Genre fans will recognize Lisa Langlois from a number of horror films including John Huston's Phobia (1980), J. Lee Thompson's Happy Birthday to Me (1981), not to mention several "nature goes wild" outings like Deadly Eyes (1982) and The Nest (1988).
Langlois also starred in other fare, including two superior Claude Chabrol crime thrillers -- Blood Relatives (1978) and Violette Noziere (1978) -- as well the violent cult favorite Class of 1984 (1982), the sci fi horror Transformations (1988), and Mindfield (1989).
But did you know she was the "other Sarah Connor," almost garnering the female lead role in James Cameron's sci-fi epic The Terminator (1984)? Or that her bloody death scene in Happy Birthday to Me (1981) was edited out, for fear of the film getting a dreaded X rating? Or that she turned down the role of Beth in Chris Walas' The Fly II (1989)?
Langlois continues to work these days, starring in Poe: Last Days of the Raven (2008), The Fire Serpent (2007), as well as appearances on the hit television show The L Word (2008).
She generously agreed to sit down with us and discuss her memories of dabbling in horror all these years.
The Terror Trap: You’re from Canada. What part?
Lisa Langlois: Everyone thinks I’m from Montreal because I have a French name and I speak French. My father lived in Montreal for many years and so we always visited him in the summertime. But I’m actually from southern Ontario. I grew up in a small town 60 miles west of Toronto called Dundas and I went to school in Hamilton. For the Americans, we call Hamilton “Buffalo North.” It’s a very industrial city, with that type of demographic as well.
There’s a huge French-Canadian population in Hamilton so there was a French school there. My mother and father agreed to raise us as French-Canadians so we went to French schools, the French church, etc.
TT: When did you first know you wanted to get into acting?
LL: When I was a teenager. I had a single mom. She bought a house with a brother of mine, and the only way they could afford the mortgage was by renting out all the bedrooms. So my four brothers and I lived in the basement, while my mother stayed upstairs and turned the dining room into her bedroom. We rented out the three bedrooms to some university foreign exchange students from Hong Kong, and we befriended them.
I remember telling one of the students I had wanted to be an actor, and he said to me that out of all the professions, they’re the ones that end up being paupers. I haven’t shared this story in such a long time…anyway, it was actually a misinterpretation. Lost in translation. He was trying to tell me actors were looked down upon in society, which they were, at another time.
I guess I abandoned the idea of being an actor because of that statement. But when I needed a way to pay my way through university, I had a dance teacher who said to me, “You should do commercials.” I asked her how one would go about that and she replied, “Well, you get some photographs taken and bring them to agencies in Toronto.”
TT: Did you take her advice?
LL: Actually, I had had some student photographers approach me on the street to take pictures. I contacted a student and asked if they would send some of my photos to Toronto.
I got a call from one agency and I signed with them. They turned out to be very Broadway Danny Rose. They weren’t kind to me. For several months, I never got any calls to go on auditions.
TT: Oh, boy…
LL: But then, I got a call from the Characters Talent Agency. It was this beautiful agency and they treated me wonderfully. They had their own recording studio. Really plush. They wanted to sign me, and I just took off with them. I booked about nine commercials in six months.
TT: Excellent. Now that would have been the mid ‘70s?
LL: Let’s see, it was 1977.
TT: Any formal training at that point?
LL: I had no training whatsoever. I had been a baton twirler and a dancer! That was about the extent of my performing on stage. And I had been in high school plays. I was president of the Drama Club.
At that point, I was very much rewarded for just being myself. For the late seventies, I had the perfect look. I had that Proctor and Gamble “girl next door” look.
LL: However, I still had my sights set on becoming an attorney or an interpreter for the government or a journalist. I knew that I liked people and I liked to travel.
But this Movie of the Week came into town and my agent got me an audition to play opposite Henry Fonda in a film called Grandpa and Frank. The casting director gave me a script to read a scene in. I had no training and I thought I’d just read it like I read out loud. Because I loved reading. I did very well and it got down to the wire. But I was eighteen and the producer said, “You know, you did really great. But we want a real fourteen-year old.”
