E.T. mom Dee Wallace takes us through her long and bloody career

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Dee Wallace (Photo: Getty Images), in Kujo (Image: Warner Bros.) and E.T. (Photo: Universal) (Graphic: Jimmy Hasse)

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Although Dee Wallace’s early onscreen career involved a number of small parts on TV series and in films, her profile growing as the ’70s progressed, it wasn’t until the ’80s that her career skyrocketed—as a result of a little motion picture called E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. A predominant theme in her career can perhaps best be charted by the films that bookend E.T.The Howling and Cujo. Wallace has screamed her way through a fair number of horror films and thrillers, and she can be seen doing it again in her latest cinematic endeavor, Red Christmas, which hit theaters August 25.

Red Christmas (2016)—“Diane”

The A.V. Club: How did this project come about for you? You’re also a producer on the film.

Dee Wallace: Well, I’m a producer on the film because Craig [Anderson], who wrote, directed, and produced Red Christmas, was very gracious and grateful and kind of gave me that as a gift, quite frankly. Although, you know, he thought that my name and my willingness to do this and my creative input during the shoot warranted something. But I’m very grateful for that love. Most producers don’t give you anything if you don’t have it in your contract!

But to answer your question, he was a friend of a friend that I have in Australia, and we had been talking about me coming over there to teach acting and to teach my healing work and all that. Well, he knew Craig, and Craig said, “Oh, my god! Would she be in my movie?” So he hooked us up, and I fell in love with the script, and I fell in love with Craig. I read the script and went, “Holy hell, I don’t know if I can do this anymore, but I’m sure gonna give it a shot!” You know, because it’s a pretty physically and emotionally demanding role. It kind of reminded me of Cujo. So, yeah, that’s how I got involved!

AVC: The one-line description of the film is that it’s about a mother protecting her family, but how would you actually describe Diane as a character?

DW: A ballsy broad with a secret.

AVC: So this was not completely un-trod territory for you.

DW: No. Neither personally nor professionally!

AVC: Were there ever any moments where you wondered if you might not be able to pull it off?

DW: [Considers the question.] No!

I think the greatest challenge for me was the fact that I was afraid of the spiders in Australia. And the beautiful little bungalow that they had me in, you had to go outside the bedroom and cross this small little walkway to get to the bathroom that had been added on, and in the middle of the night… That’s a little daunting for this girl from Kansas! Because there are some pretty big critters in Australia, as you know.

AVC: Did you have any close encounters?

DW: Oh, yes. With spiders and wombats. But here I am to talk about it!

AVC: There’s nothing more disconcerting than a late-night encounter with a wombat.

DW: You know, we could do a horror film just on that.

AVC: I would pay to see that.

DW: I think I would, too. We could make a dark comedy.

Lucas Tanner (1974)—“Waitress”

AVC: It looks like your first on-camera role in a movie or TV series was in an episode of Lucas Tanner.

DW: Yes, and there’s a great story about that. I had just come out from New York, but I’m originally from Kansas. And you couldn’t get on the lot to meet the casting directors, so in good Kansas fashion, I baked chocolate chip cookies and wrapped them up, and I went to the gate and said, “Hi, I have deliveries?” And they just pushed me on through!

So I took chocolate chip cookies around to all the casting directors, and I happened to reach Reuben Cannon’s desk, and his assistant was very nice. And as I was leaving them, he came out and said, “Oooh! Chocolate chip cookies!” And I said, “Hi, I’m Dee Wallace, I just got here from Kansas!” Because Kansas was a much better line than New York. [Laughs.] “And I’m making the rounds, and I brought you some cookies!” And he said, “Well, why don’t you come in? We’ll talk for a minute.”

And while I was in there, they called from the stage and said the girl playing the waitress in Lucas Tanner was sick, and what were they supposed to do? And he covered the phone and looked at me and said, “What size do you wear?” I said, “What size do you need?” He said, “Can you get into a size 4?” I said, “Yep!” Well, I was a size 6, but I was determined that I was going to stuff myself into that damned costume! And that was my first role in Hollywood, and my first six lines.

