Dee Wallace Interview:
Star of E.T., Cujo, 3 From Hell and More!
by Lee Sobel (10/21/20)
Dee Wallace may be best remembered as the mom in Steven Spielberg's 1982 movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, but she's in fact had a career that has spanned over 250 movies and TV appearances and has worked with directors as diverse as Blake Edwards and Rob Zombie. She's made many horror movies, including Stephen King's Cujo (1983) which the author has cited as one of his favorite adaptations of his books. Born on December 14, 1948, Deanna Bowers had humble beginnings in Kansas City, Kansas, growing up poor with an alcoholic father who took his own life when Dee was just 16 years old. Determined to make something of herself, Dee moved to Los Angeles and found quick success as an actress and has never stopped working. It's easy to see why -- not only does she have the talent to play any kind of role under the sun but she is pure joy to speak with. Dee ought to teach a course in how to give interviews because she is the greatest!
Lee Sobel: May I call you mom?
Dee Wallace: (laughs) Everyone else does!
Lee Sobel: You've played mothers, hookers and even a mother that was a hooker. Which role do you prefer?
Dee Wallace: (laughs) I just love to use all the sides of me. I just look for really good roles that have a lot of good emotional qualities in them in a good project. I loved doing the mom in E.T. and also the killer I became from a victim in The Frighteners -- I just look for a good part that gives me a lot to do.
Lee Sobel: You've had incredible variety in the parts you've played in your career. I heard that Steven Spielberg cast you in E.T. after seeing you play a hooker on a TV show. That's a pretty broad range right there.
Dee Wallace: Blake Edwards, who directed me in the movie 10,
said to me, "You know, Dee, I could line up nine little old ladies against a wall and have you shoot them all and the audience would say, 'It must have been because of something her mother did to her as a little girl'." (laughs) He said, "You just have this vulnerability that comes out, no matter what you do." I think that's what Steven saw - he wanted a very childlike quality for the mom in E.T. He actually had me come in and read for Used Cars and kept me in mind so when he was casting E.T. he just called and offered it to me.
Lee Sobel: Tell me about growing up in Kansas. Do you have any childhood memories that may have led to your acting career?
Dee Wallace: My mother was an amazing actress in community theater and she produced and directed all the religious plays at our church. I can remember sitting in the sanctuary watching my mother reading The Crucifixion and all these grown men and women were crying. I remember the exact moment I thought, "Oh my gosh, my mommy is doing this to everybody. I want to do this to people like my mommy does." We were very poor when I was growing up but she bartered her
secretary skills to get me dance lessons and back then what they called elocution lessons which was kind of like beginning acting class. I started out to be a dancer and I was a soloist with a couple of companies but my dance teacher took me aside one day and said, "You know, Dee, you'll always be good, but you'll never be great. So if you want to be great, go do something else." So I went, "Okay, I'll be an actress. I know how to do that!" (laughs) And I got my teaching degree and off I went to New York after I taught for a year.
Lee Sobel: Was it your working with kids as a teacher that made you so good at working with child actors in your movies?
Dee Wallace: I think it certainly helped. Although I taught ninth and tenth grade in high school, I taught young kids in my dancing studio. My mother loved kids so I think I got that from her. My mother was very loving and I learned how to love from her and I took that into everything in my life.
Lee Sobel: Did you struggle at all in the early days of your acting career?
