Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Actress Interview: Gloria Gifford

Gloria Gifford is a highly experienced and skilled actress (and acting teacher, writer/director...) who appeared in some of the most popular cult (and blockbuster...) movies of the 1980s, one of my favorite decades in American cinema.

You may recognize Ms. Gifford as stony Mrs. Alves, the no-nonsense head nurse at Haddonfield Hospital in Halloween II (1981). Or, you may recall Gifford's classic appearance as an airport security officer confronted with a - ahem - surprise in rocker Derek Smalls' (Harry Shearer's) pants(!!!) in the seminal rockumentary, This is Spinal Tap (1984). But these brief descriptions just scratch the surface of Gloria Gifford's successful career in Hollywood. She's co-starred in films with Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Mr. T., and Eddie Murphy, as well as horror icon Michael Myers.

Recently, as part of several simultaneous book assignments I'm working on, I had the opportunity to catch up with Ms. Gifford and ask her some questions about her career, and in particular, her 1980s efforts.

MUIR: Let's start at the beginning. How did you become an actress?

GIFFORD: I'm from New York, and after I was out of college and after I had been a case worker, and after I had been a buyer for Bloomingdales, I decided to do what I'd always wanted to do, and I took an acting class at HB Studio. That's what made me realize that I had been avoiding what I wanted to do for the rest of my life....

MUIR: And then?

GIFFORD: After about four years of working really hard at taking [acting] classes, I managed to get a Broadway play starring Zero Mostel. The first day of rehearsal, it was televised, because Zero Mostel is a huge star on the East Coast. He starred in Fiddler on the Roof and the movie The Producers, and everything. So they televised it, and Bill Cosby was watching television in his home in Connecticut or Massachusetts.

He decided to send an offer [for me] to do a pilot with him, but I didn't want to leave the Broadway show, because it was a play based on Merchant of Venice. It was classical and I had a really good part in it. It was my Broadway debut, and I didn't want to leave that, so I kept turning Bill Cosby down.

MUIR: Wow...

GIFFORD: I met with his executive producer, Sheldon Leonard, who produced I Spy and a lot of shows, and said 'No.'

Finally, the play closed and my agent said,'Whatever happened to Bill Cosby?' Because he had sent me other scripts and I kept saying 'No, no, I'm still doing this play.'

So I finally called him, and he said, 'Well I'm doing this other movie, but I can only introduce you to the director,' and that was for Neil Simon's California Suite.

So I met the director, Herbert Ross, who had directed A Turning Point and had got an Oscar for Richard Dreyfuss for The Goodbye Girl. Then the director flew me out, and I met Neil Simon, and I read for it, and I ended up being in the movie.

So my equity card I got by being in the play, The Merchant, and the SAG card I got for being in the movie California Suite. I played not Bill Cosby's wife, because I was too young, but Richard Pryor's wife. That's how I got started.

MUIR: How was it working with (the late) Richard Pryor?

GIFFORD: Well, Richard was a really terrific guy. He had some problems at the time with drugs, or whatever he was doing. That's not something I was ever involved with, but he was generous as a human being and easy for me to work with. I enjoyed him. It was - to me - a great experience, because he's a legend. As is Bill Cosby. As is Neil Simon...

MUIR: As a horror movie fanatic and author, I have to ask you about working on Halloween II as Mrs. Alves...

GIFFORD: That was an unusual thing. What happened was, we were all in an acting class at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, and the director [Rick Rosenthal] had just taken his degree at AFI. It was going to be his first movie [Halloween II], and he decided to use actors from the class. So he recommended me. The role was written in the script for a fifty-five year old caucasian woman. I was clearly not fifty-five, nor caucasion. So he suggested to Debra Hill that she read me, and they did and said 'Okay, you look so young, I don't know if you can play the head of these people, but you have the authority.' I've always been the authority figure...

