June 2, 2008

INTERVIEW - Betty Buckley Steals the Show (Again) in M. Night's The Happening

In the "Who Loves Horror?" articles I write for AMC, Carrie almost always winds up on people's top-ten lists. People have a very personal relationship with this film, surely because of how nakedly it depicts the destruction of a true innocent and outcast. In her first film role, Betty Buckley was on fire as Miss Collins, the only adult who understood Carrie's torment, becoming her fierce advocate and protector. When I spoke to Buckley for my column, she seemed surprised that this role from 1976 still meant so much to people, but no doubt we've all longed for a Miss Collins of our own, a teacher or mentor who could offer a sincere helping hand-- or at least beat down the bitchy Chris Hargensens of the world.

However, Buckley has shone many times brighter since then, with more film, Broadway, and recording accomplishments than I can count. When I discovered that she was slated to appear in M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening, I couldn't wait to find out whether her role had any meat to it, and whether it signaled a true return to the genre that she kicked off her career with. I think you'll find there's a lot we don't know about Betty Buckley-- and even more we (still) don't know about The Happening!

[Click here for the interview!]

TB: Can you tell me about your character in the The Happening?

BB: I can’t really! I had to sign a confidentiality agreement. I can tell you her name is Mrs. Jones, and I’m in the last portion of the movie, and my character is one of the reasons we have an R rating-- It’s Night’s first R-rated movie. And that she’s weird and odd and scary... Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel are on the run, and they come to my house. I can tell you that.

TB: You’ve worked with some of the best film directors of all time: De Palma, Woody Allen, Roman Polansky, etc. Can you tell me what it was like working with Shyamalan?

BB: Incredible! Night surrounds himself with incredible people in every job category, from the production team and crew to the cast. At the end of filming, I told him that if I could just do a movie for him every year (and some concert work too) I’d be a happy camper for the rest of my life. He has a beautiful family of people who have worked with him on all his movies. He’s very childlike, a very enthusiastic human being, so you just want to do anything he asks you to do-- which I did in this movie! [Laughs] I’m really excited to see it. The producers have written me some very sweet notes about my contribution to the film, very loving, but I’m a little scared to see it! I’ve never really played a part like this before.

TB: So it’s a mystery to you too!

BB: Yes. I’m very curious to see how it comes together, because I felt very bizarre! I kept going back to Night saying, “Are you sure this is what you want?” and he’d say, “Absolutely! Go further.” And I’m like, “Go further??” It’s really nuts; I’ve never played anything on film that is this scary.

TB: Is that something you’d like to explore again?

BB: Sure, I wouldn’t mind. I’m at the point in my life where, whatever, let’s play! It’s very freeing to play a character like this. It’s harder to play someone glamorous, because you have to watch yourself from every angle and make sure that you’re put together right; with stuff like this you can go all out, and the further out you go, the better they like it. I’ve really never done anything like this... I’m interested to hear how people who follow my work feel about it. And everyone else too, of course.

TB: You’ve played some dark roles over the years, but this seems to be a real return to horror for you, as far as I can see.

BB: Yes, that’s sort of what I was thinking. Though I was a victim in Carrie, not part of the action really.

TB: What do you think it is about your character in Carrie that has remained with people all this time?

BB: Miss Collins? I didn’t know it had remained with people all this time, thank you for saying that.

TB: Yes, that's a big part of what my column will be about. As an actor, are there insights you have now about Miss Collins that you wish you’d had then?

BB: Well I wish I hadn’t let me wear those socks! I wish I’d worn normal gym socks, but they put me in those knee-highs. When I first saw it on the big screen, that really bothered me. It’s always a shock to see yourself on the big screen, which is why I’m so anxious to see The Happening, to see myself in this form!

TB: I’m going to have to send you an email after the film comes out--

BB: --You have to, Tom. You have to tell me what you think!

TB: No, I meant I want you to tell me what you think! Now, on another subject entirely... when I told the owner of my local video store that I would be talking to you, he immediately showed me your brief, powerful scene in Woody Allen's Another Woman, which he thinks stole the whole show. Woody Allen is notorious for not giving much direction to his actors; did you muster all of that firepower on your own?

BB: It was hysterical. He’s so very vague! I played the ex-wife of Ian Holm, who is having his engagement party with Gena Rowlands (who’s one of my favorite actresses in the whole world, and I got to go to work with her every day-- we shared a car and I was in heaven the whole time!). Gene Hackman and all these great New York actors were also in the scene as the guests. And Allen just said to me, “You’re coming over to break up the engagement party, with the excuse that you’re returning some stuff," and you know, whatever. And then he turns to all these incredible actors who are in the room for the party-- very serious, wonderful theatre actors-- and says, “Some of you know her, some of you don’t, some of you have a friendship with her—I don’t know, whatever you feel like.” And one of the grips just started laughing, and so did I, because he really had no idea what he wanted us to do. And he turned around and looked at me then, sort of mischievous and gleeful.

TB: Did you film any more scenes in that movie that were cut?

BB: It was just that one scene, but we did about twelve takes. And my favorite version of it was when I had this whole tantrum in the doorway, and then as I was going out, I ran into the door! I thought it was perfect, but he didn’t use that take. Actually, that reminds me of when I was filming Tender Mercies: I was in a scene where I had a tantrum in the dressing room, in the scene with Wilford Brimley, and when he leaves I throw this wine glass against the wall. Well, in one of the takes, I threw the glass and the wine flew through the air and hit me in the face... you couldn’t duplicate it--the liquid flew in a perfect arc, right into my face! But of course they didn’t use that either.

TB: While we’re on the subject of directors you’ve had, are there any that you’ve missed so far that you’d really like to work with?

BB: Well I'd been really hopeful to work with Sydney Pollack, and I was so sorry when he died, it was very sad. I’d love to work with Baz Luhrrmann; I just did a miniseries called Pacific which will air next year, which was produced by Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg, and I’d love to actually be directed by Spielberg. There are a whole fleet of directors I’d be thrilled to work with! De Palma again, and Polanski, I hope. Scorcese, of course-- I frequently want to write him a fan letter and ask “Can I work with you?” but I’ve never had the courage to do it.

TB: Well when The Happening comes out and you see what’s there, you may suddenly find yourself feeling very brave!

BB: [Laughs] I just hope people know I’m playing a character! When you play these crazy people, sometimes people think that’s who you are.

TB: Don't they know by now? It’s not like you’re an unknown actress just starting out...

BB: People have short memories, they tend to remember the most recent thing you did. That’s about as narrow as our imagination often is.

TB: Maybe so, but in talking to people about this interview, I discovered that you've covered so much ground that no two people seem to have the same concept of what you’ve actually done.

BB: Thank you, that’s very nice. I felt as a young person that it was important to be good at a lot of different things, so that you were always employable.

TB: Do you have some incredible talents we don’t know about that you’re saving in case all this falls through?

BB: Not exactly, but I do ride cutting horses on my ranch in Texas, and I show them—and I’m not very good at it. I’m desperately trying to be better! I’ve got a lot of time this summer to practice, I found a trainer right down the road, so I’m hoping this summer I can get better. It’s frustrating to not be good at something at this late age in my life! I’d also like to learn to play the guitar. And recently I had this a great experience working with a choreographer for a possible Broadway show, and that re-inspired my love of dance and made me want to go back to dance class, and even I’m thinking “You’re nuts!” My body’s getting older-- why do I have all these lofty physical goals? Do I really have to show horses and play guitar and take dance classes all at once? At the very least it seems like a reason to roll out of bed each day and have some fun.

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