Dee Wallace: I did not. I've had a kind of blessed life. I'm a big believer in naiveté because I was so naive that I didn't know I couldn't do it. After I moved to New York, a boy I met at an open audition took me to a Halloween party where I met an agent who signed me and then I started booking commercials right away. I also used my dance background to do things like Oldsmobile shows and peanut butter shows and I got my SAG and Equity cards doing those things. I was in New York for two years and then I went out to L.A. and an actor I knew from Uta Hagen's acting class said to me, "Can you get me into your commercial agent and I'll get you into my theatrical agent?" So we did and we both got signed. The whole trick was meeting the casting directors, so I did what I learned in Kansas: when someone new moves in and you want to meet them, you bake them chocolate chip cookies and you take them over and say hello. So I baked chocolate chip cookies and wrapped them up and I went to the guard gate at the studio and said, "Hi, I have deliveries," and he said "Yeah, go on through." So I took cookies to all the executives at Universal Studios. Reuben Cannon was the head of casting at Universal and he had me
With E.T. director Steven Spielberg
come in and talk to him. While I was there he got a call from the set and told him that the girl who was supposed to play the waitress who had six lines on a show called Lucas Tanner (1974) was sick. He looked up at me and said, "What size do you wear?" And I said, "What size do you need, honey?" And that was my first break in TV.
Lee Sobel: Amazing how you kind of sneaked in the back door but had the talent to back it up.
Dee Wallace: You just have to find any way you can to make things happen and the universe will open up for you. One thing led to another. I did a lot of guest star roles on TV. The one I did on Lou Grant led to me being hired in the movie 10 and that led to The Howling. Steven Spielberg saw all of those.
Lee Sobel: How was Blake Edwards to work with? That was your first big movie role.
Dee Wallace: Blake Edwards was incredible. I tell you, I started at the top. On
my first day on the set, Blake and his producer Tony Adams came over to welcome me and asked me how I was doing. I said I was great but I didn't know where my trailer was. Blake turned to Tony and said, "Where is her trailer, Tony?" Tony said, "You know, Mr. Edwards, it'a little late but it's on its way." (laughs) They hadn't gotten me a trailer. So Blake said, "Tell Bo Derek that Dee is going to share her trailer with Bo until her trailer gets here." Bo Derek was fine with it; John Derek, not so much. Bo was a sweetheart. So my naiveté was working there too. When you are naive you don't think, "Oh, I shouldn't or oh, I can't, it's not possible." You just think, "I'm going to go to New York and be a movie star!"
Lee Sobel: I've heard the story that you got your husband a role in the movie The Howling that you were in.
Dee Wallace: They couldn't find the husband for The Howling and when I talked to the producer Dan Blatt he literally described my fiancee, Christopher Stone. I knew they weren't going to let me cast him if they knew I was engaged to him so I said, "You know, there was this guy I did CHIPs with named Christopher Smith or Stone or some S word and he'd be pretty good."
So they went out on their own and found him and he auditioned and got the part on his own. When they found out we were engaged I said, "You'll only need one trailer for us so you'll save money."
Lee Sobel: One of your earliest movies was The Hills Have Eyes (1977). What do you recall about making that movie?
Dee Wallace: Those were the days where they could ask you to drive very far to a set and I had to drive out to the Mojave desert every day and it was only two miles from where they would have had to put us up. Ultimately I ended up paying for a cheap motel room because it became too dangerous with the hours we were working to have to drive back and forth. So it was "Let's put on a show time." We all stayed in one trailer and there were a lot of actors in that movie and the bathroom broke. It's horribly cold at night in the desert and
it's deathly hot during the day, so it was a tough shoot but all of us were just happy to have a good part in a good movie.
Lee Sobel: Let's talk about a little movie you made called E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Dee Wallace: Steven is a master at casting and awesome with kids. He would just throw things out to us and we'd never know what was coming. I love working that way and a lot of actors don't. We got to shoot the movie in order because of all the kids, which you never get to do, but because the movie was completely done on a soundstage we could actually shoot in the order of the movie for the most part. We knew we had an amazing script but none of us could ever have imagined the enormity of how this movie would take over the world.
Lee Sobel: You would have had a great career anyway but you must have been set for life after making E.T.
Dee Wallace: Well, the problem was that everybody in the industry said, "She plays moms." I was so identified in people's hearts and minds as their mom. Before E.T. I played call girls, murderers, astronauts, so it took me a while to get out of the "Let's just offer her the mom parts." I had to tell my agent that we had to do something about this - that I have a lot more breadth in my acting than just playing nice mothers. I've played every mother under the sun now -- good mothers, bad mothers, killer mothers, crazy mothers.
