Friday, January 25, 2013

A Very Candid Conversation with Rutanya Alda

Rutanya and myself, Chiller Theater Oct. 2013

When it comes to movies or TV, often, you hear about the leading actor. Occasionally, you might hear about a colorful supporting actor or two. But, very rarely do you hear about the other supporting actors who also make up the film or TV show. Their performances are essential in providing the movie with a believable background and environment. Rutanya Alda is that type of actress. She has had a long career acting in film, TV and theater. Her supporting roles have included mothers, prostitutes, housekeepers, judges and nurses. Her portrayals are very subtle in that you believe her as the character, and yet her performances never get in the way of the film and/or its star.

Two of the biggest supporting roles Rutanya has had were in the films, The Deer Hunter and Mommie Dearest. In The Deer Hunter, Rutanya is Angela, a pregnant bride who is marrying Steven (John Savage), who is about to be sent to Vietnam with Michael(Robert DeNiro) and Nick (Christopher Walken). Angela and Steven’s wedding takes up the first 50 minutes of the film and shows that Rutanya can hold her own among such fine actors as DeNiro, Walken and Meryl Streep. In Mommie Dearest, she is Carol Ann, Joan Crawford’s assistant/housekeeper. Carol Ann patiently endures the battle that goes on between Joan Crawford and her adopted daughter Christina. Rutanya's subtle and restrained performance is a good contrast to the more energetic and colorful performance that Faye Dunaway gives as Joan Crawford.

In her long career, she has worked with directors such as Michael Cimino, Sam Peckinpah, Brian DePalma, George Romero and William Lustig. In addition, she was acted with top actors such as Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken and Sean Penn. She has also worked with the contemporary leads of today like Jessica Chastain. In addition to describing supporting roles, in this interview she talks about the thrill of playing them and sometimes the disappointment of seeing the role being edited out of the film. Where many stories often focus on the leading actor of a project, Rutanya’s story is often an untold one about being a supporting actress and the often overlooked work of trying to make a small or supporting role work for the film or TV show.

In this candid conversation, we look back at the some of the main films she did, in films such  as The Deer Hunter and Mommie Dearest. We also look at her experiences working with some of the top directors and top actors as well as at what Rutanya is up to currently in her career. I really want thank Rutanya for taking the time out to do this interview.

Jeff Cramer: So how did you get started in the industry?

Rutanya Alda: I got started . . . well I came to New York to be an actress and study with the really great people that were teaching at the time that are all unfortunately passed on. I was like twenty years old. I'd graduated from college and I came to New York to study and to be an actress.

So I started out in … actually I did summer theater and stock in Cape Cod and a couple places in New Jersey. Then I got into doing films. I started out doing extra work on films. My first paid SAG job was when I was a student of Sandy Dennis' in Up the Down Staircase.

Then I did photo doubling for Mia Farrow for Rosemary's Baby. All the long shots are me. Then I did the early Brian DePalma films, which really gave me my first chance to really do substantial parts. They were Greetings and Hi Mom, with another young actor starting out at the time, Robert DeNiro.

Rutanya in Greetings

JC: Right. Those were DeNiro’s first films.

RA: Yeah. They're having a revival of both those films January 15th at the Film Forum in New York City. So if people in New York haven't had a chance to see them, they should because they're both really interesting films.

Brian DePalma in his early films made comedies, believe it or not. Greetings is a comedy and Hi, Mom, the sequel is a black comedy. So people don't realize that about Brian because he went into Hitchcock kinds of films, but he really had an amazing sense of humor and it comes through on both films.

JC: Now after doing DeNiro’s first film, you were also in Panic in Needle Park. This was one of Al Pacino's first films before he really became Al Pacino.

RA: Yes. I had a little part in that film in the beginning with Kitty Wynn. I'm the nurse that checks her into the hospital.

Then my late husband, Richard Bright, had a major part in that film. He played Al's brother who was kind of the thief and the drug addict. Course they were all drug addicts, but I think Panic in Needle Park is probably the best movie about drug addiction made and I think everybody in the movie is just wonderful. It’s by a wonderful director named Jerry Schatzberg. So I think every school should show that film because it deglamorizes drug addiction. Also it's a good story and the actors are wonderful.

JC: You also did with Jerry and Al a film that I have shown to my friends several times. It's again a very small role, Scarecrow.

RA: Yes. We went to Colorado to shoot that. Course all these things, there's always bigger parts and they always get cut down, like in that film my husband and I were hippies and we pick up Gene Hackman and Al Pacino, who are hitchhiking. But always you get cut out. There was more to that scene than that, but in the course of a film a director has to make a choice where it has to be trimmed and unfortunately that was trimmed, but it was a lot of fun and I loved working with Jerry and Al for the second movie.

I recently worked with Al on the HBO film You Don't Know Jack. So it's kind of nice to have that kind of thread through the years where you reconnect with people. Course my late husband worked with him in all three Godfathers.

