Actress Sissy Spacek remembers her breakthrough role in Brian De Palma’s 1976 chiller Carrie
Over forty years ago, a landmark horror film gave hope to alienated and marginalized youth everywhere. They were finally given a character who, after being pushed too far by horrendous bullying and oppressive nastiness, got her revenge; and it tasted sweet…
It was the very first film adaptation (and possibly the best) of one of horror’s most prolific writers, Stephen King (who celebrates his 70th birthday today). It had a visual style that was unique and beautifully executed, its writing was smooth and sharp, the film’s director was an auteur who was always prepared, and the performances of its cast were nothing short of absolute perfection – headed by one of the most important actresses of the era, her name – Sissy Spacek.
Playing the titular role in Brian De Palma’s opus Carrie, Sissy Spacek has had and continues to have an amazing career; a filmography that includes some of the most interesting, beautifully-crafted and emotionally harrowing works that all wholeheartedly benefit by her extraordinary talents as one of the most raw and versatile actresses to come out of that excitingly-fresh and innovative period in Hollywood called the ’70s.
ComingSoon.net: Carrie White is a beautiful creation. She is a tragic movie monster loaded with pathos just like the Frankenstein monster and the Wolfman before her. The ultimate in movie misfits, outsiders and loners; Carrie’s revenge is sweet tasting for an audience who feels different and alien. The film is a true celebration for these people, the angry cry of the outcast finally heard, no longer invisible. What do you feel about this statement?
Sissy Spacek: I remember always saying to Brian De Palma, the director of Carrie, that this story is really about a young girl who is an artist who just wants to be normal and he’d say to me, “No Sissy, it’s about teenage angst.” And I guess it’s about all those things and I believe that everyone at some point in their life felt like Carrie in their lives, especially in high school and I think that’s why people connected with her. It’s healthy to find catharsis through characters in film.
CS: How did you land the role of Carrie and can you give us a brief description of your acting career before it came your way?
Spacek: Well I had done Badlands and then I had to audition for Carrie. Brian held several weeks of readings with a lot of the young actors, most of them ending up in the film, and during the readings he would have us change roles, so one day I’d be reading for Carrie and then another day I’d be reading for someone else. But when it came time to do the test, I was only testing for Carrie and a lot of the other actresses were testing for more than one role and it just so happened that I had gotten a major commercial on the same day. Now I knew Brian before all this because I had worked for him as a set decorator on a previous film Phantom of the Paradise with my husband, production designer Jack Fisk. Brian had fired his previous crew on Phantom because a set wasn’t built in time, so I had just come to Dallas, I had a cousin there, and that’s where they shooting it and so Jack and I got pulled in by Brian as emergency set designers and decorators just because we were available. When I first met Brian, he thought I was a very bad set decorator because one day Jack left the set and he left my cousin Sam and I in charge and he told us that nothing out of the ordinary will happen, the set is ready, it’s dressed, all you have to do is sit here and if they need anything help out and this was of course before cell phones, so I had no way of contacting Jack and as soon as the cast and crew turned up, they went into rehearsing the planned scene, but then Brian turned up and said, “We’re not rehearsing that scene! We’ll be doing another scene!” and this other scene was on the same set, but the set had to be redressed and repainted; and here we were repainting the set and it became magenta because we weren’t aware that we had to paint the set white before anything else and it turned out to be a nightmare because there was Brian, sitting watching not happy at all. So from the get go, Brian didn’t think of me as an actress, he thought of me as a very awful set decorator! And going back to after the tests for Carrie, once I had gotten that big national commercial I called him and told him and he said “do the commercial” which made me so mad that I thought, “No way! I’m gonna get the role of Carrie and blow everybody away!”
CS: When you were only reading for the role of Carrie, did you feel that the role was in the bag?
Spacek: No I didn’t feel that Brian wanted me and that I had to do something to prove to him. Because I knew he didn’t want me that’s what made me want the role even more. I went all out. I had rubbed Vaseline into my hair to make it all greasy and yucky, I didn’t brush my teeth, I went all out all method actress style. I had a little dress that I had had since junior high school that was all ratty and old and when the hair and make up people saw me coming, they raced to me to fix me up and I was like, “No! Stay away!” then I raced over to a corner and sulked and got ready for my screen test.
CS: Were there any other characters that you read for that you sunk your teeth into; that you got the gist for and liked as well?
Spacek: Well I thought I was pretty good as one of the mean girls Norma, who was played wonderfully by PJ Soles, but I felt that Brian was just throwing me a bone with reading for varied roles. I knew he thought that if I was a terrible set decorator than I’m gonna be a terrible actress! But the turning point happened once Brian saw the dailies. He realized that he had an actress perfectly suited for the role. Oh but I just love Brian. He was so funny. You’d say all chirpy like: “Good morning Brian!” and he’d reply, grouchily: “What’s so good about it?”
