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Piper Laurie: On Rock Hudson, Mel Gibson and 'Carrie'
'Carrie' screens Sunday, Dec. 4, 2 p.m., at the Music Box Theater
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2011-11-30

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Piper Laurie. Photo by David Child


Actress Piper Laurie has had a celebrated film, television and stage career for which she has garnered three Oscar nominations, a Golden Globe and a slew of other awards. The shy, Southern-born actress began at Universal as a contract player in her teens. There, she found herself cast in a series of insipid pictures and poured through the studio's promotion mill.

Rebelling, she broke her contract and headed to New York to really delve into her craft. In 1961, she was lured back to co-star with Paul Newman in The Hustler, winning acclaim and new respect from producers. However, Piper ( whose stage name was given to her when she signed her Universal contract ) opted to retreat into a personal life that encompassed marriage and raising a daughter.

In 1976, however, she was tempted to return to films when her agent sent her the script of Carrie—adapted by its director, Brian DePalma, from Stephen King's first novel. The story follows on a lonely teenage girl who exacts revenge with her telekinetic powers on her classmates at the prom from hell and her religious fanatic of a mother, Margaret White—which was Laurie's role.

The movie ( for which she was paid a flat $10,000 ) went on to garner Piper another Oscar nomination as well as a run of notable films and television parts ( with Twin Peaks being the most famous ) . Now, Laurie has written a memoir, Learning to Live Out Loud, in which she details her often eye-opening experiences in and out of show business.

Laurie will be in town on Sunday, Dec. 4, for a screening of Carrie at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., followed by a Q&A ( conducted by myself and David Cerda, artistic director of Hell in a Handbag Productions ) and a book-signing in the lobby of the theatre ( where copies will be on sale ) . Still energetic and filled with enthusiasm for her craft at 81, Laurie is far from the scary villains she's often played and is much more like the sweet, tender Southern belle in the little-seen-but-worthwhile The Grass Harp—just one of the films we touched on her our lively discussion.

Windy City Times: Starlet, "serious actress," sculptor, now author—my goodness, what a fascinating life you've led.

Piper Laurie: [ Laughs ] Yes, I think so! A good friend of mine says I'm not just a survivor but a surmount-er. [ Laughs ]

WCT: There's a lot to talk about, and obviously we can't get to everything but there are many moments in your career and life that intersect with the gay community, so let's start there. What do you remember about Rock Hudson?

PL: He was a dear friend and we started out together at Universal—we screen tested together and it worked and they signed both of us. He loved to eat and laugh. My mother loved to cook for him—I lived at home thousands of years before I left. [ Laughs ] He was a lovely guy—very insecure and very sensitive and I was thrilled that he was able to break out of that and become confident and I think he did wonderful work.

WCT: You worked with another young actor who became a huge star—Paul Newman in The Hustler in 1961. Can you talk a little bit about working with him?

PL: Paul was a lovely guy; happily married and though we had a lot of chemistry when we worked together it never went beyond that. He was a wonderful, simple kind of actor who never thought he was as good as he was and worked very hard. I think we both took our jobs very seriously and I think we suffered [ laughs ] more than we needed to over the material.

WCT: I love how you describe in the book that though you'd worked with him in the past in a minor film. All of a sudden, there he was across the table from you, looking at you with those famous baby-blue eyes.

PL: Well, that was difficult those first few weeks when I was just a few feet away from him and got a good look at that face and those eyes. I could just hardly breathe. I couldn't speak [ laughs ] and get the words out at first. Then I decided to just sit back and enjoy it and just looked at him and just indulged in his beauty which I don't really think he really understand that he was such a beautiful thing to look at.

WCT: You depict him as a very down-to-earth guy, focused on the work. Then we fast-forward decades later to another young man focused on the work and the day you meet your leading man on Tim—Mel Gibson.

PL: I did not know who was going to be cast in the movie. I thought, "Oh the hell with it, I'll work with whoever they get." I was just looking forward to the trip to Australia and taking my family with me. The first day we were supposed to take pictures together and I was dreading the moment. I was in the wardrobe truck and they said, "Your co-star has arrived." I came down the steps and there was this fellow smiling at me—23-year-old Mel Gibson—and it was an amazing moment for me. [ Laughs ]

WCT: Your description of working with him in the book and then sharing an intimate evening with him at the conclusion of the film is very interesting. I also like that you write that in spite of all the controversies swirling about him recently, this wasn't the person you knew and you can still treasure your experience with him.

