Interview: Adrienne BarbeauMay 4, 2018
With almost one hundred and forty acting credits to her name, Adrienne Barbeau has been a part of many movies that have become cult classics. Recognized around the world for roles in The Fog, Escape from New York, Swamp Thing and the television show Maude, Adrienne is still going strong with seven movies coming out in 2018 alone. Recently, we had the chance to talk with Adrienne about not only her impressive television and movie career but her work in theater and how she became an author.
So was acting something you always wanted to do or did you sort of fall into it, like a happy accident?
Adrienne: (Laughs) I just premiered a sort of one-woman show recently and that was the first question I was asked. You know, my mother started me in ballet when I was very young. When I was in fifth grade, I think somebody told her I could sing, so she asked me if I wanted to take singing lessons and I did. I started doing Community Theater when I was in high school, I did not grow up going to the movies or watching TV or anything like that but I did start doing Community Theater and I loved it. When I graduated high school, I was part of a musical/comedy touring company that was part of this community theater in San Jose, California and we applied to the State Department and got accepted to go overseas and entertain the Armed Forces.
So I started singing and dancing in what was those days called the Orient, South East Asia, we did three months of performances for the G.I.’s over there. I came back and started college and I think what was in my mind was that I was going to get my degree and I’d teach acting because that is something that I could continue to do that I love but it never crossed my mind that I could make a living at it. Then someone who had been in New York, who had been in an off-Broadway show, said you ought to go to New York and see if you can make it work, so I did. I was nineteen, I didn’t know a soul, I just packed my bags and went to New York. (Laughs) I told myself if I wasn’t supporting myself by the time I was twenty-five I’d go back to college and get my degree and teach.
You’ve carved out quite a career through theater, television, movies, voice acting, and writing. How has the business changed since you first started and has it changed for the better or worse?
Adrienne: Oh gosh, I don’t know if I’m the one to ask. I started on Broadway, as a theater actor, and in those days even if you weren’t in the union, you could go to a non-union chorus call if you were a singer and you might have a shot. If you were in the union then you went to a union chorus call and you might have a shot. I never even had an agent until I was nominated for the Tony award for Grease and in those days you were sort of able to get auditions on your own without recommendations. I don’t know what it’s like now, I know in the Los Angeles community certainly, you have to have an agent. I think one of the ways the business has changed is there’s much more product, so many more platforms. I mean, when I was doing Maude there were three networks, so if you were on a successful series that was a big deal. Nowadays you can be on a very successful series but it could be a niche audience just watching that streaming platform, so it’s changed in many ways. Certainly, the salaries have changed, they are less now than they were at the height of the three networks, certainly for supporting actors at least, guest stars, things like that. Hopefully now, with the acknowledgment of the things that women have had to endure, and men, there will be a major change there and it looks like there may even be a major change in financial equity, in terms of what actors and actresses are being paid.
You’ve done a lot of work on stage and your resume is very impressive. Do you think this is something that every actor should try, working without a net so to speak, or is it simply not for everyone?
Adrienne: I think actors who come from the theater have a better understanding of what is involved, a better understanding of what everyone is doing to make the project work. I mean, I started out as an apprentice in a theater so I was building sets and painting scenery. I realize that the crew is working three times as hard as I am and are just as important, if not more valuable to the success of the project, as the actors. I think there’s a professionalism I guess that comes from starting out on stage as well, that’s one thing for sure. I learned my craft through theater and I’m happy about that and actually, it gave me my start in television because Norman Lear, who cast me in Maude, was a huge advocate of using theatrically trained actors. He did all of his shows in the seventies like a one-act play, we had a live audience, we started it and we went right through, there were no stops for messing up or anything like that. Having come from the theater enabled me to work in that environment and even to be hired, really. We know there are thousands of really incredibly successful actors who started right in with film or television and who are really afraid of getting that on stage experience because it’s a different beast. By the same token, there are theater actors who crash and burn on the big screen because they don’t understand the difference in the medium and the techniques involved.
You did a lot of television work before you crossed over into movies. Was that a conscious choice on your part, to keep going back and forth, or did you simply follow the best scripts?
Adrienne: You know, people ask me to this day, which would you rather be doing and at this point in my life it’s different because I can pick and choose. There were times in my life that I took a job because I had to pay the bills or I took jobs where they were filming in places that I wanted to be and the quality of the material be damned. (Laughs) I have a memoir called There Are Worse Things I Could Do where I talk about some of those jobs, one example was a job in Moscow and I’d always wanted to go to Russia so I took the job, it’s really a chapter worth reading. At this point, however, my decision is based first and foremost on the character, is this something that I would like to do, and then it’s about the medium. I would rather not be working on stage solely because I am a morning person, I’m up at five-thirty or six in the morning, my energy is up throughout the day and then by eight or nine at night I want to sit down and read a book or watch a TV show. I just came off of a year touring with the musical comedy Pippen, which I took because the role was so incredible. I was hanging upside down with a trapeze with no net singing my song, which was a fantastic song and that’s not an opportunity that very many seventy-one-year-old women get to do. Still, it was like oh gosh, I’ve got to get to work tonight, which means my whole day is thinking oh gosh, I better get back to the house and relax for a while before I go on stage, so if I had my druthers I’d probably be doing a theatrical production at ten in the morning. (Laughs)
Where did your interest in writing come from and do you plan to do any more books?
