Interview: Shelley Duvall on The Shining


Interview: Shelley Duvall on The Shining

An interview with legendary actress and producer Shelley Duvall

From horror culture editor Chris Alexander:

This week, talk show host Dr. Phil (who is, by the way, not a licensed doctor at all) caused controversy when he “interviewed” beloved actress and producer Shelley Duvall and revealed a woman in the thralls of severe mental distress. It was a heartbreak to see Duvall – who is best known to horror fans for her role as Wendy in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining but has had a long career starring in several high profile Hollywood films as well as creating the visionary children’s show Faerie Tale Theater and much more –  be trotted out on television in such a state. The woman needs help and we’re not sure if Dr. Phil’s way is the best route in order to get her that help.

Because only a few short years ago in 2011, our Lee Gambin interviewed Duvall at length for an article in the magazine I once edited, Fangoria, issue #303 to be exact. The discussion was focused on her work in The Shining but veered into all areas of her storied career and it was a wonderful chat. She was lucid, intelligent and charming, an artist remembering a creatively fertile time in her life.Though originally edited for space, Gambin has given us the complete, uncut interview to run in its entirety here.

With the beautiful Duvall’s legacy currently being re-purposed as something sad and broken, we are happy to steer attention away from any negativity and back to the Shelley Duvall that has left and – with the right help – will continue to leave such an indelible mark on the performing arts world.

Here’s Shelley… How did you get the part of Wendy Torrence? Was it initially offered to you or did you have to audition for it?

Shelley Duvall: My agent was sent the script, they were after a tall actress with “common housewife looks” if I remember correctly! The script sat on my desk for around 2 weeks before I got a call from one of Stanley Kubrick’s people asking if I was interested. I read it one night and thought it was really good. Jack was already cast so the chance to work with him was too good to pass up, and I really liked my character’s outline, I knew it would be a challenging role.

CS: Had you read Stephen King’s novel and did you meet with King at all to discuss the role?

Duvall: I read the novel just before we started shooting. I never really liked scary movies or books but have since become to love them with a passion! I spoke to King twice on set, to be honest he didn’t really seem too impressed that I was cast; but he was a nice man.

CS: Were or are you a fan of King’s work?

Duvall:  I enjoyed “The Shining” novel, and I’ve read “Carrie” – they were enough to freak me out; he’s a brilliant author, who can argue with that?!

CS: It’s been noted that Stephen King wasn’t happy with the final cut of The Shining. He said it strayed too much from the book. What are you recollections of King’s response to the final product?

Duvall: I believe there was a screening that he attended with some of the crew, I wasn’t there for that but I was told he didn’t love it.

CS: Much has been said about your tumultuous relationship with Stanley Kubrick on the set; in retrospect what was it like working with the man?

Duvall: Oh, Stanley really gets a bad reputation sometimes but he was a perfectionist. We had our moments when we laughed and joked around on set, but then there were times that we just exploded at each other! I’m a very stubborn person and don’t like being bossed around and told what to do, Stanley pushed and pushed to get the performance out of me that he wanted. The script wasn’t really specific enough for me to understand what my character was going through mentally, I played it out as a battered but loving housewife who supports her husband through all the sh*t in their marriage. Stanley wanted a tough, strong, independent woman, I disagreed with that decision, but the way all my scenes worked out you see all those emotions in my character. What I thought my character should be and what he thought my character should be rolled into one. It was a hell of a shoot but he got what he wanted out of me!


CS: You had been in great Robert Altman films such as Popeye, Nashville and the hauntingly beautiful 3 Women (a horror film in its own right), how did working with Kubrick differ from working with Altman?

Duvall: Robert Altman was a beautiful man, I was devastated hearing about his passing a few yeas back. Altman was a gifted director, he encouraged a lot of improvisation which hardly ever made it into the final cut of the films but it was fun and challenging none the less! One improv during Popeye was never going to make it into the film but I’ll share it with you now because it was so funny! Robin Williams and I did this:

OLIVE: You scared the wits outta me!

