Actress Marsha Mason is force of nature. Here is an incredibly gifted actress who fuels her characters with a believability that is palpable, honest, pure, poignant and intimate. There is something so genuinely unique in the way she takes on complicated characters and what makes these performances resonate even more is the fact that Mason enjoys the complexities of the women she portrays. In Audrey Rose (1977), Mason plays Janice Templeton, an urbane and sophisticated New Yorker who is a photography buff and mother to a troubled young girl Ivy (Susan Swift), who isn’t who she seems. Forced into understanding the terrifying truths of reincarnation, Mason’s Janice Templeton most definitely becomes one of the great mothers-in-distress roles in the realm of horror cinema, to join the likes of Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist (1973), Barbara Hershey in The Entity and Jo Beth Williams in Poltergeist (both 1982) to name just a few. Four time Oscar nominee Mason spent some time with Diabolique to talk about her beautiful performance in celebrated filmmaker Robert Wise’s journey into the occult and thorough examination into life after death…
Diabolique: First and foremost I have to say that I’m a huge fan and I adore your work – you’re an incredibly intuitive actress, and you can see that every time you’re on screen. Here in Audrey Rose you get one of those fantastic meaty roles that were so prevalent in horror cinema of the seventies and eighties, for women – especially for women playing mothers trying to keep their worlds together while facing the supernatural. Did this instantly appeal to you?
MM: Thank you so much. That’s very lovely, I really appreciate it. What was most interesting to me was the whole issue of reincarnation. I had been studying Eastern philosophies and religions prior to the film, and that subject matter appealed to me greatly – the idea of us as human beings coming back to life and reincarnating and recreating ourselves; all of this was incredibly interesting to me. The other aspect that appealed to me was the fact that the iconic Robert Wise was directing. To have an opportunity to work with such a legendary director, who was so great and so kind – well that was a dream come true. Another thing about Robert Wise is that he was a fantastic master editor, and I was very interested in how movies got made and he would talk to me throughout the entire making of the picture. He showed me the storyboards and told me why important storyboards were and how they helped facilitate the shoot. He had one person who would draw all these intricate storyboards for him, and that was so amazing to see. Also, the third thing that really appealed to me was the fact that it was going to co-star Anthony Hopkins, and I was such a fan of his. I had seen him in London and on Broadway in Equus, and those were the three reasons that lead me to do this film, and I am so glad I did.
Diabolique: What was your take on the role of Janice Templeton – as a woman, as an artist (photographer), as a mother, as someone who is forced to believe in the supernatural?
MM: What I loved about her was the fact that she was a mature woman, a grown up woman, and what I was challenged by was how to take on the role of someone who is going to lose their child in the most devastating and also most unique way. I thought, well, I’m gonna try and I was scared to death because I didn’t want it to be actory, I wanted people to believe it. So it was a personal challenged to my work, to get the raw aspect of something like that. I had no role model per say, to guide me, so that was a the unique personal and private challenged in terms of my work.
Diabolique: What are your thoughts on the cultural climate at the time – the late seventies – in regards to cinematic distraught mothers facing occultism or spiritualism in order to protect and save their children? Also, what do you think the film says about parenthood – and the concept of fathers and absentee fathers?
MM: I had been relatively newly married at that time and had a full blown family with two grown daughters. Neil Simon’s previous wife had died and we had gone through a rough year adjusting because he didn’t really allow himself any time to grieve her death until way after we were married. But it was also an extraordinary learning experience in learning about the difference between men and women. And what I really loved about Audrey Rose was that conflict, between men and women. Men are incredibly different to women. If you think about the few films whether they were comedies or dramas, where characters have to share a family union and somebody comes into a divorced situation and they have to adjust to a new family – well that is something that I look into when I think of Audrey Rose. I had this wonderful therapist once who told me something invaluable. He said “You must always remember that you cannot always release your inner-child when you’re in a relationship with a man because he is by nature a killer”. Because men started like that – they would go out and kill and provide for the family, he was the protector, it was part of his DNA and that is what he is meant to do and be. So, that made sense to me and of course possession or primary protective becomes possessive, so if another man comes in he is naturally on guard and wants to butt heads in order to take charge of the family unit. And I strongly feel that Audrey Rose deals with all this in subtle and successful terms.
Diabolique: Is this how you take to a role? Do you read the script and then bring in all the psychology to feed the character?
MM: Yes, I pretty much do. Only because in an effort to bring a character to life. A character doesn’t really exist until you embody it, and say the words and even in the audition, you own that part for the first five or ten minutes. I like the complexity of the human being. If the words are saying one thing then I don’t feel I need to play that, I look for some other color of quality and hopefully its in the writing, and if it isn’t then you try your best to round it out. Because nobody is one color. I am constantly amazed how little we know people so well. I mean I think that’s why when we look at people who do terrible things, whether it’s a Boston bomber or whoever, they are normal people and people take them at face value, and then suddenly you find out that they are totally different. I think humans are very complicated and a lot of people are lazy in terms of understanding other people, including themselves. They are so quick to make judgements. People need to stop and think and question things. “How does this make me feel?” “How does this relate to me or to someone else?” I mean, we are in essence all the same, at least potentially. Audrey Rose is a film that taps into these elements – the human condition and the human experience. It makes its audience question how we connect to one another and how we need to connect and communicate and understand one another.