TT: How’d you feel about that?
LL: It didn’t phase me at all because I wasn’t thinking of becoming an actor. I was just using it as a way to pay for my university tuition. So I didn’t think anything of it.
Shortly thereafter, Claude Chabrol came into town. He’s one of the founders of the New Wave movement and is considered the "French Hitchcock." My agent, Ron Leach, tried to get me an audition with him but the casting director wouldn’t see me because of my lack of experience.
They wanted to see one of Ron's other clients for a smaller role and my agent said, “No, it’s not a significant part and I’m not sending him in.” The actor’s name was Ian Ireland. The casting director kept pressing my agent...who finally said, “I will let you see Ian, only if you agree to see Lisa.”
Incidentally, Ron Leach became a very successful casting director himself. More recently, he's been directing, including work on an award-winning film called Altarcations (2010).
TT: So then you went in and auditioned for the part of Muriel in Blood Relatives?
LL: Yes. And for Claude Chabrol! I had no idea who I was meeting. I wasn’t a cinephile whatsoever at that point. I mean, I was still seeing Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson movies and enjoying them as “art.”
Then what happened is we talked for a while. I did tell him I spoke French, and at one point during the audition, he turned to the woman who was assisting him -- who happened to be the producer’s wife -- and said in French, “This is the best one we’ve seen yet.” And I thought, gee…I just TOLD him I spoke French. Now he’s speaking in French. I guess he didn’t believe me!
LL: He turned back to me and said the same thing in English. “You’re the best one we’ve seen yet. But the producers want a name. We’ll get back to you in a week.” I didn’t hear back from him in a week.
TT: What happened?
LL: Oh, in that time they offered the part to Sissy Spacek and she turned it down because she thought she was too old. It was also offered to Jodie Foster, who had always wanted to work for Claude Chabrol. But she was working on another film called Moi, fleur bleue (1977). And so I got the role.
TT: Remember how you found out?
LL: I had been at my father’s house, which is about a four-hour drive from Toronto. When I got home, my phone was ringing and it was my agent, who had been calling me all night. He said, “Where have you been? They want you in that film in Montreal and they’re starting today.” I got on a flight and they flew me into Montreal and I shot three scenes. They put me in wardrobe and I filmed those scenes before I even read the script.
TT: In Blood Relatives you played a young girl who's brutally murdered by an unseen assailant. As the police inspector Donald Sutherland investigates the homicide, it becomes clear you were harboring some pretty nasty secrets leading up to your death.
Did you have any trepidation about the racy subject matter in Blood Relatives?
LL: Yes, I did. But I was young and when you’re working with Claude Chabrol, you’re thinking…well, he must know what he’s doing. It won’t be salacious and it’ll be well handled.
After all, that’s Claude’s brand. He had incest in a lot of his movies. I think he was fascinated by the subject.
TT: Let's talk a bit about the cast of Blood Relatives. David Hemmings?
LL: Well, Blow-Up (1966) was my boyfriend’s favorite movie. I said to him, “Can you believe it?” His girlfriend was in a movie with David Hemmings...and kissing him! I had the biggest crush on David. He was so handsome, eloquent and refined. Very English.
TT: Because of the flashback narrative in Blood Relatives, you don’t get to share any screen time with Donald Sutherland…
LL: I know. And yet I got to spend a lot of time hanging out with him on the set. I guess it was because of the scheduling. I’ve always been very frank and I remember he asked me to go to a Blue Jays game with him and I said no. (Laughs.) I just wasn’t into baseball so why would I go?
TT: Donald Pleasence?
LL: I didn’t get to do anything with him. He was so revered and was probably someone who was on Claude’s “wish list” because of his past work in the genre.
TT: Yes, this would be the same year he did John Carpenter’s Halloween. And of course, he had a long history in British horror films of the ‘60s.
How about Laurent Malet, the French actor who played your cousin and love interest?
LL: I fell in love with Laurent. For real. I probably would have wanted to marry him but that wasn’t in the cards. He had a twin brother and both were actors in France.
