An interview with: Genre legend Brooke Lewis Bellas

We sat down with the scream queen herself, Brooke Lewis Bellas, to discuss the independent film industry, age-appropriate roles for women and creating a production business from scratch…

Brooke Lewis Bellas is a genre legend; starting her career in the New York theatre scene, Brooke soon saw herself drawn to the sparkly lights of Hollywood where she quickly garnered her ‘scream queen’ badge of honour, starring in the gory 2010 horror, Slime City Massacre. Now, she’s heading back to her horror roots with the upcoming Red Rooms and The Day of The Living Dead (a zombie origin story set in 1950’s Hollywood no less!) – as well as plenty more.

Brooke is not only impressive in front of the camera: she’s the owner of her own production company, Philly Chick Pictures, works closely with numerous charities, is an advocate for LGBTQ and breast cancer causes, and is also an absolutely lovely person to boot!

We sat down with Brooke over a virtual cup of tea to have a deep discussion on how the current pandemic is affecting her, what it’s like being a woman in Hollywood, filming a TV series in lockdown and being embraced by the genre industry…

You have been in many different roles during your career – how do you go about choosing a role?

I love that question, because honestly if you had asked me that ten years ago I think my answer would have been quite different. But now as someone who has been in the business for over 20 years, it’s no longer about fame or money for me at this point. I need money of course, but it’s really now about the roles that speak to me as an actress and the roles that speak to me as a woman, and a woman who is embracing getting older. I’m embracing not playing the 20-something or 30-year-old ditzy bimbo or hooker. I had so much fun with those roles but I am really embracing those character actor roles. That’s what I look for.

It really begins with a good script. When I was younger, I was seduced by the role. If the role was amazing but the scripts were mediocre I would jump on it. Now it’s a bigger picture for me because how much work I actually do as a professional actress for a role is huge and time- and energy-consuming. So it has to make a difference in some way for the viewer, for myself, for my career and where I am choosing my career to go in the future. With regards to Covid 19 it has made me look within and as ‘Ms Vampy’ would say: “Dig deep inside and find my inner vamp”. It really resonated with me as it’s made me get clear on what I want to do and how I am going to choose my future roles when this pandemic is over.

Are you seeing more female-empowered roles?

More so than ten years ago. I think it comes with age; I am starting to get offered more powerful character actress roles, outside of your typical Hollywood leading lady. I do believe that cinema is creating more opportunities for women in those roles. However, I rarely find roles that blow my mind that I want to jump into that are super powerful and meaty. Therefore I have to create opportunities for myself – that was the idea behind me launching my production company 18 years ago when I moved to Hollywood because no one was offering me those roles! I was very young and I was still playing high school students on TV. The opportunities were not coming – every role I was being offered was the ditz, the little sexpot girlfriend, the hooker. They are great and I chose to play [those roles] in Sinatra Club and Slime City Massacre but I have not been offered the opportunity to play those dark vixen roles that I love. I love to play the killer, I love to play the psychological, powerful woman who manipulates the other character.

I have had the opportunity to place those in short films because I have created those. Some of the horror mystery thrillers that I started out in really put me on the map as a ‘Scream Queen’ – so that was from Kinky Killers that I was bestowed the title of Scream Queen. I don’t want to spoiler alert too much (I know it’s still on Amazon in the UK etc so hopefully everyone will watch it) but why I bring it up is because those were opportunities that I had to create for myself. I was a producer on those projects to be able to play the final girl. I got those opportunities to be the badass final girl because I was the producer on those projects.

How did your production company, Philly Chick Pictures, come to be?

I was working as an actress in New York City for four years doing Tony ‘N’ Tina’s Wedding – seven shows a week on Broadway. I was very blessed to be signed with a huge agency in NYC but when I moved to Hollywood, still very young, I didn’t realise that all they look for is your television credits. I had a bunch of theatre and indie film credits in NYC and there I was living large, but in Hollywood, they didn’t seem to care!

So I knew I needed to do something to create opportunities for myself and I was early in my early 20s so I created Philly Chick Pictures (I’m originally from Philadelphia). I took a lot of producing workshops and I worked as a producer for free for some of my friends’ short films for a couple of years, so I could learn the ropes. So that’s why and how I started it! I could create these powerful opportunities as a young person in Hollywood, not having the connections. The agency I had been with in NYC would not sign me when I moved to Hollywood because I was not bringing in enough money, I was not a TV star, so I really had to start from the ground up again by myself and Philly Chick Pictures really helped me to do it and I worked really hard for it.

What inspired you to become an actress?