JC: As Al Neri, yes. Speaking of cuts, there was one film where I saw you had a much larger part  – the original studio version of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

RA: Yes, in the original studio version I have a much bigger part. Not only does Pat Garrett hit me, slap me and get me to give him the information about where Billy the Kid is hiding, but there's this other kind of amazing, wonderful scene where all the hookers, including me because I play a hooker, are in bed with James Coburn.

Rutanya with James Coburn in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

JC: Right.

RA: I used to run into James Coburn a lot when he was alive at different restaurants in Los Angeles and he'd always say, “Weren't you in bed with me? Didn't you sleep?” Of course, the restaurant patrons not knowing would all be aghast, “Oh my God. Oh yes, it was wonderful being in bed with you, James.” We'd laugh because people didn't know what to make of it. But no, that was another one that was cut.

The thing about doing film, which is so … you kind of hold your breath because you never know what's gonna be left and what may be left out. That's the difference between doing stage and doing film because on stage you go on. The play, you know you're in control the moment the curtain goes up. You know what you're gonna be doing and you do it.

But in film you kind of hold your breath and you go … I did a movie directed by Paul Mazursky and starring George Segal called Blume in Love and I had a wonderful, funny scene in the film. The crew all loved it. They were laughing. They were saying, this is so funny. It's so great. Paul loved it.

Then Paul called me up personally, which I thought was a great thing for him to do because usually you don't hear until you see the movie whether you're in or out. Paul called me, “Rutayna, the scene was so wonderful and it was so funny, but it took away from the main story. It branched off and I had to cut the scene.”

So you just don't know. You film it and you keep your fingers crossed and you think, “Okay, I don't know if I'm in or out. Is part of it in, part of it out?” You don't know. So that's the thing about film.

JC: Getting back to Pat Garrett, I've heard a lot of stories about Sam Peckinpah, that he was quite a character.

RA: Yes, he was.

JC: I read in a Bob Dylan biography, which describes Bob Dylan's first appearance with Peckinpah, that Peckinpah had a gun and he was staring at himself in the mirror and then firing into it.

RA: Sam was very theatrical. He had a great sense of theater. He probably wanted to shock Bob Dylan somehow. I remember Bob Dylan on the set because I was down in Durango, Mexico where we shot it for eight weeks. Bob was, at that time, I don't know what he's like now, but he was very quiet and didn't reveal too much of himself. It was probably Sam's way of just shocking him so that he would respond in a different way.

Sam did that to people. He would provoke people or do things to get a reaction from them, but no, he wasn't a violent person. If he did that, he did that. I'm sure it was absolutely done with a reason and intention.

But Sam was also very material. He was a very emotional person and he wanted people that were very loyal to him and he wanted people to know that they were there for him and that they would do their best for him. He really wanted that artistic control of his vision of his film. He was very, very, very upset about when the studio did their own cut of the movie. I remember talking to him about it.

I liked Sam. I saw him in New York about two weeks before he died. He was doing this Julian Lennon video, which he wasn't too happy about doing, but he was in New York. He was staying at the Algonquin Hotel and we went out, but he couldn't wait to get back to L.A. because he had written a script that he wanted to do. Then two weeks later we heard he died of a heart attack. It’s really, really, really sad. Very upsetting.

JC: Now we get to one of your biggest films, The Deer Hunter. I re-watched the beginning of the film. Today I just cannot picture any movie starting off that way, that they would spend about 45 or 50 minutes on your wedding. Could you talk about the beginning of the whole wedding sequence?

RA: Well I think that the studio also tried to cut back the wedding scenes with me and it didn't work. I think they tried to cut it down because why the wedding … well it's about the rituals of life, the wedding, the war and the funeral, the three great rituals of life, but all the characters of the film are introduced in the wedding.

So if you don't have that wedding sequence, when they go to war you don't really care about them. So they're all introduced in the wedding, this ritual of the wedding.

So I think in the writing of that, I think [director] Michael Cimino understood that. I think he understood that each of these three – the wedding, the war and the funeral – were important because they helped tell the story of this group of friends, after the wedding what happens as a result of them going to war. Then the funeral, how they are still bonded together through the years.

Rutanya getting married in Deer Hunter 

One of the interesting things was that different cast members went to different towns to premier this movie. I went to Cleveland, Ohio to the premier and I remember sitting in the audience in the back and people were really, really . . .I had people come up to me: a man who had served in Vietnam that said that this was the first time they could really, really talk about it. This was the first movie that really got them. The first time they could talk about their experiences.

So it was a breakthrough movie of that time. I know Oliver Stone later had a movie about it, Platoon. It was a very good movie, but it was mainly in the war. So it didn't address this community of people that were affected by what happens in war.

I think the power of the film is, and I always tell people, I'd say, “Try to watch it. Get all your popcorn and goodies together and try to watch it without putting it on pause without interruption because I think there's a real power in how the movie pulls you in and you journey with these people you become fond of.”

It's interesting because I haven't seen this movie for awhile, many years. The Academy a couple years ago were honoring certain films and they honored that film. It's the first time I'd seen it in years and a lot of the audience that came had not seen it. It was a younger generation.