AVC: How did you find your way into acting in the first place?

DW: I was born. Seriously! And I can say the same thing about my daughter. If you’re supposed to be doing this, you come in knowing it. I truly believe that. And then, of course, you have to let yourself walk the path of it. But I was just always drawn to it. I started out as a dancer, and I was a ballet dancer with a couple of small companies, but I’m built like a gymnast. But I was good, I was never great. So after college, I turned my sights and my focus toward acting. Actually, I majored in acting and theater education, so I taught a year of high school before I took off for New York.

Look, I’ve been a teacher all my life. I’ve had my own dance studio, my own acting studio for 18 years out here… I’m just a natural teacher. I teach on all my healing work now. I think actors teach any time they work anyway. We’re teaching emotions, we’re teaching how to deal with emotions, we’re teaching how to get around issues and deal with them. You know, actors are some of the best teachers in the world, because they’re teaching you through entertainment, and you don’t know you’re getting a message.

Taxi (1979)—“Joyce”

DW: So I’m a dramatic actress, right? And Taxi, I really don’t know why they hired me. I think it was… Was it after E.T.?

AVC: It was before.

DW: Before? Oh, now I really don’t know why they hired me! But I went in and auditioned, and I had never done a three-camera show. I didn’t know the format, and I didn’t know that they kept rewriting every day. And the third day, I went to Judd—and I just love Judd Hirsch, because he was so there for me, trying to get me through all this—and I said, “Judd! Why do they keep rewriting everything? How am I ever supposed to remember my lines?” And he looked me and said, “Honey, that’s what we do on a three-camera show: They keep rewriting and tweaking it, and it’ll all get set the day before we film.” Well, I didn’t have a clue.

But I do have kind of an innate comedic sense of timing, as long as it’s not slapstick. Like, Will Ferrell stuff is not something I can do. But if it’s a real character, based in reality, I found out that I’m actually rather talented at that! And I ended up doing a great series called Together We Stand, which was comedy. But I was terribly challenged, scared to death, and really grew and expanded during that Taxi experience. And I just had a beautiful time with Judd Hirsch.

Together We Stand/Nothing Is Easy (1986-1987)—“Lori Randall”

AVC: Let’s jump to Together We Stand, otherwise known as Nothing Is Easy. After you found out that you had an innate sense of comedy, did you actively start looking for sitcoms, or did that one just fall into your lap?

DW: I think it kind of came to me on the heels of E.T. Everybody wanted me to do something in television after E.T. came along. You said Nothing Is Easy, which is interesting, because it started out as Together We Stand, and it started out as this really positive show that talked about really gutsy things. Like, we had an episode that said, “Is God dead?” Which was on the cover of Timemagazine. We were pioneers. And we also dealt with beautiful human issues within the family while we were being funny. It was just everything that spoke to my soul.

And then at the end of the first season… I think it was the first season, it may have just been the first 10 episodes, but they decided to get rid of Elliott Gould’s character, and they brought in some other producers, and it became this negative show that I didn’t like at all. And the titles kind of say it all: It went from Together We Stand to Nothing Is Easy.

AVC: I remember when it was originally on the air. It was probably my first real awareness of network retooling.

DW: Yeah. And it didn’t work. So the series didn’t last, unfortunately. I think a lot of that, too, was due to a change in regime at the top of the network. We were never on the same day at the same time when the regime changed. That’s kind of how they do it: “Well, this wasn’t my show, and even though it’s doing pretty well, I’ll bury it anyway.” But garbage like that happens in life, and movies and TV are just a microcosm of life. That was unfortunate, though. It was Camelot, and then it was hell. [Laughs.]

Critters (1986)—“Helen Brown”

AVC: You worked with Scott Grimes on both Together We Stand and Critters, but which came first?

DW: Critters. And I brought him in for Together We Stand and said, “This kid would be fabulous for my son!” And they loved him and hired him.

AVC: When Critters first came out, a lot of people not entirely incorrectly viewed it as an attempt to play off the success of Gremlins, but it’s had a much longer life than anyone would’ve expected.

