was getting me commercials. I was happy with that. There was money and it was fun to do. And it was acting, kind of.
Then, I got a call to go and audition for a movie that was being directed by Gilles Carle, who was a very well-known French-Canadian director. He basically discovered Genevieve Bujold and was credited with giving her a start in films.
I had this great opportunity to audition for the role of the daughter of a rodeo rider, who was played brilliantly by Auggie Schellenberg. An amazing actor. I went and auditioned and got a callback. The callback was in a hotel room, a private meeting with Gilles. It was between me and another girl. I went in first and they told me to sit outside and wait. Iím sitting outside and thinking, ďThis is weird. Why am I sitting here? Are they gonna tell us right here? Now? How bizarre.Ē
Basically, thatís what happened. The girl came out of the room, shook my hand, and I found out I got the part. It was incredible. Like a dream.
TT: And this was about a rodeo rider?
LD: Right. The story was about a father and his daughter, who traveled with him doing the rodeo circuit. My characterís mother was dead and I wanted to go back and discover my native Indian roots. My father takes me to the Indian reservation and I meet my grandmother. I meet all the relatives and I donít want to leave. So thereís this battle with my dad in the movie about that.
I had very blonde hair for this role. Thereís a line in the movie where it says, ďYouíre just like a canary in a flock of crows.Ē Carle was amazing. Very funny in an acerbic way. And quite brilliant.
TT: What was this initial experience on film like for you?
LD: I remember I had to keep pinching myself. I REALLY liked it. I felt at home, like this is where I belonged. The crew was amazing. You see, Iím such a crew slut. I just love to hang out with them. Iím not one of those actors who likes to sit in the trailer and hide away until my scene is ready. Iím out there hanging out, chatting.
And Gilles was very gentle, considerate and giving. He didnít push me too hard. There were so many laughs. It was a great experience.
TT: You were in a TV production of On My Own (1982), where you played a teenager who wanted to be on the swimming team but had epilepsy. Tell us about that.
LD: Yes. This was another movie made for the CBC, an after school special. Like the ones you had here in the States on ABC, that usually involved a young person and their struggle with something. Remember those?
LD: Again, another amazing experience. I learned a lot about epilepsy. I was the lead so this one was a big deal. The girl I played was actually already on the swim team, and she has her first seizure at the high school dance. That was challenging to do.
I think I was about eighteen when I did that one.
TT: Before we get to the horror, let's talk a bit about your first theatrical feature film, Running (1979) starring Michael Douglas. How did you get that role?
LD: Oh, thatís a fun story. I went in to audition for it and I got a couple of callbacks. I met with the director, Steven Stern. He thought I did well. I got the part and I went up to my cottage for the weekend with a girlfriend of mine and her aunt and my mom. I was SO excited because Michael Douglas was in the film and Susan Anspach. And it was my first big feature.
So we go up and my phone rings a few days later. It was my agent telling me I didnít have the part after all. They were going with someone else.
TT: What happened?
LD: Well, they said I looked too old. I was fourteen and Michael Douglas was concerned that I looked older than that. I was very developed. I developed very early. He was thirty-two at the time and he thought he didn't look old enough to be my father. Even though technically, he could have been.
TT: How did you feel at that point?
LD: I was devastated. But I tried to think that this was par for the course. Part of the business.
My agent then told me that Michael wanted to meet with me, together with the director. Because really, everyone involved wanted me for the part. This was Michaelís issue.
TT: Did they want another audition?
LD: No. He just wanted to meet me to see if it would work and how we would get along. That usually happens when youíre playing the child of a famous person in a film. You have a meeting with the actor or actress who would play your parent to see how the chemistry works.
I went to meet him at his hotel and my grandmother came with me. She was an amazing woman. A Scottish, tells-it-like-it-is, wonderfully hilarious, full of wisdom woman. Iím sitting there and Steven Stern is talking to me. Meanwhile, Michael Douglas is just staring at my grandmother the whole time. I might as well have been invisible.
LD: Yeah, he was staring unbelievably at her face. She was in her early seventies then and she had these amazing age lines on her face. There was a pause in the discussion and my grandmother, in her thick Scottish brogue, turned to Michael and goes, ďWhat are you staring at me for?Ē (Laughs.)