It was really fascinating how it still held up. People were still moved by it. It still is a wonderful movie and that's nice to know, because sometimes you see movies and they don't quite hold up. You go, “Okay, it was good then, but it's not good now,” but I think it's a real classic in that sense like any of the big classics that you see years later really fall in love with.

Michael was a wonderful director to work with. I loved working with Michael Cimino. He was a real pleasure. He really, really cared about the film. He cared about his actors. He's very supportive. I couldn't have had a happier working experience than working with Michael. It was wonderful.

JC: I have heard many stories about Michael’s style of working on Heaven's Gate. Can you tell me about Michael’s style of working on The Deer Hunter?

I think he worked us very hard. We shot the opening scenes in Reardon, West Virginia and Steubenville, Pennsylvania; that area where the steel mines are. Then we went to Cleveland, Ohio, to do this sequence. We shot in the worst heat wave I think that had been on record. It was like 120 degrees. My wedding dress never did get dry. It was so humid.

The funeral stuff we shot in Cleveland, too. So we were in this winter clothing. It was 120 degrees. It was unbelievable. We all worked sixteen, eighteen hour days and we worked very hard on everything. I don't remember Michael ever not working just alongside with us and trying to get the shot in the way he had visualized it with Vilmos Zsigmond, the director of photography.

But we worked our butts off on that film and I don't remember ever having a thing where we did … we did a lot of takes, but where it was not for the film. I really think Michael was wonderful on the film and with very difficult weather conditions. I think he really held it together.

Heaven's Gate, I think it got a bad rap. I think they were out to get him because remember, that same year John Huston made Annie and Annie cost more and lost just as much money as …

JC: Actually Annie came out a few years later after. Well, at least it was released a few years later.

RA: Nobody gave John Huston a bad rap. Nobody said, “Oh my God, John Huston lost all this money.” I think it was even more money than Heaven’s Gate. No, because John Huston was an icon in the business.

I don't know why people wanted to go after Michael Cimino. I'm not sure. I don't know. Maybe he got to be too much of a perfectionist. Maybe they blamed him for ruining United Artists. I'm not sure why. I don't really understand it. I thought in spite of everything that in Heaven's Gate you saw where the money went. The money went into the movie, whether it was perfect or not I can't say, but the money went on the screen. It didn't go into somebody's pocket.

JC: Michael, in all his scenes, does devote enormous amounts of detail to the visual quality of his scenes. However, while there was so much detail in the wedding scene itself, I couldn’t help wondering whether the dialogue was improvised or scripted?

RA: The dialogue was pretty much scripted. Of course you can't script the dance sequences because they're gonna be what they are, but the dialogue, it was pretty well scripted. I would say at least ninety percent of it. Well, in the wedding you're dancing and we had to learn these dances in just one day. The lady that was teaching us the dances said, “Oh, it takes six months to learn these dances.” We said, “Well that's fine, but we have to do this by tomorrow.”

So we spent the whole day with her and then at night we would be practicing the dancing in the hallways and trying to get it down. So on those sequences you can't write the dancing. Then you did what was there, but any of the dialogue was really scripted. It was all scripted.

JC: OK, so you had so far worked with Pacino and DeNiro early in their career. This time around it was Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken who were not known at that moment. With all these actors, did you have any idea that these people were gonna be very big?

RA: Well, no. When I worked with them early in my career we were all starting out. When I worked on Deer Hunter, of course Bobby was a big star by then and Chris and Meryl had a lot of stage credits. I look at them as colleagues, people that I did a film with, they're my colleagues in the film.

So no, I really didn't think about it to tell you the truth. Really I just never thought about that.

Al, after Panic in Needle Park and especially after Godfather, everybody knew he was gonna be a huge star, but he'd done a lot of theater before. I'd seen him do theater before in New York.

Who knows? You just don't know. You think somebody's gonna be a star and it doesn't happen and then other people, I have no answer how or why it happens.

JC: Now you were mentioning theater. I think I might backtrack a little bit. I'm not too familiar with your theater work, but can you talk about some of your theater work? Anything you did that you liked especially?

RA: Well, I just finished doing a show. We closed a month and a half ago on theater row on 42nd Street. I did a wonderful comedy called Murder at the Howard Johnson’s, lead character comedy. It was so much fun to do and the audience enjoyed it so much. It was really outrageous kind of comedy, but it was just lovely. So I liked doing that.

Rutanya in Murder at Howard Johnson’s

Then before that I did Tennessee Williams. There was a thing of Six by Ten by Tennessee Williams. So I did one of his comedies – probably the only one written – called The Fat Man's Wife. That was fun to do. So things like that that come up, I do them.

JC:  Now we're gonna get to the one film of them all, Mommie Dearest.

RA: Yes.

JC: Tell us from the beginning how you became involved in that.