Emotion. I am – and have been since I was a child – a very sensitive, emotional, empathic person and I feel really deeply, good and bad. I came from a divorced family and I really cultivated my inner strength through creativity. I was watching TV as a child and I would talk to the characters on the TV! I knew that I was destined to do something creative. I knew I was never going to be an athlete – I’m not athletic, you will never see me doing real action in an action film! But as I got older I told my mum I wanted to take singing, dancing and acting lessons. That’s really how it all started. It started locally and then I ended up studying theatre at university for two years.

But then I convinced myself I would go to law school instead – I had great grades and everyone thought I should become a big attorney and I was about to go and then I said ‘nope!’. So I studied pre-law until I graduated and when I graduated I said ‘forget it I’m following my heart and I’m moving to NYC and I’m becoming an actor’.

I moved to NYC alone and then, later, to LA alone. Though I knew friends who had success in NYC first which was great as I had a support system but I was courageous when I was young, not so much now! But time is on your side when you are young, now I’m much more cautious, I’m much more discerning and I believe we should be discerning in life as we age as we want to make powerful choices, especially as women.

How do you prepare for a role? Do you get involved in the character?

I really do and I hope for more amazing opportunities [to do so]. I have done a lot of the roles that are very comedic, but I love those meaty, dark, dramatic roles. I’m so fortunate to have [people writing] these roles for me, especially the short films which are all on Amazon Prime like ‘ Sprinkles’ that Roger A Scheck wrote for me and ‘Psycho Therapy’ that Staci Layne Wilson wrote for me. I had to produce it because I had to play them. Those are the roles that I want more of – those deep, dark and psychological roles.

With iMurders, which is a Hitchcockian street thriller, I had this beautiful opportunity. I was one of the exec producers and Robbie Bryan directed. I got to play an FBI agent opposite Tony Todd (Candyman) and I remember studying for so long [for it]. Robbie and I had talked about it and I got to watch a lot of crime dramas and saw how these young female detectives were so raw and tough. They couldn’t show any emotion while on a case, especially if they were personally attached to the case which I was as agent Lori Romano because Frank Grillo – the lead – was my older brother. So there was a personal connection there. I really studied a lot of those characters in crime dramas like CSI and Law And Order etc. I watched these beautiful, powerful women and watched how the actresses worked and studied them a lot.

Spoiler alert: That was the film that got me the most negative criticism ever! They said that what I was wearing as a detective, I should not have been wearing – such as a low cut blouse or such tight jeans! This is a movie that’s a suspension of reality, it’s a thriller but the irony was, I had studied it and the media was torturing me with this! I was doing exactly what you see on TV.

The point is, sometimes I hit and sometimes I miss. Someone wrote on IMDB Brooke Lewis – ‘what is she doing playing a detective in this film? She looks like a 21-year-old girl that should be in a summer camp slasher movie instead!’

Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming show Red Rooms?

We are in post-production right now – Joshua Butler, a dear friend and associate of mine, he has directed TV for years from The Vampire Diaries to The Following and The Magicians. He’s wonderful and we have been wanting to work together for years. We shot in October and then when the pandemic hit and we went into isolation I felt I needed something to stay creative. So I went to Joshua and asked him what he thought of filming the rest of this virtually and he did and we did everything ourselves virtually. So much is going on right now in post-production, virtually, from cast to CGI. We are learning as we go, we have production meetings on Zoom or Skype and it’s wild. We worked on this for two months, we filmed every actor from their home isolation and it was a wild ride. It was really interesting as we are still learning and we had to play almost every crew position. We had to approve everyone’s wardrobe, we had to go through and see what they could come up with for art direction with their background and we chose to make it very very simple.

It’s about the Red Rooms on the dark web. It’s like The Purge. There are these private wealthy groups that go into the deep dark web and pay a lot of money to watch people be abducted and tortured. So I chose for it to stay on the dramatic and psychological action point. We have a lot of psychological torture in this piece. It’s quite incredible, Joshua and I have really collaborated on this, from my vision of putting these people in their own isolation rooms to him creating this incredible story.

I get to play [the character] Leila Black who is a female producer in Hollywood with deep dark secrets. It’s exactly what we were discussing before – Josh sees me as a real dramatic actress and I’m so grateful for that. He brought out this darkness in me. I can’t wait for the world to see it. We know every one of our incredible actors – David Alpay from The Vampire Diaries, Suze Lanier-Bramlett from The Hills Have Eyes, Ricky Dean Logan from Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, Noah Blake from Teen Witch – could meet Joshua’s scripts. We knew who would bring it and that was the most important thing because of the isolation and filming this way, we needed actors who could emotionally tear this up and they did, I’m so proud of everyone.