PL: I have no idea what was going on—what his devils were and how he's dealt with these last years. I've had no contact with him and one never knows but I treasure the experience I had with him for what it was and that's okay.

WCT: Your career has also included a fair amount of stage work—including a major role in Larry Kramer's play The Destiny of Me. We often think of him only as this fiery, angry AIDS activist but he sounds gentler and softer in your book. He's one of our great heroes and we don't hear much about this side of him.

PL: We were all scared of him because we'd heard he was a very angry person and he insisted on being at every rehearsal from the very start and you know, actors are insecure anyway and then to have someone like that—that we thought we knew—watching over every moment was daunting. But it turned out that Larry was so dear and so open and generous to all of us. He made us feel very relaxed and free. He even accepted a suggestion I had about rearranging some of my speeches. It was wonderful to have an intelligent man that was so generous with the actors and the director.

WCT: I'm fascinated to know that you read Carrie as a comedy and that was your approach when you began in rehearsal.

PL: I didn't really care for the script and I talked to my husband about it and he said, "Maybe you misread it—Brian DePalma has a comedic approach to most of the things he's done" so I re-read it and thought it was a comedy; a satire and I thought that had more possibilities in that approach. I hadn't made a movie in 15 years and he [ DePalma ] decided to hire me. So they flew me out to California for rehearsal and by then I'd thought up some bits that I thought would be funny; or pretty broad—like pulling myself around the room by my own hair in anguish.

So I grabbed my hair and did it a couple of times during the rehearsal in Brian's apartment and he stopped me and said, "Piper, you're going to get a laugh if you do that" and I thought to myself, "Isn't that the point?" I suddenly realized I had misunderstood and this was serious so I adjusted what I did but did it with a different motivation.

WCT: Well I think it's still funny—but horrifically funny which much of the film is—it's nasty funny.

PL: I think I'm pretty funny in the movie. [ Laughs ]

WCT: You're so over the top—it's one of those great performances where you can laugh and be terrified at the same time.

PL: When the movie first came out people did not laugh and then after they'd seen it a couple of times they felt free to laugh and I think it's funny. I do! [ Laughs ] You know what helped me? After I'd rehearsed and they flew me back to Woodstock for a month or so before we shot. I went into New York and I went to see his movie Phantom of the Paradise which had just opened and it was so operatic and that really freed me to be as big as I wanted to be.

WCT: That's very interesting because all the scenes between you and Sissy Spacek are like operatic duos—these arias between mother and daughter. You sort of gasp at how high you two climb—it veers on melodrama; it's so over the top and fun and great all at once.

PL: Thank you. We shot those early scenes over and over. You see I hadn't acted in front of a camera for 15 years and this was a very unusual experience for me—thinking of it as fun instead of a life or death struggle, which it had been always before. I just gave myself permission to just go for it and be as big as I wanted to be. I have no trouble doing take after take. I was always "full." I did ask that we do the last scene, the monologue, just once without rehearsal because I wanted to be as raw and exposed as I could be in that moment.

WCT: You write about your take on Margaret White's death scene—that she was happy because she was finally going to meet her maker—but I've always interpreted that as a long overdue orgasm—after years of being pent up. Do you give any credence to that, Piper?

PL: That's just where your mind is! [ Laughs ]

WCT: Okay, okay. [ Laughs ] But every time one of those knives stabs into you…

PL: What can I say? [ Laughs ]

WCT: Your work brought you an Oscar nomination and a lot of villainous roles—like the baddies you play in Appointment with Death, Twin Peaks, etc.

PL: You know, I'm not that person and the success of Carrie made people want to cast me that way. That was a one-time chance to play-act like children do—the mean person—and draw on all the things you wish you could do but that's not who I am in real life. I've never behaved like that and it upsets me a little bit that that's what they throw at me. I have had other opportunities like the thing I did with Sissy years later—The Grass Harp.

WCT: Which is criminally overlooked, I think. It's so unexpected to see you in that delicate, delightful part. It's a lyrical little movie, I think.

PL: And in real life I'm much closer to that lady and anybody who knows me will say that—maybe with a little laugh! I'm a person who loves nature and is vulnerable; the person who started out in life a little bit damaged and I'm very proud of the fact that I was able to move beyond that and reinvent my life. That was one of the many reasons I wrote my book.

WCT: Well, we will celebrate all aspects of your career when you're here with us on Dec. 4. Thank you on behalf of your movie fans in Chicago for creating so many indelible movie moments through the years.

PL: Thank you for that nice tribute. I can't wait to see everyone in Chicago.


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