Hello horror hounds,
As part of Nightmarish Conjurings’ celebration of Women in Horror Month I had a chance to interview the great Belinda Balaski. Probably best known for her work with Joe Dante and Roger Corman, Belinda has had a long career in the acting industry covering movies, television, and theatre. Without further ado, lets begin, shall we?
NC: You are obviously, to the film going public, known for your work with Joe Dante so tell me a bit about creating a character when you have worked with a director so many times over the years.
BB: That’s a very interesting question, actually. Creating a character is one of my favourite things to do. When I met Linda Carter for Bobby Jo & the Outlaw, I decided not to try to compete with Linda’s beauty, so I went totally character; dying my hair red & having beveled glasses made for “Essie”… and as it turns Tina Hirsch who was cutting ‘Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw’ did not have a place to edit it Mark Lester called Roger Corman and said, “Can I use New World’s editing bay?”
He said, “Of course. Come over, come over” as Roger always does. He’s truly the “Godfather’ of so many careers…
And so she went to New World to edit and ended up sitting next to this young filmmaker named Joe Dante, who at that time no one had heard of, and he was sitting there editing his first film which was ‘Hollywood Boulevard’. They would lean over and confer, “What do you think of this cut? Or this cut?” asking each other’s opinions throughout that whole process, which is how Joe met me.
Of course, I had no idea of this; I never knew any of this took place. Then after ‘Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw’ I did ‘Cannonball’ and Paul Bartel actually cast Joe in ‘Cannonball’ as the car mechanic. And years before that I had done a movie of the week called ‘Black Eye’ which was a Fred Williamson pilot that Jack Arnold directed and Susie Arnold was one of the actors on set so I met her and we became good friends. The next thing I know Susie calls me and says, “I’m casting a movie for this young director named Joe Dante and he’s putting this film together called ‘Piranha’ and he wants to meet you.” Well I had never heard of Joe Dante and I didn’t know anything about ‘Piranha’ so I go in mainly because of Susie.
I walk in the room and Joe says, “You know, we’ve worked on a film together?”
I think, “Oh god” (laughs). It’s that moment where you’re trying to think as fast as you can on your feet and I said, “Oh my god, you were the car mechanic in ‘Cannonball’”
He says, “I was.”
I told him, “You were wonderful, so greasy and wonderful” and so we quickly became best friends and really it was out of our mutual appreciation of these characters we created that we became friends.
John Sayles wrote ‘Piranha’ and he had written a character named Betsy and when he saw what I brought to life he took that character and wrote it into ‘The Howling’ as Terry Fisher because he liked my character Betsy so much. None of this I knew. I didn’t know any of this part until the morgue scene in ‘The Howling’ and John Sayles came in to shoot that segment and he said, “You know I wrote this part for you?”
I said, “What?” because I had no idea.
He said, “I just loved so much what you did with the character of Betsy that I wrote her into this film” because in the book there is no character Terry Fisher. So that’s kind of the way those things happen.
There I was on an episode of ‘Eerie Indiana’ called ‘Foreverware’ that Joe wanted me to do (I did have to audition) and when I got the part I thought, “Oh, gosh, this was so unlike me” so I said, “Joe, please, could I have a wig?”
He said, “What are you talking about?”
I just said, “Please, let me have a wig, I really need it.”
At first he kept asking me, “A wig? What do you need a wig for?” and went through his whole kind of conniption before he finally said, “Okay, sure, go see the hair lady.”
So I go into the hair lady and I say, “Look, I kind of want to do a tribute to my ex roommate from college Heather MacRae and I wanted to get this wig with blonde bangs and straight blonde hair and wear this lime green A frame dress with the white go go boots. This is what Heather looked like when I went to college with her so here I show up on set in this wig and outfit and Joe and the producers completely drop to the ground. They loved that character so much that they brought her back for another ‘Eerie Indiana’ and gave me twin girls, actually they were used one at a time, as my daughter and gave her a blonde wig to match mine and the A frame dress and white go go boots (laughs).
These are how characters are made. Like I love creating those characters. Like in ‘Amazon Women on the Moon’ when I knew that I had to roast my husband in front of those six comedians I was in a complete panic. I mean, seriously. So I went to wardrobe and said, “You have to give me this and you have to give me that” you know I just wanted this entire character put together that would never stand up to do this. You almost have to counter what’s happening. So I did with that wonderful, wonderful hat which had the netting that I loved so much. These also speak loudly of your who your character is. You know my actual line in that, because Steve Allen introduces me, I am supposed to turn around and say, “Thank you, Steve” and then go into my little counter roast. Joe is shooting five cameras live and these comics did not stop doing one liners from the moment they arrived on set. So I had my lines and I thought to myself, “How am I going to get them to shut up and listen to me? How are these five comics going to even look at me much less listen to me?” So instead of saying, “Thank you, Steve” I said, “Thank you, Merv.”
Thank God Joe didn’t yell cut and say, “His name is Steve” because I would have been so embarrassed.