RA: Well, Frank Perry was seeing people and he was one of the few directors that didn't audition, which I thought was wonderful. Neither did Michael Cimino, by the way. You just met with him.  So I just met with Frank. I think it was in December – it was very cold – in his apartment on Park Avenue.

He had set aside thirty minutes to meet with me and talk with me. So we just sat basically and talked. He sat behind his desk and I sat in front of him in a very comfortable chair and we just talked about – I forget what we talked about. Just general things. He asked me questions just about life and stuff like that.

So I left and then about two weeks later he called me on the phone and says, “Well, I want you to do this part.” So then I flew out New Year's Day. I flew out to Los Angeles. I think the following day we started having wardrobe fittings and screen tested some of the make-up and stuff. It was just one of those things. Who knows why he decided to cast me, but I'm glad he did. I had a lot of fun on that movie. It was really a good experience.

JC: Now originally Anne Bancroft was gonna be playing Joan Crawford. Were you already cast when she was offered the role?

RA: No. I'm not exactly sure. I know I heard that they had planned on doing the film with her, but then she dropped out actually several months before the movie started. So they hadn't done any preparations on her or wardrobe or make-up or anything.

So I think . . . I believe she was the only one that was set at the time and then for some reason she didn't wanna do it. Then they started casting the film for sure. They had not cast the rest of the film when they were talking to Anne Bancroft. Then I think a few months later they started casting and setting the production tables on it. It would have been a different film with her though, right?

JC: Right. But it was Faye Dunaway, and she’s primarily the reason we've talked about this film. Is this the film you get the most attention from? [I could not find an exact photo of Rutanya as Carol Ann so I included a clip that not only features Rutanya but captures the essence of Mommie Dearest.  Click here to watch the clip.]

RA: It definitely is. I have people, which is wonderful, that know these lines better than I know them. Honest to God. It makes me laugh every time. People come up and they give me the lines. I know the general gist of the lines fine, but they know them letter perfect. It's always amazing to me that it is the big hit that it is. It's really a kind of an iconic movie.

JC: When I was getting my hair cut, I was talking to this hairdresser. He just started a conversation with me and I also started talking about this blog we're doing. I told him you were my next interview. He asks what films you had done. I mention Deer Hunter, doesn’t know it. I then mention Mommie Dearest. Well, he knew that movie. Likewise, I then say you play Carol Ann. He knew your character, too.

RA: All the hairdressers know me. Sure. It's like their favorite film. Anyway, go ahead. I'm sorry.

JC: So, since we're never gonna hear from Faye Dunaway what really went on in the film, you're gonna have to tell us. You have to tell all the hairdressers and all the film’s fans. What went on when Faye was cast?

RA: I just finished my book, The Mommie Dearest Diary. I just gotta get the photographs together and I gotta get a foreword by David Kuntz who was one of the producers. So hopefully in the next couple of months I'll have that out and you can read all the day-by-day tales, which were kind of interesting.

I actually thought Faye did a great job in the film. I think she took it to the extreme, but she made a choice and she went with it, but in a way, I think the film became about Joan Crawford instead of Christina Crawford.

The book is very different. If you read Mommie Dearest by Christina, it's from Christina's point of view. I think when they did the script, somehow it got to be from Joan's point of view. It got to be about Joan more than about Christina.

So it got turned around a little bit, but I think it's kind of sad that Faye cut that movie out of her life and refuses to talk about it because I think her work is very different in that movie than the other stuff that she's done, and I thought it was very brave of her to do what she did in the film. There were a lot of ups and downs there.

The reason that I started keeping the diary was because, sometimes the days when she was on set, it got a little crazed. So I thought, “Well, in order to keep my perspective on it, let me just write down what's happening.” So that's what I did.

I wish she would get looser about it and just say, “Okay, I did it, I think I did a great job and so what. You like it or you don't like it.”  Whatever it is, but I liked her work in it. I thought it was a little large, but you know what? That's what she decided to do.

JC: What's interesting about the film is that she hit both extremes in critical opinion, I remember she won some critic circle award and then she was also nominated for a Razzie (an award show, the inverse of the Oscars, that awards the worst in film).

RA: Yeah. You know what I think happened is also that this was the very first tell-all book. I think people were shocked in the early 80s that somebody would really come and tell on a big movie star. I think the industry still held it against Christina that she would have exposed that. I think that the movie, had it been made five years later or ten years later, I don't think it would have had that shock value. I think it got that shock value because it was the first of the tell-alls.

Joan Crawford had a lot of, lot of fans, people in the business. The hairdresser that I worked with and make-up person I had worked with had all worked on many Joan Crawford films. Everybody loved her because apparently she knew all the crew members' names, she sent everybody gifts, she remembered their birthday. She would send out cards. She was very organized that way, and in a sense, the movie shows that. She treated them all as fans, the people she worked with. They were her fans.

So they were very loyal to her because they had only experienced that part of Joan. I think they were all torn with their loyalty. So because of that era, because a lot of people had worked with Joan Crawford, it wasn't long enough, it wasn't far enough away. I think if it had been done later this movie would not have been so vilified.

