Brenda Currin Interview

Brenda Currin: Courage/Passion/Conviction

Brenda Currin picBrenda Currin is the epitome of a versatile actress. In her first film, “In Cold Blood” (based on the non-fiction bestseller by Truman Capote) she plays a meek, gentle, lovely teenager, “Nancy Clutter”, one of four doomed Kansas family members sought-out and murdered by two ex-cons (played superbly by Robert Blake and Scott Wilson).

Over a decade later she portrayed “Pooh” in the George Roy Hill film “The World According to Garp” (based on John Irving’s novel), a mute, strange, spectacle-wearing young lady who turns from eerie to dangerous as she eventually does to “Garp” (Robin Williams) what had happened to “Nancy Clutter”.

In both films – each a unique, foreboding cinematic experience – Brenda captures the essence of two completely different kinds of people: the predator and the prey. She also appeared in several other motion pictures including “Reds”, “Taps”, “Going Berserk”, and the cult horror favorite, “C.H.U.D.”


When did you first realize you wanted to be an actress?
I was mainly into sports and wanted to be an athlete, but I had an accident at age 16 (fell off a cliff) which curtailed that dream. Being an actress would never have occurred to me in a million years because I had a bad stutter. However at age 12 when I went to summer camp I was forced to take Dramatics. Lo and behold, I found I did not stutter when I played another role. Years later when I was on crutches, instead of the gym, I went to the Drama class and ran the sound equipment for the class play. I was in heaven. Luckily I loved the theater as much as sports.

I majored in theater at the University of Kansas and had wonderful opportunities there. Still I took it moment by moment and had no plan for my grown-up life. The IN COLD BLOOD experience made me think “Oh I’ll do this!” without any real idea of what being a professional actress entailed. I moved to New York, however, with Mary Linda Rapelye (who plays Susan Kidwell in IN COLD BLOOD). I began study with Uta Hagen (5 years) and eventually began to get work in the theater. My real education had begun.


How were you selected for the role of “Nancy Clutter?
After auditioning actors in New York and Los Angeles and still not able to cast key roles, Richard Brooks, the director, and a contingent from Hollywood came to the theater department at the University of Kansas to try and find “real Kansans”. I was from North Carolina but no matter. We auditioned as a group, doing improv, etc. definitely not from the screenplay. Brooks who wrote the screenplay adaptation was very secretive. Brooks approached me after a long session of auditioning and said for me to be sure and send him my picture and some information about myself. I did not have a “headshot” and sent him my high school graduation picture. I didn’t hear anything and as the months went by, I forgot about it.

What were your favorite scenes to film involving the Clutter family?
All of the Clutter family scenes on the Saturday leading up to the murder were to show the normal activities of their lives. I liked the scene where I (Nancy) ride bareback the beloved mare Babe up to the house with my (Nancy’s) best friend, Susan played by Mary Linda Rapelye. We get off and I tell her Bobby (Nancy’s boyfriend) is coming over to watch TV tonight. The scene was shot late in the afternoon, the sky was darkening in mood, Brooks directed me to turn my head slightly and gaze toward the tree-lined drive leading to the house. There is of course the foreboding of the killers who later would cut the engine off in their car as they approached the house from that tree-lined road. 

What memories do you have of the intense scene with Robert Blake in the bedroom?
It certainly was intense. Both actors playing the killers made a point of not speaking to or even making eye contact with any of us playing members of the Clutter family. They wouldn’t even stay in the same motel where everyone else involved in the film stayed. Blake and Wilson were either downright unfriendly or ignored us. That afternoon Brooks and cinematographer Conrad Hall were shooting the scene with Perry Smith in Nancy’s bedroom, with the camera on Perry only. The film was shot in the actual house of course because her bedroom was so small they had to remove her twin bed in order to get the camera in there.