TT: Do you have any personal recollections you wish to share about Chabrol?
LL: Well, it was Claude’s first English language picture. (It was dubbed in French for the French market, and titled Les liens de sang).
I was spoiled because Claude said that making a film was like having a picnic. And I so understand now what he meant. He used the same people over and over again, so there was a real camaraderie. He’s had his wives work on his films. It was all in the family and very enjoyable. Eating lunch was almost as important as shooting.
I was really amused by Claude's take on American culture because he would arrive on the set and he was just fascinated by American game shows.
LL: Yes. Understand that at that time, there was no satellite TV and so Claude hadn’t been exposed to American television. He’d get on the set and say, “A new car!” like Bob Barker on The Price is Right. (Laughs.) He was just fascinated by these shows where the Americans acted like insane people just to have that few minutes of fame and a chance at winning an automobile.
And he was very much into the tabloid magazines. He’d read them and be very intrigued. He was just so loving and funny. And wow, his attention to detail was wonderful...
Everybody thought Blood Relatives was beginner’s luck and no one would see me for any other parts. But Chabrol offered me a role in a second film in French in France. After that, all the doors flew open.
TT: And that was Violette Noziere (1978)?
LL: Right. It was kind of the Lizzie Borden case in France. It's a crime thriller based on a true story about a woman who killed her parents. It starred Isabelle Huppert, who is the French Meryl Streep. It ended up being a huge hit and was the official selection for France at Cannes. Isabelle won Best Actress.
I learned very quickly the reason why some directors are legendary and others aren’t. It wasn’t because of any marketing or P.R. or anything like that. It was because when I worked with these guys [like Chabrol], they all had something in common: when they hired you, they let you run with it. They never tampered with you.
At the same time, they paid incredible attention to detail and they also knew exactly what they wanted. They were editing in their minds, so they always started with a great script and a great cast. The crews were always the best. There was no yelling. No need for that. Everyone just had a wonderful time.
TT: That’s not true with every director…
LL: That’s right. When I did my third film, It Rained All Night the Day I Left -- and had a really terrible time of it -- on my way back from Israel, I called Claude and explained how it went.
He said to me, “Oh, you have to be very careful who you're working with because it can make you hate your craft.” Back then, I didn’t understand how that could be. But over time...when I did work on sets that were unhappy, I realized it CAN make you hate what you’re doing. It’s not your job, it’s the environment.
TT: That’s probably a truism for any profession.
LL: Definitely. I've done pictures that I really had a bad time on, and even if they become successful or cult films, I don’t look back upon them with a good feeling. It just stays with you.
TT: That’s sad.
LL: Well, it’s because sometimes shoots can be so dysfunctional.
TT: We hope that not too many of the films we cover today are among those!
LL: (Laughs.) Well, we’ll see.
TT: Let’s talk about Phobia, directed by John Huston. First of all, is this one of the bad ones you referred to?
LL: No, no…because here again, we have a director who knows what he’s doing. He’s trusting his actors and letting them run with it. There’s no indecision, and he’s editing in his head. So it’s easy.
The hardest part of Phobia was that I was very much intimidated by Huston and his whole essence. At that time, I was in university and taking courses and I was studying one of his films! I was studying his film at night when I went to school and working with the guy during the day.
LL: Yes. And also, he was on oxygen. He would sit in a corner in his director chair with oxygen tubes in his nose. You’d see this big man who was very much a Hemingway character looking so frail.
TT: He was sick?
LL: He had emphysema. But he still had that John Huston voice. God’s voice.
TT: Do you recall how Phobia came your way?
LL: I got an audition and apparently Huston had wanted to see only two actresses -- who were very similar but very different. It was me and Sarah Torgov, who I saw her at the audition. She went in before me, and I remember that she came out of the audition very emotional because she had been crying for the scene. So I thought, “Well, she hit the mark.”
There’s always that fear of "oh, I hope I don’t get distracted and don’t hit the mark or don’t have the experience." I went in and we talked for a long time. That can be scary for me because I think I’m going to get out of character and not be focused.
TT: Do you remember what you and Huston talked about?
