Barbara Crampton’s journey as a Hollywood actress began in the early ’80s, where she cut her teeth on soap operas like “Days of Our Lives” and “Guiding Light.” It wasn’t long before she made the jump to feature films with works like Brian De Palma’s “Body Double” and James Frawley’s teen sex comedy, “Fraternity Vacation.” However, it wasn’t until she stepped into the realm of horror that things truly took off. With iconic appearances in cult horror films such as “Re-Animator”, “From Beyond”, “Castle Freak”, and “Chopping Mall”, she quickly captured the hearts of fans around the globe and was soon elevated to “Scream Queen” status. However, Barbara Crampton is so much more than a pretty face. While that might have been what got her in the door, what keep her in the room was her undying devotion to her career and a skill set that elevates the material of each project she takes on. In recent years, she has continued to challenge both herself and her audience with complicated characters as she continues to grow at her craft. Her latest project, Bradford Baruh’s “Dead Night” is no exception to that rule.
“Dead Night” centers around James and his wife, Casey, as they load up their two teenage kids and head out to a remote cabin in Oregon for a weekend trip. When James heads into the snowy forest in search of firewood, he encounters an enigmatic woman passed out in the snow. Bringing her back to the cabin for help, the family has no way of knowing that the woman’s presence is the catalyst for a series of events that will change their lives forever. Mixing original storytelling with timeless supernatural elements, Bradford Baruh’s directorial debut features a stellar cast of genre favorites including AJ Bowen and Barbara Crampton and delivers a wild and blood-soaked weekend away.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down for a quick chat with Barbara Crampton to discuss her amazing journey in the film industry. They discuss her passion for the horror genre, it’s dedicated fans, her process for bringing amazing characters to the screen and what the future may hold for her in the years to come.
You’ve built amazing career for yourself through the years. How did you get involved with the arts early on in life and what went into finding your creative voice?
When I was a young girl, I used to come home after school and watch a program called “The Million Dollar Movie.” It was on every day at 4 o’clock when I was growing up on Long Island. I used to watch a lot of the old 40s movies with Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins, and people like that. I just loved the movies and I loved watching them! At that point, I told my family I wanted to be an actress, which is something I think a lot of young people say at one time or another, but it just sort of stuck with me. I did plays in high school and then I went to college because thought I should out and get a degree. While I was there, I did theater. I studied stagecraft, costume making, lights, directing and writing. I think that foundation gave me something solid to bring to my movie and TV career. That’s how it all began! I moved to New York City and did some plays off-off Broadway before moving to Los Angeles a couple of years later. I just threw myself into the business and veered between soap opera work, which was kinda funny, and horror movies for a long time. I also did a little bit of TV. It wasn’t until the last few years that I feel like I really cemented myself in working in the horror genre.
What lessons did you learn early on as an actor that carried forward and helped guide the course of your career?
You know, I think it’s an ongoing process. I do know if I learned those lessons, it was when I was doing something like “Re-Animator” or “From Beyond,” which are my biggest known titles, along with “You’re Next” or “We Are Still Here,” in recent years. I don’t know if early on in my career I learned anything. Looking back, I can say, “Oh, well that happened…” or “That’s when I made that decision, so maybe this was good.” The thing that I say to people now about my career and their careers, because I see a lot of people complaining on social media about how hard it is to get a movie made or how hard or distressing it is, is keep a positive attitude. I have always kept a positive attitude no matter where I was in my career. At the time that we did “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond,” we got really good reviews but those movies weren’t taken seriously at the time, even by my agent and friends in the business. We got great great reviews from Pauline Kahl and Roger Ebert at the time but my agent was very dismissive of those movies at the time. Over the last 30 to 35 years, they have become cult classics. What I tell people is to approach everything you do as if it’s Shakespeare. If it doesn’t have a following right away, it might gain one in years to come. One of the most famous examples of that is “The Thing.” It wasn’t very well received and didn’t get great reviews when it came out but now it’s a cult classic. You just have to approach everything with as much integrity and positivity as possible. Treat everything as gold. Over time, you’re going to look at your career and say, “I’ve had up moments and I’ve had down moments.” If you really want to be in this business for a really long time, let’s say 30, 40 or 50 years, then you’re going to have highs and lows. I’ve definitely had highs and lows! I was even out of the business for 7 or 8 years and didn’t do anything! I’ve had some pretty good success coming back within the last 5 years. I feel like my career is better now than it was when I was younger! [laughs] Even my old agent is going to say that because he didn’t really like those movies! He’s not may agent today! [laughs] If you want to be in this business, it’s about longevity. You have to stay positive and keep going!