Brooks called me upstairs to be on the other side of the camera so that Perry could direct his lines to me. This was the first encounter with Robert Blake and I was nervous. There was no hello or anything between us. Just as the camera started to roll, he began hurling the most abusive invectives I had ever heard. There was such hatred in his voice, I was blindsided and broke down sobbing. Brooks immediately said, “Action!” and Perry says in the gentlest of voices as he looks at the pictures, “Do you like horses?” Afterwards I went into the mother’s room down the hall and sat on the bed to collect myself. Bobby Blake came in and sat down beside me. He said in that sweet voice he has, “You’re a nice actress.” We were friends from that point and in fact, became very close.

What about the next scene in the same bedroom with Scott Wilson?
Similarly, the first contact I had with Scott Wilson playing Dick Hickock was when he sits down on my bed (my hands and feet are tied up) and asks with this sickening grin, “Have you ever had a man, Honey?” When Blake as Perry Smith with his leg hurting bursts into the room and with a fury stops Wilson/Hickock, I as an actress and Nancy felt humiliated, terrified, terribly relieved and grateful to Blake/Smith. 

What kind of direction were you given for the death scene?
Richard Brooks directed me to turn and face the wall at the moment that Perry Smith was about to pull the trigger. Mainly what I remember is the high emotion at this point of the filming. The filming of the murder sequence took place over an entire week at the actual Clutter house. All the windows had been blacked out to create nighttime. Conrad Hall used only the light of a flashlight to shoot every horrific scene. It was completely claustrophobic in the house. 

When picturing that moment you ask about, it hurts me and feels terribly private because it represents the moment before an awful death for the real human being, Nancy Clutter. It was a simple and true direction for Brooks to give me. There was a point made by the real killers themselves, the Clutters never screamed or struggled. They kept thinking if they were nice, the killers would leave the house and the family unharmed. 


The World According to GarpHow did you humanize the quiet yet formidable character “Pooh”?
Courage, protective, passion, conviction of beliefs, vulnerability.

What are some key memories of the funeral scene when you yell “AAAAAARP”?
There was so little character development opportunity for Pooh; she was more of an iconic persona. Just the image of her lets you know there is going to be trouble. This was a big scene to orchestrate because the whole auditorium (filmed at the New School, I believe) was filled with Ellen Jamesians. My memory is more of John Lithgow’s character and my excitement about his performance and his presence at the funeral. There was a lot going on: Amanda Plummer as Ellen James herself, Robin Williams in drag so he could attend Jenny’s funeral, etc.

I was given minimal direction. I thought of Pooh as single-minded in her hatred of Garp and her devotion to the Jamesians, so much so that her senses were highly developed. The scene for me was about focus, literally where I was looking and what I was truly seeing (not acting as if I’m seeing). Pooh is on edge anyway, she thinks she sees him, she DOES see him and it is her duty to expose him immediately. She is an accuser. That’s how I thought of it.

How did you prepare speaking as a tongue-less “Pooh”?
I don’t remember. It’s the technical immobilization of the tongue in the mouth. It’s uncomfortable and the attempt to speak reflects that. The removal of her tongue doesn’t diminish Pooh’s accusatory nature.

How did you prepare for the intense climactic scene where “Pooh” shoots Garp?
My preparation was I arrived on the set of Garp after leaving Valley Forge, Pa where I was playing one of the mother’s in TAPS. It was a frantic segue for me. Minutes after I arrived I was told to get into a nurse’s uniform and shoes. The prop guy gave me a gun and demonstrated how to shoot it. It had blanks but still had a kickback. Quickly I was led into the small gymnasium filled with boys who Garp was coaching in wrestling.  George Roy Hill told me what the moves were.

I was to enter the gym on a small staircase, wind my way through the boy wrestlers towards Garp. When I am in close range, he looks up, sees me and says, “Pooh,” and I shoot point blank and all the boy wrestlers are to jump me and wrestle me to the ground. Hill told the cameraman to shoot the rehearsal. The camera was aimed at my feet coming into the gym with the ominous nurse’s shoes. This was my first shot in the movie which unnerved me because I’m self conscious about my feet. It went perfectly and Hill called it a “take” which was a huge relief to me because it was very intense being wrestled to the ground. But after a quick review it was noted that one of the boy wrestlers had smiled during the take and we had to do it again. I turned to the boys with my gun pointed and asked “Who smiled?” We did it again. 

