“That’s the magic of movies,” Alfred Hitchcock told Veronica Cartwright on the set of his 1963 masterpiece, “The Birds,” upon explaining to her how a bit of pantomime married with light would translate into a seamless illusion on film. When Rod Taylor opens the farmhouse door toward the end of the picture, his hand is grasping at nothing, since the camera is perched between him and the door. Yet since the lighting impeccably follows the movement of his hand, it appears as if the door has swung open, illuminating the characters’ faces with the ray of dawn. Cartwright recounted this story in Laurent Bouzereau’s essential behind-the-scenes documentary, “All About ‘The Birds,’” which added exponentially to my love of Hitchcock and cinema itself. After spending my early years watching Cartwright’s sister, Angela, as Brigitta Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music,” “The Birds” was the first truly terrifying film that my parents allowed me to watch. I immediately connected with the character of young Cathy (sublimely played by Cartwright), as she struggles to come to terms with why the feathered creatures have turned on mankind.
Over the past six decades, Cartwright has delivered one riveting performance after another in such classics as Philip Kaufman’s masterful 1978 remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror landmark, “Alien,” George Miller’s 1987 comedy, “The Witches of Eastwick,” Bill Condon’s excellent 2004 biographical drama, “Kinsey,” and even Ray Bradbury’s poignant 1962 episode of “The Twilight Zone,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” with a robotic grandma played by Josephine Hutchinson (who was also eerily android-like as the accomplice who pretends not to recognize Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest”). Now Cartwright can be seen in Tate Bunker’s new thriller, “The Field,” where she lends otherworldly intrigue to the role of Edith, an eccentric woman living on a Wisconsin farmstead newly purchased by a childless couple (Kara Mulrooney and Tim Higgins).
On the eve of the film’s release, I had the great privilege of chatting with Cartwright about everything from the Hitchcockian aspects of “Alien” and the timeliness of “The Birds” to the moving story behind her first credited film role in William Wyler’s audacious 1961 tragedy, “The Children’s Hour,” in which she plays Rosalie, a girl blackmailed into corroborating the lie that her teachers (played by Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn) are secretly lovers.
Having starred in some of the greatest cinematic portraits of paranoia, what appealed to you about Tate Bunker’s approach to the subject?
I just thought the script was so interesting, and I loved my character. She’s this person from another world who has reentered the world we live in, and is learning how to adapt to it. She has to learn how to speak and communicate with the couple that has just moved in. It was really interesting shooting the film in Wisconsin—it was a little cold [laughs]—but it appealed to me, and Kara and Tate are terrific people. I think he has a really good eye. I haven’t seen the movie yet, and won’t be seeing it until October 3rd, but the trailer is well done, so I’m excited. Tate is a really talented director. Some of the scenes, when we were filming them, were kind of bizarre, with all the lights flashing and people emerging from the underworld, but it seemed to work.
The film keeps you on edge with its subliminal images of figures from the underworld. It makes you start to feel like you’re seeing flashes of them even when the frame is empty.
That’s the world where Edith is from. She was probably from our world originally, and desires to bring other characters into the underworld so that they can experience it. I had a lot of fun playing Edith because it gave me the chance to trog through the fields while creating a peculiar sort of language. I found her so interesting, and I hope that comes across.
Edith’s childlike behavior and dialect carry echoes of Bette Davis in the final act of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”
Everything is a new experience for her. She lives in a chicken coop, and all of a sudden encounters these people living on her land. I agree that she’s very childlike, until the story progresses and you realize what she is up to. The script and direction made this clear, and then we explored how to go about portraying it while making the film, coming up with her particular way of speaking. That made it very exciting. I just liked the mystery of her, and had a really good time making this film.
You also appear in the eagerly awaited documentary, “Memory: The Origins of ‘Alien,’” directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, who I interviewed about his previous film, “78/52,” which explores the impact of Hitchcock’s shower scene in “Psycho.” In what ways would you say the chest-burster sequence in “Alien” evokes the shower scene?
I do think that Ridley was very influenced by Hitchcock in the sense that you never really see the full alien. You only see parts of it, and that was in line with one of Hitchcock’s theories, which determined that your mind makes that creature what it is. The chest-bursting scene was incredibly visceral to film. It was all done in one take and we had four cameras set up. Everybody onset was dressed in plastic except for us, the actors. I remember that it took a long time to get John set up with the bursting chest. I was told that I would get a little blood on me, but found myself, of course, leaning directly into the blood jet. In all 78 shots of the shower scene, the knife never touched the body, yet you were convinced that you saw it happen. In that sense, it is similar to how you only see pieces of the alien.