CS: Did you read Stephen King’s novel before starting the shoot and from the novel what did you understand of the character?
Spacek: I read the book before I knew the film was being made, but then I reread it the day before auditioning. The thing about the novel that really stood out for me was that this kid was so pathetic, she was such a loser and I think the thing that I added come time to shoot the movie was that I believe I gave the character a little bit of hope. I felt that here’s this girl who has all these special powers but she doesn’t care about that, she just wants to be normal and fit in: she wants to have friends, a boyfriend, go to the prom, she was an artist, she wrote poetry in secret up in her room; she just had this freak of a mother who just destroyed her life and Carrie just wanted to be happy and for a moment, she gets to experience happiness, just for a moment.
CS: Your performance is truly inspiring. It is a true tour de force as you go from a wallflower who is painfully shy and introverted who is an oppressed victim of abuse to a blossoming beauty, whose longing and lust for life is then cut down by absolute malice to a vengeful witch hellbent on destruction. As an actress, a superb one at that, how do you channel all that energy and bring forth all that raw power that comes across on the screen?
Spacek: That’s a great question, that’s a beautiful question actually. You know the script by Lawrence D. Cohen was so good and I was so into the story and during production, I really kept myself away from the rest of the cast. I felt very sorry for myself and I felt isolated and different just like Carrie did and I really believe Brian did such a beautiful job directing it; he knew exactly what he wanted, his shots were so planned out. One of the main reasons I love him as a director is that he’d say, “Okay, I want you there and then there and I need you to do this, this and this,” and anything else you wanted to do and as long as it fit within his framework of the overall piece, you had the freedom to do and that was really great.
CS: Did you draw on your own personal difference for the role?
Spacek: Well I think that every teenager feels put upon, particularly girls. We have such a traumatic streak, but yes, there was this family of poor migrant workers who lived in my area and the children who went to school with me inspired me to make Carrie someone who really just wanted to belong.
CS: The film is a blood-soaked Cinderella fable, a Grand Guignol character study about the horrors of the human condition. What do you feel makes Carrie such an intelligent and super sentimental horror film with so much heart?
Spacek: I think because at the heart of the matter the film is about a young girl who is different from the others, she’s the outcast, a misfit. And we get to see this and understand her sad life and your heart goes out to her. And I just think Brian did a wonderful job.
CS: Working alongside Piper Laurie must have been a dream come true; she is truly terrifying as Carrie’s religious zealot mother Margaret. What was she like to work with and what did you learn from her as a younger actress?
Spacek: Piper Laurie was just outrageously brilliant! Now as we know, Piper was a young film starlet back in the golden age of Hollywood and then she retired from movies and went to New York and became a star of the theatre. Carrie was her return to the silver screen. And I loved her and her power as an actress. I don’t know where that power came from. It came from the depth of her soul and it would have been a very different movie without her and my performance would have been nothing without Piper. We just had a magical connection. She was always very gracious, she was always well prepared, everyone was always shocked and thrilled with the choices she made. She was truly scary in Carrie. You know, I worked with her years later on another film and she played a delicate little flower and I was like “Gee Piper, I always thought you were always this over-bearing powerhouse,” but she is such a great versatile actress she can do anything. It’s funny, we played mother and daughter in Carrie of course and in this other film we played sisters, see, so everybody catches up!
CS: Just in relation to other actresses, you came from an amazing era of Hollywood performers, I guess the third wave of great movie stars if you don’t count the silent era. Among your peers were the likes of Jessica Lange, Sally Field, Ellen Burstyn, Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton et al. What do you think of young actresses in this day and age and how do they compare to those great ladies of the ’70s?
Spacek: Oh there are great actresses these days. I think young people are exciting. It’s what brings new life into the movie making business. One of the most exciting things for me has been starting out as a young actress and then to be an older actress now and to be so inspired by younger actresses as well as being looked up to by younger actresses. It’s a wonderful thing. I think it’s a lot more difficult for young actresses these days, because there is so much emphasis on celebrity and not the work, it’s hard for them to focus on the art and I feel for them.
CS: Among the young cast were the likes of William Katt, Nancy Allen, PJ Soles, Betty Buckley, Amy Irving and John Travolta. Even though you isolated yourself from them to build your character during the shoot, was there anyone you had a strong connection with at all and what was the shoot like for everyone?
Spacek: They were all amazingly talented and so perfectly cast. But yes, I stayed away from them. It got lonely. But I did it. But during the auditions we were all very close and after we wrapped we all became great friends. But again, it was all Brian, just bringing us all together and creating such a magical horror film. If it wasn’t Brian that did it, it may of gone either way, but I remember thinking, “God if this isn’t going to be good, I may never work again.”