“The World According to Garp” (by John Irving) and “In Cold Blood” (by Truman Capote) are movies based on famous books – had you read either before filming?
I had read IN COLD BLOOD while at college in the bedroom I rented from a grad school married couple. The bedroom was located at the top of the stairs and Capote’s description of Nancy’s terror after hearing two shots fired and footsteps running up the stairs towards her bedroom. I had anticipated the exact thing I would be called upon to act in the filming of the movie… GARP I had tried to read and couldn’t get into it. After being cast in the role I definitely got into it. I thought Steve Tesich’s screenplay was a fantastic adaptation capturing the essence of the book. I also admired Brooks’ adaptation of Capote’s tightly constructed book.


How did your part in Warren Beatty’s “Reds” come about?
I had attended a play at the Public Theater in New York and Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton were in the audience. I had heard of Warren's reputation with women and when I saw him at intermission I made a special point to not even notice him. A couple of weeks later I had a message on my answering machine "to call Warren Beatty". I thought it was a joke; I called the number and jokingly asked: "May I speak to Warren Beatty?" The voice on the other end said, "He's not here right now, may I have him call you?" I waited and shortly the phone rang. "Hi this is Warren," he said. "Do you remember us cruising each other at the Public?" He went on to say he was making a movie about John Reed and that he didn't know who I would play but I would be just perfect for it. He gave me an appointment to come in and meet with him. 

I went to a building in midtown Manhattan where he had an entire floor for the pre-production of REDS. It was amazing, there were pictures and the history of John Reed's entire life, there was the Russian Revolution documented, and of course, pictures and writings of Louise Bryant. I met with him and Dede Allen, the great film editor. They spent time with me telling me the epic story, explaining all the fascinating images in room after room. Warren told me to do some homework on my own and in several weeks to call him and tell him who I thought I should play. Well, of course I read John Reed's Ten Days that Shook the World and many other books. I called back with a Russian woman in mind I thought I'd be perfect for. He laughed and said no. I ended up being Marjorie Jones, one of the Bohemians and members of the Eugene O'Neill crowd that moved back and forth between Provincetown and Greenwich Village.

How was Warren Beatty as a director?
He was possessed with the subject matter and making this film. He was indefatigable. He believed that he didn't get what he wanted out of an actor until the 38th take. He was inspiring because he knew so much and brought everything he had to give to every moment of the actual filming, the pre and post production. The editing itself took a year during which he sat by Dede Allen's side involved in every meticulous decision. I have the utmost respect for him.

Anything else about “Reds”?
Though I didn't have much of a part, it was a heady time being in London for 7 weeks in the company of THE Hollywood icons at the time, Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, not to mention a roster of great theater actors. There was a genuine on and off the set excitement at all times. (Richard Sylbert, the Art Director recreated Greenwich Village and Provincetown, MA in London and the English coast.)

You played a parent in “Taps”… What’s the strongest memory of that shoot?
Tom Cruise Tom Cruise Tom Cruise. Whenever I hear Tom Cruise bashing, I pipe up and tell them about my experience with him working on the set of Taps. He was exceedingly not only gracious but kind. There was such a genuine sweetness to him. He would always seek me out, even from a distance, make eye contact and smile. It was as though he needed reassurance and was giving it both at the same time. Taps was shot on the set of the Valley Forge Military Academy in Valley Forge, PA. I got the call for my first day of filming of GARP while trapped in Valley Forge. I was not released although I had nothing to do. It became a serious legal matter for me to leave. Thankfully, everything finally worked out.

Was it fun working on “Going Berserk” with John Candy and Eugene Levy?
Yes, tremendous fun. The standout memory for me was working with Eugene Levy who thought I was funny and a day’s work turned into a week because he wanted me to have more to do. I also enjoyed David Steinberg’s directing.

How was it working on the cult classic “C.H.U.D.” (Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers)?
I had a day's work on C.H.U.D., which I was told to dress like a Soho artist. It was the '80's and I wore a bandana on my head Indian style. For the shot, I was told to walk down this street in Soho, to look down on a particular cue and then react as if I saw the most monstrous thing ever and scream. And that's what I did. I thought I was involved in some low-budget deal that would never see the light of day. Little did I know! What I did know was that respectable actors such as John Heard and Ruth Malachech were also participating in it. I have never seen the movie! 