What are you looking for in the projects you take on these days? I guessing that it might differ from your approach as a younger actress.
Yeah. When I was younger, if I was offered a role, I would take it. I didn’t really think about it to much. I was lucky enough to be in some wonderful movies but I was also in some stuff that wasn’t very good. Today, I really take a moment to think, “Is this movie saying something positive about the human condition? Is this this movie saying something positive about people?” I have made a few mistakes recently too. People say I’m horror movies. I don’t want to just be in a horror movie that is going out there to shock people. The narrative is very important to me. It’s the story that it’s telling, what it’s trying to say, and if it has a very good beginning, middle and end. First of all, the script is everything to me. It’s the foundation of what the filmmaker is trying to say. That’s of utmost importance. Then I look at my character and if it’s an interesting character for me to play. Does it have something I can bring to it? Is there some sort of sensibility I can add to it that hopefully helps to elevate the project and helps the writer and director say what they are trying to say. I want to support them and I hope they are going to make a movie that is going to support me.
One of your latest projects is “Dead Night.” What made this a story you wanted to be a part of telling?
There is a lot going on in this movie. There is some supernatural stuff, along with some Hamlet-style tragedy happening. My character is a political candidate. At the time we were shooting the movie, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had just become the candidates for their respective parties. It was a very highly-charged time. I thought, “This is fascinating storytelling!” There is the double narrative of the true-crime TV show and the narrative of what happened to the Pollock Family on that one “Dead Night.” [laughs] It also felt to me like it was very timely and my character is just crazy, bonkers, interesting and fascinating. I thought it was a dream role! It was a really, really different and interesting project. Horror fans are always clamoring about “We need something different. We want something fresh and new.” I felt like this was something different that I hadn’t seen before, so I was really excited when they started talking to me about being a part of the project.
It’s really interesting to hear that you are plugged into your fanbase and that it has an impact on the projects you choose. What has that experience been like for you?
I didn’t expect to become a horror movie actress. It wasn’t what I was looking for in terms of my career. I mean, I like horror movies as much as the next person. I like to be scared and I thought they were fun and exciting. There are a lot of fans out there that are voraciously looking for the next film to watch. It was only when I came back a few years ago with “You’re Next,” which I got a call out of the blue to be in that movie, that I realized I got cast because of the older movies that I had done. They wanted a genre veteran to be one of the parents in the movie and they asked me. I loved that script, so I joined that movie. It was around that time that I joined all of the social media sites. I did that because Simon Barrett, writer of “You’re Next,” said, “Nobody is going to call you, email you or get together with you. Everyone is too busy. The way we are all connected now is through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.” I said, “Really?! I have to find out what you’re doing, I have to visit your social sites.” He said, “Yes.” [laughs] I said, “Okay! I can do that!” I did and I started keeping in touch with people. It was amazing to realize how connected, supportive and wonderful the horror community was. I don’t think we have better fans than horror movies fans! I mean, there is no comedy film community, drama or thriller convention! It’s all horror movie people! They are some of the most positive, supportive and collaborative people that I’ve come to know. After I did “You’re Next” and it did so well, I realized, “Oh, these are my people! I’ve finally found my people!” They might have found me a few years ago but I’ve finally found them! At that point, I made a really firm decision in my mind that I was going to rededicate myself to the horror genre, the fans, and movies that have supported me since the beginning of my career. I find myself continually working in the horror genre and I haven’t been as a happy working in my career as I have been over the past few years. It’s been an amazing experience. I go to the film festivals all over the world and I get to speak about the genre, women in film, work on cool movies and meet the fans from around the world. It’s been the most wonderful experience of my life!