DW: Yeah, for sure. You know, I hadn’t watched it in awhile, and I watched it again with my daughter, and darn, it’s a good movie! And, darn, I’m really good in it! I was surprised! She started laughing at me, because I’d go, “Oh, my god, look, that was really good, what I just did.” She said, “Mom, you are so funny. You’re the only one that doesn’t know how good you are.” But when you don’t watch something and it was so long ago… I mean, I’ve done some things that I hope nobody ever sees.

AVC: There’s probably some on my list.

DW: Oh, thanks. Yeah, let’s bring ’em all up so people can Google ’em!

AVC: Were you surprised at how many sequels Critters spawned?

DW: I was surprised after the second one how many there were, yes. But if you’re a true fan of something, you’ll stick with it, no matter what.

Popcorn (1991)—“Suzanne”

DW: Well, Popcorn was a true adventure. I was offered that part not too long after I had my baby, Gabrielle, and we had to go to Jamaica. And I was still breastfeeding, so I couldn’t dye my hair. It’s one of my few roles with dark hair. I actually had to go between breastfeeding and bottle feeding to do the film. And the film itself… I know it’s a cult classic, but it was plagued with problems, just plagued with them, when we shot it. Producers kept changing, directors kept changing, the shooting conditions were—at best—bearable. We shot in this big, abandoned theater in Jamaica, and when you walked in, the smell of urine almost knocked you over.

There’s two huge memories that stand out. One is the body cast. They showed me what they were going to do, and I said, “Well, how do I get out of it?” And they said, “Well, no, we’re just going to wrap you in it, and you’re going to have to stay in there for the…” I said, “Uh, I’m not thinking so, guys. This ain’t gonna happen! You’ve got to put some way so that you can split it down one side and open it up, because I’ve got to be able to get out of there. I’ve got claustrophobia.” It was, like, “What? You think I’m just going to hang out in there all day? What if I have to pee?!” So they did: They constructed a really brilliant thing so that I could very easily get in and out of it.

The other thing is that somehow, in our hotel room, the door locked and my daughter—who was, like, four months old at the time—got locked in the room, and we couldn’t get to her. That kind of sums up my life right there. My personal life, my family, is the most important thing to me. It always comes first. It always will come first. And then it’s whatever I can give my work. But those are the two big memories that stick out to me about Popcorn. It’s a great little cult film. Who knew?

Invisible Mom (1996), Invisible Mom II (1999)—“Laura Griffin”

DW: Boy, you are asking some random shit here!

AVC: It’s called Random Roles for a reason!

DW: We had a great time doing Invisible Mom. Fred [Olen Ray], the director, we had done a couple of little things together. Andrew Stevens, I think, produced it. It was easy and fun, a very small crew, and it was one of those things that you did because you were friends with people, and I don’t know, it was just a lot of fun and really easy. As opposed to Cujo, which was not fun and not easy but is still my favorite film.

AVC: How was the experience of doing Invisible Mom II? It’s a fascinating cast: Mary Woronov, Micky Dolenz, Kathy Garver from Family Affair, and Barry Livingston from My Three Sons.

DW: I loved working with Barry. I’m sure I loved working with Kathy, too, because she’s a great lady. But I remember working a lot with Barry, because he was in both films, and he’s just a great, available actor. Everything was just so easy.

The Frighteners (1996)—“Patricia Ann Bradley”

DW: I could talk for an hour on that one. Well, I had to audition at Universal, and I just remember thinking, “I’ve got to go all the way, I’ve got to go all the way.” And when I went in and met Peter Jackson, I was such a huge fan of Heavenly Creatures, and I said, “Peter, just, please don’t see me with this blond hair, okay? See me with long, black hair or something. But this is not how I see Patricia.” So I auditioned and got the part, and then Michael [J. Fox] came in and watched it. He and I had met a year earlier, just in passing, so he signed off on me, and we were off to New Zealand.

We got down there, and the night before we were supposed to start shooting, Peter came over and said, “You know, Dee, we’ve decided to rewrite the script.” I said, “What?!” “Yes, so we were wondering, would it be okay if we sent you, your nanny, and your daughter on a trip through Queensland? We’ll just send you on this trip for two weeks, and we’ll have a guide for you.” I said, “Okay, well, let me think for about two seconds. Okay!”

