Monday, February 24, 2014

Veronica Cartwright Talks with the Café about Hitchcock, Alien, and the Beaver

With a resume that includes Leave It to Beaver, The Birds, Alien, and The X Files, Veronica Cartwright has fashioned a lengthy, impressive acting career showcasing her versatility. She made her film debut at age 9 as Robert Wagner’s sister in 1958’s In Love and War. Ms Cartwright may have been the busiest child actor of the 1960s. On the big screen, she co-starred in The Children’s Hour, The Birds, and Spencer’s Mountain. On television, she appeared on four episodes of Leave It to Beaver (three times as Violet Rutherford) and she played Jemima Boone, Fess Parker’s daughter, on Daniel Boone. She also guest-starred in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, Route 66, and other classic TV series. Unlike many child actors, she made an easy transition to adult roles, giving memorable performances in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien, The Right Stuff, and The Witches of Eastwick. Ms. Cartwright was nominated for an Emmy for Best Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for three consecutive years (twice for The X Files and once for ER). Earlier in her career, she won a regional Emmy for Best Actress in a Television Movie for Tell Me Not in Mournful Numbers. She is still in high demand in both movies and television, having recently appeared in Revenge, Grey’s Anatomy, and the Lifetime movie Non-Stop.

Café:  As a young actor, you appeared in films directed by William Wyler (The Children's Hour) and Alfred Hitchcock (The Birds). How did these great directors from Hollywood's Golden Age approach working with their actors?

With Tippi Hedren in The Birds.
Veronica Cartwright:  William Wyler had a very unconventional approach, especially working with children. I was auditioning for the role Mary and he shot off a gun to see my reaction. I ended up getting the part of Rosalie. There were some very emotional scenes and he would have me do them and really get there and then he would start shooting it. Alfred Hitchcock was always lovely. He just told us what he wanted and he always treated me like a colleague. He saw me in The Children’s Hour and then requested to meet me. I went to his bungalow on the Universal Studios lot and he told me his favorite wine cellar was in Bristol, which is where I was born, and then proceeded to tell me the names of wines. At 12 years old, I didn't need that information, but I wish I could remember the names now. He also told me how to cook a steak, which I would need to know when I got married, and I have since tried and it works. He was a riot and he just sat and talked to me. He just made me feel comfortable and I could ask him any questions I wanted about the production, the fake birds, etc.

Café:  You appeared in three of the most intense (and famous) scenes in The Birds: the attack at the school; the birthday party; and the birds swooping down the chimney. Which was the most demanding for you as an actress and why?

VC:  I didn't like those birds swooping down from the chimney. There were thousands of them. We were in a bubble and they would just swoop down and go to fly up and then realize there was nowhere to go. Then, they just dropped. That one was the most challenging because it was so confining.

Veronica as Violet Rutherford.
Café:  Having also appeared on other family sitcoms, such as Family Affair and My Three Sons, why do you think Leave It to Beaver has maintained its enduring popularity? And what was it like to play Violet Rutherford as an adult in 1985 on The New Leave It to Beaver?

VC:  I think just everybody could identify with the Beaver and his older brother. It was a clean, family show. I gave Beaver his first kiss at 9 years old. In the 1985 version, they intercut it with the kissing episode. In the movie, Violet poses as a real estate woman who has a side business of being a dominatrix. It was very funny.

Café:  Daniel Boone fans have long wondered why Jemima Boone, Daniel’s daughter, didn’t appear in any episodes after the second season. Was that the producers’ decisions (perhaps to trim costs) or did you want to pursue other acting opportunities?

VC:  I got to a certain point and they were giving me opportunities to be more of a romantic lead and have more mature story lines with such actors as Fabian. The actress playing my mother didn't care for that, so she wouldn't sign her contract if they brought me back. She felt that it aged her.

Café:  How did you come to be cast as Lambert in Alien?

Veronica as Lambert in Alien.
VC:  I auditioned for the character of Ripley and then I happened to be going to Europe, so I checked with my agent to see if the part had been cast yet. I thought being British it could be to my advantage for them to see me again, so I auditioned when I got to London. I got cast and I thought I got cast as Ripley. It wasn’t until I was contacted by wardrobe to be fitted for my space suit that I found out I was Lambert. She ultimately turned out to be the only sensible one.

Café:  Alien and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are two very different science fiction films. While both generate plenty of suspense, Alien depends, in large part, on a monster created by special effects. The most frightening aspect of Body Snatchers is its theme. Which kind of movie presents the biggest challenge to an actress? And which do you think is more terrifying?

VC:  Actually, there was no CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery). The Alien was a man from the Masai tribe who was over seven feet tall. They built the suit to fit him. He could only move very slowly and took mime lessons and tai chi. In a sense, Body Snatchers is more psychological. The scary thing about Body Snatchers was the aspect of living in a grey area and not feeling love or hate. There was always the prospect that if you fell asleep you could wake up and be a zombie. Alien was more like a Hitchcock film where your mind was doing more of the scaring because you would just see glimpses as an audience member until the Alien stepped out. They were both equally challenging for different reasons. I guess Alien was more terrifying because of the monster, but then again the other one is a creepy concept to think of.