LL: Yes. We talked about politics and I remember telling him that the history of Quebec was the history of the French church. We talked about all kinds of things. And then I did the scene and had a good experience.
My agent at that point was John Downey and he told me that after I left, John Huston turned to the casting director and said I reminded him of a young Marilyn Monroe. He had worked with her twice. He had said there were two Marilyns: the young one and the woman who would become “Marilyn Monroe.” I reminded him of the young one.
Later when I worked with J. Lee Thompson, it came up again…he told me in person that I reminded him of Marilyn and that he was supposed to do a movie with her. At that time in my life, it kept coming up over and over again.
TT: That’s interesting that you say that. In watching your films in preparation for this interview, we said that you definitely reminded us of a young Marilyn. The Norma Jeane look, specifically.
LL: Oh, thank you. I guess my eyes slant downwards and I have that real vulnerability going.
TT: Do you recall if the audition scene was the one in the movie where your character sees herself up on the screen being molested?
LL: It must have been a crying scene because I think I was talking about being raped.
TT: Was the filming mostly a pleasant experience?
LL: The only unhappy memory I have of Phobia is that my agent got a call from the casting director saying, “Oh, incidentally, we now added a scene in a bathtub and there’ll be a flash of a breast.” He told me that and it didn’t sit well with me at all. I thought, well that’s not in the script. I’m not going to want to do that. I don’t want to be nude on the screen.
So we had this big, big to do. They kind of told my agent I had to do it. Things have changed since then. Based on what happened to me on this film, there's now a ruling in the Canadian actors' union agreement that says an actor has to be notified before the audition if there's nudity. And the actor must be able to read the scene from the script.
Long story short, I remember getting the courage to go up to John Huston and saying, “Katharine Hepburn would NEVER take her clothes off on the screen!” (Laughs.) Because I really looked up to her…
TT: And what did he say?
LL: He said, “For me, she would.” (Laughs.)
LL: I had just come back from shooting in Europe with Claude Chabrol and there, nudity is no big deal. It’s like drinking wine with your meal. Everybody just takes their clothes off. But during Phobia, I was wrestling with that whole thing and also with my own culture.
I finally agreed to let a body double do it. On the day of the shoot, I saw the body double and I noticed she had a big mole on her chest. A big birthmark. I thought, they’re gonna know it’s not me. And how unprofessional is that?
So I decided to just do the scene myself, and I agreed that he could shoot it the way he wanted to. I would see the dailies and if I didn’t like it, they wouldn’t use it. It was naïve of me, really, because my agent didn’t negotiate anything in writing the way you would today. He also didn’t negotiate a closed set for the dailies. So when the dailies were shown, it was like every driver in the world was in the room. It was highly embarrassing for me.
TT: What did you think of those dailies?
LL: I didn’t like the way it was. It showed much more than the way I had envisioned it. They said they were just going to have a big overhead shot where it looked completely clinical and not salacious at all. And it would be at a great distance, me floating in the bathtub naked. I guess the idea was to communicate defenselessness because I was nude and had been strangled. I didn’t like it.
There was a big fight over it. At the time, I was dating a cameraman and I didn’t know what to do. He said, “Lisa, you need to say something because they’re gonna back down. They can’t afford to have it in the press that there’s a fight over a nude scene with John Huston and a young girl.”
TT: Did you speak up?
LL: I did. And they took it out. I got to have “final cut,” I guess, in a John Huston picture.
TT: Oh, we get it now...you’re saying the scene with your brief nudity that we’ve seen in the released version was originally much longer?
LL: Yes. It was much longer. And so I always had this fear that John Huston wouldn’t like me because of that, or that he’d be angry with me.
Sally Kellerman starred in my third film and she had all these autographed pictures of people she had worked with. She told me, “You must start doing that. Getting autograph photos of your fellow cast members. You won’t regret it.”
I started doing it and I sent Huston a photo of he and I together. He sent it back and it was signed, “To Lisa Langlois, a very talented young lady. John Huston.” I felt better after that. He wasn’t mad!
TT: That’s good.