When I went into make-up for the first time, they said, 'Well, what role are you playing?' And I said, 'Mrs. Alves.' And they said, 'No, no, it's a fifty-five year old white woman.' And I said, 'Not anymore, it's me.' That was a shock to them, but it never seemed to hurt the movie.

MUIR: How was it working with director Rosenthal, after being in a class as his student?

GIFFORD: It was a very lucky [thing], because we all worked fast, and he didn't feel, as a first-time director, that he was getting stopped by actors questioning him. Because we didn't question him. We were grateful.

MUIR: Any thoughts on working with Jamie Lee Curtis, the Scream Queen of that age?

GIFFORD: She was sensational. She was absolutely fabulous to work with. She was so professional, present, [and] strong. She's focused and funny and easy-going and regular. She made it just a dream, and there was no difficulty.

MUIR: Any memories from the set of Halloween II?

GIFFORD: It was a very low-budget production. It was very different from what I'd done in California Suite, which was very high budget. They spent a lot of money on California Suite. I had a driver, and life was completely different. And then I moved to California and suddenly I was doing this low-budget movie and there was nothing! Instead of a huge [meal] table, there were ice cream bars...

MUIR: Was there research involved in playing Mrs. Alves?

GIFFORD: Rick made us go to the hospitals and learn how to do medical procedures as nurses and doctors, and there was a real doctor on the set, and they had to use him when they came in for real-close-ups...

MUIR: Did you shoot in a real facility?

GIFFORD: We worked in a hospital that was closed down, somewhere in L.A. and it was kind of spooky to work there, because it was empty.

MUIR: Your (very memorable) death scene in the film doesn't make a whole lot of sense. That Michael Myers, the Shape would stop to hold your character down, attach tubes to her veins, and drain her of blood...

GIFFORD: Yeah, that's true in a way. I don't know how they came up with that. That was in John Carpenter's script...

MUIR: What are your memories of shooting that death sequence?

GIFFORD: They put all this white make-up on me, like the blood was drained out of me, and they put me on a table and filled the room with the blood, so the Lance Guest character could come in and slip and fall. And then they were like, 'Okay, Gloria,' and then they went to lunch.

And I said, 'Well, what are you doing?' and they said, 'You can't move, because you can't disturb anything.' And I said, 'Excuse me?' And they left me there, you know, because they didn't want to disturb the blood on the ground that they had put there perfectly. So I just laid there...

And then of course, we had Lance coming in and slipping, and then changing his clothes and slipping, and changing his clothes again and slipping again, while I pretended to be dead. Which is a memory for me, playing that scene. I always remember that...

MUIR: Any thoughts on your co-star, Pamela Susan Shoop?

GIFFORD: She is very nice. I saw her last year. For some bizarre reason, I finally got invited to a Halloween convention. It was the first time I ever went, and I saw Pamela there, and we had not seen each other since we made the movie. She still looked beautiful, and she does a lot of Christian things now, and she's not active in acting, I think, but she was still active in these conventions.

MUIR: Did you enjoy the con?

GIFFORD: Well, I loved being there, but I was uncomfortable with people paying me for photographs. People kept coming up and asking me how much I would charge to get a picture taken, and I couldn't conceive of it...

But I thought it was fascinating. People came from all over the country. I was shocked. And everybody remembers everything I said and did in the film...

MUIR: Tell me about 48 Hours.

GIFFORD: That was Eddie Murphy's first film. [And] that was the first time I ever played hooker. I came in to read for Joel Silver, for the part of the girlfriend at the end. I was outside with Eddie for about forty-five minutes, and one of his favorite movies was California Suite, and he knew every single line from the Richard Pryor sequences. We were out there together for so long, and he remembered my dialogue and asked me so many questions that by the time we walked inside to read together, we were like brother and sister. We didn't have that sexual chemistry. Joel said, 'I think I left you guys alone too long.'

MUIR: So you did a different part, right?

GIFFORD: They called me and asked me if I wanted to do this day of work [on the film], and I said 'No, I don't do a day in a movie'. And they said 'No, no, no, Eddie really wants you and they've written this great scene.' A producer friend talked me into it, and I did it.

