Commencing her career as a child actress in television, before being cast as 13-year old Cathy Brenner in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds, Veronica Cartwright has carved out an impressively prolific career as a character actor over the past five decades. Notable genre roles subsequently included classics like Ridley Scott’s original Alien, Phillip Kaufman’s superior 1978 remake to Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and George Miller’s The Witches Of Eastwick, along with a slew of scene-stealing guest appearances in TV shows like The X-Files.
We spoke to the award-winning actress about working with the great master of suspense, being originally considered for the role of Ripley in Alien, how equally surprised she was by the twist ending of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and reveal how often she plays the voice of reason in cinema.
Tell us how you were cast in The Birds and your introduction to the great Alfred Hitchcock…
I did a movie called The Children’s Hour, which starred Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn. Mr Hitchcock had seen me in it and requested a meeting. So I met him at his bungalow at Universal Studios. We just talked. He told me how to cook a steak, as he felt I would need to know this some day when I was married. Then after finding out I was born in Bristol he told me about great wines as his favourite wine cellar was in Bristol. It was just a conversation to see if we got along. He was just lovely to me. He had a very dry sense of humour.
What are your fondest memories of working with the master?
He was always kind to me. I’d ask him about how things were done and he’d always answer me in detail and never made me feel uncomfortable. For example, the cardboard birds that were mixed in with real birds on the jungle gym scene… I said: ‘Isn’t the audience going to know that those are fake?’ And he said: ‘Well, the audience will see movement and automatically assume that they’re alive.’ To this day it’s hard to pick out the fake birds!
Was it intense working with real birds?
A couple of times it was creepy. When the birds came down the chimney, they were sent down shafts that were pulled in a shimmy and thousands of them went up and hit the ceiling. Then, realising they couldn’t go anywhere, they just dropped, which was disgusting and then [people] would just come along with shovels and sweep them back in and then into the shafts again. Thousands of birds flying around… it was creepy.
Can you tell us how the famous bird attack sequence was achieved upon the running school children?
We shot everything twice. We shot in Bodega Bay where we ran down that hill and we had mechanical birds that were on some of the kids’ shoulders. Those birds were built in Germany and were remote controlled. Then we shot it again in the studio with a mobile arm that swooped down with birds while we were running on this huge treadmill. We were all desperate to stay in front otherwise you’d just wipe everybody out. We just ran for our lives!
Also effective is when the birds invade the house pecking through the front door. How was that accomplished?
Well, there were a lot of real birds. They were finches in fact. They would have hammers and things like that so they would be able to go through the doors. However, they did also have birds sent in when Rod is trying to close the door. It was very realistic. The only early CGI was during that weird [bird’s eye view] shot where the birds are circling above the town.
Being so young at the time, how much of an affect did the film have on you?
Well, years later I had a wooden shingled roof house and a big eucalyptus tree outside and the crows would nest there. One day I heard this horrific stuff going on and I could hear all these things running on my roof and I saw 30 birds pulling my shingles to make a nest! It was so creepy and I told them that I’d done that movie already and they should just go away!
In Alien you played Lambert but you were originally considered for the role of Ripley weren’t you?
Originally that was the only part I read for so I assumed that was the part I had. I called my agent and said, ‘it’s for Ripley right?’ because they were saying I was Lambert! I hadn’t even read the script from the point of view of Lambert. It bothered me that the character was so weepy, so I tried to make her not such a campy ass! But in a weird way that character was the audience and the way they were feeling; they wanted to get out of there too!
In the Director’s Cut, there was a scene, following the quarantine altercation with Kane, where you slap Sigourney Weaver across the face! Was that real?
That was real. But every time I went to slap her she kept ducking. Then, Ridley Scott said to me “would you just get her this time!” So, I went to hit her and then I back-handed her and she was not a happy camper. Oh, she was pissed! She felt it wasn’t right for the character that I would cry and so it was cut out of the film. However, I thought it was a perfect reaction; of course you’d be pissed!
Ripley and Lambert didn’t really get along anyway did they?