Lee Sobel: In 10 you had long, beautiful blonde hair but then in E.T. you had shorter hair that really looked more like a mom. Did you choose to cut your hair for E.T.?
Dee Wallace: I did and I'm not sure Steven was very happy about that. It truly never occurred to me that I should have okayed it with him. I was used to doing independent films where you get your look together and the
In Blake Edwards' 10
technique I work with is where I feel her look and I feel what she would wear and I could just not see Mary with long hair. She went to work everyday, she was trying to raise this family, and it was just who Mary was to me. I remember the first day when we went to the set, Steven came out and looked at me and said, "Dee - you cut your hair!" And I went, "Yeah, do you like it? It just feels so Mary to me." And he said, "Yeah...we'll work with it." He didn't like short hair because of continuity but we had a great hair lady and she knew exactly what to do with it.
Lee Sobel: How was it to work with the kid actors in E.T. and have you kept in touch with any of them?
Dee Wallace: The boys and I do a lot of conventions together. I
With Christopher Stone in Joe Dante's The Howling
haven't seen or talked to Drew. And I see Danny Pintauro from Cujo at the cons.
Lee Sobel: What was it like when you saw Drew Barrymore getting into all kinds of trouble, not that many years after E.T.? Were you in touch with her at that time?
Dee Wallace: I was not, and I regret that. I just felt there wasn't a lot I could have done; I'm not her real mom. Her real mom had to step forward or get out of the way so that other people could help her or she could help herself. It's hard being thrown into the limelight at such a young age without a lot of supervision.
Lee Sobel: You've made a lot of iconic horror movies: The Howling, Cujo, Critters, numerous Rob Zombie films.
Dee Wallace: I love the big emotional arc in horror movies. I get bored not being able to use my emotional life a lot. And I am a good screamer.
Lee Sobel: Is it true you suffered a breakdown after making Cujo? I understand you had to work yourself up into a constant state of hysteria during the making of that movie.
Dee Wallace: Cujo was the hardest thing I've ever done, energetically, physically, mentally, emotionally. I blew my adrenals out. They had to treat me for exhaustion when it was over. When you go through emotional trauma in your acting, your body and brain don't understand that you're acting. So you go through the same chemical trauma that you do in your life. So I was kind of a mess when I finished Cujo.
Lee Sobel: Have you met Stephen King? I understand Cujo is his favorite movie adaptation of one of his books.
Dee Wallace: Yes, he's been very kind and gracious about that. I did get to meet Stephen. He came down on the first day when we were getting ready to shoot Cujo. He was very nice, sweet, quiet, kind of shy. Just a nice guy is what I remember. And I really appreciate all the nice things he's said about the movie and my performance.
Lee Sobel: Would you ever make a movie as emotionally demanding as Cujo ever again?
Dee Wallace: Yes, if all the right elements were in place. I'd be crazy not to make another movie like that. It's a tour de force role for a woman.
Lee Sobel: Do you have any stories of things going wrong on the set of anything you've been in?
Dee Wallace: Somebody thought it would be really funny to put blanks in the gun during rehearsal on The Howling. I was already in "la-la land" emotionally and the gun went off and they lost me for three hours. I was a basket case. And in Cujo they said they were going to film a shot in slow motion where I had to be knocked back against glass and they said, "Don't worry, Dee, you're not going to be able to break it, but we really need to see you hit the glass so you need to hit it really hard." Well, the adrenalin kicked in and I did break the glass and cut my arm but I just kept going! Things go wrong on every set but that's just part of shooting.
Lee Sobel: You've been in a few Rob Zombie movies.
