Belinda Balaski: The Subliminal Starlet

Quite often in Hollywood actresses either play the leading lady or the leading lady’s best friend, whom I call the “Bridesmaid” of Cinema, the bubbly sidekick that’s usually – in her own right – just as pretty but in a supporting role. In most cases, neither can be completely anonymous for the sake of the film, that is, it’s rare to find someone both beautiful and at the same time able to blend into the landscape: a performer with leading lady qualities who can dazzle and amaze while providing the necessary substance to elevate the film’s overall conscience.

Throughout the last thirty years of film and television, Belinda Balaski has fit this particular, practically unheard of class of character-actress: the epitome of what I call “The Subliminal Starlet”.

When Belinda’s on screen you can’t take your eyes off her. But you soon forget anything on the surface level as you center entirely on her characters, who don’t exist to merely support the leading lady (or man), but are, on their own, a separate, important factor, particularly in two films, PIRANHA and THE HOWLING, where she provides, in each, characters with their own significant storyline… and fate!

In Joe Dante’s cult masterpiece PIRANHA, her character “Betsy” seems, at first, to be yet another beautiful camp counselor in a horror film featuring beautiful (doomed) camp counselors… but there’s more. During the night before the day the piranhas strike, “Betsy”, unaware of the impending situation – tells her friend about a particular unknown fear that she’s not too sure about – a premonition of something bad about to happen. And when “Betsy” meets her fate in one of the most riveting death scenes in horror film history, it’s because of that one-on-one soliloquy the night before that we, the audience, feel a heavy pang for her demise. You can even say, in a MUCH lighter sense, “Betsy” is liken to JAWS’s “Captain Quint” (played by Robert Shaw)… that is, we get to know her from the inside/out because of a heartfelt late night confession (as with “Quint” and his famous U.S.S. Indianapolis speech); and then, because of this prior scene, we feel so much more when she meets her doom while being pulled underwater by killer fish (again like “Quint”).

In another Joe Dante classic, THE HOWLING, her character “Terry Fisher” provides an important FILM NOIR element to the monster-horror vehicle. “Terry” isn’t a gumshoe-detective, per say, but is a curious, determined newsroom employee seeking out clues of the supposedly-dead antagonist, in this case a psychopath named “Eddie” who, as only the audience realizes, is a werewolf. We follow “Terry” as she, along with Dennis Dugan, visits a bookstore specializing in the supernatural (featuring Dick Miller as the store’s owner), where they “happen” upon some silver bullets… and then as she investigates the killer’s room, thus finding a clue that will eventually connect a very important piece of the puzzle. Later on when “Terry” meets her fate in a unique and horrifying death scene, which mixes beastly gore with an animalistic, horrifying passion… again we have Belinda playing a character the audience has assumed (all along) will die (since it is a horror film), but because she’s become so real the death takes on a more palpable effect on the viewer. Only a great actress (or actor) could pull this off… In both PIRANHA and THE HOWLING, her characters seem less like cliché horror film casualties and more like friends.

A few of Belinda’s other noted roles include that of a beautiful passenger/navigator in Paul Bartel’s CANNONBALL (centering on the real life illegal cross-country race)… which was made years before the mainstream Burt Reynolds franchise THE CANNONBALL RUN; and like Adrienne Barbeau in the Reynolds film, Balaski gets to distract a cop by simply being “smokin’ hot” (and, like Barbeau’s character... along with Robert Carradine… she eventually wins the race). Belinda also has a very important part in the Bert I. Gordon cult film FOOD OF THE GODS, where this time around she’s not a victim, but a late-term pregnant wife who’s the sole bearer of hope: bringing new life in the wake of nature gone awry – giant rats that are very pissed-off at humanity! And she plays a poor, put-upon mother in “Gremlins”, one of Joe Dante’s most popular (and conventional) films.

In each and every project, from BOBBIE JOE AND THE OUTLAW (in which she has dyed red hair and glasses) to SMALL SOLDIERS, Belinda, with her chameleon-like magnetism, is someone the casual viewer might recognize, only to think: “Where else have I seen her?” But for us cult film fanatics, she’s right up there with some of the greatest character actors of all time – and it’s beyond a thrill to have been granted an interview with this splendid, underrated goddess of cult cinema: Belinda Balaski.