POPEYE: Almost knocked ‘em outta you too

OLIVE: F*ck off!!!

I don’t know why I thought to say that, I like to laugh and make other people laugh, it was on a crew outtake reel somewhere, I was hoping they would include it on the DVD release. But yes, working with Robert Altman was a very different experience, he had a great vision of what he wanted to see in his movies.  3 Women is one of my all time favorite roles, it is hauntingly beautiful as you said, you nailed it there. Altman made a lot of films that are obscure and deserve to remain so, but he also made a lot of films that are obscure but deserve to be seen and 3 Women is one of those. It’s one of the most fascinating films Altman created, and that’s really saying something from a director who was able to make even his bad films fascinating. Nashville was a lot of fun too, working with all those excellent actors, I mean look at the cast list for that film, amazing!!

CS: In Vivian Kubrick’s short documentary “Making the Shining”, there is a scene where you are lying down on the floor surrounded by soft cushions; was making this film a hard grueling experience for you? And why?

Duvall: Yes, many people have asked me about that and for the longest time I couldn’t remember what exactly was happening at that moment. But I do recall I had a really bad anxiety attack on set, and I believe that was what is shown in the documentary. As most people are aware, the shoot was very hard on me and I got to the point where I just couldn’t take anymore, I needed a break, but taking a break costs money and people need the shot done, so I had a little breakdown. I think it was only 10 minutes but I just needed to get my head together, we were shooting long days, sometimes 15-16 hours, and it really does take a lot out of you. It was one of the most grueling experiences on a set I’ve had, but the end result was worth it. Don’t get me wrong, Stanley was a very kind and warm man, he has a vision in his head on what he wants to see through his camera and if you don’t quite understand where he is coming from he gets frustrated and angry, communication and understanding plays a big part of film sets, I just wasn’t getting it, I did in the end. And even though the atmosphere on set was sometimes unpleasant, I’m now remembered for a film that’s become a horror classic, the fact that people are still watching and talking about it 31 years later amazes me.

CS: Your performance in The Shining is simply breathtaking; there is so much for you to do in this film as you go from happy-go-lucky and perky to terrorized and frantic with saving your son and yourself from the murderous grip of Nicholson as your number one priority. How did you go about this performance; how much energy did it take up?

Duvall: I remember early on in the shoot I used to jump up and down and run on the spot to get ready for my scenes with Jack, get the juices flowing! But unfortunately, because I smoked so much back then, the sound guys heard me panting and puffing and didn’t fit into the scene at all! Then I had the wrath of Kubrick come down on me! Hahaha, no he wasn’t too hard on me, but would say “Shelley, what are you doing? You don’t need to do this! You need to ACT!!!” It did take a LOT of energy out of me, running around the hotel, we did so many takes of that, one right after the other. I must of lost a few pounds doing that movie! The happy go lucky scenes were easy for me because that’s what I am, a happy go lucky person! Jack and I often got together after a day of shooting and had a Scotch and would discuss different types of acting techniques for the next day, he was very sympathetic towards me because I had such a hard time on the set. It was often hard to do the very serious scenes with him because we’d often get the giggles, we got along really well though.

CS: Accompanying Kubrick’s sumptuous visual style are the grandiose set pieces; do you have any fond or creepy memories about the large hedge maze or the massive hotel used as the Overlook Hotel?

Duvall: It was a beautiful set, I couldn’t believe how much detail they went into, even the plates we ate off during lunch had The Overlook Hotel printed on them! The hedge maze was scary, wasn’t as big as it looked on screen of course but you could get lost in it! I played around a lot with Danny Lloyd and his family in there, as did the crew with their families. The hotel was actually very claustrophobic which I hated, I loved the Gold Room Ballroom!! All the extras wearing their period costumes just blew me away, I wish I was involved in that scene somehow, I wanted to be all dressed up too, my costumes weren’t that flattering! But the sets were amazing, I actually got in trouble because I used the toilet in the bathroom set, and it was only a prop! Everything else was real and no-one told me! Was quite an embarrassing incident. What I loved about the sets is everything was built from scratch, these days it would probably be all green screen and CGI.