And Michael replied, ďOh! Iím so sorry. I apologize profusely. I didnít realize I was staring that obviously. Iíve just never seen a face like yours. Your face, it's incredibly beautiful.Ē He went on to explain that where he came from, everyone has had plastic surgery to get rid of those lines.
TT: How did your grandmother react?
LD: She said, ďSo...youíre staring at my wrinkles!Ē
Basically, I credit my grandmotherís wrinkles for getting me the role in Running. (Laughs.) I was like, ďThanks, grannie. From now on, Iím taking you everywhere with me!Ē
TT: Thatís a great story! And hey, it wasn't your fault Michael was a young-looking guy for his age.
LD: Yeah, definitely. But about that, they ended up adding a line for Susan Anspach to say to Michael in the script that went something like, ďYou were a child having a child.Ē
TT: Although he was playing your dad, did you find him attractive?
LD: Yes. But I was fourteen and I wasnít in love with Michael like my mother and all her friends were. They were freaking out, and I was like, yeah, so? I was in love with Shaun Cassidy, David Cassidy, Parker Stevenson, Donny Osmond. Those guys. They were younger and I had crushes on them. Michael Douglas was like an old geezer to me. (Laughs.)
What was great is they sent a limousine to pick me up on the first day of shooting. A fucking limo. It was awesome. That had never happened before.
TT: What was Michael like on the set?
LD: Very professional. I didnít really see him until we actually did a scene together. He would stay in his trailer. But he was very gregarious when he was on the set and when we were doing scenes, and in between takes. He was very friendly, personable. Always cracking jokes. A great guy.
Susan Anspach was wonderful, too. I remember taking my grandmother to see the movie Montenegro (1981) because Susan was in it. And there was that dildo scene! (Laughs.) I didnít realize what we were gonna be seeing. I love that movie.
TT: Anspach was a hot property for a time.
Was any of Running actually filmed in New York City?
LD: They did film some of the scenes in New York because obviously Michael is running through the streets. But most of it was shot in Toronto, in a residential area that was supposed to pass for Queens, and on a set.
TT: That film must have been a big deal for you.
LD: It blew my mind. It was like the BIG THING for me. I couldnít believe I was on set, I couldnít believe I had my own trailer...
TT: And you couldnít believe you had to wear those pigtails...
LD: (Laughs.) I couldnít believe I had to wear those fucking pigtails!
TT: They look good on you.
LD: I wore them in The Homecoming and it just seemed to be the hairdo for me. They put my hair in ponytails on both sides. It was goofy but I was a kid and could get away with it.
Didnít P.J. Soles wear her hair like that?
TT: Totally! In Halloween.
That's a good segue to move on to the horror stuff. Now, in hindsight, itís really remarkable you went from a small part in Running to the starring role in Bill Fruetís Funeral Home (AKA Cries in the Night). How did that happen?
LD: I did Funeral Home the following summer after I did Running. Barry Allen, the father of Janis Allen, one of the writers of Meatballs, was producing Funeral Home. I got a call from my agent. My mother used to take the calls because I was young. Sixteen isnít really that young these days but back then it was. I guess we were more naÔve at that time. I was hip but I was also very naÔve.
My mom said, ďThereís this movie they want you to do, but itís a horror film. How would you like to audition for a horror movie?Ē
TT: What did you say?
LD: I said, ďWow! Iíd love to audition for a horror movie! Are you kidding me? I love horror movies.Ē I asked her what it was about and she told me the premise. I thought it sounded great. Thatís also when the cat got out of the bag that I had been going to SEE horror films with my Aunt Sheila.
My mother was like, ďYou went to what?Ē (Laughs.) I told her, ďYeah, Aunt Sheila used to take me to all the Hammer films when I was younger! You didnít know that?Ē And my mom says, ďUh, no.Ē She thought we had been going to see The Sound of Music.
TT: Thatís funny!