LL: The other thing that’s sad about Phobia is that I can’t tell you how often I’d walk into auditions after that, and a director or writer would look at my resume and say, “Oh, that was one of the worst films John Huston ever did.” I always wanted to say, “You would be so lucky to have ever done ONE film as good as John Huston's.”
TT: Damn right!
As genre fans, Phobia has grown on us over the years. It gets a bad rap because the pacing is slow in spots. And the ending "revelation" feels odd. But it's a decent enough horror movie. It's a slasher that's in the closet. It wants to be an upscale thriller, but at its core it's really a slasher.
LL: I think so too. You guys make me want to watch it again now. I guess because it was my first time nude on film, it was very hard for me to watch it and I never wanted to see it again. It's been so long. Of course, one of the scenes was in my demo tape so I would see that.
TT: What did you think of working with Starsky & Hutch star Paul Michael Glaser?
LL: What overshadows everything for me about Paul is what happened to this poor man later on in life. I’m referring to him losing his wife and his kid to AIDS.
TT: Of course. Sad…
LL: That’s all that comes up for me. I mean, at the time I don’t remember him ever talking to me. And I don’t know why that is, that he never talked to me.
TT: Was he withdrawn or aloof?
LL: Hard to say. When I shot Violette with Claude, no one talked to me on that either. I recall telling Claude that nobody was speaking to me and he said, “That’s what I want.”
As far as Paul goes, maybe I was young and he just didn’t know what to say to me.
TT: David Eisner had a role in Phobia and would be one of your co-stars in your next film, Happy Birthday to Me.
LL: Right! David’s an amazing, wonderful soul. To tell you the truth, up until Happy Birthday to Me, I was kind of this one young actor in Canada who had never gotten the chance to work with other young actors. Because I had usually been the only young person in my first couple of films.
In fact, before I did Happy Birthday to Me, I auditioned for Meatballs (1979) where I would have been working with all those young people at the time. I just had my wisdom teeth out and I was swollen like crazy and looked really awful. Like a chipmunk, all bruised. My family has a joke because my brother told my mother, “Vincent Price called and said there’s a role for Lisa in one of his films.” Meaning because of the way I looked. (Laughs.)
Needless to say, I didn’t get the part in Meatballs. Sarah Torgov got it. So when I got on Happy Birthday to Me, those actors all knew one another and I got to meet them.
But yeah, David Eisner…a really talented guy and super, super nice. Kind of like a Ralph Maccio guy.
TT: The fact that you and David both worked together twice back-to-back -- on Phobia and then Happy Birthday to Me -- was just a coincidence?
LL: It was totally a coincidence.
TT: Any thoughts on J. Lee Thompson, the director of Happy Birthday to Me?
LL: People underestimated Lee Thompson as a director. Here was the guy who did the original Cape Fear (1962). Marty Scorcese did a great job with the remake and I actually saw Lee’s film after I saw Scorcese’s.
But I was completely blown away by the first one and I called Lee after that. I was much older then, and I had the courage to tell him that I saw it and how wonderful it was. He also did Guns of Navarone (1961). That’s a “boys’ movie” but it’s really well done.
TT: We love Guns of Navarone!
Now, you had a really cool career going at this point in the sense you went from John Huston to J. Lee Thompson, another well-known and established director. We spoke to producer John Dunning and he had nothing but praise for Thompson’s work on Happy Birthday to Me.
When you worked with him, was he just a consummate professional?
LL: Absolutely. First of all, these guys like Huston and Thompson…you'd meet them first and they would determine if you were right for the part. Then you read. And you don’t have to read 100,000 times like you do now, where they make you waste your time and don’t meet you first to see if you’re right for the role.
Nowadays, you put your stuff on tape and there’s no way to adjust your performance because they don’t think you CAN adjust your performance. So your interpretation is what goes on tape. Or you go in there and you read for them and they don’t ask you to make any adjustments. You don’t know if you’ve gone in there and wasted your time because from the moment you walk in, it’s over when you’re not their preconceived notion for the role.
TT: Sounds pretty inflexible.