One of the scariest scenes in the film, to me, is when Ripley is undressing in the shuttle, and the alien is right behind her. He’s blended into the fabric of the machinery so that when he steps out, you go, “Oh shit! He’s been there the whole time!” That’s very Hitchcockian. I think there were a lot of parallels in how Hitchcock and Ridley built suspense. The most effective “Alien” film, in my opinion, is the first one. I did like the second one, “Aliens,” but there eventually just got to be too many aliens. By the time it got to that film where they were looking like sperm swimming through the water, I thought, “Oh my god, it’s awful!” There was a mystery to Ridley’s movie, and I’m hoping that when I see “The Field,” there will be a mystery as to what these people in the field are doing, where they’re coming from, and why they are attracted to this photographer who accidentally spots one of them when he takes a picture.
“The Field” is structured in a way that makes you want to re-watch it as soon as it reaches the final shot.
Well, that is good to hear! [laughs]
For me, “Psycho” and “Alien” are a perfect double bill, in part due to their mastery of misdirection. When your character, Lambert, slaps Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), audiences watching it for the first time are rooting for you, since you’re fighting to save your crew mate, Kane (John Hurt). It’s such an effective moment.
I’m glad you feel that way. Lambert was the smart one of the bunch. She was the character who suggests that they get into the shuttle and blast off. I originally thought I was going to be Ripley, and after I was informed that I would be playing Lambert instead, I read her part in the script and thought, “Oh my gosh, she’s so weepy.” I didn’t want to play her in that way. I wanted Lambert to take control of what her situation was. She may be freaked out, but we could’ve all been saved if we had listened to her and gotten into the shuttle, so she is the wisest of all of them.
Ridley had explained to me that Lambert was voicing the thoughts of the audience. She’d have told Ripley, “Don’t go back for the cat! That’s ridiculous!”, and as you’re watching the movie, you find yourself shouting, “No, don’t do that! Get out of there!” So I guess she was the voice of the audience, in a sense. And yes, the scene where she comes in and slaps Ripley wasn’t in the theatrically released version, but it was in the director’s cut. I thought that moment worked because it made my character much stronger. When I got the film on Blu-ray, I decided to watch the outtakes included in the special features. There were eleven outtakes on the disc, and I was in nine of them. I was like, “Gee, they really cut a lot out of this movie!” [laughs]
The practical effects in “Alien,” “The Birds” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” are still infinitely scarier than anything crafted on a computer. Are they also more effective scene partners, from an acting perspective, in their tactile nature?
Every single piece of “Alien” was built. There was no CGI. When John is at the top of the cave and he drops down, that was him at the top of the soundstage. They brought in sand to create an entire desert in the soundstage. When we are climbing on top of the Space Jockey, that really is us climbing on a huge styrofoam Space Jockey. Things like that do make it so much easier to perform. People ask me how I was able to portray that level of fear, and frankly, all I had to do was look at the guy in that alien suit, and watch him uncoil. He’d just stand there until—all of a sudden—he would move his hand a little bit, and it was terrifying. So I didn’t have to act, I just had to react to him. I always think those scenes work best when you can’t pre-plan everything, and you just do it from moment to moment. Once you’ve analyzed your character and gone through and written her biography, you will react as your character.
From an early age, you were brilliant at conveying turbulent emotion in a way that was bracingly authentic, such as in “The Birds,” when Cathy breaks down in the car. Tippi Hedern mentioned that Hitchcock used a drum roll to create tension onset.
That is fascinating. He didn’t do that for my scenes, but I did go by and watch when they were beginning to shoot the scene where Tippi is attacked by birds in the attic. She was in a cage and they were throwing birds at her for five days, so I totally understand why she became so exhausted. Sometimes actors will say that in order to portray sadness, they’ll think of a dead dog, but you can only do that so often. I realized that when I was in the scene with Jessica Tandy and she’s grabbing me. We were in a set inside of a huge bubble, and all these birds came down out of the chimney. I think they had collected 15,000 birds, and they would set them off on chutes. The birds would go down, then go up, and when they couldn’t go up any higher, they would literally drop.
Throughout all of this, I was just following Jessica, and she was so wonderful. We couldn’t do it any other way than from moment to moment. That’s what you have to do as an actor. You can’t just sit there and say, “I’m going to think of a dead dog.” How often do you think of that? I know that works for some people, but it doesn’t work for me. If I can just look at the other person I’m working with in a scene and take everything as it comes, moment to moment, then it becomes real.