INTERVIEW

In PIRANHA, how did they film the scene where the piranhas pulled you down under the water? How many takes did you have to do? 
There were about 5 crew guys at the end of the Olympic swimming pool at USC… with me at the other end of a rope! I’m a good swimmer, but was given “underwater diving lessons” by New World [Productions] and my instructor was underwater at all times with a tank/air for me as I (and Joe) needed for multiple takes. They (Rob Bottin’s crew) tied the rubber Piranha to me with fishing wire and gaffers tape-wrapped around my body (hurt like hell when they pulled it off!!!). Once in the water I was batting away at the rubber fish as they released “blood” (Karo syrup, etc). They pulled me across the pool (under water) several times, but being a good swimmer it was fun!
At dailies I remember Roger [Corman] was there and we were all quite nervous: Jon, Joe, Mike, everyone. When the scene played there wasn’t a sound in the house, then Roger boomed “more blood!!!” and got up and walked out!
It was shot too wide anyway and you could see the strings… so Jon asked me if I’d  reshoot, and I realized I had a “chance” finally and said only if you give me a body suit under the tape and the billing my agent and I had asked for…  Ahhhh yes, that tiny bit of power!

What was it like filming CANNONBALL (if you could possibly describe briefly how it was to film a movie where most of it takes place on the road)?
We had a ball on CANNONBALL! First I was picked up by a “driver” named Mike who looked about 16! He drove me out to the set in the desert which took about 2 hrs! So I was asking him what he wanted to be when he “grew up” and he was telling me he wanted to be a Producer, but wanted to start at the bottom so he’d know every job on the set! Well that “boy” grew up to be Mike Finnell!!!
It was great fun being on the road with Bobby & David Carradine! Veronica Hamel was a doll and I especially loved working with the incorrigible Mary Woronov & Bill McKinney!
What an incredible cast! Even Joe was in it, John Landis, & Jonathan Kaplan. It was a film buff’s bazaar! And Paul made the whole picture a blast! He was absolutely 1000% committed to his films which made everyone work very seriously!!!

Describe the differences acting along with made-up monsters (like Robert Picardo in THE HOWLING) and doing it to a green-screen monster (reacting to the big rats in FOOD OF THE GODS)… Which is more difficult or challenging?

When we shot THE HOWLING there was no werewolf. Rob hadn’t finished him yet! So all takes without the werewolf were shot first! We didn’t even know what he was going to look like, much less how big he was… So all my close-ups with the gurney and they rigged hanging (my feet dangling) were done without. Picardo did some shots with make-up, but most shots were finished 3 months later. I’d flown back to Kauai where I was living and when I flew back in, I mentioned my hair was a couple inches longer and should be cut, but Gigi the hairdresser insisted it looked the same so you can tell what was shot when just by watching the length of my hair switch back and forth!! Anyway working with Joe [Dante] is always fun and no one ever made me look better than John Hora! The stuff in the shed where the hand pulses was just John and I in this tiny space, and of course the hand was done months later too! So virtually you are stuck with your ability to “imagine”!

With Bert [Gordon] in FOOD OF THE GODS we were up on Bowen Island, Vancouver, Canada which was gorgeous! Bert wanted that grey/rainy look, so we went in November. Well there we were not a week into the exteriors when it began to snow!!! While we waited for the snow to burn off, Ida Lupino would sit & sing on top of the baby grand piano while Ralph Meeker played all the oldies. Marjoe had incredible dinner parties nearly every night! Having just finished BOBBIE JOE AND THE OUTLAW with Marjoe [Gortner], we were all really having a good time. Pamela Franklin was my “roommate” and she taught me how to crochet!  It was awesome to be up there, the island was so very beautiful! We kept waiting for the snow to stop and burn off, but it kept on to the point where Ida waltzed in one morning about 5am and announced she’d written herself a death scene, and Bert better shoot it, because she was leaving on the last ferry that day!!! Bert finally gave up and started “burning off” the snow with torches as his budget was spreading thin.

Tom Berman made these gigantic rats that Bert had stuffed and mainly that’s all we knew on set!! I had that great “baby” suit I wore for months and Tom Stovall was running around carrying a script he spent the next 10 years trying to get made, named SILKWOOD.

When we got home to LA, I visited Bert’s rat lab where he did all the “close ups”. I must admit, Bert loved his rats! I’ve never seen such passion for them! He may have used blue screen there, but I’m not really sure, as we weren’t really privy to that part of it.

