Interview: Veronica Cartwright on Alien, Body Snatchers, The Dark Below and More

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Veteran film and television actress Veronica Cartwright talks about new film The Dark Below and some of her best work in horror

Veteran film and television actress Veronica Cartwright talks about new film The Dark Below and some of her best work in horror

Veronica Cartwright has been bending spells in cinema since she was a little girl, co-starring at the age of 12 with heavy-hitters Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine in William Wyler’s controversial 1961 thriller The Children’s Hour and a tidal wave of entertainments made for both the big (The Birds) and small (The Twilight Zone, Leave it to Beaver) screen.

Hers is truly a life spent in front of the lens. But it was in the 1970s, when Cartwright was in her late 20s, that she began to truly find her footing, starring in John Byrum’s sexually-explicit Inserts, in director/star Jack Nicholson’s comedy western Goin’ South and in a pair of films that history has proven to be two of the greatest science fiction horror movies ever made: Philip Kaufman’s nightmarish remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Ridley Scott‘s groundbreaking Alien.

Now, Cartwright stars as a grieving mother in Douglas Schulze’s visionary and visual near-silent horror movie The Dark Below (which opened theatrically last week), a role that calls on the veteran actress to act almost exclusively with one of her greatest natural special effects: her near-translucent and oversized blue eyes.

We had the honor of speaking with the funny, talented actress about that film and several of her greatest genre film appearances, including her blistering and outrageous turn in George Miller’s 1987 horror comedy The Witches of Eastwick.

ComingSoon,net: Your life reads like a history of the last 60 years of American pop culture. Do you ever think of writing a book?

Veronica Cartwright: No..I know, people say I should. Whenever I tell stories, people say you should write this down.  But that takes time.

CS: You’re just giving this stuff away! You’re about to give it up for me for free!

Cartwright: No, no…there’s still stuff…

CS: I’ve loved your eyes my whole life. And I know I’m not alone. Is that what drew Douglas to you for this role in The Dark Below? I mean there’s no dialogue and you are acting with those eyes…

Cartwright: I don’t know, Maybe! My agent had done a movie with Doug before and so I was just recommended. I mean, I think it’s a really interesting concept and it’s extremely creepy; the script was really good and I thought it was fascinating that there’s no dialogue. We always want to say something but as a performer, to internalize everything is something rare…

CS: It’s certainly a commercial risk to eliminate dialogue…

Cartwright: Yeah, I agree. Hopefully it does well. It’s totally different.

CS: Well, you’re in it, so already it’s doing okay…

Cartwright: (laughs) Well, thank you!

CS: So what is your calling card film as far as this new generation of young filmmakers is concerned. Is it Alien?

Cartwright: Yeah, Alien, sure…but also The Birds. That’s always a big one.

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CS: And Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where you share the screen’s scariest scream scene with Donald Sutherland.

Cartwright: Well, that’s an interesting story, because Phil Kaufman didn’t tell us one thing about that ending, he told us different things so I had not expected Donald to do that! That’s why I approached him very tentatively, without giving anything away and I was testing the waters and then he turns around and does that and I was not expecting that at all. So, that look of terror and upset is just what came out (laughs).

CS: And then, a year later, Ridley Scott did that to you again in Alien…

Cartwright: Yeah, with the chestburster scene. That was crazy. We all knew there was going to be a chestburster scene, because it was in the script, but we didn’t know how it was going to be done. So we were left in the dressing rooms upstairs while the FX people got John all packed and ready with all the stuff, you know. So then we came down, everything was covered in plastic and there were these big buckets of offal around; ugh, the smell was just repulsive. Anyway, we were just so fascinated, there were four cameras around us and we all kind of just leaned in to watch it. I was told I might get a little blood on me but I had no idea and I leaned right into a blood jet and, um, my reaction was “Oh my God!” and then I backed up and flipped over the these upright cowboy boots…it was just hysterical really. But I kept going. But it was literally like something out of a Mack Sennett film or something.

