Actress Barbara Crampton Chats with INFLUX Magazine

by C. Rachel Katz

Despite her long list of credits, Barbara Crampton is often remembered for her roles in Re-Animator and From Beyond. A celebrated genre actor, Barbara left the craft altogether to raise her family.

In recent years, she’s enjoyed a resurgence, beginning with her appearance in You’re Next. That role eventually led to her lead in We Are Still Here. I caught up with Barbara to talk influence, emotion, and horror nerdity.

C. Rachel Katz: You’ve known Ted for some time, having met on You’re Next. I had the pleasure of speaking with him and he told me he thought of you when writing the role of Anne, but he just asked you to read the script for your opinion of the story and never said anything more about it.

Barbara Crampton: I met Ted when he was doing some publicity for You’re Next, and we immediately bonded. You know how you sometimes meet somebody and you just like them immediately, you have like-minded sensibility. There’s quite a bit of age difference between us, but he felt like somebody I’d known forever, and we got along like white on rice.

A year, year-and-a-half after You’re Next came out he said, “I want you to read this script and tell me what you think.” So, he sent it to me and I read it, and I said, “It’s great. It’s really interesting, wonderful characters. There was a lot going on in it, and it feels a little Wicker Man-ish mixed with a suspenseful ghost story. You have a lot of elements going for it.” And he said to me, “Okay, I’m really glad you like it.” He didn’t tell me at that time that he had me for the role of Anne.

It was maybe a few months later, he called me up and said, “You know, I’m thinking of you for the role of Anne, and I’m really going to try to get this made.” And I said, “Oh, that’s wonderful Ted. Great! I’d love to be a part of it.”

Another few months went by and he called me and said, “Okay, I have Travis Stevens. He really likes this script. We’re taking it to Dark Sky. Dark Sky looks like they might want to make it. We’re really gonna do this movie.” I said, “That’s amazing, Ted! I would love to be a part of it. Who’s going to direct it?” And he said, “Me.” And I didn’t know that was part of the equation.

I think initially he didn’t write it thinking he was going to be able to direct it, but it was a script that meant so much to him. It’s really an example of everything he loves about horror. He has quite an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre and I think it just hit him one day — wait a minute, I want to to this, I don’t want anyone else to do this. And he surrounded himself with wonderful people. Travis Stevens is one of the most amazing producers I’ve ever worked with. He knows a little bit about everything that goes on on a set. We had very good actors, we beautiful technicians. Our DP was Karim Hussain, who shot Hobo With a Shotgun and has done multiple Hannibal episodes — he’s just terrific. It was a very comfortable set to work on, with all the people around and with Ted’s sensibility, and his vision of the script and what he wanted from everybody. It was really a very nice, easy experience.

And it’s funny because that’s juxtaposed with the craziness that the movie is. It’s very outlandish. It starts off soft and quiet and then it ends in a bloody, balls-out horror event. It was quite a feat for Ted and I’m extremely proud of him and what he’s accomplished. I just love him even more than when I first met him. He’s amazing. I can’t say enough about the final product that he’s brought to the table.

CRK: I know for Ted, his big influences for We Are Still Here were Fulci and Lovecraft. Did you bring any personal horror influence with you in terms of approaching the role of Anne?

BC: I thought about the method of acting in the late ’70s and early ’80s, as opposed to what we have now, which seems so much more natural. The acting — there’s been a lot of turn-around in the mumblecore movement; everyone’s extremely relaxed and you feel like you’re hanging out in someone’s living room. But back in the late ’70s and early ’80s there was this heightened excitability about the way people would approach a role in terms of acting. So I had that in my mind. There’s nothing that I really did differently, but I thought about that, I had that in mind.

Of course, I wanted to act as naturally as possible and be believable, but there was a different style of acting back then that felt a little more on point. As far as the depth of which the feeling would be there… It’s so hard to put into words, and I’m having trouble now. It’s a feeling of wanting to be in the moment but also have a heightened experience of whatever is going on in the moment. It’s not really over-acting, it’s “this is really important, what’s happening now is really important,” and bringing people along with the story in a more pointed way.

I think also we see that in Monte Markham’s work, who played Dave. There’s a sensibility about the way he approached his part. He was a ’60s, ’70s actor. You kind of see it in his performance. I took some of my cues off him, just a level of importance that he would attack each line with. I think there’s a little bit of a different feeling as far as our approach, and my approach, to the theatre of the individual scenes and the acting style in the movie.

And that being said, also reacting to what’s happening in the moment with as much truth as possible. The depth of the feeling this woman has who lost her son. She desperately misses him and is feeling like she’s having visions of him, or being haunted by him, and the pain and desperation that she goes through was very strong for me. That was a lot of fun to play with. That depth of emotion is something a lot of actors really look forward to, they can really jump into something that has a lot of meat to it. It afforded me that possibility.

CRK: You spoke with a couple of women who’d lost children, as a way to come closer to understanding that kind of personal tragedy.

BC: I actually interviewed two different women who’d lost children. I emailed them questions and they filled in the answers. I’m even starting to cry right now, thinking about it. I was so overcome by both of these women and their stories.