Steve goes to sit down thinking I said, “Thank you Steve” and when he realizes that I said “Merv” he does this double take that is hysterical and all of them were glued to me from that moment on (laughs). This is how characters are made.
NC: Would you say the costuming is one of your favorite parts of creating a character?
Everything is. Just being ‘alive’ and in the moment.
I mean, listen, right before that scene Bob (Piccardo) and I were sitting in the annex of the church waiting for them to set up these five cameras. Now Piccardo is really funny, in case you didn’t know, and he and I started hitting one liners to each other at which point Joe shows up and says, “Okay, we’re ready for you in the other room.”
Bob and I said, “Hang on, check this out” so we did this bit in front of him and he brought the cameras in and filmed it for the beginning to the skit. That was because Joe trusts his actors and allows us the room to create.
Here I was on the set of ‘Piranha’ with Paul Bartel having just come off of ‘Cannonball’ and Paul and I did not have a single scene together. We kept saying to Joe day after day, “God, Joe, we don’t have a scene together. Please, Joe, we really want to work together. Geeze, Joe, can’t we get a scene together?”
Finally Joe said to me, “Go ahead and write one.”
I went home and I wrote that moonlight scene so that was how that whole scene came into being. Mike Katz, who was the lighting director, gave me that big full moon and it was just like everybody was working together to create the film. That scene to me is the sort of, “Duh duh duh duuun!” turning point of the film. You can’t have that movie without that, quite frankly.
NC: When you are creating your character’s reactions to the various special effects or creatures, do you plan ahead of time or wait until you see whatever it happens to be?
Let’s start with ‘The Howling’. I believe that you always want to be in the moment, but unfortunately they did not finish the werewolf before we started shooting. We did not get to see the werewolf, what it would look like, how big it would be, or what it could do. Not a clue. We did all our closeups with zero werewolf. All my closeups in my death scene, all of that was shot without the werewolf.
Three months after we wrapped Rob Bottin finishes the werewolf. Joe calls us up and says, “Come back, we’re going to do our two shots.”
All I can think is, “Oh, my god, you want me to match something I did three months ago? Really?” (laughs)
When we go in the door and I said to the hair lady, “My hair is two inches longer” and she says, “No it isn’t. I have Polaroids and it is the same length” I tried to tell her, but finally just said, “Okay, fine” and we shot it. Now, if you take that scene of me with the werewolf and watch it in slow motion you can tell by my hair what was shot when.
It really is all imagination because there was no werewolf.
Of course, when I’m doing ‘Piranha’ I have ten rubber fish tied to me that I am lifting up and carrying into a pool away from me so that they come flinging back to me because they are on fishing wire and that is what I am reacting to.
People say, “Was it scary to work on ‘Gremlins’?” To me, ‘Gremlins’ is thirty guys on their knees blowing through straws. It’s not scary it’s funny, you know? (laughs) Hard not to laugh.
So, I mean, it is all about your imagination and as a teacher, because I have been teaching for 30 years with BB’s Kids, I tell my kids, “If you don’t have an imagination get out of this business.” I would say about 9/10ths of it is your imagination.
I also tell them, “If you don’t believe what you are doing, no one else will!”
NC: So how many of the kids that you have trained have gone on to work in the horror field?
Vanessa Lee Chester went on to do ‘The Lost World: Jurassic Park’, but I’ve had so many kids over the years it is just impossible to remember what they have all done. Hundreds of BB’s Kids have done zillions of commercials, TV, live theatre, and films. I am very proud of all of them. Horror, I don’t think, is the best genre for children.
NC: But people love creepy kid movies
I am a big fan of ‘The Bad Seed’, what can I say? It affected me (laughs).
I remember when I met Patty McCormack, cause she’s a friend of Heather MacRae’s and came to her birthday party, I said, “Oh, my god. I spent much of my life wondering what ever happened to you. I really did always wonder what happened to little Patty McCormack.” Now she is just a lovely lady.
NC: So I have to ask, since you have had such a long and varied career, do you feel like as a woman there is a difference in the casting process between the horror genre and other genres?
First of all, it’s like, when they’re casting anything for your age range and type you hope to hell you get out on it. You hope you have a good enough agent to get you out on it. You never really know what it is because they only give you one or two pages in the middle of a script and you’re just praying to God that you get it. So you go in and do this amazing job and sure enough you get it and then you read the whole thing and say, “Oh, my god what is this?”
It’s just something you don’t have control over, you know? You’re just hoping to work and hoping you’re working with good people. I am blessed to have been able to work with people who are geniuses in their field. But at the time, who knew?
Somebody asked me at a Film Fatale panel I did with Margot Kidder and Dee Wallace and a bunch of other actresses, it was a Femme Fatale panel, “When did you realize that ‘The Howling’ and these other films had become classics and had such a huge fan base?” I looked out into this huge audience of people aged eighteen to seventy and said, “Facebook.” It dropped the room, but it’s true (laughs). Before that moment I did not have a clue, none of us did.
NC: So how was it to just keep working throughout the years and suddenly discover that following?