Diabolique: You and John Beck have an interesting chemistry on screen – there is a great back and forth there with the stoic almost emotionally stunted husband and your character who is sensitive, aware, vulnerable and eventually a “believer”. What was he like to work with?
MM: He was such a guy! He was a typical, wonderful guy’s guy. I liked to get to know him, because what I found most interesting about him was the fact that he was the type of man who had the qualities that young girls would look for. I felt that our characters were probably high school sweethearts and that even though I was the artist, he liked sports. John himself lived outside of LA, he lived in Ventura, he liked living close to the earth and he liked raising his own family like that. I thought it was great – there was a lot that I could lean on and use and also feel left alone.
Diabolique: Working with Susan Swift – what was that like? What kind of actress was she and how did you two work together? Was there much in the way of rehearsal?
MM: She was totally natural. I didn’t have an opportunity to read with her prior to filming, because she was hired by Robert Wise before I met her. So I took her at face value. But she was a darling. She was open, and she stayed in touch with me for a long time after the film. I always knew what it was that she was doing, and her mother would send me things. She was just a lovely and really normal girl and she had a lot of very natural talent. I’m always so ambivalent about child actors. It was so weird that I would always end up playing mothers even though I never had any children of my own, I mean this was before I had Nancy and Ellen in my life, and they are in my life til this day and they will always be considered my children – plus I even have a great grandchild now – but Susan was totally natural. Kristy McNichol was natural as well. Incredible actress. When we worked together on Only When I Laugh (1981), she had this one great big scene where she had to deliver some high energy stuff, and she did all of it in one take. The problem with these young people being in this business is that if they don’t have a strong support system then it becomes a really bad problem. And that is what Kristy didn’t have. She didn’t have the strong family foundation. I think that is so complicated to be a child actor in this business, I mean there are a thousand people ready to do your bidding while you’re making a film, but its just swarming around you and that attention that’s being paid, but in the case of Susan, thankfully she had wonderful parents and she did very well. Child actors have to be strong. What I loved about Susan Swift was that she was a very normal looking girl, she wasn’t super pretty, and she read very well.
Diabolique: One of my favourite scenes is where you deliver a phenomenal speech, a great soliloquy where you confess that the Anthony Hopkins character might actually be a more successful father to young Ivy – do you remember this scene and how do you work yourself into such emotional stretches?
MM: I tried to make it truthful. When it comes to acting something takes over when you’re in the flow. The recollection of it from another perspective of it meaning years, it is almost disembodied. I remember that there are key moments that you feel are accomplished. I remember the telephone call in Only When I Laugh was like this, and this scene you’re talking about in Audrey Rose, and the big speech in Chapter Two – I mean these are moments where you just let the truth of the moment come out and it is so well written and good that you are not at all aware of the performance.
Diabolique: I strongly feel that Robert Wise has never directed an average film – he had been responsible for some of the greatest films ever made. What was he like to work with?
MM: He was a grandpa. He was this kind and jovial, low-key and relaxed man. He was firm though. It was really interesting to observe him. Clint Eastwood is very similar. I mean Clint wasn’t grandfatherly like Robert, but he might be if he was working with a child actor, but my experience with both men was, well let’s say you would walk onto set and there was all this activity going on, but there was no energy that was directed towards these men – you almost didn’t see them in the maze of grips and other people working together to get the shoot. At the same time, with Robert there was this low voice that was very calm and very cool, but at the same time it commanded attention. So it generated a kind of success and quiet leadership that is very impressive. There are other directors who are showmen whose personalities are flamboyant and they are loaded with stories, and they like to entertain people but at the same time they have a great way of directing people. Mike Nichols was like this. But all these men were clear and never said too much to me. It was always interesting. Robert would hire you and that was because he really trusted you and wanted you. I would ask him on the set of Audrey Rose “Is that OK? Do you want me to try something else?” and he would say, “No, no, no, that was good.” He never wanted anything else than what it was and he would say “I’ll tell you. If it’s not what I’m looking for, then I will let you know.” So there was a level of confidence there and I felt that I had a level of air around me that made me feel that I could just work. I didn’t have someone trying to manipulate me. It was a very smooth shoot.
Diabolique: What were the intense scenes where Ivy goes into her fits like to shoot?
MM: I think that is where Robert Wises’s editing came into the fore. We had to choreograph that and we had to know exactly what we were doing. We had to know exactly where the camera was. We had to work together as a team. And that was the environment we were in as well. Nobody pulled focus. The director didn’t pull focus, the cinematographer didn’t pull focus, I didn’t, John, Susan, nobody pulled the focus, we all worked together. It wasn’t about us, it was about the picture. It was about making sure it was truthful and scary and real and that Susan was protected but that Robert Wise got what he wanted and that it served the film.