The Frighteners was such an interesting experience in my life. I don’t know how many of your readers know that my husband died in the middle of it. Well, he had a heart attack, a severe heart attack. They flew me back, they did an angioplasty, he appeared to be fine, and he said, “Look, go back. They’re holding filming for you.” He was an actor, too. So I flew back. Four days later, he passed away from a blood clot. I flew back again, put his service on, picked up my nanny and daughter, and… [Sighs.] I flew four times across half the world in two weeks. Seriously, I didn’t know where my body was for a couple of days. But it’s some of the best work and rawest work I’ve ever done. I adore Peter Jackson, and I love that part. Talk about everything I love to do everything as an actress, playing that huge arc from Patricia the victim to Patricia the freaked-out murderer.

I remember when we were in wardrobe and makeup, discussing the difference between when Johnny comes in and takes me over and how to age me. I looked at Fran [Walsh], Peter’s wife, and I said, “Oh, no, I think I get younger. I think I’m back in what excites me. I’m back in my element.” And she looked at me like, “Oh, my god, what a great idea!” So that’s what we did. Actually, in a very strange way, it worked physically, because when Chris died, I went through so much grief and everything that I lost about 15 pounds, and that kind of coordinated with the time I was going back into the demonic Patricia.

I don’t know, I look at that part, and I go, “I don’t know where it all came from,” but between me and Peter and Patricia, it was quite a ride. And I will love Peter Jackson and everybody on that crew with a full heart until the day I die. When I got back there, everybody came around to hold me up and to take care of my little girl. They played foursquare with her. They actually built a little flying apparatus, because she was with me when I went to try out my flying stuff, and she said, “Mommy, I want to fly like Peter Pan!” So they built her a little one so she could go up, too. And at the end, I went in to settle up my money, because they said, “Look, we’ll take care of doing everything, you just go take care of whatever you have to take care of, and you can settle up at the end of this,” so I figured I was probably going to owe them money by that time, going four times across the air with three people. But I got there to settle, and the bookkeeper said, “No, this is Peter’s gift to you: We’re just going to take care of all of that.”

AVC: That’s really nice.

DW: Everything during The Frighteners was so humane and respectful, down to the best boy on the set. It was a grand experience of my youth.

Sons And Daughters (2006-2007)—“Colleen Halbert”

DW: I so loved that part. Again, I was scared to death, because we really didn’t have a script. They didn’t work with scripts. All of that was improv. We had a storyline written out, and we’d go in and they’d go, “Okay, this is what you need to accomplish in this scene.” And we’d come in with our ideas and stuff, and we’d take a run at it, and… I had never worked that way. And I was absolutely scared to death. But once I learned the technique and I learned to trust myself, oh, my god, what fun I had. With all that freedom, and finding out all of the passive-aggressive places in that character. And working with Max [Gail] was just an absolute joy. You know, we were really the precursors of a lot of the shows that are on now. If we had come out a little bit later or been able to go on a little bit longer, we would probably still be on today.

AVC: You and Max Gail really were great together.

DW: Max and I have done a couple of other projects together, too, and there’s something about us where we just click with each other. We just connect. It’s always great when you find actors like that, where you’re, like, “Oh, I must’ve worked with you in another life!”

AVC: I usually ask actors if there’s a favorite project they’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love they thought it deserved. It seems like Sons And Daughters is probably yours.

DW: Probably. You know, the people who found it were such incredibly loyal fans, but they just didn’t let us stay on long enough, and the public just wasn’t quite ready for that kind of programming yet. And that’s half of it, you know?

The Stepford Wives (1975)—“Nettie The Maid”

DW: Well, that was really my first part. I was sitting in an office in New York, getting ready to interview for a part-time receptionist job, and Bryan [Forbes] kept walking back and forth, looking at me, walking back and forth. And he finally walked up to me and said, “Excuse me, are you an actress?” I said, “Yeah, I am.” He said, “You wanna be in a movie?” I said, “Yeah, I do!” So, of course, if you blink your eyes, you’re not going to see me as Nettie The Maid. I think my big line in the film was, “Ya!”