To what extent would you say “The Birds” serves as a timely metaphor for our current environmental crises, illustrating how we must evolve or suffer the consequences, with the birds symbolizing the world we have neglected?
I hadn’t thought of that, but it does seem possible, doesn’t it? The film was based on a Daphne du Maurier story, and I don’t know whether or not she had thought of that, but that certainly seems totally feasible. I mean, we’re messing with the environment so much. Right now, there are flocks of birds showing up where they’ve never showed up before because they are following the changing weather patterns. Butterflies are becoming extinct because their environment is not the same as it’s always been. That’s a very interesting interpretation. I had never thought of it that way, but I’ll steal it. [laughs]
You and your sister, Angela, have starred in some of the best and most beloved films and TV shows ever made. Have the meaning of these narratives evolved for you over time as you have grown up with them?
I was 11 years old when I made “The Children’s Hour,” which is the film Alfred Hitchcock saw and led him to request meeting me for “The Birds.” “The Children’s Hour” was such an interesting movie, and I consider Shirley MacLaine my mentor in the sense that she just seemed so classy and so great. I would do a scene, and she’d be like, “Honey, you’re off camera. Don’t waste those tears right now. Wait until the camera is on you.” When I had my huge breakdown about telling the lie, she’d come over and say, “Oh that was wonderful, honey.” She just sort of embraced me, and that was incredible. I didn’t realize until years later that I had a rather profound dream about her, where she was walking over to me along the length of a swimming pool.
Since the movie was about lesbianism, a lot of the parents pulled their children out of it. As kids, Angela and I had acting coaches for little plays and musical stuff that we were involved in. The coaches’ names were Frank Wyca and Bill Lockwood, and they were wonderful. We became friends and we’d go over and have lunch with them. While explaining the story of “The Children’s Hour” to me, my mother said, “It is just like Frank and Bill, only it’s two women.” That seemed perfectly plausible in my mind, so the fact that these women were like my friends made the scene where I lie about them so much more meaningful to me. We did three or four takes of it, and William Wyler just kept pushing and pushing until I had an ultimate breakdown. That was the first time I realized that you have to live in the moment. You can’t be thinking about things apart from what’s happening right in front of you.
Years later, I was doing a play, “The Hands of Its Enemy,” at the DooLittle Theatre, with Phyllis Frelich and Richard Dreyfuss. We did it for three months at the Mark Taper Forum Theatre before opening it at the DooLittle. We had to close on Sunday for the Christmas parades, and I saw that Shirley MacLaine was in town, so I decided to go down and see her play. When I tried going backstage afterward, a guy said that I wasn’t on the list. I told him that I had been in a movie with her, and thought that I might be able to see her. The next thing I knew, the guy let me in, Shirley saw me and said, “Oh I’m so happy! I’ve been following your career.” It was just great. She was really important to me at different times of my life when I needed it.
I’ve been so lucky in the parts that I’ve gotten to play. They’ve all been pretty diverse, and not all of them are what would be considered traumatic roles. [Felicia, the suspicious churchgoer in] “The Witches of Eastwick” was such a fun part. You don’t get those parts that often. Playing Betty Grissom in “The Right Stuff” was absolutely fantastic as well. I love working with Philip Kaufman.
I’m glad you mentioned “The Right Stuff.” I just revisited the film, and was moved again by the strength you brought to the role of Betty. She was just as wounded by the government’s shoddy treatment of her husband, Gus, after he was wrongfully accused of opening the hatch of his spacecraft, causing it to sink into the Atlantic.
The poor thing. All she wanted to do was meet Jackie Kennedy. They accused her husband of screwing the pooch, and what does that do to her? She’s nowhere, and she has put in time and energy as he’s gone off without ever knowing whether he’d be coming back home. He could’ve easily been killed either as an astronaut or a fighter pilot. It must’ve been so, so sad for her. Of course, it was ultimately proven that he did not screw the pooch, but they couldn’t have admitted that back then because the spacecraft had been lost. Gus was the one who insisted on the inclusion of an explosive hatch, and after the accident, they got rid of it. Three years later, he died while trying to undo the damn replacement hatch because it wasn’t built for emergencies. There was an electrical fire in the command module, and he and his fellow crew mates were killed. It was awful.