Originally we had a deal with Amazon Prime but now we are thinking of going down the festival route as it’s better than we ever expected. It will be released next year.

What was it like filming Red Rooms show from home?

It made it so much more challenging. It was an additional learning experience. You have to make smart choices as the producer normally but even making the simple decision to not have the typical horror aspects, like special effects, and knowing we had to do everything in post was mindblowing. But we knew we couldn’t pull off what we needed to pull off under normal circumstances, it was very interesting.

There is definitely something missing [when filming at home] – energetically and emotionally, my heart and my soul, when I am opposite another actor who is generous and giving and present, there is nothing more powerful than the energy surge of being opposite another actor. That’s when I do my best acting. That’s when they bring out the best in me and I bring out the best in them, there is a chemistry connection and it doesn’t happen very often but those are the moments that are explosive. Sadly I don’t feel like you get that when you are working virtually and that’s what I miss the most.

You’re returning to your horror roots with The Day Of The Living Dead

I’m super excited about it. It’s not released yet but will be released soon over streaming. What a fun project, I love my gore and [its writer and director] Thomas Churchill is a friend. He approached me with the script for The Day Of The Living Dead – how can you not love that title!? We shot it a couple of years back. Sometimes with these films, it takes time to find the right distribution, the right outlet and I found out last year that we are releasing in a bigger way on TV and on-demand.

It’s such a cool story. No one loves old Hollywood more than I do. I’m such an old Hollywood girl; my house is designed in old Hollywood fashion. It’s set in Hollywood in 1957 with all the glitz and glamour and so when you offer me a role like this I would obviously jump on it! I get to play Ms Daniels; she has a supporting role and she runs a company with her husband. George Lazareth – the lead – is an insurance investigator investigating our company and I don’t want to give away too many spoilers but let’s say the Deadly Sins Cigarette Company is causing people to get sick and next thing that you know it leads to a zombie apocalypse.

I was one of the first on board [for the film] and I had a direct offer for it. I was told I could choose which role I would like to play, so I chose a role that was actually smaller but it inspired me as it’s a grown woman in a power position; a woman in the 1950s running a company and I loved it. He had written it for a much older actress in Hollywood, but I wanted the role as I wanted to step into a much more mature, professional strong female role. It has James Duval, Sarah French, Natalie Victoria and Brian Andrews and some real Hollywood indie horror film veterans in it.

I’m also really excited to exclusively tell you I am in The Mourning that Marc Clebanoff and Michael Rene Walton wrote. I’m super excited, now with all the streaming networks the opportunities are there, and I’m a co-producer on this one. It’s a really smart independent film. It is a beautiful story about an army veteran who leaves his small town, his family and the love of his life to go to desert storm and never comes home. He’s believed to be he is dead in the war and all of a sudden he supernaturally reappears. It shakes up the town and it shakes up the love of his life. It’s really a beautiful story about what we let go of when we leave and then he has the opportunity to come back and see where the people he loves are in current day. It’s very authentic and real.

Brooke won an award for her role in Slime City Massacre in 2010…

What are your thoughts on the genre industry?

I had always been a horror fan as a young girl, I loved the horror films, I have been a mystery thriller avid fan from Brian De Palma to Alfred Hitchcock and a shout out to the British, Agatha Christie. I have always been a huge fan of crime drama thrillers and I loved to uncover mysteries as a kid.

When I first went to the Sundance Film Festival in 2004 and I saw the first Saw franchise film I knew that horror was going to be very big mainstream. So I jumped on it and for me as a working actress, my world changed; I entered the genre world and I embraced it. I was the new Scream Queen.

It was such an opportunity for me which lead me to 1988 classic Slime City Massacre, which is when I broke out as the ‘Scream Queen Of Horror’. They asked me to play one of the three lead roles and I chose the supporting lead role as Nicole who was a hooker from the Fifties. I loved the role, it was an incredible opportunity.

It is our ten year anniversary of Slime City Massacre this year and Greg [Lambersonis the director] is re-releasing it again. My role [in the movie] ended up winning me the movie award of Horror Actress Scream Queen in 2010 and I am forever indebted.

In Hollywood, you are so judged by your appearance and I learned young that horror and sci-fi fans, they embrace women of various body types and colours and ethnicities and that is something I love about sci-fi/horror, they embrace women of all beauty. You do not have to be the picture-perfect Hollywood girl next door, you can actually have curves. They have always embraced that for me. It brings me back to 10/15 years ago in my heyday of the genre and it was so different then and I’m very emotional and melancholy about it!

The Mourning is out now on Tubi TV. Red Rooms, The Day Of The Living Dead and The Second Age of Aquarius are due to be released soon. Slime City Massacre is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.