What do you think of CGI compared to the more hands-on special effects of the seventies/eighties films?
Personally I love the evolution of “special effects” and think none of what’s going on today could have happened without all that went before. Just watching Rob Bottin’s talent grows and change with the industry is an education in itself! It’s all good, if it works!

I noticed that you were in two Marjoe Gortner vehicles, BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW and FOOD OF THE GODS… How was it working with Marjoe?
Marjoe works harder than anyone I’ve ever met on a set! He was deeply involved in all aspects of both movies. He worked hand in hand with Mark Lester and Linda Carter and again with Bert, he was like a producer on the set! He’s as sharp as a tack and there is no end to his energy! The funny thing is I had some personal history around Marjoe long before I met him. Many years ago I lived in Half Moon Bay where it was rumored his mother lived. No one ever saw her, but there were always stories about her and how she was so abusive with Marjoe as a child learning to be an evangelist. He later came out with his film “Marjoe” which I watched 100 times for research when I did “Black Eye” for Jack Arnold. By the time I actually met Marjoe, I could have written a book myself about his life! I was quite in awe of Marjoe and his personal power and admired his ability to survive the things he had!

Briefly describe working for Joe Dante? How did he change as a director from his unknown beginnings in Piranha to where he was a famous director in Gremlins and Gremlins 2?
Joe is one of my favorite people on this planet! He was such a delight to work with! We sort of grew up together having done 11 movies with each other. At the beginning he was terrified to “direct” anyone! I remember one day Kevin complaining that he wanted more direction from Joe and when I mentioned this to Joe, he just about fell over! He was like: “Me? Direct Kevin McCarthy?? How???” But I invited him to my acting classes and he began to realize how insecure actors really are and how much they do want to be directed! We cannot see ourselves when we are working and really need that third eye! Most of the films I’ve done with Joe are improvised! Like GREMLINS: he called and said he wanted me in it and I asked for a script and he said; “Oh just come in and we’ll improvise something”!!! Well to be honest, I panicked and wrote out 12 scenes and brought this huge wad of papers with me to the set! He read them and loved my first scene and said just go to Polly Holliday and have her adlib her lines… boy was my heart pounding!!! He was so open to our suggestions, like on PIRANHA. Paul and I had done Cannonball and were there on the set together with no scene between us! So we asked Joe if we could add one and he agreed! I wrote the midnight scene with Melody in front of the lake where Paul comes out looking for who’s making that noise, and Paul wrote the rest after he leaves us! These were the good old days when you could be this creative entity on a set and everyone was there to make it as brilliant as possible. Besides we were all nearly family; same cast, same crew, same producers. Joe told me he always wanted a repertoire company he could use in every film! I feel very fortunate to have been a part of that family!  I think we’ve all become a bit cynical about the business; it’s really just not the same!

What is your favorite quality about a director?
It’s so important for a director to have a vision and be able to communicate that vision to you while empowering your creativity. That way everyone is on the same page and working at their peak together. Joe Dante and Dick Heffron are my personal faves as they both trusted me enough to listen and allow me the freedom to write scenes in every show I ever did with them.

When I read the FOREVERWARE script for Eerie, Indiana with Joe, I immediately asked him for a wig. He was like, “What for?” I was like: “I need it!” He was so not into it, but allowed me to choose! Heather MacRae was my old college roomy and I wanted to “recreate her”! As it turned out the producers liked my wig (and my character) so much they wrote me into a 2nd episode and gave me a child (with the same wig/wardrobe!).

What’s your least favorite quality of a director? 
The worst kind of Director is one who makes you feel small and stupid… I would never empower them by mentioning their names!

What are your favorite qualities about an actor or actress you are doing a scene with?
Two of my favorite actors I’ve ever worked with are Cloris Leachman and Bob Picardo! Cloris is absolutely brilliant and holds no punches when she’s working! It feels like heaven to work with someone like Cloris whom I’ve had the fortune to work with a couple of times. We just “clicked”, perhaps because we share the same passion and recognize it in each other. Picardo is like the most brilliant comedian I’ve ever met! He has endless talent and is a complete joy on a set! I must admit I also loved working with Peter Strauss and Charlton Heston in PROUD MEN, and Nick Nolte in PICNIC at the old Met Theatre. They all bring so much to the table!