Oh, but I remember that he did say, “Do you have any German in you?” And I said, “Yeah, I’m German-Irish-Dutch.” I’m telling you, my naïveté and my trust in this business has opened up more doors for me than all of the focus I’ve done in actually trying to get a job.

The Howling (1981)—“Karen White”

DW: I had just gotten engaged to Christopher and I got this part, and Dan Blatt calls me and says, “Well, Dee, it’s going really great. We’ve got a great cast put together for you, but we can’t find a guy for your husband.” Now, I had read the script. Why this did not occur to me… Maybe it was just that I didn’t think that they’d listen to me. But I said, “Well, what exactly are you looking for, Dan?” And he said, “Well, you know, a really sexy, virile man that has a vulnerability.” Well, within 10 seconds, my mind put together this whole scenario: “If you suggest Chris right now, they’re never going to do that, because they know you’re an item, and they’re gonna be afraid to hire both of you.” So I said, “You know, I worked with this guy on CHiPs, and he’s exactly like what you just described: Christopher Smith? Stone? Something like that.” So they went out and they found him and brought him in to audition, and he got the part.

The next day after he got the part, the phone rings and I pick it up, and Dan goes, “Dee?” I said, “Hi, Dan!” And he said, “I… I’m sorry, I must’ve called the wrong number. But you know that guy you suggested? Well, we found him, we brought him in, and we booked him.” I said, “Yeah, I know. I’m engaged to him.” And there was this long pause. And then he went, “Aw, shit.” [Laughs.] He said, “You guys are gonna gang up on me!” “No, Dan, we’re not gonna gang up on you.” And by the end of the picture, he was saying, “Thank god Chris was here. Thank god Chris can handle her.”

So it turned out to be a really, really positive thing for all of us, and we all became really close friends. And, of course, Joe Dante. That movie would not be half the movie it is if we hadn’t had Joe Dante. He paid for all the commercials that are in there himself. He was instrumental in bringing in the names of characters from a lot of the old werewolf movies. He just added so much in there for the true horror fan.

AVC: Speaking of true horror fans, a friend of mine wanted me to ask if, when they released The Howling II and trumpeted Sybil Danning as the first blond werewolf, you took offense.

DW: [Long pause.] I have no comment.

AVC: I can’t tell if you’re saying that with a straight face or not.

DW: [Laughs.] Look, I do conventions with Sybil! But The Howling II, they asked me if I was interested, and I kind of said, “I don’t do any material that borders on pornography yet.” I just didn’t think that it was on par at all—the script, I’m talking about—with the original Howling.

Jimmy The Kid (1982)—“May”

DW: I never had more fun in my life. I didn’t even know that I had that character in me. [In a high, squeaky voice.] But she was so much fun, and when she came out in the fuck-me pumps… [Starts to laugh.] I went to the wardrobe lady, and I said, “Okay, she has got to have big boobs, and I do not have big boobs. Can you make big boobs and make it look like I’ve got ’em?” So we created this birdseed bra to push up everything, and… Oh my god, to work with Ruth Gordon and Paul Le Mat, it was a ride. I had so much fun doing that character. I just like doing characters a lot more than I like playing characters that are really, really close to me. I have nothing but good memories of doing that film.

Rebel Highway: Runaway Daughters (1994)—“Mrs. Alex Gordon”

DW: Oh, that’s one that Joe Dante did. We went in and did that as a favor for Joe. I think we were in and out in a day, but Chris and I got to work together again. And we’d do anything for Joe anyway. I remember it being a little bit of a stretch because she was a rich woman, from what I remember, and I don’t do a lot of those. But, hey, I pulled it off!

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)—“Mary”

DW: I booked E.T. because I had auditioned for Used Cars. And Steven [Spielberg] is always working 10 years ahead, and he saved me for E.T. Thank you, Steven! So when E.T. came along, they just called and offered it to me. Another one of my Hollywood stories.