LD: So I told my agent Iíd love to do one. I went in and auditioned and kind of got the impression that they wanted me from the beginning. They had seen Running, and I was in The Homecoming. I hate to use this term to describe myself...it feels bizarre...but I guess I was kind of the ďhotĒ thing in the business at the moment.
They needed a young, innocent girl to play Heather, who goes to her grandmotherís and helps around the funeral home/bed and breakfast - where, of course, all the insanity and mayhem ensues.
TT: What did you think of the script written by Ida Nelson?
LD: To me, it was sort of a Psycho meets Little Red Riding Hood. I donít know if I thought it was really that scary when I first read it. I felt it was more like a psychological horror movie than, say, a full-blown slasher film. It felt more subtle than outright horror.
But it was a good script. I liked it. I thought it was really well-written and it was a great part. They liked me and I got to go from supporting to a lead in a feature film. That was huge.
When you auditioned, did you do a prepared piece or did you read from the script?
LD: I read from the script.
I should also mention that I had auditioned for Bill Fruet a few years before when I was about twelve or thirteen. He was doing an after school special about a young ballet dancer. I went in and did a monologue from a school play in which I played a hooker! It was a saucy hooker monologue and he seemed charmed by it. I didnít get that part, but I think he remembered me so it was another notch for my getting the role in Funeral Home.
TT: Did you get along with Fruet?
LD: I loved him. I thought he was great. I know Kay Hawtrey had trouble with him.
TT: What was the problem there?
LD: I wasnít really privy to what was going on. Maybe I was simply naÔve and I wasnít watching. I probably wasnít paying attention because I was just into doing my own thing.
Kay and I would sometimes share a car to go to the set and she would be a nervous wreck. Sheíd say things like, ďOh, I donít know what heís gonna do today. Heís gonna do something to me. I just know he is.Ē It was like she was becoming her character. Like an insane bat-shit crazy lady.
TT: Wow. Was she a Method Actress?
LD: Perhaps. I didnít really pay much attention to that but if I was to go back in my head, Iíd say yeah, she was. Or maybe he did shit to her to get her to act that way. I donít know what his psychology was. Maybe he had to play games with Kay in order to maker her go a little psycho.
LD: It worked. She couldnít stand him. She hated him. Just hated him.
I know that he would do things off-the-cuff at the last minute, like changing a scene. I might not have been called in that day and suddenly Iíd get a call telling me, ďGet to the set now!Ē and Iíd have to do a scene I hadnít memorized yet. It was tense that way. But it never occurred to me to be bothered by something like that. I just figured itís what they do. Thatís what happens on a film set. Anything can happen.
TT: Whether it was intentional or not, he definitely got a twitchy performance out of her.
LD: He did, definitely. But I just remember Kay being a nervous wreck nearly every morning. And then she claimed Bill was making her do stuff at the end that was too much for her. In the scene where she's down in the cellar. There were a lot of crew guys doubling for her, with the axe and swinging stuff around. It wasnít her doing that.
TT: Thoughts on working with Dean Garbett, who played Rick?
LD: He was a sweetheart and very funny. This was his first -- and I want to say only -- gig. I could be wrong about that. I've heard he went into props for films.
TT: He's good.
What was the most difficult scene for you to shoot? The cellar sequence?
LD: It was difficult in that it took long hours. Almost a week of filming. And a lot of screaming. It was more physically grueling rather than mentally. Obviously, it was more mentally grueling for Kay. But yeah, that whole sequence was difficult.
A lot of it was, though. When youíre in these movies and you know whatís gonna happen, having read the script, of course...I found it really challenging not to play the end at the beginning. Unless itís Curtains or something like that, where youíre not certain who the killer is as youíre filming, itís kind of hard to always play wide-eyed and innocent. That I found challenging.
With movies, you donít do it like a stage play where you start and go right through. You jump all over the place with a film. We didnít, but you could end up shooting the last scene first. Or the second to last scene first.
TT: We talked about Kay Hawtreyís feelings regarding Fruet. What was your relationship like with Kay?
LD: I loved Kay. She was a sweetheart to me. I actually became really good friends with her. We kept in touch for a while. I felt like she was a family member. She was awesome. Very giving and very helpful in certain scenes. Sheíd give me pointers. Kay was really a sweet lady and I felt bad for her that she was having issues with Bill.