One of them was the mother of one of my best friends — my girlfriend had lost her sister in a car accident. The types of things this mother openly shared with me were extremely vulnerable. She really laid herself bare and told me all her feelings. I asked questions, how did you feel about the relationship with your husband after you daughter died? How did it affect your relationship with your other children? How did it affect you and your will to live and to go on? I asked very pointed and deep questions.

Both women answered with abandon. I would take both of their answers, and before every scene I would read through them. Because I wanted them to inform what I was doing at the moment with the character. Because she was in deep, deep grief, I had to continually put myself in that place. I have two children of my own, and they’re healthy and robust and strong, so I never have felt any inkling of a potential loss, that I wouldn’t have them in my life. Both of these women, I put myself in their shoes by reading the answers they had given me. It just really gave me the opportunity to experience a lot of deep, sad, provocative, despairing feelings that I used on a moment-to-moment basis while we were filming. For a whole month. I was feeling a lot of grief every day.

CRK: A big important point about the movie is that it’s a story about adults, everyone’s over 50. You’ve mentioned in the past that now you’re older you’re getting these meatier parts.

BC: It’s been quite exciting for me and surprising. I’d taken some time off acting, and I didn’t know if I was going to return because I was raising my children. I started late in life having children. Simon Barrett brought me back with You’re Next. He thought of me for the part of the mom, and of course, that was an extremely meaty role. I got to see my daughter perish before my eyes and having to play that depth was incredibly exciting to me, and I think it would be to anybody who’s an actor.

It seems I’ve been dealing with a lot of grief and pain. People have been giving me a lot of mom roles lately, or caretaker roles. It’s a whole different level or depth that I get to play being an older person now. It’s very exciting and has been a wonderful gift, that, at this time in my life that I’m able to continue acting and play my roles that feel like they’re so meaningful to me.

CRK: It sounds like this movie was a huge emotional journey for both you and your character.

BC: You have to take the journey with the character and go through all the things they’re experiencing. I don’t want to give away the movie, but what happens at the end, it’s a very interesting turn of events that the characters decide to take. Both Andrew’s character and myself. To take this journey with the characters, to go to the end and make the decisions that they do… It was extremely cathartic and brave of Ted as a filmmaker to make the choices that he made.

I have to say, as I was talking to one of our executive producers, Greg Newman, about the movie after we had seen it at SXSW. I said [to him] this movie is really interesting and different because at first the horror that happens in the movie and what the characters experience is very scary and frightening. And then it moves away from that to the end of the movie where the horror actually soothes the characters. There’s a soothing element to the choices these characters make. And without giving away what the end result is, I’ll leave you with that. I think there’s a very interesting thing and brave choice made by Ted on the movie in terms of storytelling.

CRK: Whether or not Anne actually believes in ghosts and spirits, she certainly wants or needs to. Do you, personally, believe in the supernatural?

BC: I definitely feel that we don’t completely end when we die. I feel like our spirit goes on. I definitely had experiences in my life where I felt a presence around me. I’ve had dreams where deceased family members have talked to me. I don’t know if that is from my own subconscious and my own desires to connect with people that are no longer with me, or if it is, in fact, happening. I would like to believe that somebody who’s no longer with me that I had an extreme attachment to would still be able to connect with me, and I could communicate with them and feel their presence, feel their love. And for me being able to let them know that I still care for them. I would like to believe that it’s so.

I talked about this with Stuart Gordon on a number of occasions. And he told me that one time he talked to some spiritual woman and she said spirits and ghosts are around [us] all the time and they actually look like everybody else. They look like people. So when you’re in a crowd and you think you’re seeing regular humans walking around, there’s probably one or two ghosts that you’re seeing and you probably don’t realize it because they look like everybody else. That was quite shocking to me. It was kind of amazing to think maybe their spirits are still with us, these people that we have extreme bonds with. Our communication with them carries on.

CRK: You booked yourself into the Stanley Film Festival long before you knew you’d have even one movie in the fest. Exactly how much of a genre fan or geek are you?

BC: Horror has grown on me over the years, I have to say. I grew up watching the Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone with my dad and I really enjoyed that. I loved movies like The Blob. But I feel like as I have worked in horror, it has grown on me and I learned more and more. I will never be a horror nerd like Ted Geoghegan or Ryan Turek or people like that. Because I can’t watch enough. I don’t have enough time. But it’s really grown on me and it is a wonderful experience to watch a horror movie. You get to experience so much. It’s exciting! It’s death-defying! It’s just all-encompassing. It takes you on a roller coaster ride. I would say the more I work in horror, the more I’ve grown to love it.

When we were at Stanley [Film Festival], I was part of the horror movie trivia night that Sam Zimmerman and Ryan Turek put on. And that’s the first time I had ever done that. I guess I didn’t realize how much I knew because I had a few answers other people didn’t, and our team came in second! I probably know more than I think I know. I really enjoyed the Stanley Film Festival. It was a wonderful experience and I’m booking myself in next year whether I have any films in there or not.

CRK: Thank you, Barbara Crampton.

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29 May 2015