Interview: Barbara Crampton on Little Sister, Re-Animator & More from Fantasia Fest
Over the summer, we got to sit down with 1980’s icon Barbara Crampton at Fantasia Fest in Montreal for an exclusive career-spanning interview that covers her years as the onscreen muse of Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Castle Freak) through her current run of hit indie horror flicks (You’re Next, We Are Still Here, The Lords of Salem) in what can only be described as a Barbarassance. We also discuss her surprising role in director Zach Clark‘s warm and wonderful “goth nun” dramedy Little Sister, in which Crampton plays perhaps the nicest, most patient Mother Superior in movie history. It’s a great against-type/genre part for the actress that shows her range and emotional depth. Little Sister opens at The Metrograph in New York (and nationwide on all digital platforms) today (October 14) and at The Arena Cinema in Los Angeles on October 28; additional cities to follow.
ComingSoon.net: I have to start off with a question that I’ve had for years and years. The question pops in my head, every time I see you in a movie, like “We Are Still Here.” I’m just like, where is the attic where you keep the portrait of you that ages?
Barbara Crampton: It’s only because I know how to walk into good lighting. That’s why I don’t come out during the day.
CS: No, but seriously. Every time I see you in a movie, I’m like, “She hasn’t aged one year since ‘Re-Animator.’”
Crampton: I go to the gym every day. Every day, I’m slogging it away. And I have young children. I started late, so oh my god, I’m exhausted. I have a 13 and a 14-year old.
CS: Do they get to see your older films? Do you show them “From Beyond” and stuff?
Crampton: Not yet. No, but my son’s friends have seen all my stuff on the internet and they’re like, “Dude, your mom’s in black leather.” And my son’s like, “Mom, you should’ve told me before my friends saw it.” And I’m like, “Oh man, I’m sorry, okay.” So then I showed my son everything. They know everything about everything, but they haven’t seen “From Beyond” or “Re-Animator.” But they’ve seen “Chopping Mall.” They’ve seen “We Are Still Here.” They’ve seen “You’re Next.” And I think they’ve seen some other, “Castle Freak,” maybe, yeah. Yeah, so they’ve seen all that stuff.
CS: A lot of those movies have the theme of marital strife and injured kids and dead kids.
Crampton: Actually, you know what? To be honest, actually my son has seen “You’re Next” because I think he’s a little more mature. He’s two years older than my daughter. And “You’re Next”, everybody knows it’s not a spoiler, it’s a family killing a family. So I don’t think my daughter could really handle it yet. So actually, she hasn’t seen that movie, but my son has seen it. And again, it’s one of those things where all of his friends saw it and I was like, “You can’t see this movie. I don’t like the theme of it for you, you’re too young.” And he’s like, “Mom, every one of my friends has seen it. I think I can see it. You’re in it.” And then he saw it and it was fine, and it was like, it’s mom.
CS: It’s pretty tame.
Crampton: It’s tame, but a family killing a family? I don’t know. For that concept to go into a teenager’s brain, I didn’t really want that concept. I don’t mind the blood and guts and the videogames he plays, where he’s killing everybody, but a family killing a family is something different to me. But I don’t know, it didn’t seem to phase him.
CS: In terms of that era of movies that you came from — the Stu Gordon/Charles Band era — that was a very specific type of film. I feel like it was almost an anachronism, even when it was getting made, because they did have one foot in the blood and the guts of the ’80s, but they also had one foot in the Roger Corman sort of old school B-movie style.
Crampton: Right, yeah. I think at the time that I was making those movies, practical effects were everything, right? And everybody wanted to show a monster, but they wanted to see the monster. You know, now everything feels a little more supernatural to me, especially with James Wan and all the movies he’s doing. It’s very spooky and surreal and in your brain. Back in the ’80s, it was like, here’s the monster and you’re scared, here’s the blood. And yeah, sometimes, it was a little campy, more campy, more kitschy and more on the nose. Now things are a little bit more subtle. The filmmaking and the culture of today is more about what are you feeling, what are you really thinking. The acting style has also changed since that time. I feel like acting is much more subtle now. You don’t know where the acting begins and where the real life talking begins. It’s almost like everybody’s just really trying to be as natural as possible and just live in a natural world.
CS: Also I think a lot of the younger filmmakers that you’re working with know films, but Stu was coming from a theatrical background.
Crampton: True. Yes. Everything was bigger with Stuart. True. And I’m a big actress anyway. I make really big choices, and I even think I look at myself sometimes and I think, “Am I overacting?” But I’m like that in real life. My family is like, “Mom, you’re so big all the time.” I embarrass my children endlessly, but that’s just the person I am, too. But during that time I was working with Stuart because he was from the theater, I think that’s probably one of the reasons he liked me, but also, he would encourage me to make those big choices. And I think over time, he has even gotten more subtle in his choices. By the time we did “Castle Freak,” we all relaxed a little bit more than we did in “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond.” So he evolved, too, with the medium.