MUIR: What was it like working with Murphy?

GIFFORD: When I got there, the dialogue was all written and we did the scene, and Eddie was funny, and we had a great time. In fact, I teased him, because I could tell he had a big ego. I told him, 'Hey you know, I'm going to be on the cover of TV Guide next week, and he said 'No!' and I said, 'No, I'm kidding you.' He was driven. And I don't mean ego in a negative way. It was a good ego.

MUIR: Any other memories from 48 Hours?

GIFFORD: Joel Silver he called me in for the looping, and he conducted the looping of the line, 'So where do you want to do it, honey? Wanna hop up on the counter?' He wanted a different way that I would say that line, so it would have a lot more heat and a lot more sex.

And that [line] ended up being in all the trailers, and ironically for one day [of work], I got more recognition for that movie than almost anything else I've done! That was a hit movie, and Eddie was hot, and I brought him heat, and he was lusting after me, and that was a good trailer moment. And that's how smart Joel Silver is...

MUIR: Another cult 1980s movie you appeared in was DC Cab.

GIFFORD: I was directing a play this summer, and one of the actors who's about 27 told me that when he was in college, they played it every day...

MUIR: Given the cast, it must have been an interesting movie to make...

GIFFORD: That was a completely insane movie experience. I was on it for three months, and it had stand-up comics, Gary Busey, Mr. T and two amateur body builders. It was a nightmare. A lot of guys were on drugs...not Mr. T, he was always a straight-ahead, great guy. But oh, three months together, and they were wild. They were animals. And I was playing a sexy character in it, and I was the only pretty girl with the guys, and so they were always flying across the table and trying to grab my breasts and stuff like that. Every day was like war.

MUIR: That was directed by Joel Schumacher...

GIFFORD: Joel has a very distinctive style of direction. He feels, 'Well, let's throw everybody together and let's see what happens' He did St. Elmo's Fire and Lost Boys, and he likes big casts. So everything that could possibly happen did happen. It wasn't as disciplined as the other movies I'd done. It was a very...different experience.

I saw something on I Love the 80s, and they had a piece of it [DC Cab] there. And they didn't say anything, but Bill Maher has become the most successful person out of the movie, and I don't think people remember that he was in it.

And Mr. T. And Gary Busey were the quintessential - and opposite - in 80s icons.

MUIR: I have books coming out discussing more deeply your work in Halloween II, as well as you role in Spinal Tap, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Spinal Tap here.

GIFFORD: I think it's one of the most brilliant movies I've ever seen. When I see it, I laugh at every single actor and every single situation. I don't even have a favorite one, because they're all funny to me.

MUIR: Did you have any idea it would become such a classic?

GIFFORD: Not at all. Whenever people talk about the funniest movie ever made, Spinal Tap is always in the top five.

MUIR: And your scene is one of the most famous among several famous ones..

GIFFORD: It's the most remembered scene, but so much of that movie is funny to me. I think Christopher Guest is a genius...

MUIR: Do you get recognized most for your role as the airport security guard in Tap?

GIFFORD: Over the years, people have said to me, 'That's one of my favorite movies. That's my favorite scene!' Then they say, 'That was you?'

MUIR: Any closing thoughts on any of your film work we discussed here?

GIFFORD: In Halloween II, Dana Carvey was an extra. I have a picture of him with me, and he never mentions that movie. I actually worked with Dana, because we had a scene together. He just NEVER mentions that movie, so I just laugh and think 'I have a picture of us, buddy.' He was playing some kind of reporter at the end of the movie who comes in. It was a very, very tiny role. He may have had one line..."

My deepest gratitude to Gloria Gifford for sharing her thoughts and remembrances with us here (as well as her contributions to my upcoming books...). In addition to her film work described here, Ms. Gifford also runs The Gloria Gifford Conservatory for Performing Arts: A Professional Acting, Directing, Writing Arena. You can read more about that endeavor here.

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