Interview: 'E.T.' Mom Dee Wallace On Spielberg, Werewolves And The Power Of Healing
For those with a love for quality genre flicks, actress Dee Wallace is a familiar face indeed. From her unforgettable role as a hairy TV news anchor in "The Howling" to her various memorable moms in flicks like "Critters," "Cujo" and "The Hills Have Eyes," Wallace is a performer who knows how to hit an emotional raw nerve. But it’s her understated and complex work as a single mom trying to make ends meat in the Steven Spielberg blockbuster "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" (out in a 30th Anniversary Blu-ray Edition Oct.9 from Universal Home Entertainment!) that audiences seemed to gravitate to the most. To celebrate the arrival of the long-fingered alien fellow on Blu-ray this week, we’re chatting one-on-one with the talented Wallace who talks about working with a young Spielberg, the challenges of playing a single mom in the early 80’s and some additional past work questions (think "The Howling" to "The House of the Devil!") guaranteed to keep fans happy. Grab your Reese’s Pieces and cover your heart light – here’s the incredibly engaging...
How did you come about being cast as the iconic mom in "E.T.?"
Dee Wallace: Steven had auditioned me for Used Cars and I didn't get that. Fortunately he saved me for "E.T." because I was child like and he wanted all the adults to be very child like - if you even saw them at all. Everyone else was kind of the bad guys. So when "E.T." came around it was just an offer.
It was interesting to see a working single mom on screen at that time – what were some of the challenges of authentically playing busy mom Mary?
DW: It was normal and natural for me. I wasn’t a mom at the time, but I had a mom and I think it’s because in my own family life my own father was not present. He was an alcoholic and couldn't hold down a job. So I spent most of my life watching my mother be very frazzled, trying to handle three kids and work and have some kind of a spiritual life. She was always tired, yet always good-natured in life. So I had a real good role model I think to base this character on. Although I never really thought of it as basing it on my mom - I think I knew what to do because I had watched her so much.
What was Steven Spielberg like at that time?
DW: He wore a lot of cowboy hats to set and he was just easy. Loved the kids – he was very loving towards the kids. It was a great shoot because unlike most shoots because of the children we only worked from seven in the morning to seven at night and we shot it in sequence, which for an actor is just fabulous, as you know. So Steven gave us a lot of space to bring in our own ideas and our own talents, which again is beautiful as an actor.
Did you ever have any idea when making the film that it would go on to become so beloved and long lasting?
DW: No. I don't think anybody ever thinks of those things when you’re doing a film. You just try to be really present, give it your all, be a professional and do the best job you can. So the focus is on how good a film we can make not how much of a blockbuster we can make. It’s a beautiful thing when it comes out and people are lined up for blocks to see the film and we’re talking about it thirty years later and it’s still affecting people. It’s a wonderful thing, but do you do it with that intention? I don’t think so.
You’ve played some sassy moms in a few films – my favorites being "Cujo," "Secret Admirer" and the highly underrated "Critters." Can you talk about your approach to your various moms?
DW: I have an acting technique. My mentor is Charles Conrad who was very big out here in the eighties and his whole theory was you didn’t think about, you didn’t break it down and you didn’t look for beats. You learned the lines and you got on the set and you were in the moment – really in the moment. That’s kind of the way that I’ve always worked and that’s the way I still like to work. So if you ask me about preparation on any of the roles that I’ve done I didn't do a lot. For me the preparation was no preparation – it forces you to be present in the moment. For example the scene where he says, ‘Penis Breath’ in "E.T." most actors if they got that in a script and they worked a lot on it they would think they have to be much more stern. Whereas in the moment because I didn't know it was coming because Steve didn't tell me that he told him to say it – which happened a lot on the set – it’s that laugh and that response that was so right on and beautiful.
Rob Bottin’s effects work on "The Howling" was groundbreaking – what was it like to witness and be a part of that work at the time?
DW: I adore Rob and I think his work should have taken the Academy Award. It was really too bad what happened with that because we had a million – Werewolf in London had what thirty million? And the studio Avco Embassy sold it to somebody else right before the Academy Awards so nobody really backed it, and nobody really backed him. To this day I really feel he got raped from that award – beautiful guy and such a professional with his work. He never left the set, worried about the lighting so it looked real and it was just true professionalism.
You also worked with Wes Craven back in his heyday with "The Hills Have Eyes" and I was curious what was Wes like to work with back then?
DW: Wes was very quiet, very shy, very much like a professor who knew exactly what he wanted...and got it. He had a very ingenious way of seeing it, but he studied.
I loved that you made a cameo in Ti West’s "The House of the Devil" as a simple landlady, but there seemed to be more to you character then meets the eye – any thoughts?
DW: I always try to put in more to my character. (Laughs) It’s all subject, you know? I had this whole thing going on about the daughter I lost and her and I needed her to take care of her and yet I didn’t trust her and so on. Stanislavski would call it a secret – I just call it channeling stuff! (Laughs)
Ti also talked about a spiritual and healing side of you, can you talk a little bit about that?
DW: I could talk to you all day about that! I’m a healer; I do healing sessions all over the world everyday. My third book Bright Light came out last summer – you know it's the dichotomy of Dee, Jason. I’m going to a film festival in Spain and one night they’re showing "E.T." and the next night they’re showing "The Lords of Salem" which I’m starring in and coming out from Rob Zombie. Don't miss it!
Diversity rules for Dee Wallace!
"E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL" 30th ANNIVERSARY BLU-RAY EDITION COMES OUT OCT.9 FROM UNIVERSAL HOME ENTERTAINMENT.