CS: You gotta watch out for those blood jets…

Cartwright: I know, I know. And years later I worked with the special effects guy in another film and he apologized to me (laughs).

CS: Did you stay in touch with the late John Hurt?

Cartwright: A bit. I saw him in LA doing a play at The Douglas not too long ago and I got to go back and see him. And once in a while I’d get to see him when he came to town. He was a lovely person and it was very sad to hear that he had passed. I’m going to a convention in England and it’s sad that he won’t be there.

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CS: I know you were just a little girl when you made The Children’s Hour, but my God you’re good in it. One of our writers put me on to that movie only a few years ago. Do you have strong memories?

RELATED: Read Lee Gambin’s essay on The Children’s Hour

Cartwright: Oh yeah, of course. I mean Shirley MacLaine was such an early influence on me. She’s the reason I ended up seriously pursuing this. I met her once years later backstage at her one woman show and she greeted me warmly and said, “I have followed your career, dear,” and I said, “you are the reason I’m doing this.” It was a cool moment.

CS: In what must be an endless ocean of cool moments. You seem to have worked consistently from childhood to adult age. Did you ever take a break?

Cartwright: There was a period of time when I couldn’t seem to get anything. I was on the series Daniel Boone and then, when that ended, I was still under 18 so I was too young to be in the older category and too old to be a child. So there was a few years there that were dry. So I went and studied acting with Jack Garfine and did that for three years and then decided to move to England, because as you know, I am British born, and that’s where I got the movie Inserts and that started everything all over again.

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CS: That was a controversial film

Cartwright: Well, we got an X rating. It finally got changed to NC-17, but they showed it not long ago at the Egyptian and…God, it holds up so well. It’s a wonderful movie. It was such a liberating experience to do that movie and it kicked off a lot of stuff for me. I was a waitress at that time and one day this guy says “Excuse me, can I ask you a question? Aren’t you in that movie Inserts?” and I go, “yeah” and he says “what the f*ck are you doing here?!” I was earning a living! But I went home that night and thought, what was I doing there? So I quit my job the next day.

CS: I love your maniacal, cherry-puking performance in The Witches of Eastwick. How did you get that gig?

Cartwright: I had done Goin’ South with Jack Nicholson and originally for Witches they were looking at Colleen Dewhurst and Geraldine Page for that role because in the book, it was written as an older person. But Jack always thought that Felicia was a contemporary. She was the fourth witch. So, after I got the part, George Miller said that I had a huge fan in Jack Nicholson and that it was Jack who insisted I get the job.

CS: Richard Jenkins is fantastic as your poor husband…

Cartwright: Isn’t he wonderful? He’s a wonderful person and actor. He’s amazing in everything he does. Just the sheer embarrassment he has when I’m screaming at people and calling them whores in Church. Fantastic.

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CS: As a kid, you were in The Twilight Zone episode “I Sing the Body Electric” based on the Ray Bradbury story. Did you meet Rod Serling?

Cartwright: Yes I did! I watched him film his intro for that episode, in fact!

CS: And Bradbury?

Cartwright: No. We didn’t see him. He didn’t get along with Rod, because things were cut out of the story but Rod was like, “yeah but I only have 28 minutes to do this!” That didn’t make any difference to Ray. He never did another one. He was furious.

CS: You’ve been in the business for literally your entire life. It’s such a swamp of ego. How did you manage to stay grounded and nice?

Cartwright: Um…I don’t know. I guess it was my upbringing. I enjoy what I do. And really, why become an *sshole, you know? You know, no one ever bugged Jack Nicholson. When we made Witches and people were standing around to see him, he’d just come out and say “Hi everybody!” I was lucky enough to go with him to a Lakers game too and he was always friendly. No one bothers Jack because he makes himself so accessible. It’s the people who make *ssholes of themselves and make a big deal of it. Why push people away? I love when people come up to me and say they appreciate the work!

The Dark Below is now in theaters from Parade Deck Films.