Adrienne Barbeau Receives Lifetime Achievement Award at NYC Horror Film Festival
Over the weekend, Adrienne Barbeau was honored by the New York City Horror Film Festival with their Lifetime Achievement Award. Though horror fiends will know her from Swamp Thing, The Fog, or Creepshow, her impressive career transcends genre and medium. She’s been on stage and screen–both TV and film–and, in later years, turned to writing novels. It was an honor and a privilege to see her come out to receive the award and offer up a charming Q&A with a multi-generational audience who admired her decades-long, multifaceted career.
Here are some of the highlights from the discussion:
On her children seeing some of her earlier work –
When Carnivàle premiered, which is one of my favorites, my boys were only six at the time. It was going to be on television one night and we had invited a couple of friends. We were getting ready to sit down and watch it, and all of a sudden I realized, “Oh my gosh, what am I going to do with the kids? I don’t have a babysitter or whatever. Well, you know what, I’ll show them one of my movies … and I’ll show them a comedy.” So I put Cannonball Run on for my two six year olds … I came back upstairs and I walked into the bedroom, and Walker was crying hysterically because Jack Elam’s eye terrified him. You know Jack had that sort’ve lazy eye. And William was so appalled [because I had unzipped my jumpsuit], “Mommy, how could you do that in front of that policeman? Don’t you ever do that again!”
On returning to the Broadway stage –
I just finished doing the national tour of Pippin. We were throughout the states and then we were in the Netherlands. I took it because it’s such a wonderful role … My energy; I’m awake at six in the morning, and I’m going, going, going, and the thought of having to get my energy up for an 8 o’clock show is not my favorite thing to do. But if it were the right role, and I don’t know what that would be … But I like being on stage. I’d love being on stage at 10 in the morning is really it. That would be my ideal.
How to shock a horror crowd when asked what is her favorite horror movie –
I don’t like horror movies. I love doing them. I just love doing them. But I’ve never seen Psycho, you know? I do remember seeing Donovan’s Brain when I was [young] … The first, and one of the only films I ever saw of this genre, was Halloween. I saw it with Tom Atkins, who is a very close friend of mine, and his girlfriend at the time … It was the night I had just gone on Johnny Carson and announced that John [Carpenter] and I were engaged to be married. That was the night of the screening of Halloween … I was seated next to John and, by the time the show was over, he was black and blue because I just kept hitting him. Tom and his girlfriend turned to each other–they had never met John; this was the first night they were meeting him–and they said, “We cannot let her marry him!” And so that was memory of Halloween and, really, I’ve only see that once. I don’t like to be scared.
On branching out in Hollywood –
It’s been strange in a way because the industry tends to pigeonhole you. When I first went to L.A., I went to do Maude. But I was a stage actress, you know, and since Maude was my first TV show, then suddenly I was a comedienne and nobody would see me even for dramatic roles on television. That took a while. Then, in those days, if you did television, they wouldn’t see you for films because the prevailing thought was people aren’t going to pay to see you in a movie theater if they can see you for free at night. It wasn’t really, I think, until Johnny Travolta made the crossover from Welcome Back, Kotter to Saturday Night Fever. It was actually John [Carpenter] who gave me my first feature role. And because it was a horror film, and John and I were together … then suddenly it was “She does that kind of thing.”
And the changes in her craft from one medium to the next –
[The transition] was harder because all I knew up until that point was stage, and primarily musical comedy. I had just finished doing Rizzo in Grease and they hired me to do Maude. And I was going to act, you know? If Carol was going to be angry, I was going to be angry because that’s what you do on stage. You go down and you find something that’s going to make you angry … I didn’t get the medium right away. I was too big. It took a while to realize, in television especially, they hire you because they want you, basically. They want your essence. It wasn’t until maybe three or four episodes in, when we did the telethon, the musical, where suddenly I was home and I started to relax. And then, really, I owe John Carpenter an enormous debt. I had been working in television maybe six or seven years, doing comedy and drama. John hired me for a television film that he did called Someone’s Watching Me! … We finished the first scene and John came over and said, “That was great. That was great. Do less.” I said, “What?” He said, “Just do less.” It was like the proverbial lightbulb went off and all of a sudden I thought, that’s the difference between stage and television, and television and film. It’s size. No one had ever brought me down like that and it made all the difference in the world.
The impact of Maude –
I was very fortunate to be in Maude because it did impact so many people’s lives in so many ways. We were dealing with the same issues we’re dealing with today. People come up to me all the time and say, “That show taught me people could be in the world in a way I didn’t know they could be, whether it was a family that could yell at each other and still love each other, or a woman that could strong.
Her most challenging performance –
From an acting point of view, it was Billie in Creepshow. I wasn’t even going to do the role … Again, I didn’t know horror at all. I didn’t know George Romero. I never heard of Night of the Living Dead. I read this script and thought, “I can’t do this. This is really bloody and gorey, and terrible.” I was married to John at the time and he said, “Are you kidding me? You’re passing up an opportunity to work with George Romero?” … I don’t drink. I never have. I never liked it. So I’ve never been drunk, and I didn’t know what that was like. I showed up and said to George, “I’m going to do what I think I would do for Billie and if it’s not right, then maybe you better send me back and hire somebody else.” It was really George … George kept saying, “Nah, you can go bigger.” … That was a big stretch.
Filming in Burial of the Rats in Moscow –
I landed on the night of the attempted coup and I was supposed to be working with fifty trained rats who were actually sixteen rats; the rest were dead. The sixteen had been trained to eat anything that smelled like fish, so whenever they needed them to swarm on me, they squirted fish juice all over me. That was probably the most challenging, physically. We were shooting out in Catherine the Great’s castle, which had never been completed. There were no toilets. It was twenty below zero. Of course nobody spoke English and the director didn’t speak Russian. The first night we were on the set, it caught fire … [regarding the coup] The producer met me at the airport and took me to the apartment. He said, “Okay, you stay. I don’t know. Maybe we have civil war. I don’t know. I don’t know anything yet.” And they declared Martial Law. I sat in the apartment for three days, watching on TV the firing I was seeing outside my window. It was a trip.
Filming difficulties on making Swamp Thing –
Wes [Craven] was lovely. The difficulty was that they kept slicing the budget on him everyday. We had the completion guarantor, which the guy that watches the finances, who took a role in the film. And every day they were just pulling the money out from under Wes … He was having to throw out entire scenes … We showed up to work one day and there was no trailer for the makeup people because they hadn’t paid the bills … The fact it turned out as it did was a real tribute to [Wes].
How she got into writing –
I started writing about ten years ago quite by accident. It’s a very long story. It involves my believing that a dead friend had given me a message that I was supposed to go take a writing class, which I did. I ended up writing a memoir with a lot of stories about the movies … When that came out, it hit the bestsellers list, and I was approached by an Irish author [Michael Scott] who had written many horror novels in the UK. He said, “I think you wrote the wrong book. You should write a book for the horror fans.” I said, “Well, I can write dialogue and scenes and characters, but I don’t know story.” And he said, “Oh, well, I’ll help you with that.” So we wrote the first one together, that’s Vampyres of Hollywood. The second one is called Love Bites … [It] was optioned by Harrison Smith, who has Death House coming out. Harrison asked me to co-write the screenplay with him. It looks like the money is almost in place so maybe that’ll be happening next year.
Congrats to Ms. Barbeau for her award and a huge thank you to the folks at the New York City Horror Film Festival for hosting a wonderful and energetic event.