CS: “Castle Freak” is a little bit more freewheeling. It’s less formally composed. There’s more handheld stuff.
Crampton: Yeah, so it’s very tempered, too, emotionally.
CS: It’s dark.
Crampton: It’s dark. But I don’t think “Re-Animator” would have been “Re-Animator” under another director’s hands.
CS: Oh no.
Crampton: I mean, it was campy. And it was really big and it was really out there. So somebody else making that, it wouldn’t have been as good.
CS: Yeah. And that was that era I guess where you had guys like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson and that tone was acceptable.
Crampton: True. Absolutely. “Evil Dead,” they all have this similar feeling.
CS: I just interviewed Fede Alvarez, who did the “Evil Dead” remake. If you put the “Evil Dead” remake next to even the first “Evil Dead” movie, it’s just night and day. The new one is so serious and it’s so intense and it’s almost like they’re afraid to go to that place… They feel like if it’s even a little bit campy or a little bit fun then people won’t take it seriously.
Crampton: Right. Right.
CS: But I miss that. I liked that tone. I liked that.
Crampton: The bigger tone.
Crampton: There’s a place for it still, probably, yeah, but it’s in comedy now.
CS: And this is a comedy, right, “Little Sister”?
Crampton: No. Well, it is, but it’s not really a horror movie. It’s more of a comedy, but it’s a soft comedy. I would call it a soft comedy. Yeah.
CS: What can you tell our readers about it?
Crampton: Well, it’s kind of a coming-of-age story about this young girl, who wants to take her vows to become a nun, and she’s questioning her life. And I think it’s a movie for everyone who’s at that age and questioning their life. And it’s just told through the lens of making a really bold choice of becoming a nun, right? And that’s quite impactful. Everybody gets what that is immediately. She has to go back before she takes her final vows, to see her family and figure out what’s going on with that. She has to find herself. When she goes back to see him, to figure out what’s going on with herself, she also inadvertently ends up helping them, not really knowing that she’s helping them. And also seeing where she could just let things be and then move on. So it’s an intimate movie. It’s a sweet movie, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is very nice. He knows exactly when to pull your heartstrings and then bring the hammer down, so that you’re not going to cry too much. The tone is perfect. I play the mother superior. I talk to her about if she’s serious about becoming a nun or not, and what do you need to do to make that decision one way or another. It’s really for you to decide, it’s not for me. So, she goes back on this journey kind of into her past and then finds things out about herself and then is able to make a decision in the end of what she wants to do.
CS: I have actual experience with that, but it’s the worst kind of experience you can imagine. I worked on a reality show where they took a bunch of guys who were considering joining the seminary and tried to tempt them with booze and sex and stuff. It was the worst show you could possibly imagine, but I wound up working with the guy who actually decided to become a priest and it was the same thing for him. It was a process, and he went back to college to visit his old frat and he saw his old girlfriend. He really had to think about, “Is this really for me?” So is that a similar journey for the girl in the movie?
Crampton: It is, very much so, yeah. So I don’t know where Zach got that from, but maybe something like that happened in his life, or maybe he invented that. I don’t know. But it seems like a great metaphor for discovery of your life. “Am I going to go deeper into my spirituality? Or am I going to just flake out? What is the meaning of my background and what does it have to do with who I am as a person now?” You know, the themes are very personal and very intimate, but it’s fun. It’s a fun movie, also. It is a comedy. You can laugh.
CS: And Ally Sheedy is in it.
Crampton: She is amazing in it, amazing. I didn’t work with her. None of my scenes were with her, but she blew me away when I saw her. She gives such a deep performance, I was just blown away. Audiences will love her.
CS: It’s interesting to me to think about it because when I saw her name on the cast, I’m like, “Oh wow, you guys are actually kinda contemporaries of each other.”
Crampton: Yeah, I think I might be slightly older than her, but not by much.
CS: And slightly different paths.
Crampton: She was more of the comedic actress and the blockbuster comedic actress and I was the dark horror girl.
CS: Yeah, but I wonder who had more fun?
Crampton: (Laughs) I don’t know. She might have made more money than me.
Crampton: But whatever, yeah. (Laughs) But I think when I watched her back in the ’80s working, I thought she was cute and sweet. This performance is very deep and very sincere and a beautiful performance. She made me cry and laugh.
CS: You’ve worked with guys like Ted Geoghegan and Adam Wingard and Rob Zombie and now Zach. You’ve got all these younger guys who grew up with your movies, but what do you look for in them when you choose a project?
Crampton: That’s a good question. I think I look for a good character. That’s the most important thing to me, and what is the movie trying to say overall? Every director is different, and how they view the process is different. I want to be able to tell their story and I want to tell it in the way that they want it to be told. So working with them, sometimes they’re very hands-on, and sometimes they’re really not, you know? But for me, I guess I’ll always want there to be a message. I always want it to mean something, even though I do mostly horror movies.