Diabolique: There is that really morose sequence where Ivy is under hypnosis and then dies – and your character is forced to sit back and watch. Can you tell me what this was like to shoot?
MM: I was very nervous about that. That was the scariest. That was the moment I knew that I had to get to that dark place. Even now just remembering it, and talking to you, the emotional response is right under my skin. I feel an emotional pull here and my eyes are tearing up right now remembering it. I recall working really hard and thinking really hard about it all, and getting there to that height of an emotionally stirring moment that was truthful and scary and sad. It was purely emotional, and real. In traditional method acting you would use sensory recall, but in this case, there was no emotional recall because God knows I never had this personal experience in my own life, so I had to make the rational emotional adjustment to thinking what this would be like if I had to face the fact that my own child will die in front of me. I hung onto those words and allowed myself to just go there and surrender to the director and hope that you’re giving him what you know he will like.
Diabolique: That amazing control you have balancing the innocuous with high dramatics is sheer genius – the intensity levels, the way in which your character responds to the threat at first and then the acceptance of the matter…what do you love most about playing characters with such dynamic variants in the very fabric of their being?
MM: I think I would be hesitant to go into that kind of performance these days – or play this kind of character again these days. Only because I think that with the whole evolution of the horror genre and the way that a lot of horror films are made these days, there is no room for character development and no time taken to get involved in the story. I feel a lot of modern horror films have a core focus to scare audiences for the sake of scaring audiences without thinking about what it is that is truly scary. I love the complexities and I look for the opposites – I love the idea of horror as heightened drama.
Diabolique: I love that Anthony Hopkins’s character is presented as a potential threat in the beginning of the film – as he stalks you and your family – but then ultimately as a man destined to help. Your reaction to him from the beginning and then the arc that you get to play out where he is a kind of salvation is incredible – did you have much to do with Anthony offset to work these character responses out?
MM: He was very intense. He was very committed. I think we shared an unstated subtle bond in terms of the way we worked so that when I went to do Harold Pinter’s Old Times at the Roundabout Theatre right at the time Todd Haynes took it over and they were still down at 23rd Street, and I asked Tony if he would do the play with me and Jane Alexander. Tony was a very intense emotional and complicated fellow. He’s Welsh and they carry an intensity, darkness and wild humor. He had all those wonderful qualities which were extremely attractive and was perfect for Audrey Rose. He both scared me and I was mad for him. He had an inner strength and he approached the work very seriously, much like me. Male actors are really fascinating. They are so, so different to us actresses. You can’t just think about yourself when you’re performing, you need to take in the other actor. you always have to work off the other person even if they’re not giving you something – I mean that is still something. I love to work that way, and he was great to bounce off. I am a risk taker. Acting is a highwire act.
Diabolique: Audrey Rose tends to get lumped in the “evil child” subgenre of horror, however it is more about haunted children or children that have unfinished business such as Peter Medak’s The Changeling – what are your thoughts on the film’s place place in child-centric horror, as it is such an important addition.
MM: That is a very interesting question, but I never think about that kind of thing as an actress. I do the work and let it go and I know that it rests out there and you hope that it is successful and touches people and people love it and that it means something to somebody. I never think about the outside environs of where a movie sits culturally, because ultimately my work as a performer is done. Its always so subjective. However, people like yourself, are so important in that you give these movies an eternal life, and the fact that there are many people like you who love these movies from both an intellectual, critical, cultural and emotional point of view, well I feel that that is completely different and I think that it’s great and very thankful. I think most of that comes from how good Audrey Rose is as a film – and that the book and the screenplay were so strong and effective. Maybe if Robert Wise didn’t direct it, it may have disappeared. It was on the shoulders of all of us, and now holds a special place in horror and film history. Which I think is terrific.
Diabolique: What was it like shooting on location in New York?
MM: I got so into Audrey Rose. It is one of my favourite films I worked on. Compared to something like The Goodbye Girl where we did so many scenes on location and we did it all at one time, and I guess because it was the first big picture I did in a big city, by the time I got to Audrey Rose I felt like I had done it all. The city was so different at the time of The Goodbye Girl (1977) and there were union issues and mob issues, but by the time of Audrey Rose it was old hat! New York was different, and great to work in, but I don’t recall much in the way of locales. I wish I remembered where that apartment was.
Diabolique: What does Audrey Rose mean to you? What are you most proud of about it?
MM: It is really great to take away certain parts of a film that you have made that you felt were incredibly challenging and now in retrospect you can own them. I mean a lot of that film means so much to me, and to have that opportunity to have worked with Robert Wise and be a collaborator with him at the time when that was the focus of filmmaking. I mean filmmaking is so different now, there is no room for collaboration and artists working together, I belong to a different period of cinema, and I am thankful for that. I am proud to be a small part of such an amazing period of film.