CS: What was working with Jack Nicholson like? Did you two have similar methods or did you both differ in the way you went about playing the husband and wife team?

Duvall: Jack was my rock on set, we became really good friends. Jack definitely had his own methods, as shown in the making of documentary, he also jumped up and down to get into character! My methods were pretty simple, I just thought to myself What would I do in this situation? How would I handle it? If my husband was slowly losing his mind and I was terrified of him how would I approach the situation? Jack and I had many chats and discussions about our characters, I actually wanted Jack & Wendy to be a bit more affectionate with each other in the beginning, but Jack wanted the total opposite, he wanted to be annoyed and uncaring towards Wendy straight after the job interview scene. I got my own way during one scene though, when we were being shown through the hotel and we are holding hands, that was my idea that wasn’t originally in the script.

CS: Scatman Crothers and young Danny Lloyd are both great in the film; what are some fond memories of those two actors?

Duvall: They are great aren’t they?! I loved working with little Danny Lloyd, such a smart and clever little boy. He knew all his lines from day 1, he was very impressive for a 6 year old! He was very enthusiastic and just a darling! It is sad that he didn’t continue acting, he was so professional and just knew what to do with his character, he even came up with his “Tony” voice himself, amazing little boy! I used to spoil him a lot, I’d always bring candy to the set and toys for him to play with. Scatman was a dear man, a gifted actor and composer, he entertained a lot of us on set between breaks with his guitar playing skills, we were in awe of him. He was also very funny, he was a soft spoken man but had a very naughty sense of humor, some of the jokes he told me made me laugh for years when I thought of them. Was sad when he passed away, only 6 years after the movie came out, I feel honored to have worked with him! A close friend, sadly missed.

CS: The famous baseball bat scene was said to be an insanely long shoot, tell us about your experience with that sequence.

Duvall: Yes, that was VERY long… I just couldn’t get it right, I didn’t understand what Stanley wanted from me, maybe I should of listened more?! Hahaha… that scene was exhausting, I remember nearly running out of breath because I just couldn’t speak anymore, the tears are real in the movie! I was so tired and getting fed up with the numerous takes, I nearly walked off the set. I remember Take 99 specifically, the guy came up with the clapper board, said Take 99 and I said to Jack “You’ve got to be f*cking kidding me?” – I couldn’t believe it was that many takes already, I thought I’d only done it 10 or 11 times at that point, I just tuned out. Stanley was getting annoyed with me, yelling at me, the crew were tired, we had all been on the set since 5am shooting this ONE scene, and eventually I did it right! It was one of the worst days of my life while shooting a movie, it looked so much easier in the script! But look at what Stanley got out of me, people love that scene!

CS: What is your favorite moment in The Shining?

Duvall: One of my favorite shots is when Jack is looking at the model of the maze and then you see Wendy and Danny walking in it, that was so amazing! What a clever little special effects crew we had! I love the scene where Jack is in the gold ballroom and there’s a party going on, all the scenes with Jack & Lloyd! But my favorite would have to be the scene with Jack typing away at his typewriter and I come in and “distract” him! Such a well done shot, I love how there’s no music and how Wendy (and the viewers) have no idea what Jack is typing. So tense. The first time Jack told me to “Get the f*ck out of here” we both cracked up laughing!!! We thought it was funny, Mr.Kubrick did NOT!!!

CS: Finally, what are you all time favorite horror films and why?

Duvall: I love Hitchcock’s Psycho and The Birds, love Halloween, Rosemary’s Baby, The Fog…the list goes on. I’m not a fan of the remakes, sometimes you just need to leave classic films alone! I did watch the TV mini series of The Shining, but couldn’t finish it, I believe it was closer to the book but sad to say it bored me a bit! I haven’t watched one of my own movies for a long time but being on Facebook and hearing how much people love me in them makes me feel very nostalgic and I feel the need to watch my old flicks again!! I was in them, I might as well watch them again!!