Betty was a really interesting character. I didn’t get to meet her because there were lawsuits and all sorts of stuff going on in the aftermath of her husband’s death. But I watched footage of her. I wanted to see footage of her getting off the airplane for what she thought would be a joyous ceremony honoring her husband’s return to Earth. There was actual footage where she landed, all dressed up, on this airport strip in a helicopter and nobody was there. It was pathetic. I said to the wardrobe lady, “Betty has great instincts, go with what she would’ve wanted.” I’ll never forget how she had a straw bag with flowers on it, and I said, “I have to have that bag.” We got the bag, and of course, they made sure that I resembled her in every way, including how they did my hair. It was wonderful playing Betty, and she only died recently.
I heard that you joined Scott Wilson and Donald Moffat for a screening of “The Right Stuff” when it opened Ebertfest in 2003.
I did. Roger Ebert was there, and he was hysterical. He had to take us all out to Steak ’n Shake, and he wasn’t supposed to be eating that stuff, but he didn’t give a shit. [laughs] It was such a fun experience, and Roger was just lovely.
What was it like guesting on Netflix’s “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” as the fortune teller? I was thrilled when you shared my interview with one of the show’s editors, Erin Wolf, on Instagram.
I would love to go back and play her again. They did leave it open for me to come back, when Hilda says, “You didn’t read my cards,” and I say, “Oh you’ll be the first next time.” I’ve had my agent and manager call over there and say I’d really love to do another show. I think that Kiernan Shipka is terrific. Her growth from being on “Mad Men” is just fabulous to witness, and the show has a great energy. I did a show with Miranda Otto where she was my daughter-in-law, so it was fun to see Miranda playing Sabrina’s aunt Zelda. I was watching BBC while in the hospital the other night, and suddenly Miranda showed up in “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.” I went, “Oh, Miranda!” [laughs] Everybody was great on the “Sabrina” set. When I initially arrived in the room where my character tells the characters’ fortunes, I saw that they had a rack in the back that was filled with birds. I told the crew, “You know, I was in that movie, ‘The Birds,’” and they replied, “Why do you think they’re there? We know that!” They had birds all over the place, and it was really sweet.
It’s a full-circle Hitchcockian moment, considering that showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa wanted to cast Kiernan as Sabrina after seeing her in “The Blackcoat’s Daughter,” which was directed by Anthony Perkins’ son, Osgood.
I haven’t seen that film! Of course, everything is connected. It’s the six degrees of separation, isn’t it?
You and Angela have proven that you are the antithesis of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine in your lack of a rivalry. How did you both maintain a grounded childhood?
When I did “The Children’s Hour,” my dad quit his job for a period of time so that there would be someone supportive by my side. We always had to have an adult with us, but he felt it was important for either my mother or him to be there for that because it was a very dramatic piece. Angela had always been on series when I was balancing movies with episodic television. We don’t look alike—she had really dark hair and brown eyes and I’m the blonde with the blue eyes—so it wasn’t like we were competing against each other. I did go up for the role that Heather Menzies ultimately got in “The Sound of Music,” although I went back several times, but the casting man said, “Don’t worry, we have you in mind for something else.” It was for the pilot of “Daniel Boone,” and my dad had to bring me back for it because we had all gone over to Austria. And I ended up getting the role of Jemima Boone on the show, so the casting man was telling the truth.
Angela and I were in a Melissa Gilbert documentary that tried to make it look like we were jealous of each other. When we saw it, we looked at one another and went, “That has never been the case.” It’s totally ridiculous. What is there to be jealous of? She has her own career and she’s very artistic now. She doesn’t even act anymore, though she did appear on “Lost in Space” as Parker Posey’s mom, and was panic-stricken that she’d forget her lines. [laughs] She designs fabrics, has published several art books and hosts tours of the “Sound of Music” locations in Austria, so there was never any real competition. I lived next door to her for thirteen years until my husband passed, and then I moved five minutes away. Now Wyatt Russell, the son of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell [who attended the 1966 Spotlighters Teen Awards dinner with Veronica in 1966], has moved into the house that I lived in, and Angela told me about how he knocked on her door. So there really is this six degrees of separation. Everything connects in such a bizarre way.
“The Field” arrives on digital platforms Tuesday, September 24th, and will screen at the following locations: NYC’s Anthology Film Archives at 8pm on Saturday, September 28th; Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center at 3pm on Tuesday, October 1st; and The Vista in Los Angeles at 8pm on Thursday, October 3rd. “Memory: The Origins of ‘Alien’” opens in US theaters on Friday, October 4th. You can visit Veronica’s official site here.