The 1970s gave us some genuinely impressive child actresses in high-profile roles in some unforgettable films. There were Oscar noms and Golden Globes for Linda Blair (The Exorcist, 1973), Tatum O’Neal (Paper Moon. 1973), Jodie Foster (Taxi Driver, 1976), and Quinn Cummings (The Goodbye Girl, 1977).
But for many fans, it was Susan Swift’s incredible, exhausting performance in 1977’s supernatural drama, Audrey Rose,(1977), that is most impressive. Adapted from the bestselling book by Frank DeFelitta, it tells the story of an affluent New York City couple (Marsha Mason and John Beck) who learn from a mysterious stranger (Anthony Hopkins) that their 11-year-old daughter is the reincarnated spirit of his own daughter who died tragically years earlier. Directed by Hollywood veteran Robert Wise, Audrey Rose is a compelling reincarnation thriller that is sometimes unfairly remembered as Exorcist rip-off, thanks in part to a terrifying TV ad campaign that was a more than a bit misleading considering the film’s subtle approach to the supernatural shenanigans.
With her big, expressive eyes and endearing, perhaps a little awkward, delivery, Swift’s portrayal of Ivy Templeton/Audrey Rose is hard to forget. There are many horrific and intense sequences where she’s tormented by a soul caught in limbo, forcing her repeatedly to relive her painful, fiery last moments. While no doubt Susan became a familiar face in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s with roles in the popular 1978 comedy Harper Valley PTA and the usual array of episodic TV guest spots, she’s largely been absent from the screen since the ’80s.
DIABOLIQUE caught up with Susan while she was appearing at the Monster-Mania Con horror expo in New Jersey.
D: The opening credits of Audrey Rose (1977) give us an “introducing Susan Swift” in what was a big-budget Hollywood movie full of seasoned pros both in front and behind the camera. How did a little girl from Texas get thrown in with such heavy hitters?
Susan: Houston’s main theater, The Alley, had a children’s division called The Merry-Go-Round that I was a part of. It was sort of a Girl Scouts-type activity at the beginning – an after-school program where we would learn about acting and have fun. My parents asked if I wanted to try it and I was a little hesitant at first. Since it was paid by the month, I would have to agree to go for those first four weeks, and if I didn’t like it I could stop. I loved it.
My first play was The Wizard of Oz when I was about ten. I played a Munchkin called Murgatroyd, and as all the other kids did their tittering, high-pitched introductions to Dorothy, I decided to do this low, low voice, which made the audience burst out with laughter. I just thought it would be boring if we all sounded the same. It was a little comic schtick and I didn’t even know it! A year or so later, when the Merry-Go-Round’s director was contacted by the Audrey Rose people during a nationwide talent search, she recommended me.
As I’ve heard it told, director Robert Wise and writer Frank DeFelitta had already interviewed every eligible actress in Hollywood for the role of Ivy Templeton, including Brooke Shields (who they used for the movie’s artwork), but she could not act. They also considered Kristy McNichol, but she didn’t have what they wanted. “They,” the studio people, decided to search every acting academy in the country. Robert Wise came to Houston and I auditioned for the role with three others from The Merry Go Round. I was the last to go in and read, but I don’t remember which scene from the movie it was. But I do remember that after I finished, he gave me one of the nightmare scenes to do, after which he called my mother in and asked if we would be interested in going to Hollywood for a screen test. Remember, this was back in the day before video interviews, web auditions, etc. Since I was an unknown just out of Texas without a portfolio, it was important to get me on film, so they flew me out and we shot my screen test on a soundstage at MGM. I was so excited because we got to go to Disneyland while we were in town. Shortly afterward, they offered me the part and suddenly I needed to get an agent!
D: Did anyone prepare you for the pedigree of talent you’d be working with?
Susan: My parents knew who Robert Wise was definitely, I mean, The Sound Of Music (1965), West Side Story (1961), Run Silent Run Deep (1958)…..he had even edited Citizen Kane (1941)! They realized this was the real thing after meeting him.
Mr. Wise was a prince of a man and had a very unique technique that I really haven’t seen since. When he’d run through the scene, he’d take you aside and quietly communicate what he needed you to do if he wanted something different. Sometimes he would come and whisper to you. It was intimate and personal. He gave you a shield and honor. Other directors who are noisy and impatient may not realize that they end up abusing actors and will get a bad performance because of how they are communicating what they want. It hurts people. A good director will put an actor at ease and encourage them to think and try different things and allow the flow of creativity. It should be collaborative. The actor puts the energy into it and the director shapes it. I was so lucky because the actors I worked with on Audrey Rose were such consummate professionals. Wonderful! Marsha Mason was just amazing – so elegant, so professional. In the moments before the take, she would close her eyes just before in order to blank everything out and reflect on the emotion or experience she needed to use for the scene. I found myself trying to do exactly what she did to get to the emotional places I needed to be. I was a very shy child, and believe it or not, I did not like to talk that much. I remember something that changed me profoundly was a lesson from Robert Wise. During the interview process, I remember he took my hand said to me, “Susan, I like it when people look me in the eye. Look me in the eyes.” From that point on, I remember feeling comfortable looking at adults in the eye and I’m very approachable. Connecting with people authentically and engaging makes them comfortable, which has been the situation at this convention meeting all these wonderful horror movie fans.