I thought the sets and the costumes in this film were absolutely stunning and should have gotten some recognition and some nominations, but there wasn't one single nomination. I think people really boycotted the film because they were angry that Joan Crawford had been in their eyes vilified.

But everybody has their own … the person you are in public is not always the person you are in private. So you have to be one way in public and then, especially if you're under a lot of stress and duress, in private it comes out. That's why people beat up their wives or beat up their kids or whatever. They have to put it somewhere and it's horrible when it happens.

I think the film just shows that she was adored in her public life, but I think a lot of the stress that she was going through came out in her private life with the little idiosyncrasies she had – cleanliness and neatness and the kids being a certain way and there wouldn't be a wire hanger and all of this stuff that she exaggerated. In a lot of people's eyes, you think, “Why would you beat up your kid for a wire hanger,”  but I think it came out in different ways.

I think that just at the time, the people felt that these things should not be revealed. I remember Helen Hayes: they asked her whether it was true, and she didn't go into it either. Nobody wanted to talk about it, but she said she thought Joan Crawford should never have been a mother. That was Helen Hayes' way of saying, whatever, that she had probably seen some things.

But I think it's just that era. I think it was sensationalized because of that era, but also it's really interesting to me. I was just at an event this summer at the Ziegfeld theater, which is a beautiful theater in New York. It holds about 1,000 people and the wonderful Hedda Lettuce was hosting it. There was a huge turnout. The whole theater was just packed. Over 1,000 people came and that was mostly my gay audience.

Invitation to Mommie Dearest at the Ziegfeld

They were so amazingly wonderful. Hedda interviewed me before the film started. I tell you I've never received such a great ovation and applause and just a wave of love just came from that audience that night. It was something I'll never forget. It was so wonderful.

Rutanya being interviewed by Hedda Lettuce

I thought, “Boy, these people that went into this film really love this film. I'm so happy to be in a film that is so loved by a certain audience.”  I'm thrilled. I couldn't be happier. It's one of these classic films more so than Deer Hunter that won the Academy Award. This didn't win anything, but it's memorable.

JC: No, it didn’t win anything, but just as Faye Dunaway got nominated for both a critics' award and a Razzie, you too came on for the same fate: the Razzies did nominate you, but I also remember Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice thought you were one of the best supporting actresses that year.

RA: Yes. He awarded me one of the best supporting actresses that year. Too bad that Razzies people didn't invite me. They didn't invite me there to accept my award. I would have showed up. I’m proud of my work in Mommie Dearest. I think it's wonderful.

Again, it's a movie that a lot of it was cut. Thirty minutes of that movie was cut out, but I guess somebody wanted to put it down or make fun of it or whatever. That's fine with me. It is what it is and I actually like it.

Again, I hadn't seen Mommie Dearest in a long time and then I saw it in the Ziegfeld. I thought, “This is a good movie,” and the audience knew all the lines. They were saying all the lines. It was a really fun night. I thought, “Well, if this movie can give so much pleasure so many years later, gosh, I’m glad to be in this movie.”

JC: One of the movies we'll talk about is Amityville II, and what's interesting about it is, as you know, that I've actually interviewed the actress who played your daughter, Diane Franklin.

RA: I love Diane Franklin. She's great. She's a lovely, lovely woman.

JC: Now in that movie, to be honest, the very first half about that whole dysfunctional family is not only the most horrifying thing to me in Amityville II but of the whole entire series.

The biggest thing is most haunted house stories, when they introduce the family, usually the family is well adjusted, but you and Diane are part of such a dysfunctional family. In fact, the family is already destroying itself long before they've entered the Amityville house.

RA: Well, I think that was Damiano Damiani, the Italian director, I think that was his vision of the movie. I think he brought that to the movie. That these people that are basically dysfunctional, because of the evil of the house, they really become crazed. I think the director, I have to say more than anything I think more than anything it was his vision of the movie he wanted to make.

I actually liked working on that movie also. We shot a lot of it – the exteriors of the house – in Tom's River, New Jersey, and then the interior, all the rest of the interior were shot at the Churubusco Studios in Mexico City.

Of course I loved working with Diane. Diane was just lovely. I actually liked working with everybody in the movie. Jack Magner played my son. He was terrific. Burt Young was wonderful. James Olson played the priest. I think it was a really good group of people.

Rutanya tries to stop her son from killing her husband in Amityville II

JC: But there are certain things about your character that I like. One thing is the constant referral to the priest to solve everything.

RA: Yes. Well that was Damiano, coming from a Catholic country in which everything goes to the religion and the religion would solve it and the faith and everything would turn out all right. I think that was his contribution that he felt like that is the way this woman lived. She lived knowing and anyone … she begs Burt Young on the stairs, “Please, please, just please come and please let the Father bless the house.”  Through the blessing of the house that everything will be fine.

I think a lot of people that are very religious feel that way. That they feel like problems in their life can be solved through these blessings and through their religion, but of course they don't live in a haunted house.