I mean, what can you say about being involved in that film? “Thank you forever, god! Thank you that I’m involved in a film that still touches people’s lives!” I have so many stories of how that film has touched people so deeply. I just feel really blessed to have been a part of it. Sometimes after I’d been waiting in my dressing room for a week and a half without working, I didn’t feel that way. But there’s yin and yang in every experience.

AVC: Was your laugh spontaneous when you reacted to Elliott’s “penis breath” remark?

DW: Absolutely. Absolutely. Steven would do that throughout the whole shoot. [Whispering.] “Okay, now, I want you to say this line…” Like in the kitchen, when I’m at the refrigerator and someone asks me about Mexico, I didn’t know that was coming. And if you look closely, you can see my knees buckle a little bit, and I just stand there for what seems like forever, looking in the refrigerator, because I didn’t know that line was coming. Well, it was the same thing with “penis breath.” And I loved that I didn’t know it was coming, because it’s such a real reaction instead of a “Well, what would I do with this as his mother?” kind of thing. So, yeah, I’m all about just being in the moment and going with whatever the hell happens. I love working that way. So working with the kids on E.T., and Steven, the way he did that, was just heaven for me.

AVC: Presumably you and the kids forged a bond during the course of the film.

DW: Anytime you play a mom, you have to. At least for me, there’s a part of me that has to take care of the kids. You just have to. It’s part of the job.

AVC: Spielberg had at least written a treatment for a possible sequel. Did you breathe a sigh of relief when he decided to make it a standalone film?

DW: I never heard about that at the time, but when I did hear about it, yes. He actually asked me at one point what I thought, and I said, “Steven, I think you should leave it a classic.”

Just Add Magic (2016-2017)—“Grandma”

DW: Yeah, that’s a beautifully produced series, and it’s been a nice run. I’ve been very blessed to have a steady gig, but I’m ready to move on, and I finish up in September. I want to get out and do more screaming and crying and weird roles. I just want to crawl into more different characters.

Cujo (1983)—“Donna Trenton”

DW: Cujo was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it’s the film I’m proudest of. You know, how far can you break down? When do you break down? How do you break down? It was just relentless. At the end of it, they treated me for exhaustion for three weeks afterwards. I’m still on adrenal supplements, because I just blew out all my adrenals! People don’t understand that when an actor goes through any kind of emotional stuff, your body chemically goes through it exactly like you were in fight-or-flight in your life. I was in maximum fight-or-flight for weeks.

AVC: There’s nothing about that film that really ages. There’s no dated technology that ruins it. It’s still effective.

DW: Yeah, it still holds up. It’s just amazing how that film came together, all the different parts. Thank god for Karl Miller, thank god for Lewis Teague, and thank god for Dan Blatt, who also produced The Howling. He was a classy producer.

AVC: How was the dog?

DW: Well, there were 13 of them. And they were all trained so well by Karl Miller. All trained to go after different toys for different tricks.

Halloween (2007)—“Cynthia Strode”
The Haunted World Of El Superbeasto (2009)—“Trixie”
The Lords Of Salem (2012)—“Sonny”

DW: Oh, I adore Rob Zombie. I do! I adore Rob and Sheri [Moon Zombie, Rob’s wife]. I think he’s a genius in many different areas: music, directing, and writing. He likes to do his own thing, and he’s kind of out there, but he is genuinely one of the sweetest, nicest people I’ve ever worked with.

AVC: Do you have a favorite of the bunch of projects that’s you’ve worked on with him?

DW: I’m pretty partial to Halloween.

AVC: It’s a pretty prominent role.

DW: It is, and… Oh, the fans will like this story: I was supposed to die when I was going down the bookcase, but three weeks later the producers called me and said, “We need you to come back.” I said, “But I’m already dead.” They said, “Rob wants to kill you better!”So I went back, and that’s when we shot me crawling through the floor and into the other room and going to the table and all that.

AVC: If Rob Zombie wants to kill you better, trust the word of the one who knows.

DW: Yeah, people wanted to see a little more of Dee Wallace screaming and crying and getting hysterical!

[“Source-avclub”]