Getting requests from people and conventions and interviews and all these things that have come from being on Facebook but none of that happened a moment before. It’s really nice to be able to do a thing at the Chinese Graumann theater with Dee, myself, Joe, and Bob Piccardo; the four of us Q&Aing at the Chinese Graumann over ‘The Howling’ and I find that amazing. Who would have ever thought?
It’s very nice to be appreciated, though it always surprises me as I worked with Cloris Leachman, Charlton Heston, Peter Strauss, Michael York, and so many others on all these Movies of the Week and After School Specials. All of that seems to fall by the wayside and what people remember are these films of the Horror genre.
NC: What was it like before you knew about this following?
You just go from one thing to the next and keep going forward and hope to continue working. You hope your jobs get bigger and better and you try to be very careful what you select, but as an unknown actor, especially, you don’t really have those choices. At the beginning you’re just lucky to be cast.
So of the film’s I’ve been in of Joe’s, what’s your favorite?
NC: You know what movie nobody seems to remember that Joe Dante did that I love? ‘Matinee’.
That’s a good pick. ‘Matinee’ is a really important film and it is treated like leftovers.
NC: Of all the different projects you’ve worked on, what’s been your favorite?
BB: Of Joe Dante’s or just in general?
NC: Just in general
BB: In general there were two movies of the week that I was in that I was submitted for Emmy’s and I loved both of them so much. One was called ‘Are You My Mother?’ which was an ABC after school special in which I got to play this marvelous crazy bag lady which I adored. The other was ‘Proud Men’ with Peter Strauss and Charlton Heston and it was a movie of the week. These are two really great parts that I got to do.
The after school special (‘Are You My Mother’) was with Michael York and he is such a delicious actor.
But of Joe’s films if you asked me my favorite I would have to say all of them. I just love working with Joe because it was always fun. Even in ‘Eerie Indiana’, once he let me have my wig (laughs). Without my wig I would have been dead, by the way. I would have felt too exposed. That wig gave me a character from which to work, you know?
NC: Do you prefer changing your appearance a lot for the various roles to sort of hide behind it?
BB: I love it. I’m a character actress, I love it, it’s my thing.
NC: Well obviously when you were in ‘Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw’ you looked very different from normal
BB: Well I took one look at Lynda Carter who is an amazon and I came up to her you know whats and they came all the way out to you know where and I looked at her face and when I got home I called Mark Lester and said, “Mark, look, I’m going to dye my hair red, have glasses made, and gain thirty pounds, okay?”
He said, “No, no. The glasses and hair are fine, but don’t gain an ounce.”
But, you know, it’s like best friends are never the two beautiful girls. Usually the opposites are the ones that become friends so I had to go that way because I did not want to compete with Lynda Carter on film. She’s gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous.
Best to go character.
NC: As an actress who has done film and theatre, do you have a preference and why?
BB: Simply put, I just love “working”; when, where, what, who, and why? That’s the life blood of an actor.
NC: Even if they are smaller roles, like your scene in ‘Gremlins’ playing off of Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday).
Let me tell you another one because this is just a perfect example. I got cast in ‘Gremlins’ and I’m waiting and waiting for a week or something to get a script. Finally, the night before I’m supposed to work, I call Joe up and I’m like, “Joe, no one ever delivered a script to me.”
He said, “Don’t worry, no one ever delivered one to me either.”
I said, “But you’ve been shooting for a month!”
“Don’t worry,” he said, “just come in and adlib.”
“Joe, I don’t even know what a gremlin is.”
He said, “Neither do I!” (laughs)
So, I have to admit, I panicked and wrote out about three hundred scenes. I walked in with a wad of papers and I handed it to Joe and said, “Would you just look these over and see if any of them work?”
He said, “I love the first thing you wrote. Just take it to Polly (Holliday) and have her come up with her lines.”
I went into Polly’s trailer thinking, “Oh, god, this is like walking into Carol Burnett’s trailer and trying to adlib with her (laughs). I said, “Joe wanted me to run over this with you.”
She said, “Sure, go ahead and do your thing.”
So I began to run through it and she turned around right on spot and said, “Well now you’ll know what to ask Santa for Christmas, won’t you?”
From that point, I was done (laughs). I mean that whole scene was adlibbed, you know?
NC: Is that more fun for you than having a script in front of you?
BB: Well, you know, I think one of the creative igniters for actors is panic (laughs). It’s like, “I’m working tomorrow, but I don’t know what I’m doing” and this panic sets in and charges your creativity. I’m thinking, “I’m going to adlib with Polly Holliday?” so it drives you to the edge of your creativity, hopefully. Otherwise, I guess it probably drives you to drugs or drink, the other ends of the extreme, if you are not using it in a positive manner because that edge is a fine edge.
Fortunately, I have been able to use it creatively and when I wasn’t I created a workshop to ignite the lives of other kids. It’s always a matter of creation, it’s your life, you know?
NC: As someone who teaches acting now, do you have any advice for those trying to start their careers?
BB: Fasten your seatbelts!
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