Least favorite qualities of an actor or actress you’re doing a scene with?
Well there was this one actress in HALFWAY TO DANGER that intentionally would “forget” her lines on my close ups… just to try to mess with me… tacky! And the ones that are just soooo important! They’re always a pain… Which is why you must have tough skin!!!

Briefly describe the difference in acting for TV than film?
TIME!!!

 What is your favorite film that you appeared in (that you think turned out the best)?
I loved ARE YOU MY MOTHER, THE RUNAWAYS, and PROUD MEN, all three of which I was submitted for Emmy’s by the producers.

Which film do people mention to you the most?
THE HOWLING.

Which film did you have the best time filming?
THE HOWLING.

Which of your characters is your favorite? 
Terry Fisher (THE HOWLING), Anna (ARE YOU MY MOTHER), and Lynn Hollister (MRS. R’S DAUGHTER)

Have you kept in touch with your fictional son (the actor who played your son in GREMLINS), Nicky Katt, who is now gained some cult movie status of his own?
No, but isn’t that wonderful!!

How was it working with the great, great, great (did I mention great?) Dick Miller?
How can you not love Dick Miller!!! Course you don’t want to win a poker game with him!!! He might never speak to you again!!!

Being both a leading lady and a character actress, what is your favorite type of role to play?
I am at heart a character actress! It took a while to get in the front seat of the car, but the better roles are in the back seat!!!

Where did you study acting and how long did you desire to be an actress before breaking into the business?
When I was 5 I heard a voice that told me I was going to be an actress. I believe to this day it was God’s voice I heard and I did everything possible from that day on to make it happen. I was on Drama Scholarships from 7th-12th grade at a private school in La Jolla, and did theatre every chance I could. In my senior year I was simultaneously playing Helen Keller at my school, Wendy in Peter Pan at the Starlight Opera in San Diego and a third play at a community theatre! All I ever wanted was to go to Pasadena Playhouse for college, but it closed halfway thru my senior year, so I followed my sister to Colorado and again was on a drama scholarship in college. From there I eventually made my way to LA, and started by doing Elma Duckworth in Bus Stop at the Met Theatre where we walked out with 5 Drama Critics Circle Awards! It was the first year they put the small theatres in the same category as the Ahmanson, Taper, Shubert, etc! We were a 47 seat theatre and won best Play, best Director (Jim Gammon), best Set (Timothy Scott), best Supporting Actress (me) and best Supporting Actor (Rick Downs). I went on to do 2 more Inge plays; Dark at the Top of the Stairs (won a Robby for Reenie), and Picnic (w/ Nick Nolte) and again won 2 Robbies (as Millie and Madge whom I understudied in 1 performance and Robbie came back to see it!) We had such success at that theatre; even names like Robert DeNiro were coming to see our shows, besides all the casting directors, producers, directors! From that point on I just started working.

Any favorite actresses of the last decade?
I love Joan Allen, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Blunt, Evan Rachel Wood, and Charlize Theron.

Who were your favorite actresses growing?
Debbie Reynolds, Tuesday Weld, Carol Lynley, Cloris Leachman, Patty Duke, Bette Davis and Natalie Wood.

What’s your favorite movie of all time?
Oh my God… can anyone answer that?

Shortly sum up the experience from each following films:

BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW:

My first movie! You should see my script! I have notes all over it! Looks like Eugene O’Neill wrote it!!!

PIRANHA:
My first Joe Dante film! Some seriously fun times in San Marcos, Texas!

FOOD OF THE GODS:
Bert screaming: “Now think… think … rats!” right before EVERY take!!!  Or “Umbrellas for my stars” when it’d start to rain!

CANNONBALL:
Being in a corvette with Bobby Carradine for 2 weeks, David Carradine’s pet ferret, and Paul screening DEATH RACE 2000 outside on a lovely desert evening!

THE HOWLING:
Everything about it was awesome, especially Mendocino!!!

GREMLINS:
Improvising with Polly Holliday and walking around in Styrofoam snow in the middle of summer in the valley wearing heavy winter clothes, boots, muffs, etc! And working with the Hulk in Gremlins.

Interview by James M. Tate

Visit the Official Belinda Balaski Website: www.BelindaBalaski.com
MySpace Belinda Balaski Fansite: www.myspace.com/belindabalaski

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