As Cassandra Spenderwith Fox Mulder
in the background.
Café:  On several episodes of The X Files, you played Cassandra Spender, an alien abductee who was the ex-wife of The Cigarette Smoking Man and mother of Agent Jeffrey Spender. How would you describe your X Files experiences?

VC:  Well, the first two episodes were shot in Canada. My character is wheelchair bound and we discover she has a chip in the back of her neck like Scully. I had been abducted and by the end of the second episode I was abducted again. When I came back I was now able to walk. My take on what happened was that since I knew so much about the aliens, I had become one of them. It was really fun. Chris Carter directed one of my episodes.

Veronica in Goin' South, directed by
Jack Nicholson.
Café:  You’ve worked with a number of famous directors: Hitchcock, Wyler, Ridley Scott, Philip Kaufman, and even Jack Nicholson. Who is your favorite director and why?

VC:  They are all great for their own reasons. I've done three movies with Phil. He knows you’ve done your homework and he trusts you to make a well rounded character. Jack is just nuts. He’s great. It’s like one big giant party. Ridley has a terrific eye for detail. And I already talked about my experiences with Hitchcock and Wyler.

Café:  You and your sister Angela appeared together in a 1960 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“The Swartz-Metteaklume Method”) and you were a guest star on Make Room for Daddy. Were there ever any plans to make a movie starring the Cartwright sisters? (Perhaps a science fiction film for fans of Alien and Lost in Space?)

VC:  Well, at one point, Angela and I decided to get together with Tony Dow and a bunch of other actors like Billy Mumy, Billy Grey, Johnny Crawford and several others to make a space movie, but it never got off the ground.

Café:  Are you working on any projects now that you’d like to share with your fans?

VC:  Yes!  I’m on Resurrection, the ABC show, at 10 P.M. on Sundays starting March 9th. My character’s name is Helen Edgerton. Also, I am in the motion picture The Town that Dreaded Sundown. It is a remake of the 1976 movie of the same name and will be released by Sony in September.


You can learn more about Veronica Cartwright at her web site: www.veronica-cartwright.com. You can also follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/veesland.

13 comments:

  1. Thanks for a most interesting interview, Rick. I’ve been a fan of Veronica since “The Birds” (I was also aware of Angela from the Danny Thomas show, but didn’t realize they were sisters till decades later). Veronica has had such a long and remarkable career – many classics in her filmography. I really enjoyed learning her take on working with some of the greatest of all directors (Hitchcock! Wyler!) as well as her views on some of her best known films and film roles. Fascinating.

    ReplyDelete
  2. David HollingsworthFebruary 24, 2014 at 9:48 PM

    Thanks for this really great interview. Veronica Cartwright has been an amazing actress to look forward to ever since she started in the late 1950s, and she continues to be even more compelling now.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I was very surprised and pleased to see this interview with Veronica Cartwright. She defines acting versatility. She first attracted my attention with the "Body Snatchers" remake and I have been a fan ever since. Nice to know she's on twitter. She will hopefully tweet more.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Enjoyed the interview very much. I especially enjoyed Veronica's responses regarding the Alien and The Body Snatchers. Veronica seemed a very smart and in-depth woman.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Great interview! Really enjoyed reading this, and have loved her in everything I've seen her in. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Rick, you truly are gifted at interviews! You ask very insightful questions. I especially enjoyed reading Miss Cartwright's comments regarding her work as a child actor with Wyler and Hitchcock. She has had a very diverse and busy career, going seamlessly between television and film roles. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this interview and thank Miss Cartwright for stopping by the Cafe!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Very interesting stuff about Hitchcock, who obviously didn't condescend to his child actors. I was also amused at the very diplomatic answer regarding a favorite director. I suppose a very natural reaction to a long, successful acting career is gratitude, and a reluctance to dish dirt or drag up old embarrassing stories. On the other hand, when I read something like "they're all great in their own way," I have a tendency to want to read between the lines. "Nicholson is just nuts!" Oh yeah? How? Tell us a story that reveals the human being and not just another "great" actor or director. Anyway, Veronica is one of those actresses who glides under the radar by being very competent and playing a variety of characters. She was great in both Alien and Invasion.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I loved the story about her meeting Hitchcock, his telling her how to cook a steak and the fact that she took his advice!

    Great interview, Rick. :)

    ReplyDelete
  9. Wonderful interview, Rick! I was so fascinated by her descriptions of how they filmed the bird attack, as well as the Masai who played the alien. I never knew either of these facts. She is a very interesting woman.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Love the interview. Looking forward to meeting her in person at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention in two weeks! Hope to get my photo taken with her for Facebook.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Very interesting to hear that Patricia Blair was responsible for her getting fired from "Daniel Boone" which is very unfortunate because.

    ReplyDelete