I think I speak for a lot of people when I say we are lucky to have you!
Let’s jump back to “Dead Night.” Tell us a little about your process for bringing a character to life.
Every movie and every role is different. When I first read a script, I think, “Okay, I’m going to play this part. How can I approach this?” There is always a little bit of fear involved initially. I find myself thinking, “I hope I measure up. I hope I can do it.” Then, I sort of relax from that and think, “What are the sensibilities that I have about this character that I can bring to it to support what the filmmaker is trying to say. Very early on in my education, when I was in college, the first thing our instructors told us is that you have to support the playwright. At the time, I was doing plays. I always think about that, which became, “How can I support the filmmaker and their vision in my approach?”
I also think about how I can play this in a way that is possibly something you wouldn’t expect. I don’t want to play the simplest version of it; I try to entertain myself just as much as I’m trying to entertain you. I also think about how the other people are going to play their roles because you don’t want to have two people playing the same notes. The movie is like a piece of music and everyone has to play a different instrument to make the orchestra, which will make it truly come alive and sing. If I think a person might play it in a certain way, I attack it from a different point of view. I become a mini-psychologist and try to put all of the pieces together. Then I go through the script and I do my work on it. I look for where the most intense scenes are or where the climax of my individual story is. I look for where the love is and where the hate is, where the character is faltering or overcoming obstacles to potentially get what they want. Every character is looking for something entrance to justify the things that they do, even if they are a compromise character. There are a lot of layers that you look for but those are a few of the things that I initially use as tools to work on the character.
I also work on the dialogue. I ask myself, “How can I say this to the best of my ability? Where are the highs and lows with my dialogue with another actor?” I put hashmarks in between the dialogue where I feel the energy changes. I even go as far as to determine what word in each sentence I want to highlight. I work on all of that and I’m very particular in my approach to my work. Once I’ve done all that, I try to forget at all and try to have it be as natural as possible! For me, it’s kind of a long process but the longer you have to work on your script the better. I like to have a lot of time for rehearsal and time with my script. I like to talk to my director and determine what movies have influenced them in their lives or even what movies have influenced this film they are making. I always like to talk to the other actors to see how they’re approaching it. Sometimes the directors don’t want to talk to you and they just want you to show up on set! At that point, you just have to work with whatever energy the other people are giving you. It requires a lot of trust at that point. I like to build a solid foundation with a lot of prep work before I get onto a set.
You’ve obviously conquered the world of horror but you have many productive years ahead. What else are you anxious to tackle?
I’d like to do a little bit more television. I think there are some really dynamic things being made, especially in the realm of horror, that are on TV right now. So, I’d like to expand my movie career and work a little bit more television!
You’ve certainly inspired a lot of people with the projects you were a part of in the past and with the amazing work you continue to put out. What’s the best lesson we can take from your journey?
Just keep going! [laughs] Like I said, I had a long absence of my career where I wasn’t really getting a lot of roles in my middle to late 30s. I just said, “Okay, I’m just going to the focus on my family and doing some other creative things in my life. I think I’ll just give it a rest for a little bit.” I was able to come back. With that said, I think you have to look at your career as a long-term plan. You’re going to have good years and lean years, but you’re going to have to keep going. It’s important to try to work with other collaborative people who are interesting, dynamic and artistic. Look for people who can bring something to your life and you can, in turn, bring something to them. Continually seek out those other creative people and collaborate with them. That’s easier to do today than ever before! People are making their own amazing material these days, so getting into a groove of working with other like-minded people is key to longevity in this business.
Thanks so much for your time today, Barbara! I’m sure our paths will cross again soon and I wish you continued success!
I hope so! Thanks so much, Jason! Talk to you soon!