TT: Thereís a bunch of different filming locations listed for Funeral Home. Not being Canadian, we canít tell for sure - were they all in and around Toronto?
LD: Yes. Markham is a town thatís kind of northeast of Toronto. Thatís where the house was. The old house that they filmed a lot of the outside stuff at. Obviously, the sets were inside, at Lakeshore Studios.
And then the town scenes were shot in this little place west of Toronto called Elora, a beautiful quant little town thatís got this hotel that used to be a mill by the water. They had a gorge called the Elora Gorge and thatís where they filmed the car going over into the water, and kids jumping in. The town was cute. Kind of an ďantiqueyĒ town with little art shops and stuff like that.
TT: Did you see the dailies for Funeral Home?
LD: No. And itís not because I was never asked to. This is kind of funny. When I was doing The Homecoming, Gilles asked me if I wanted to see the rushes. I thought he was talking about the river! A rushing river. (Laughs.)
And he said, ďNo, no, come see the dailies of what we've filmed.Ē Iíll tell you, I was mortified.
LD: I just couldnít look at myself on film. It was like the worst experience Iíve ever had. I vowed never to do it again.
TT: Itís not that you thought your performance was bad...you just didnít like seeing yourself?
LD: Both, I think. I didnít like listening to my voice. I didnít like the way I looked on camera. It jarred me. It freaked me out. I was thinking, ďCan we re-shoot this?Ē Luckily, Gilles told me I didnít have to see any more of them.
Thereís a lot of actors who choose not to see dailies. I thought it was like a requirement! But he said something to the effect of, ďIf itís really that disturbing to you, you donít have to see them.Ē
I decided I would trust that the director would tell me if I was fucking up and I needed to change something. I donít want to see it until itís done.
TT: Arenít there some directors who donít want the actors to see the dailies because theyíre afraid they might change or adjust their performance?
LD: Yes, there are a lot of directors that donít want actors to see them because theyíll do things to make the performance different.
If I look at Funeral Home now, I can see it objectively. As in "Oh, I was fifteen. Thatís what I looked like when I was fifteen." I donít get so freaked out by it. I can watch Curtains or Happy Birthday to Me and think...that was then. Of course, I see what I would do differently if I was to get the chance to do it again.
TT: When you watch Funeral Home, are there points where you think, ďOh, thatís a good scene I just did.Ē
LD: Yeah. I actually did show it to my kids last year. I thought it was time. Theyíre old enough and they've seen things like Lord of the Rings. We watched it and they were fascinated. They were like, ďThatís my mom!Ē Yeah, when I was fifteen!
I definitely see things in that movie where I go, ďThat was okay.Ē However, I also see things and think, ďTHAT was a shitty scene!Ē or ďThat sucks.Ē (Laughs.) Thereís enough distance from it for me to be objective.
TT: When you finished Funeral Home, did you see it in its completed form or did you just move onto the next project?
LD: Actually, I went to a drive-in to see it because I didnít want to sit in a theater. I thought, ďWhat if people hate me? What if they think I suck?Ē All that shit goes through your head.
TT: Is it true you found out later that you were this huge cult star in Mexico?
LD: (Laughs.) Iím not sure if thatís one of those urban tales kind of thing. Maybe Michael Ironside was just messing with my head back then. He and I were actually good friends. We were at the same agency before he went off to L.A. and became a star. We hung out. He was a great guy and he was like a big brother to me.
Anyway, he went to Mexico and told me he saw Funeral Home at a movie theater in Mexico City. I said, ďWhy? Why would you do that?Ē (Laughs.) He said, ďBecause itís you. I wanted to see it. I had nothing to do.Ē And Michael proceeds to tell me that he was sitting in the theater surrounded by a bunch of Mexican guys whacking off.
TT: Get out...
LD: Yeah, and I was like, ďWHAT?? Youíre full of shit!Ē He said he was serious.
TT: He actually claimed they were jerking off to your movie?