ROBERT BLAKE: Intense, complex, dark, brooding, tender, sweet and silly. 
SCOTT WILSON: Quiet. Brooks was always on his case. I remember Conrad Hall standing on the balcony of the Garden City Motel after a day’s shooting, holding up a strip of film of a scene with Dick Hickock and referring to Scott’s performance: “Even this guy’s mistakes are right!” Wonderful actor! Spoke to him at length on telephone years later and realized what a wonderful person he is also. Very generous. He went to see Blake when he was in jail.
JOHN MCLIAM:  Like Herb Clutter, decent, dignified, good at what he did. Didn’t really get to know him, but remember so well his standing at the sink shaving. Also indelible image of him in Herb’s office and the terrifying scene in the basement tied up to the mattress box. 
RUTH STOREY: Fascinating woman and actress, she had been married to Richard Conte. She reached out to me and was motherly, helpful and unfailingly supportive and friendly. Both McLiam and Storey were wonderful casting choices, I thought.
PAUL HOUGH: A good friend from K.U., he was very active in the theater department, talented singer and dancer as well. When they put those glasses on him, he became Kenyon. Paul was a very confident young man, but was a bit off balance in the filming process which I believe also contributed to his utterly believable performance.
TRUMAN CAPOTE: Treasured memory: Truman Capote was in Kansas for one week during the filming. He did not feel welcome there as he and Brooks had had a huge fight and were not speaking. But Capote extended an invitation to Paul and me to come to his motel room for a visit. Capote had a cold and sat on the bed with a big bath towel blowing his nose. He wanted to know all about Paul and me and was unguarded in telling us all he could remember about his experience in coming to Kansas for the first time, getting involved in the murder case and writing the book.
RICHARD BROOKS: An ex-marine, very gruff, white military crew cut, I had a big crush on him. He was very sweet and protective with me. Passionate, dramatic, funny.
RICHARD KELTON: A beautiful man and actor who tragically died soon after appearing in the movie. Richard and Paul and Mary Linda and I had all shared in a 10 week tour of Eastern Europe performing an original theater piece by our teacher William Kulke, “An American Medley”.
GEORGE ROY HILL: Precise, detached, and confident. He had a perfectly folded NY Times in the pocket of his director’s chair, which he would read between takes.
MARY BETH HURT: Charming, sensible, talented, she was part of the Julliard set along with Robin Williams, etc. She and Glenn Close were very good friends and had Bill Hurt in common.
ROBIN WILLIAMS: Manic, kind, compulsive entertainer. Between takes he would do a stand-up routine for the crew or anybody who watched. A good actor; an inspired choice to play Garp.
WARREN BEATTY: He once told me that he knew he wasn't that interesting an actor (I disagree) but that he was smart enough to surround himself with actors who were interesting, so that when the camera cut back to him the audience would not have had a chance to be bored. The example he gave was Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons in Bonnie and Clyde. As I said, I think Beatty is a wonderful filmmaker. Brave and sometimes radical, i.e. BULLWORTH.
DIANE KEATON: So exactly who she is...all those things, extremely serious about her work, very smart, very giving and very interested in others. She inspired me to talk to her about all of my esoteric ideas and responded with her characteristic generosity and enthusiasm. As her grandmother would say, "A darling of a girl."
JACK NICHOLSON: Outrageous. Completely winning. Brilliant. The first day he showed up on the set (Twickenham) I was in waiting-mode. He approached me and asked if I wanted to go with him to see "Ming". I had no idea what he was talking about but agreed nonetheless. He took me to an accompanying film set and introduced me to Max von Sydow who was playing "Ming" in FLASH GORDON. On the walk back to the REDS set in trying to make small talk with "Jack" I asked what he'd just been doing. Doing the famous Jack Nicholson impression he said with that inimitable lunacy: "THE SHINING!!!"

Interview by James M. Tate

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