LL: It is. Anyway, guys like Lee would meet you first and you would just talk. Your guard is totally let down. You’re not nervous. And then you come back another time if you’re right and you’d read.
For example, with Claude Chabrol, at the end of it, I asked, “Don't you want me to read?” He kind of looked at me and said, “Oh, you want to read? Okay, you can read.” He picked up the script and handed it to me and said, "Here, pick out a scene." I thumbed through it and read a scene...which turned out to be a voiceover! (Laughs.) But it wasn’t important because they know from your previous work, and from meeting you, whether you can act or not.
TT: In the films you had done before Happy Birthday to Me, you were reading for a specific part because of your age. But Happy Birthday was an ensemble cast of people who were supposed to all be (roughly) the same age. Did you read for the part of Amelia from the beginning?
LL: We never read for any of the roles for Happy Birthday to Me. As I recall, we just went in and met with J. Lee Thompson and the casting director.
Apparently, I was going to be the lead opposite Melissa Sue Anderson. But then Tracey Bregman -- I call them “born again Canadians” because, let's face it, being Canadian really mattered then and gave you points on these tax shelter films -- Tracey came on the scene and was offered the part.
At the time, she was appearing on the soap opera Days of Our Lives. So she trumped me because she had a bigger name as far as American distribution was concerned.
TT: So you could have been the killer?
LL: I could have been the killer, yes.
TT: You would have made a great killer!
LL: (Laughs.) It’s funny, if you look at my career in the genre, I either get killed off, or I almost get murdered and I survive. Over and over and over.
TT: At the end of Happy Birthday to Me, you’re the sole survivor of the group. You're the only one who Bregman doesn't kill.
LL: Yes and no. Originally, I got hit with an axe. I remember shooting that scene. So, I WAS killed, actually.
TT: Oooh, was it gory?
LL: My boyfriend at the time was David Douglas, one of the camera operators on Happy Birthday to Me. (David ended up directing an Academy Award-nominated documentary called Fires of Kuwait.) He told me if they had kept that scene with the axe to my head, it would’ve meant the film would be saddled with an X rating.
They didn't want that, of course. So instead, they cut that scene out and I ended up being the lone survivor. And that’s the cut they went with.
TT: Well, the proof of that is certainly in one of the marketing lobby cards which shows you standing in the rain with blood pouring down your face and blood all over your body. Of course, none of that whatsoever is in the final cut. And so you remember filming the axe scene?
LL: Yes, I do. I recall the splattering of all the blood and then they shot some footage on the ground with an axe going into something that was supposed to be my head. Lee threw a big cup of blood on my face and body. That's something he was very famous for on that set, slinging lots of fake blood all around! (Laughs.)
See, on that film, nobody ever knew what was gonna happen, how you were going to get killed, who the murderer was, etc. I don’t know if that was just a "Dungeons and Dragons" way of shooting things, with multiple plot pathways. Or whether they really, truly didn’t know and they made it up as they went along.
TT: When we talked to John Dunning, he told us that when the film was sold outright to Columbia, they made the cuts and got the approval rating. He wasn’t sure what they had trimmed because he hadn’t seen it in years. But he did say he had found a big box of trims.
TT: The way we see your final scene in the released version is that you’re standing in the rain in shock -- presumably after having seen the carnage in the house -- and Virginia’s father comes upon you. Can you tell us the sequence of events for what was filmed originally?
LL: What I remember is I had the gift. And I’m standing there in the rain, holding the birthday present. Catatonic. And then boom, I got the axe in the head.
The order of what happened is that after Ginny's father leaves me to go find the rest of the people who are all dead (minus Anderson and Bregman), that's when I get the axe.
You know, something else happened to me on that film that’s really weird…
TT: What’s that?
LL: My hair was not naturally that blonde and they used this synthetic blood. It dyed my hair red. So that’s more proof that the scene was filmed. I got blood all over my head. The production had to pay to have it professionally removed.
TT: Very interesting...
Let’s talk about the cast of Happy Birthday to Me, starting with Melissa Sue. What was she like?