CS: Horror movies can have a subtext.
Crampton: I want it to have a foundation in good characters, in interesting characters, and something that is meaningful despite the blood and the guts and the laughs and the scares and all of that. I want it to have some meaning. So I have never done a straight slasher movie, maybe “Chopping Mall”…
CS: That’s Wynorski, right?
Crampton: That’s Wynorski. So maybe that’s not—
CS: Wynorski’s his own genre.
Crampton: He’s in his own dimension. But even today, when I look back at the choices I made and the choices I’m making now, they really all have to do with everything being grounded in a journey of a good character. Maybe I’m not that character. Maybe it’s somebody else and maybe I’m the helper character, and that’s fine, too. I want it to be meaningful in some way.
CS: Well, one of the things I noticed while looking over your filmography was how choosy you are. There are a lot of genre actors from your era that appear in 10, 20 movies a year, almost all direct to video.
Crampton: I won’t do that.
CS: I don’t know what kind of alimony payments they have, but you don’t do that. You definitely pick and choose.
Crampton: No. I say no a lot. I say no a lot. And now, with Facebook and Twitter I’m talking to a lot of people who have great projects, really interesting stuff, but maybe it’s not for me. Maybe I can’t really help them tell their story. What I believe and what I want in the stories I want to tell might be different than the stories they want to tell, and their stories are just as valuable, but mine have to mean something to me. They have to have a vision and a meaning and a journey for the central character, that he has something or she, that she’s fighting for and then comes to some resolution at the end. That’s what’s really meaningful to me.
CS: You did a short that my pal/fellow journo Evan Dickson wrote. The one with the little gremlin.
Crampton: “Paisley”. Well, in fact, he wrote a feature called “The Wildness,” and I liked him so much after we worked together that he gave me some of his scripts to read and I read one of them and I said, “What’s happening with this one? This one’s really good.” And he goes, “I don’t know. Nothing’s happening. I pitched it around and nothing’s happening.” I said, “Well, we should really get this made because this is the best one of the stuff that I’ve read.” And he goes, “Well, why don’t you take it around?” And I said, “No, no, no, that’s not what I do.” He goes, “No, you could do that.” He goes, “No, I kinda want you to do it. I think you should do it.” I’m like, “Let me think about that for a minute.” It’s called “The Wildness” and it’s about werewolves in Aspen, Colorado.
CS: Okay. I love it already.
Crampton: It got on the Blood List, which is the equivalent to the Black List, the movies that—
CS: The best unproduced scripts.
Crampton: Right. So he called me the other day and he goes, “Barbara, I know you’re still mulling over whether you really want to dive in and show this to some people, but there’s an announcement coming out that it just made the Blood List. So I’m going to get somebody to help me pitch this around town. And if it’s not you, it’s going to be somebody else. So let me ask you if you want to take this on, because I really want you to do it.” And so, I actually knew I was on the precipice of something and I thought, “Do I really want to do this? And it’s going to be a lot of work for me. Do I really want to work this hard? Do I really want to be a producer? I don’t need to work.” But I loved the script so much that I called him the next day and I said, “You know what? I’m going to kick myself if I don’t do it, so yes. Okay. Let’s write up an agreement and I’ll start submitting it.” I submitted it to a lot of people. It took me about nine months and I got somebody to say yes. We’re supposed to go into production in January. And yeah, Marcel Sarmiento is the director and it’s setup at Bron Studios. They just did that movie, the one that sold at Sundance for $17 million, “Birth of a Nation.” That’s their movie. “Welcome to Me” also. So they’re starting a genre label and this is one of the ones that they said yes to. So we’ve been developing it for a couple of years. It’s taken a long time and it has been a lot of work. We just locked on our script for casting. It’s fantastic. I couldn’t be more thrilled. I loved the script two years ago and I love it even more now. It’s a comedy horror movie, which is really my roots. It’s a beautiful story and it’s a weighty journey for the protagonist to go through. It’s fun. It’s funny. It’s sincere and but not taken with itself and I really learned something about myself going through this journey. So I’m thrilled. And we’re supposed to go into production in January.
CS: Do you get to be a werewolf in it?
Crampton: I’m not in it. I’m just a producer.
CS: Oh okay.
Crampton: But since that time, since saying yes to Evan and pitching that, then I worked with Jackson Stewart, who was an intern for Stuart Gordon, on “Beyond the Gates.” And that’s another movie that’s on the festival circuit that I produced and I am acting in. So then I found myself, all of a sudden I’m like, “I guess I’m helping these guys tell their stories now.”
CS: You could be the horror community’s Colleen Camp. You can be the person who nurtures this new talent.
Crampton: That would be fun, yeah. Actually, I really want to be the Betty White of horror.
CS: I think you will be.