CS: There is a beautiful moment in Carrie where William Katt and yourself are dancing and the camera spins round you both, romantically at first then all too fast, as if you’re spinning out of control. It’s those wonderfully narrative-driven visual tricks that Brian De Palma uses that sets him apart as a true original. What did you enjoy most about working with such a great director?
Spacek: He was always so prepared. He knew exactly what he wanted. He encouraged you to bring in your own ideas which is always great and something really good directors do. There was a real security working with him. I love Brian and I loved working with him. and underneath all the gruffness he has this great sense of humor that I love. And him being a fan of Hitchcock which clearly shows in his films, I really believe he understands the marriage between performance and visual style. He’s amazing!
CS: You’ve been in many brilliant films. Badlands, ‘Night Mother, 3 Women; these movies are harrowing intense films that all really showcase your superb talents as an actress. These complex and compelling characters are very different to Carrie, but also ultimately share similarities with her vengefulness (Badlands), her sadness (‘Night Mother) and her vulnerable dependency (3 Women). How do you feel your roles in the above-mentioned movies compare to playing Carrie White?
Spacek: I think they’re all different aspects of me as a person. Any common similarities that stem from those characters clearly come from the directors I was working with, in a sense, they all let me have freedom in my choices and gave me plenty of room to move. I’m very happy to have done ‘Night Mother and there is a Stephen King connection there with Kathy Bates playing the same role as the suicidal daughter on stage and I playing that role in the movie and the two of us being in Stephen King adaptations, she of course as Annie Wilkes in Misery. I love Kathy Bates, she is a phenomenal actress. I saw Kathy do ‘Night Mother on stage and she was amazing.
CS: Your husband, Jack Fisk, worked as art director on the film and the movie is just visually sumptuous, a fairytale dystopia with gorgeous vibrant comic book colors. Did Jack’s great work influence your performance at all in any way?
Spacek: Absolutely, I think his work influenced everyone in many ways. Remember that scene where I’m walking back to the house after all the chaos at the prom, and when I get home my mother has put candles everywhere in preparation of my homecoming. That was all Jack’s idea and Jack did an amazing job, giving the White household that gothic appeal.
CS: I remember in an interview he said that he (Jack Fisk) had designed that scene as it was because he thought that Margaret White would have stolen a candle every time she had gone to church, so he had all these great back stories to back up his ideas on the design, which is brilliant.
Spacek: Yes. That’s all Jack. He had everything worked out, much like the actors and Brian.
CS: When you watch the film, there are such beautiful moments of how you and Piper are positioned which draw on religious images, biblically-inspired physical positioning and poses which fuel the movie’s horror. Was this something you bought to the screen yourself?
Spacek: Absolutely. You know I did things like studying the Gustav Dore etchings from the Bible, and all these biblicaly-inspired body positions. And I would always try to begin a scene or end a scene in a pose inspired by a religious painting, which really uses dramatic and traumatic positioning.
CS: What was the now extremely iconic pouring of the pig’s blood sequence like to shoot?
Spacek: A little nerve wracking, I was having my beautiful prom queen moment and that was so lovely. Carrie was having the time of her life, and those were real tears of joy and happiness and when the blood spilled all over me, I remember it felt like a warm blanket was thrown over me. It was heavy, thick and it was shocking. And then finally, it was humiliating and then when everyone started to laugh, well then yes – it felt exactly the way it looked! We did it in two takes, so there was that point where I had to get cleaned up and do it all over again, but the second time was just as intensely real. I loved shooting that scene, it was really great.
CS: Finally, how does it feel to be the star of one of the most important and influential horror films of the ’70s and what is it about Carrie that you are most proud of?
Spacek: It was just a perfect film made at one of those moments in time where all the elements just came together perfectly. I love that it’s a modern classic. I love that it is a rite of passage. Every year a new generation gets to see it and that’s wonderful. I was once walking down a street in town and a teenage girl came running up to me and she outstretched her arms and hugged me then showed me her arm and she had the most beautiful tattoo of me in Carrie in my prom get up carrying a bouquet, smiling and looking beautiful before the fall. And I was at first shocked about it, thinking about what her mother thinks about it and wondering what it will look like when she’s sixty years old! But I was honored, I love that the film has such an impact on people and has left a huge lasting legacy and one of the most important horror movies ever. I am also very proud of being part of a very creative, supportive period of movie making, the ’70s was an important era and groundbreaking for all genres. Carrie was one of the most brilliant collaborative efforts ever, I am proud of everything about that film. I love it and am very grateful for it!