Dee Wallace: I love love love loooove working for Rob. I was in Halloween as Laurie's mom and then in Lords of Salem he wrote a part for me as this kewpie doll faith healer. When he sent me the script for 3 From Hell, I said to him, "I'd love to do this but I've got to dye my hair and pull it back - she needs to be real severe looking. Can I wear glasses?" And he was all up in it. He thought it was great. When 3 From Hell came out, a film critic called him up and said, "I really love the film but did you cut Dee Wallace because I see she's in the credits but she's not in the film." He said, "Oh she's in the film -- you just don't recognize her!" That's what I love -- when a director is open and there is a trust factor where everybody can bring in their best stuff, that's when you always get the best magical results.
Lee Sobel: Have you been in any movies that you wished you hadn't been in?
Above: Critters. Below: In Rob Zombie's 3 From Hell
With director Steven Spielberg
Dee Wallace: Yes, but I always had my reasons for doing those films. I remember once I got this scathing review from a guy in Texas. "Why would Dee Wallace make a film like this? It's so below her. Blah blah blah..." So I wrote him a personal letter and I told him, "You know why I did this film? Because I have a grandmother who can only stay in her home if she has full-time care and this grandmother raised me and I will do anything I have to do to make her final years comfortable and that's why I did this film." And he wrote me back an apology. Didn't publish an apology! But he wrote me one. You know, we're human and sometimes we have to pay the rent! We have to make money like anyone for things we need to pay for and it's not fair to judge us that way.
Lee Sobel: You've spoken in interviews about your acting training with Charles Conrad and how you work your energy up to a high level. How does that affect you when you are on set waiting around a lot? Do you get cranky?
Dee Wallace: Oh, sure. The crankiest I got was on E.T. Steven Spielberg believed that whether you were working or not that you should be sitting in your dressing room. There was a time where I sat in my dressing room for days on end. It got real old. So we had a discussion about that. Didn't change things much, though. He asked me to explain it and I said, "Steven, actors are like race horses. You pick us up from our stall and you put us in our dressing room and groom us, then you put our clothes and saddle on us and that tells us we're ready to go and pretty soon we're ready to break the door down." He said, "Wow, that's a really good analogy. I never thought of it that way before." Well...I still didn't work for five more days. But at least I got to share my thoughts.
Lee Sobel: I know you believe in the supernatural, right? I heard the story about the clocks stopping on the day you married your fourth husband.
Dee Wallace: Well, you have done your research, haven't you? I do believe in the supernatural but I don't believe in evil energy. I know
With director Rob Zombie
that's an oxymoron coming from me with the number of horror films I've made. (laughs) If you want a supernatural story, I was up in my room after my father committed suicide. I opened my eyes and there was a light in my mirror that I was facing. The light just hovered there and I knew it was my dad and I wasn't afraid at all. I heard in my mind a distinct message, "It's not your fault, Dee. This was my choice. You go forward in your life and live your life joyfully and fully. I'm okay." And then the light moved back into the mirror and went away. My little brother just committed suicide last year. I said to myself, "You know, Dee, you did the best that you could. You were there for him, you loved him and supported him every moment that you could in his life. It was his choice, you have to honor that. Move on." Nobody leaves without choice.
Lee Sobel: You look like you haven't aged. What are you beauty secrets?
Dee Wallace: Oh, I love you to death. I really think it's my healing work. If you want to take it back to the Good Book, it says, "As you believe, it is delivered to you." So my message is if you want to change your life and be happier,
change what you believe in. If you think that people are jerks that are out to take advantage of you, then that will be the reality you create in your life.
I can tell you, and science backs this up. I'll say it like Bruce Lipton says it - he's one of our top scientists: "If you live in love your body lives in health. If you live in anger or fear or judgment, your body will live in disease." That's across the board - that's financially, that's health and wellness in your body, that's in your relationships. If you want health and wellness everywhere in your life, you've got to get back to a state of love. And that is a choice you make; you are always able to do that. That's what I want to tell everybody -- open your hearts and get back to love. I have a lot of friends that live in the midwest who tell me they are so confused about the upcoming Presidential election. I tell them, if somebody doesn't resonate with love, don't vote for them. Because love is the most powerful force on earth and we have got to get this world back to it.