JC: The one interesting moment is that you're the only one in the family that is aware that there's something going on inappropriately between brother and sister.

RA: Oh yeah.

JC: And your first reactions is that you automatically blame the daughter, not the son.

RA: I think it's an old world way of looking: –  if a woman gets raped, a lot of people … “Well, she was wearing a short skirt. She was provocative. Her breasts hung out. She led him on.”  Well, this whole thing I think this is an old traditional way of looking, –  if something happens that somehow the woman has instigated it.

I think it still holds up today. Look at some stuff people say: “Well look at her. She was scantily dressed.” It's a terrible way to look at rape or anything there, but there is a tendency to blame women for this. I think that's what the mother does, coming from a traditional religious kind of way, that she tends to blame the girl instead of going into the guy, the son, and saying, “What did you do and why did you do that?” She blames the girl. That's exactly right. Exactly what she does.

JC: Right. Its scenes like that why I find the first part more terrifying then the second half, where it is copying The Exorcist. I find the realism of a dysfunctional family to be more scary than the haunted house stuff.

RA: That's interesting that you should say that. I think that's a very good point. I'm glad that you saw that. That's wonderful because I think that's exactly what Damiano had in mind. To show that you're right because it kind of gets into the haunting, becomes familiar to people, but hopefully the first part people can get into the craziness of the family.

JC: The next film, Vigilante, is how I found out you were on Facebook, because I'm friends with the writer of Vigilante, Richard Vetere.

RA: Oh yes.

JC: So he mentioned the recent appearance of Vigilante you did with him.

RA: At BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), yeah.

JC: Now, unlike Amityville II, you are a much more strong-willed character this time. When the gang leader is harassing the gas station owner, you're willing to smack him right there, the only one to take action at the whole station.

RA: Yes.

JC: Even though it's probably what led to him and his gang following you and your son afterwards.

RA: Yeah, the revenge. I gotta say I have not seen that movie in so many years and I'm sitting at BAM and I'd brought my son who'd never seen it and his friend. I thought to myself, “Oh, this is really interesting because I have no idea what this film is gonna look like all these years later.”

Rutanya screaming in Vigilante

It's one of these movies I think it's better today than it was when we made it. I saw it on the big screen, which also made a difference, because it had a grittiness about New York. It was that gritty New York Brooklyn scene and it was visually so well photographed and the people were so real that I told Richard Vetere afterwards, I said, “This was really a good script.”

I thought this movie really holds up. It's a real 80s movie and it really is of that 80s era, but it was a very, very low budget movie and we shot everything, again, it was in the winter. It was very cold, but we shot everything like it was basically one take because they didn't really have enough money to do more than one take. Maybe two takes, but it had to be shot very quickly and everything because it was on a very, very tight budget; no budget budget.

JC: Not to mention, your character shows some strength again, cause even when the gang does invade your home and attack you, you manage to give the same gang member a smack again.

RA: Well she's fighting for her life now. She's fighting for her life and the life of her son. Interesting, because the whole scene, running through the laundry, was sort of an accidental thing because I said, “I'm gonna run out” and I said to the director of photography, “Why don't we run through the laundry? Let's put up more laundry. Let's put up more sheets and stuff and have her run so there's a little obstacle for her to run through before she gets to the fence and realizes she can't get out. She's trapped.”

So that was done in a hurry and the DP said, “Oh, that's a good idea. Let's do that.” So that part wasn't really written in. We just improvised that part, but I thought that worked really well.

JC: I really like the performance of the gang member responsible for killing your son: Don Blakely.

RA: Oh, Don Blakely was a very good friend of mine. I did a play with him in Los Angeles called Dirty Laundry. I did a play with him and he died maybe a couple of months later. I didn't even know he died. Somebody came by and said, “Don Blakely died.” I was so shocked because I had just finished doing the play with him.

Don was a wonderful guy, a friend of mine for many years. Started in New York. He and my late husband, Richard Bright, had done a play together on Broadway. That's where I met Donnie. Donnie was just a great guy. He was just really a sweetheart. A gentle soul, a very gentle guy. So to have him play this killer was – it wasn't a stretch because he was a wonderful actor and he loved doing it because it was nothing like him.

But I was just really shocked when he died because I had just finished a six-week performance with him.

JC: I do also like the scene in Vigilante where you walk out on your husband: Robert Forster.

RA: Yeah. I think she just can't deal with any kind of reminder of her life and she feels like her husband failed her. He didn't show up and he didn't help them and he wasn't there. So she doesn't realize the course that he's gonna take. To her it's just, “I just have to get out of here. I can't be with you.”

I think that happens to people, too. Rather than coming together, they go apart forever.

JC: I’d like to talk about one of the other films you later did, Dark Half.

RA:Oh, that was George Romero.

JC: Right.

RA: I actually had that really violent scene where Timothy Hutton kills me.

JC: Yes. [To see this clip, click here.]