LL: She was nice, but she was aloof. I don’t think it was personal. I think she was really just a shy person. Very shy.
TT: Lenore Zann?
LL: Also a nice person. Did you know she’s now a member of Parliament in Canada?
TT: That’s right, we’ve heard about that.
LL: You know, I’ve been in touch recently with Richard Rebiere, who played my boyfriend.
TT: The bodybuilder…
LL: That’s right.
TT: How about Lesleh Donaldson, who played the first victim, Bernadette?
LL: Lesleh is a riot! She was actually underage at the time. So she had her grandmother as her chaperone. Lesleh was so funny, because she was always trying to ditch her so she could go out and party with the rest of the cast. (Laughs.)
TT: That sounds like her!
LL: Lesleh is another actress I was always up against for roles. And I was very much intimidated by her. Some people you’re up against for parts and there’s no problem at all because you know you’re the stronger actor.
But with Lesleh, it was different. She was a very strong actress and when I would see her in an audition room, I’d get nervous.
TT: Anyone else from the cast who stands out in your mind?
LL: I’m still friends with Matt Craven...Steve the shishkebab guy in the movie. I just ran into him at an event at the Canadian Consulate a couple of months ago. He probably would have been my boyfriend in real life but I was afraid to go out with actors because I thought they were too unstable financially. So I went out with a camera operator!
Everybody was dating everyone else offset on that film.
TT: There’s actually a lot of flirting in the movie between different characters.
LL: Right, right. Except for my character. (Laughs.) Off-camera, Happy Birthday to Me was…well, there’s an expression in the industry: “I’m not in love, I’m on location.” That’s what was going on with Happy Birthday to Me. You know how on school trips, people end up being involved who would never get involved actually on campus?
TT: It’s “vacation”-time!
LL: Exactly. That’s what it was like.
TT: And how about Sharon Acker as Melissa’s mother? Wonderfully overwrought…
LL: Well, I mentioned that expression “born again Canadians” for people who had been in America for years and then, with the advent of the tax shelter, came back to work.
TT: Dunning told us about some problems with Glenn Ford. What was your impression of him?
LL: He was somebody else that I went and asked for an autograph. I was terrified to ask him. (Laughs.) Another “born again Canadian” when we found out that Glenn Ford was not actually the quintessential cowboy American. He was Canadian, born in Quebec!
TT: Quelle surprise!
LL: That was so shocking, I can’t tell you. It was like finding out there’s no Santa. Glenn Ford is NOT an American cowboy? He’s actually a Canadian? And not even an English Canadian, since he was born in Quebec…
TT: Who knew the star of Gilda was really a Canuck?
LL: I know, I know! (Laughs.)
I guess one of the things that happened with Ford on the set is what happens to all actors as they get older. Meaning, he was having problems learning his lines. It’s something I’m going to have to look forward to, I guess, unless there’s new technology for us like taking some kind of pill. Or getting electroshock therapy. (Laughs.)
TT: Dunning mentioned there was some issue with Ford’s drinking. And also that he had a young trophy wife on the set…which was causing friction because he was overly protective of her.
LL: You’re right. I remember both of those things now. I recall people talking about that but I wasn’t there all the time. I remember he had a young wife, yes. Although that doesn’t narrow it down because in Hollywood, many older actors have young wives. That’s not something that stuck in my mind. It’s fairly common on film sets.
TT: Do you remember John Dunning on the set?
LL: I remember John a lot, actually. I’ve wondered how he’s doing and what he’s up to.
TT: Now, Tracey Bregman’s character was not originally going to be the killer. It was supposed to be Melissa Sue Anderson (Virginia) all along. But it was decided to make the change at the ending, because the producers didn't think there would be any suspense by having Virginia be the killer.
LL: That’s correct. In fact, it seemed that as time went on, Tracey’s role got bigger and bigger, and more elaborate. And that was the final thing, that she was given this prize of being the murderer and it was exciting.
TT: When that happened, were you a little more disappointed that you hadn’t gotten that particular role?
LL: Oh, absolutely. It was hard because I like Tracey and I hung out with her. She never knew that I was a contender for the part of Ann. I never told her. I liked her though - and I like her to this day.