D: Did you film in New York?
Susan: We shot some exteriors in New York, like the Central Park Zoo and some street scenes, including entrances and exits to the famous Hotel des Artistes building, where were we supposed to be living. The rest was done on the MGM lot in Los Angeles on these HUGE sets built just for the movie. The school’s playground, where the bonfire scene takes place, was actually built indoors! Seeing the finished film all cut together was incredible. We had a big premiere, I think it was in Westwood. The whole notion of this big production, and now we’re all dressed up to watch it on the big screen was truly amazing. Everyone on the crew makes the film come together. You need to know everyone’s names on the set. My Dad encouraged this. I remember on the set of Audrey Rose, the prop master always brought me a can of apple juice. I was encouraged to give mementos to everyone the set. Everyone was so caring. I can’t understand this diva mentality so often found on sets. It’s improper and destructive, and it destroys our civilization. We should always be polite.
D: Harper Valley PTA (1978) came right after Audrey Rose and was a big hit.
Susan: That was such a blast. It was based on the popular song about a single mother fighting back and exposing the hypocrisy of the school board that was judging this woman because her skirts were too short. I loved the baby elephant that they painted pink for that nightmare scene with comedian Pat Paulsen.
I played the mousy Dee, daughter of Barbara Eden. My character wore braces. By the end, they took them off, I put on makeup and then I got the captain of the baseball team! You’ve got to pack makeup on like you’re a Texas cheerleader and then the boys will come to talk to you. (Laughs).
D: And then you got reincarnated again in Bert I. Gordon’s The Coming (AKA Burned at the Stake, 1982).
Susan: (Laughs) Ah yes! It’s also called Burned at the Stake…directed by Mr. B.I.G. of Empire of the Ants (1977) and Food of the Gods (1976) fame. The movie has a reincarnation theme, but it also incorporates the play The Crucible during the Salem witch trials and the notion that some sort of demonic presence masquerading as a priest takes possession of these girls, and then condemns them to death. I play the 12-year-old evil little minx Ann Putnam, who is then reborn as “Loreen” in modern-day Massachusetts and goes back in time to right the wrong. So it’s like a Back to the Future with reincarnation, some possessions, exorcisms or whatever! This had so much plot it’s hard to tell what’s going on. I remember filming in a dark, cold graveyard and really being choked by the actor playing the pastor. Rough conditions. It was hard.
D: You were a hot property for a young actress at that time.
Susan: I guess so. I did not realize at the time that I had a really viable career. My parents were very big on the importance of getting an education and college is a way for most people for a career and to find your track. I already had a very good career; I should have continued acting and delayed college. I made a mistake. But nobody gave that kind of advice, at least, back in the day. I remember being in my dorm as a freshman telling my agent that I can’t go on auditions because of my midterms. After receiving my B.A. graduating magna cum laude from the theater arts department at UCLA, I did not go back to acting. I went to law school at Pepperdine and became an attorney. I have a husband and seven beautiful children and I would not trade them for anything! And besides, women seem to have an expiration date in Hollywood. But, I’m having a blast! Now, I’m doing political commentary and writing for Politichicks. I’m doing all kinds of things to educate people to learn the truth.
D: This has been your very first convention appearance, and I can’t help noticing that so many fans are here to meet you and get your signature because of your cameo in Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers (1986). After so many years out of the public eye, how did you wind up in the slasher sequel?
Susan: The producer, Paul Freeman, had worked with me on a Western series called The Chisholms for 13 episodes back in 1979. It starred Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris and I believe Mel Stuart of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) was the director. Anyway, all these years later he called and told me he had a small but important role for me and he needed someone who could die very well. I talked it over with my husband and he thought it would be really neat. So I went off to Salt Lake City, Utah to film for three days and that was it.
D: I remember being so excited to see it when it was first released. A major horror magazine had erroneously reported that you were the star, and your cruel and nasty death scene horrified me.
Susan: Yeah, it’s like bam and I’m dead before the opening credits. A very scary death where I’m stabbed in the back of the head with a giant spike! But now, here I am meeting all these wonderful people because of that small part of the nurse, Mary. I think most of them don’t even know about my other stuff, even Audrey…
D: Convention culture, with all its costumes, bloody makeup, and horror movie tattoos can be a real surprise for some actors who are unaware of what true genre fandom is all about. Will you be making future appearances after this experience?
Susan: Yes! It’s been delightful. I’m just blown away by the whole idea that this Halloween movie is 20 years old and people still watch it and that it makes an impact on these people’s lives. Seriously, people are telling me that it’s affected their lives, and I thought it was just a fun horror movie. But it mattered to these people and that is very humbling and very sweet.
You know, God always works in mysterious ways and there’s always a path and finding new things. It’s like I’m reincarnated once again!