RA: That was the only scene that George Romero kept cutting back, cutting back, cutting back, cutting back. He said to me, “Rutanya, this is the only scene that really scares me.” He said, “This scene” – I said, “George, you of all people, you made all these movies –Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies.” He said, “No, this scene scared me. I had to cut it back.” So he did cut it back, but it's still scary. It's a scary scene if somebody you know is gonna get murdered. She gets murdered little by little by Timothy Hutton, The Dark Half.

So Timothy said to me afterwards, the next day he gave me a hug, he said, “I feel closer to you than I do anybody else on this movie.” I understood what he meant. When you go to those really dark places, you go there together and you do feel close to each other.

I haven't seen Timothy in several years, but if I would ever see him again I would feel a closeness to him because you go to these extreme emotional levels with someone and you just feel kind of bonded to them.

JC: You have done plenty of other films besides the one I mention. It’s such a huge resume that we would be here for days if we discussed them all. Are there any other film roles you wanted to talk about?

RA: Maybe just the one with Sean Penn where I play his mother, and also Nicholas Cage is in it.

JC: Racing with the Moon.

RA: Racing with the Moon, right.

JC: Okay. Let's talk about that then.

RA: That's my heartbreak movie, where I had some really great scenes, including the birthday party scene with myself, John Carlin who plays my husband, Sean, Nicholas and Elizabeth McGovern where my son turns eighteen. It takes place during World War II. Sean’s going to go into the Army. That was one of the most beautiful scenes ever. It was one of the few times the crew gave me a round of applause because it was really very emotional. When she's making the cake and the husband comes in and then she serves the cake to the three kids. It was cut out of the film. Cut out of the film!

Then when my friend, Laurent Bouzereau, who does the DVD interviews, when he interviewed Richard Benjamin, he said, “Well why did you cut that scene out of the film?” He said, “Oh, the scene's in the film.” Laurent said, “No, it's not in the film.” They didn't keep any footage of it in the thing.

In his mind Richard Benjamin had thought it was still in the film, and it wasn't. I thought when I was looking at it and they said, “Oh, we're gonna cut that scene out?” I said, “How can you cut that scene out? That is the heart of this movie for this woman.” But they cut it out.

Those are the things that a little bit of a pain is still there, thinking, “Oh, when the work is so good and it's not in the movie.”
It still affects me. And that's the business and you just have to say, “Okay, I have no control over the editing of it.”

So I don't wanna leave this on a down note, but I had such a good experience working with Sean. Loved working with him and Elizabeth McGovern. They were wonderful. They were so in love during that film. They were in love for many months after the film and I thought they were gonna get married for sure, but then their lives took different routes. So, I love them. Still love them.

JC: You've also done a lot of TV work. Is there anything in TV that you especially enjoyed?

RA: Well, my favorite stuff was the Law & Order stuff because I had three great parts. I did two of the original Law & Orders and I did a Law & Order CI where I play Rose. She's getting Alzheimer's, but she's got the stone baby. I loved doing those three shows the best of all my television because they had the best written parts. They were substantial. There were about three different women.

Rutanya as Rose in Law and Order: CI

It's all in the writing. I tell you, it's in the writing. If you have writing that just helps you soar. It helps you create. It gives you a really great foundation to take off and do your work and your interpretation.

I think of all the television I've done it's those three, the two original Law & Orders and Law & Order CI that I did with  Vincent D’Onforio. He's so wonderful. He's so giving. So supportive.

We had an eighteen page scene to do in the garage; you just don't get eighteen pages in television. The director called it the aria scene because you usually get one or two pages, quick scenes, quick cuts. So those are I think my favorite ones because they were just so wonderfully written and wonderful to realize these women.

I would love to be able to do another television show that was so well written. I loved doing You Don't Know Jack with Al, but it was just a short thing. It was quick. It didn't have the substance that the … I think the early Law & Orders were so well written that that's what made their shows so great.

JC: One thing: since we've become Facebook friends, I notice that in addition to acting in the past with classic actors such as DeNiro and Pacino, you are acting with contemporary actors such as Jessica Chastain, who now stars in Zero Dark Thirty.

Jessica Chastain and Rutanya Alda

RA: I played an older version of Jessica Chastain in a film called Stolen. Wasn't a very good film, but I played an older version of herself. She played the young, beautiful woman, which she is and I played … of course they put more make-up on me because I wasn't quite old enough. So they put that wrinkly stuff on, the glue stuff that makes you have all the wrinkles. She's a lovely woman.

That was four or five years ago that I did that. There's a career that's just happened in the last four or five years. What a career she's having, but it's support and she's getting these parts that are so well written and she's such a lovely, talented actress. But you get those parts, you can realize them, and she's certainly doing it. She's just a lovely woman. We had lunch when they were promoting her new film, Zero Dark Thirty. So I re-met her again. She was just a lovely, lovely person. She's having a hell of a career.

JC: One thing, particularly in acting, is that you've managed to stick around for a very long time. We hear about people who usually have their couple of years in the sun and then it's all over. But you are still continuing to act.