LD: Apparently! I donít know if he was exaggerating about all of them or maybe it was just one. He would do shit like that to get my goat. It was obscene. Thatís just wrong on so many levels! (Laughs.)
Iíve seen a Mexican poster for a completely different movie, and my picture is on it from Funeral Home. Iím like...I wasnít in THAT film! What the hell is that?
TT: Right. That's a Mexican poster for Sorority House Massacre (1986).
LD: Iíd like to get it. It's kind of cool.
TT: Anything you remember shooting for Funeral Home which didnít end up in the final cut?
LD: Iím sure there were scenes that were shot that werenít used. But I can't think of anything specific. There are always a bunch of sequences that end up on the cutting room floor, for time reasons, or they find that they donít make any sense in the movie. Thatís why they say itís a directorís medium or an editorís medium. They can chop it up and turn it into something completely different once they get into the editing room.
TT: Letís move along to Happy Birthday to Me (1981). You're Bernadette in this one, and the first to die. How did it come about?
LD: Well, here again was one of those situations where my agent told me I had an audition for another horror movie. At that point, I was kind of going, ďOkay...another horror movie? Really?Ē And then I was told Iíd be the first to get killed. (Laughs.)
I had no clue who J. Lee Thompson was at that time. My head was up my ass about these people. And itís probably a good thing I didnít know that he had done Guns of Navarone or Cape Fear until much later. I was naÔve and I was an ignoramus. But there were all these cool people in the movie like Jack Blum and Matt Craven and...
TT: Frances Hyland...
LD: Oh, yeah! I got to do a scene with Frances. Although I was more enamored of the young people in it because many of them had done Meatballs. I wanted to be in Meatballs and I was kind of fascinated by that group.
And they were bringing up these two actresses from the States, Melissa Sue Anderson and Tracey Bregman. So it was like, wow! This is great. This will be fun.
I auditioned for the part and it was a very quick process. It was one of those things where they saw me and said, ďYeah, sheíll be fine!Ē J. Lee Thompson was more concerned with everything else. Glenn Ford and stuff like that. His issues were more with the bigger names.
TT: And so you got the role.
LD: Yeah. So I got the part, and I went in to have my head cast done, which I HATED doing. It was an awful experience.
TT: Tell us about that.
LD: They put the plaster cast thing over your face. Itís terrible.
In the film, Iím actually there under the table but when they turn the light on, itís the fake head. I had to do that twice! Because the first time it didnít work out.
TT: Where is that now, do you know?
LD: My head? It's somewhere. I donít know who has it. (Laughs.) Maybe it's on some movie set or in some horror collectorís home.
TT: You said itís really you under that table at first...
LD: Right. They come in and pull the cloth off my face. Thatís me in the dark. They wanted to make it look real. And they wanted to cast suspicion on Jack Blum's character.
TT: Was that hard to do?
LD: Stuff like that was funny to do because J. Lee was always dancing around the table going, ďMore blood! Put more blood around her! We need more blood!Ē (Laughs.) He loved gore. He loved all the blood stuff.
I do remember it was hard. They panned around and I couldnít blink, obviously. And I couldnít blink when they pulled the cloth off my face! It was difficult to keep my eyes still and play dead for a long time. That was challenging.
TT: Let's jump back to Frances Hyland for a moment. She was an important name, having appeared in London on the stage with John Gielgud, and she had done A Streetcar Named Desire. What was it like filming that opening scene with her?
LD: She was stunning. Very classy. Exquisite, lovely, sweet and demure. She was awesome. I felt so blessed to have the chance to work with her in that scene. I was really honored.
TT: Was that all scripted? Anything improvised?
LD: Scripted. ďWinston, give mommy head,Ē was unfortunately not my cleverness. (Laughs.) I wasnít that witty back then. Itís something I would do NOW. But back then I wasnít ďwith it,Ē Iím sorry to say. I know people are going to be disappointed to hear that. But I was sixteen and didnít know how to be that funny.
TT: But you make it funny because of your face and line reading.
LD: Thank you. It was fun to do.
TT: Even though youíre the first to go, people really remember you because of that parking lot chase sequence. What do you recall about filming that?