TT: Let's move on to killer rats.
Deadly Eyes (1982) was shot in Toronto. And here you played Trudy, a feisty cheerleader who tries to get college coach Paul (Sam Groom) into bed. Meanwhile, rats high on steroids begin attacking everybody.
What was that experience like?
LL: Deadly Eyes was the movie that made me move to the United States.
LL: I was very flattered to be cast in that movie. In Canada at that time, before the boom happened, the work was very seasonal. There was a lot of work in the summertime. But in the winter, it was dead because of the inclement weather.
Deadly Eyes was the only film being shot in the entire country at the time. It seemed like everybody was up for it, and I got it. I ran into a manager recently and he represented an actress who had gone in for the same part as me. I apparently arrived and I walked in. They were waiting to go in after me…and they heard the whole room laughing, meaning I was so affable. This manager told me they kind of looked at each other as if to say, “It’s over. We’re not getting this part.” (Laughs.)
But anyway, it was the movie that made me move away. As I said, I was very flattered because it was the only movie going on in the entire country. However, I thought that after the people with whom I’d worked, I’m doing a movie with dogs in giant rat costumes. I thought it wasn’t good. And I was a bit embarrassed by the project I was involved in. So I moved to the United States.
In fact, for me, what gave Deadly Eyes any credibility was that Scatman Crothers was in it.
TT: Right, he played George.
LL: And Charles Eglee, one of the writers. He ended up being a producer on The Shield.
TT: We didn’t know that.
So you’re saying it’s not so much the experience filming Deadly Eyes that made you move, it’s that there wasn’t enough of a variety of parts available in Canada at that time?
LL: Not only that. There was a level of the wild, wild west where you feared sometimes for your safety. Or you were exploited with nudity or something else.
I went to a screening of Class of 1984. It’s very much a cult movie and so a book came out recently on the history of punk films called Destroy All Movies. The poster with me in it is on the cover.
Mark Lester, the director, was at the screening and he talked about how Roddy McDowall was driving around, racing after the punks trying to kill them, including myself. He did his own stunt driving. And I responded that yes, Canada really was the wild west. They didn’t have any rules about actually having to have stunt drivers. We were in fact, REALLY running for our lives. I was scared to death.
In Class of 1984, I had an acting partner who was Tim Van Patton’s stunt double, but Terry Leonard (who was the stunt coordinator for Raiders of the Lost Ark) had been flown in to be a stunt coordinator. So you had a very experienced person training this guy to be Tim’s stunt double.
In Deadly Eyes, my next film, I ran into that acting partner/stunt double and I asked him, “What are you doing here?” And he told me he was the stunt coordinator. I was terrified.
This guy had had no experience other than having been trained to be a stunt double for Tim Van Patton…and suddenly he’s the stunt coordinator on my next film! There were so many times where you just feared for your life because there were no rules at the time.
I remember that stuff when I think about that movie.
TT: Any thoughts on Robert Clouse, the director of Deadly Eyes?
LL: Well, I had no idea at the time that Robert was the director of Enter the Dragon. Years later, I had an Asian friend who’s an actor, and he looked at my resume and said, “Oh man, you worked with Robert Clouse!”
I wish I’d known because when I look back, he had all the same qualities of the legendary directors whom I had worked with. He knew what he wanted, he didn’t tamper with you. He let you run with the role and there was no indecision. If you had a question, you could always go to them and they provided clarity.
TT: Clouse also knew how to sling the blood and gore.
LL: Yes he did...
TT: Before the big rat attack in Deadly Eyes, when your character Trudy is in the movie theater, The Game of Death is playing on the screen. Were you aware of that tongue-in-cheek homage to the director’s past work when you were filming that scene?
LL: I wasn’t. But I didn’t question it because at the time, I was still very young and I wasn’t a cinephile yet. Besides seeing Bronson and Eastwood movies, I also would go to the drive-in with my boyfriend and see things like Enter the Dragon. It seemed normal to me (and smart) that I would be in a theater watching a kung fu movie.