RA: Well, I've always been a character actress. I think that helps, but it's also what I love doing, Jeff. It's like I love doing this kind of work and it wasn't just for five years or ten years. That's why Lois Smith is such an inspiration to me, because she's had an even longer career than I have had. So wonderful, by the way.

Rutanya with her idol Lois Smith and Django Unchained’s Dennis Christopher

But I'm looking forward to getting into even into my older age so I can do the older parts. I saw that movie Amour, and Emmanuelle Riva that plays the older woman, the wife, it's an inspiration to me to see this woman be so great and so wonderful in this movie. I think it's an inspiration to me. I think, “Thank God I saw this movie because I wanna do some of this work as an older actress and as I get older even yet.”

Lois Smith is the same thing. She did a play when I was doing a play so I didn't get a chance to see her in the play she did because we were performing at the same time, but I hope people write things for older actresses. I think Michael Haneke who wrote Amour was just … it was a blessing that he writes parts for older actors that mean something.

So hoping that I will continue into my old, old age, and then I'll be able to do more really good work. I'm better now than I've ever been. I do workshops all the time and I take classes still.

I'm doing a workshop next week with Jean-Louis Rodrigue, my teacher, is coming in to do workshops. So I'm doing a scene for him that I was working on earlier. I think I'm at a point in my life where I'm probably better than I have ever been. I must say I'm a rare bird and a lot of actor friends make fun of me because I still study.

Jack Garfien was in from Paris this last summer. I studied with him for a number of months. So I pick people. My teacher, Jean-Louis Rodrigue out of LA, he comes in here, does several workshops a year. Then I go to LA and I take some with him.

So I'm always still studying. So I feel like I’m growing and I think a lot of people that are stars today, they've sort of stopped at a certain level of stardom, which is wonderful, but I wish that they would continue to grow. I think the only way you can grow is to really be brave enough to study and work on your craft and not in front of an audience, but really try in that workshop with other people and to continue growing as an artist and as a human being.

I think a lot of my friends don't do that and they think I'm really strange and weird, but I love it. I think you find certain teachers that are so wonderful that you feel like, “Oh, I wanna take that journey with them.” So I enjoy it, too.

JC: For any young upcoming actors, what would you say your secret is to have a long acting career as you had?

RA: Well, do what you love. If you do what you love, stick with it. Stick with it through all the ups and downs. I always say to a young actress starting out, “Do you have a second choice?” If they say  “Yes, there's something else I wanna do, too.” I always say, “Well, do your second choice, because I think in acting especially you have to have just no second choice. It has to be just that one choice. Because of that you stay with it.”

But to tell you the truth, if I had had a second choice, Jeff, I probably would have left acting ages ago. Plenty of friends that I started acting with who were very talented, left five, six, seven years into it. It's too painful sometimes and they had other choices. They left and they became very successful and now they have other professions.

But I say if you have no second choice, just stick with what you love and do it and just go and enjoy the ride. You'll have your ups and downs. You'll have your bumps in the road, but if it's something you love, you'll enjoy it. That's what I say to people when they ask me. I say, “If you have a second choice, do your second choice. Second or third choice.”

Sometimes people say, “Well there's a couple other things I've been wanting to do.” I said, “Well do them.” One parent looked at me and they thought I was being very harsh. I said, “No, I’m really not being harsh, because you have no idea what this industry will do to you. If you have other choices and they'll be in and out in a few years.”

So I say if you love it, follow your passion, follow your love, follow what you wanna do and get with your skills and take classes and study and grow and enjoy that. So just get better. So many people today, young people I think, young actors … when I was young everybody wanted to be good. Everybody studied. It wasn't just about being a star. We wanted to be really good at what we did.

So many young people today because they're beautiful or they're a certain type, they feel that they don't have to study. They feel, “Oh, I'm this type.” Well, yes, that might serve you for maybe a TV series or that might serve you for one or two movies, but in the long run that will not serve you, because you're gonna grow older. There'll always be somebody more beautiful and younger coming up. So if you have a craft, if you really develop your skills and your talent, you can grow into that, but if you just depend upon your looks, you're going to be unhappy in the long run. So I would say do what you love and get good at it. Study. Get good at it. Enjoy it and enjoy the study. Enjoy the thing of it. Life is too short. It goes by so fast. So enjoy the ride. Enjoy the journey.


peter said...

Rutanya Alda is great! She was sitting in front of me at the British production of Mary Stuart that was on B'way a few years back, and after the show I finally got my nerve up to tell her how much I admired her Carol Ann, the calm in the storm of Mommie Dearest. She mentioned the Diaries book then. I'm glad it is at last coming out.

I wish I had attended that screening of Mommie Dearest! I've seen a couple of Joan films hosted by Hedda Lettuce - Harriet Craig and Female on the Beach - and they were a scream. Nice that Rutanya took the experience in stride, and even enjoyed it. She'd be a big hit at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco!

Thanks for a wonderful interview - and for posting a link on her imdb page.

Anonymous said...

Great interview with a most interesting and talented person. Bravo!
Linda Haynes (Sylvander)