LD: They had a stunt double to fill in for me when I had to go over the back of the seat in the car. And I was like, ďReally? Seriously? A stunt double? I can do that.Ē I didnít know why I needed a double for that.
They said they didnít want me to get hurt. I told them I could go over the back seat. Itís wasnít that hard to do. They didnít need to worry about it. It wasnít an issue.
TT: Did they listen to you?
LD: Yeah, they didnít use her. I did it myself. So thatís me.
TT: Your shoes are very sexy in that scene.
LD: The shoes? (Laughs.) Why, thanks!
TT: Theyíre like Mary Jane shoes.
LD: Yeah, they were sort of like tap shoes without the taps. They were that style. Who knew? I wasnít thinking about that back then. Maybe it was a way to get those Mexicans all hot and bothered again! (Laughs.) Iíve gotta keep my fan base happy, don't you know?
TT: Yeah, weíll have to send you on a tour of Mexico.
LD: (Laughs.) Every now and then, Iíll walk by a Mexican about my age and I think, ďHmmm...I wonder if he...?Ē Michael Ironsideís story probably isnít true but it makes for a good legend!
TT: That's right!
A lot of the shots in that parking lot scene are you and the POV of the killer. Do you remember who played the ďkillerĒ behind the camera?
LD: That was either a crewmember or a stunt person -- it was the same guy who choked my neck in the car, grabbed my arm when I got out, and did the neck slicing. But I also think maybe Melissa was there for a few of the hand shots of the killer.
I remember the stunt guy told me to hit his hand forcefully. He said, "Smack it. Hard!" He said I should do whatever I had to do and that I shouldnít worry about hurting him. And I was the same way. I was like, ďJust pull me over into the back. Donít worry about it!Ē Anything to make it look real.
TT: Was the scuffling improvised?
LD: Yeah, he just grabbed me and pulled me over, not really signalling it to me beforehand. That was shot from various angles, and the cameraman was inside the car.
TT: How long did the parking lot action take to film?
LD: It was a two or three night shoot.
TT: Fun to do?
LD: Iíve always loved hanging out with the crew -- and Iím not patting myself on the back or anything -- but Iíd be sitting with them joking and laughing and then Iíd do the scene. What that is, really, is adrenaline. It has nothing to do with being brilliant. Itís just sheer adrenaline. You just get in and you do it because you have to. Youíre getting paid to.
And in the case of Happy Birthday to Me, it was for a big director.
So I just could sit there and laugh and shoot the shit with the crew, and then go in and scream and get into it. I have vivid memories of that. That, and running.
TT: There's a production still of your body, throat slit, all bloodied, lying there on the parking lot floor, dead as a doornail. Do you recall the on set photographer taking that picture?
LD: Not that specific image, no. But thereís always a photographer roaming around taking stills for lobby cards and stuff.
TT: Do you remember special effects man Tom Burman on the set?
LD: Oh, yes. Because we had a whole week of doing that last birthday party scene and we had to get into the makeup. Come to think of it, maybe Tom has my head! (Laughs.)
TT: We'll find out.
LD: But yeah, Tom was there with his crew, a bunch of guys who made us up. I had to stay in that makeup all day long, which was not fun, let me tell you.
TT: Tell us about going out onto the streets of Montrťal wearing your full Happy Birthday to Me makeup.
LD: (Laughs.) Yes, I went for a walk with Richard Rebiere around the block in Montrťal. We walked along Sainte-Catherine Street. People were just looking at us in shock. Although Iím sure most of them knew there was a movie studio right around the corner. They were probably thinking, ďUgh. Those actors!Ē
TT: But they were staring.
LD: Yeah, one kid almost fell off his bike as he was coming towards us. Because it wasnít Halloween when we shot this. It was the summertime. Maybe September.
TT: Tell us about the mystery on the set of Happy Birthday to Me over whether Melissa was going to be the killer or not.
LD: From what I know, it was always going to be Melissa and then they changed it to the Ann character. The Tracey Bregman character. I donít know exactly when that happened.
It kind of made sense to me because it seemed like just a giveaway right from the get go. Of course, there were red herrings like it COULD have been Jack Blum or David Eisner.