Off Hollywood - Adrienne Barbeau
Apr 3 2012
I set out with my Polaroid camera to photograph and interview disappearing Hollywood—the directors, actors, special effects artists, producers, even composers, who’ve had great influence but have since fallen under the radar. This is a record and a reminder of the true soul of the movies.
Adrienne Barbeau is fearless. With a career spanning more than four decades in theater, film, and television, she’s made a career of playing strong women. While any fan of Cannonball Run will consider her a sex symbol, it’s that knowing smile she gives every time she steps out of the Lamborghini that reveals she was typecast again as a woman of power.
I first became a fan of her work after seeing her play radio DJ Stevie Wayne in the film The Fog. I loved how she whispered into the mic with her sexy, hypnotic powers, warning people of the dangers of the fog. It was as if she were talking to us through our own mists of fear.
However, it wasn’t until I saw her in Cannibal Women in Avocado Jungle of Death, as Dr Kurtz, a scholar who leaves society to start a feminist tribe called the Piranha Women who ritually sacrifice and eat men, that I became a die-hard Adrienne Barbeau fan.
In 2006 Adrienne Barbeau released a memoir, There Are Worse Things I Can Do, and my friend Christine (a fan of Adrienne’s from General Hospital) and I were there at her book signing. While waiting in line we carefully planned out everything we wanted to praise her for, and when we got to the front we lost all our nerve to speak to her and just sweetly asked for her to sign our books.
Her memoir is one to give anyone in showbiz a jolt of hope; for me, I was inspired to see how hard she worked to get to the top. She claims it is because she is Armenian.
VICE: You are very proud of your heritage. Tell us why Armenian woman are so strong.
Adrienne Barbeau: I think Armenian women are strong out of ancestral necessity. When the Turks massacred the Armenians during the 1915 genocide, it was primarily the women who survived. They lost their husbands and their sons and they had to endure unmitigated horrors to stay alive. That kind of strength in my mother and my grandmother and my aunts is all I've ever known; it was the blueprint impressed upon me from birth.
My favorite part of your book is about the early days in your career where you moved to New York. It’s very inspiring to read about how you found out who you were and to imagine you were once so vulnerable. Did you know you would wind up being famous for being a strong woman?
My first Broadway role was Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof. She's the daughter who leaves her home and family to go off to Siberia with her revolutionary boyfriend--not unlike moving by myself to New York City when I was 19, where I didn't know a soul. But I never thought of myself in terms of being strong; I just did what had to be done to accomplish what I hoped for. Maybe the only thing I knew at that time was that I wasn't very good at playing victims. I was more comfortable speaking up and fighting back. And I loved saving people.
Can you describe your first headshot?
I knew absolutely nothing about getting a job in the theater when I first started out, as evidenced by my choice of songs at my first professional musical audition. I was trying out for the part of Luisa, the young girl in The Fantasticks; I sang "My Man's Gone Now" from Porgy and Bess. I went to a professional photographer in San Francisco and posed for a headshot in a low-cut evening gown, with my dark hair piled up in French curls four inches above my head, and black diamond drop earrings skimming my shoulders. I was 18 years old. Took me months after I got to New York to figure out why no one would audition me for soap commercials. Or anything else for that matter.
In the 1978 television movie Somebody’s Watching Me, your character is gay. How did you feel about that at a time when there weren’t many gay characters in television?
I honestly didn't give her sexual orientation much thought. Love is love, as far as I'm concerned. She happened to be a woman who was dealing with the break-up of a love affair. That's a universal experience. And as long as the audience had been told the person who'd thrown her over was a woman, I didn't think I didn't need to do anything else to specify her sexuality.
In Cannonball Run, when the sheriff asks to see your driver’s license, you unzip your spandex bodysuit to get your ID. He becomes instantly perplexed by the sight of your bosom. How did you become so comfortable with your body?
I started out doing musical comedy when I was 15. There's not a lot of time or room for modesty backstage in the middle of a summer stock production, and most of the guys weren't interested anyway.
I recently watched some of your appearances on the $25,000 Pyramid. You are the ideal partner, you come up with great descriptions. Did you enjoy being on that show? It also makes me think you were a very good student. What were you like as a teenager?
I loved doing Pyramid. I love words and love language. I've always got a book with me, it's my form of escape, and whenever I come across a word I'm not familiar with, I turn down the page and get home to look it up in the dictionary. No one's ever asked me what I was like as a teenager. Pretty normal, I guess, except for the performance gene. I was a pom-pom girl, student body president in junior high, some homecoming princess or another, did all the high school plays and musicals, worked part-time, and spent my evenings and weekends rehearsing with the San Jose Civic Light Opera.
In The Convent you play a female version of Snake Plissken. What parts of Snake did you put into your character?
Snake was already written into the character before I accepted the role, which is why I wanted to do it in the first place. I think that film is such a hoot.
What do you enjoy most about being a part of Hollywood?
I just really love the work. All of it. I love driving to the set at sunrise, chatting with everyone in the make-up trailer, even sitting in my dressing room for hours waiting to be called to the set. Most of all I love the actual creating; translating the words on a page into something alive and honest and real and, hopefully, watchable. I honestly don't feel as though I've ever worked a day in my life–my work has always been my fun.
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