I think we’d all been in space too long. We were all aggregated with one another and that was what the whole thing was. After Dallas died Ripley becomes the captain but she has to earn that; nobody was just going to let her be the captain. I was sort of the voice of reason that thinks, ‘let’s get the fuck out of here!’.
You get the most blood splattered on you during the iconic alien chest-burster scene. What are your memories shooting that?
Those were real reactions from everybody. John Hurt had a false chest filled with [animal] kidneys and livers… and then there was this puppeteer underneath doing the monster stuff, so we all saw the creature break through, turn around and look at us. I was told that I would get a little blood on me, but the blood jet was pointed directly in my face! I had no idea. I started getting so fascinated watching that thing and I then was just covered! That was the cut they used, as it was the only take we ever did. Well, it worked! And everybody remembers it that’s for sure!
It is infamous for being a pretty tough shoot too. Was it as tense on set as reported?
It was a very tense shoot. The Nostromo set was interconnected and you had to literally go through this maze to get off the set so it was very claustrophobic. Those space suits weren’t comfortable either and they forgot to give us air holes so we kept passing out. It was difficult and when we shot all that stuff there was a heat wave in England and all the bottles of beers were popping in the pubs. I’d lost ten pounds in just one week. It was grotesque. It was a rough shoot but we all made it work.
You were similarly cast in a ‘voice of reason’ role in Phillip Kaufman’s 1978 version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Tell us about that.
The film is about people being afraid of really loving or hating or of any true emotion… making it so much easier to live in that grey world. That’s what makes it so creepy. I said to Phillip [Kaufman], can we just try something here… it builds to a point where I say, ’they’re like monkeys and apes…’ and that ended up being in the movie. The information becomes a stimulating topic of conversation and again my character is the voice of reason.
Your character is essentially the only real human left at the end. The twist when Donald Sutherland’s character is revealed to be a pod person and emits that infamous shriek… that was a surprise to you too wasn’t it?
At the end of the movie when Donald Sutherland’s character screams at me I just freaked out! Both of us were told different things; so when he was revealed to have turned into one of [the pod people] I flipped out! My character, Nancy, was the voice of reason again. I even thought they might make a sequel, because she’d taken every precaution not to be found out and made sure nobody else was around, but of course, I did not know Donald was going to do that!
With George Miller’s The Witches Of Eastwick you play what ultimately became a very outlandish character. How fun was that role?
She’s just fantastic and it was so much fun. You just don’t get parts like that anymore. You think she’s so prim and proper but she wasn’t. You just don’t get scripts where you get to go ballistic and nuts and come up with things off the top of your head: growling, galloping and feeling oneself up – she was just a wacko! But the script made me do all those things!
Tell us about filming the infamous vomiting scene…
It took five days to shoot that scene. It was a tube that went up my dress and into my hand. That was actually the first take because after the second take they had to redress everything, which took an hour. They were real cherries with pips that were in huge tanks and then it shot up into my hand and looked like I was spewing it up. But the second time we did it nothing came out so I tried again… somebody turned the valve all the way up and it got to be so strong I had no control of my arm! It hit me in the face, my arm flew up, it flew up over the top of the set, it was hysterical and there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t control my arm!
More recently you had a cameo role in the fourth Body Snatchers movie The Invasion. Can you tell us how you came to be cast?
The director, Oliver Hirschbiegel, requested meeting me because I had been in the other one. He discussed how [my character] could’ve survived and taken on a whole new identity and here it was happening all over again.
There were reportedly some problems during production with reshoots…
Oliver had directed it originally and then they ended up reshooting stuff over a year later. It was James McTeigue that ended up doing the reshoot so they reshot that whole thing again. I don’t know what happened, it was kind of odd.
So the ‘my husband isn’t my husband’ scene was reshot. What was different about it originally?
I was more paranoid about things that were happening and it made it seem more like I’d been through this before and knew something really wasn’t good. I thought Oliver was doing a great job. He was bringing great eeriness to the whole thing and really added a sort of grunginess to it which made it much more interesting. Then James McTeigue came in, who was a very nice man, but it just looks like an entirely different movie.
The Birds, Alien, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and The Witches Of Eastwick are available on Blu-ray.