Adrienne: Well, I had kept a journal since I was twelve, I still do but not all the time, now I keep a journal for my children. The long story is, on the first day of pre-school for my older boy I met a woman who became my closest friend, she was a film editor, and we were inseparable and she died in 1998 from breast cancer. On the first day of pre-school for my younger boys, a woman walked onto the campus that looked just like my deceased friend, and I was so taken aback I almost passed out. This woman asked me, “Are you ok?” and I said, “yes, you just look like a friend of mine, she was a film editor and died of breast cancer”. She said, “oh, well, I’m a film editor and I have breast cancer, we could be best friends”. Needless to say, it was very emotional but we ended up going out the next day for coffee. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t even remember her name now but in the course of us having coffee she told me about her writing class that she was attending, taught be a musical comedy star, who was teaching writing to actors.
I was in my mid-fifties and I had never heard of someone teaching writing, I had always thought you born knowing how to write or you don’t. When she told me this I thought it was my dead friend telling me to take the class so I started taking the class and a year later I had a contract to write my memoir. That then led to a series of vampire novels, which are sort of memoir-based because my lead character is four hundred and fifty-year-old Armenian vampire, who happens to be a scream queen and head of a small studio in Los Angeles. However, she is also the head of the oldest clan of vampires in Hollywood who have basically established the folklore that we know about vampires in films that they’ve done. It just sort of gave me an opportunity to be satirical about my business and write detective novels. So basically, my writing career came about as a result of a message from a dead friend, that’s all I can tell you. Whether or not I will continue, I don’t know. It’s fantastic because it’s something I can do and not be dependent on anyone else for my creativity but I’ve been so busy with so many other things lately, and actually my second novel, Love Bites, was optioned by Harrison Smith, who just had Death House come out and I ended up co-writing the screenplay with Harrison and so if the financing comes through I may have a credit as a screenwriter.
Your first movie was The Fog in 1980. What do you remember about that experience and did you come away from it thinking it was going to be a success?
Adrienne: Well, it really was a wonderful experience. John and I were together as a couple at the time and I had already worked with John on Someone’s Watching Me, so I knew him as a director first and of course, you couldn’t ask for a better director, besides maybe George Romero, those two were my all-time favorites. It was a wonderful experience and I think the location where we shot it is as an important character as any of us up on screen. It was so great, it was a real family affair, Tommy Atkins who is one of my closest friends, I hadn’t worked with Hal before but of course, I didn’t have scenes with any of those people but we were all on location together, having a great time. I remember when John first gave me the script to read and I had just come off of six years of incredibly socially significant material with Maude, and so I was sort of expecting the China Syndrome or Coming Home or something and here it was a ghost story. What none of us could have anticipated was how iconic it would become and even forty years later, there are people that come up to me all the time and tell me that’s their favorite film. I had one man not long ago tell me that he watches The Fog every night before he goes to bed to help put him to sleep. I loved the character, I loved doing the work and it was a really lovely experience, it really was.
You did a bunch of sci-fi and horror films after that, Escape from New York, Creepshow, Swamp Thing. Did you have any concerns at the time about being typecast in any way?
Adrienne: Not really, because I’ve been typecast my entire career. When I first came to Los Angeles I was a musical comedy performer, then I did Maude so I was a comedian and god forbid I should get a dramatic role. Of course, then the dramatic roles did start coming so now I was a television star. Actually, had it not been for John Carpenter offering me The Fog, I might have remained a television star because in 1978, when Maude was going off the air, if you were starring on TV nobody would hire you to do a film. They just felt that people wouldn’t pay to see someone in the theater that they could see for free every Tuesday night in their living room. Then in part, because The Fog was the first film, and also in part because John and I were married at the time, yeah, I started getting she’s a genre actress, she’s a scream queen. I did Back to School, Cannonball Run, I was doing other things and I was still doing television, but I did four films that have really lasted the duration and those are the ones I’m identified with. I love doing them, I don’t like watching them. I’m not a horror fan, I don’t like being scared but their great fun and if the script is good, I’m interested.
There are some very dedicated fans connected to some of the films you’ve been in and parts you’ve played. Do you find it easy to talk to fans in general or are some of these large fandoms hard to get used to?
Adrienne: I love talking to the fans. It’s very gratifying in many ways to have people come up and say, as I have had, “The character that you played on Maude had a real impact on my life as it sort of taught me how to be in the world at a time when there were not strong, independent women on screen”. The role that I did in Someone’s Watching Me was I believe, and no one has corrected me, that was in 1978, the first lesbian in a role on television. I have had people come up to me just recently and saying “you know, I was eleven years old and I knew I was gay when I saw that, and it was the first time I’d ever seen a gay character portrayed without being beaten or jailed or vilified”. So it’s great talking to the fans and hearing how some of the things I’ve done have been rewarding in their life, whether it’s just, “I love that movie, I watch it all the time”, who wouldn’t want to hear that?
So what projects do you have coming up next?
Adrienne: (Laughs) I just finished seven films in a row, a couple of them are just cameos, but they are all in various states of post-production and we will see if they get their distribution. Just recently I premiered, I guess you would call it a one-woman show, sort of an evening with kind of thing, which I may be doing again in theaters and then I don’t know what’s next after that.
I want to thank Adrienne for taking the time to talk with us.