Interview: Danielle Harris

Danielle Harris - Hatchet III

Danielle Harris has been a horror movie icon since the age of 11. It’s a claim to fame and sense of longevity that her predominantly male counterparts can’t lay claim to as easily. Known best for the role of young Jamie Lloyd in the fourth and fifth Halloween instalments, she was headlining a mainstream horror franchise around the same time most horror heroes, heroines, and even villains were being put out to pasture.

Of course, Harris never only did horror films (popping up in such well known films as Free Willy and The Last Boy Scout), but it’s a part of her filmography that she has embraced whole heartedly over the years, coming back not only to take a supporting role in Rob Zombie’s more recent reimagining of the Michael Myers character, but to also headline the second and third instalments of the Adam Green created Hatchet franchise as backwoods heroine Marybeth, the most recent of which opens in Toronto this Friday.

On top of being a tirelessly working actress – speaking to us at the tail end of a pair of long press days in Toronto before heading off to do a Q&A for Hatchet III – she has also found time to mount her first directorial effort: a pitch black horror comedy called Among Friends (due out on DVD August 27th). Teaming up with screenwriter and the film’s star Alyssa Lobit (who made the extremely underrated indie drama The Things We Carry back in 2009), Harris tells the story of a bunch of self-absorbed Southern California buddies about to become engaged in one of the most deadly murder mystery themed dinner parties of all time.

We chatted about her up and down life as a working actress, her thoughts on playing “final girls,” how her Hatchet character has a bit of her own personality thrown in, how she got into directing, and why she demands pushing her actors to the limits like she had never been pushed before herself.

Dork Shelf: You’ve been everywhere around here the past couple of days, and it’s almost hard to keep up with you. I don’t even know how you’re still going right now, so thanks for taking the time out to chat. I remember seeing you on TV yesterday morning… Well, I saw you were on later in the day when I looked it up on the internet because I was too tired to even turn in the TV yesterday morning.

Danielle Harris: Yeah, man, I was almost too tired to even be there, myself. (laughs) It was great fun, though.

DS: Well, you are nothing if not tireless in your efforts, so thank you.

DH: Well, thank you! There was a great line in the local edition of Metro here yesterday that said “Danielle Harris is a machine disguised as a woman” and I LOVED that line. (laughs) That might end up just going on my gravestone.

DS: Kinda makes you sound like the Terminator.

DH: Kinda, yeah! That’s still very flattering.

DS: With the Hatchet films, parts 2 and 3, you were sort of coming back from a break from the horror genre still. I mean, you had shown up in Rob Zombie’s Halloween films, but those were supporting roles in those. Was there ever any hesitance on your part to come back and become sort of the co-headliner or face of another potential franchise?

DH: I think I never really think about it in terms of being a co-headliner or a lead. I just look at what I’m given and I just say “Oh, how many days am I working? AWESOME!” (laughs) I just like getting a good part where I actually have something to do! Then I get on set and I just start realizing that I have so much stuff to do and I start crying every day. (laughs and fake cries). And then there’s always the question “I’m covered in blood for HOW MANY days?”

DS: Well, on these it seems like it would be a pretty great chunk of the time.

DH: Oh, lord, on BOTH of them. Exactly. It was unbelievable. But I never really think about that kind of stuff. When it comes to the genre I really don’t have any fear or any kind. I just kind of throw myself into it. There’s nothing that I can’t do, but I there’s definitely things that I won’t do anymore because it just isn’t any fun for me. I definitely read scripts now and just say “Nope, don’t want to do that,” which took a long time to get to because I just wanted to work. For a long time I just said “I want to work! I want to work! I don’t care!”

After you do seven independent films in a year where your trailer is like a folding chair in a garage somewhere, working 18 hour days, when you’re freezing or sweating to death, and you don’t have anyone checking on you and they give you a bowl of Top Ramen for dinner it just gets to the point where you say “This really isn’t much fun right now.” (laughs) I think that on those newer independent movies everyone gets so excited. “We’re making a movie!” And then I’m just saying, (exasperated, but trying to stay cheerful through clenched teeth) “I’ve been making movies for sooooo long!” I kind of just figured there had to be a balance there somewhere.

I was just so glad when Hatchet II came along that Adam was looking to give me a lead. I hadn’t been a lead in anything since Halloween V. It had been a really, really long time. I never really made it as a celebrity. When I was a kid, I had smaller roles in some pretty big movies, but I never really hit it. Then I didn’t work for a few years while trying to make that transition from child to adult. I had kind of a hard time with that.

While people might say that Rob Zombie kind of launched it again for me, it was really Adam who had this part that helped my career emerge again by being the lead and letting people see that I could carry a movie. Usually in these kinds of films the supporting cast are given all of the cool things to do, very rarely is the lead given this much to actually do. Adam threw everything he possibly could at me right from the opening scene and he didn’t stop and it kind of reawakened me in a lot of ways.

DS: Do you think in that transitional period there were a lot of offers just coming your way from people who just wanted to have Danielle Harris in their movie for name value?

DH: Yeah, maybe. Of course, I started turning down a lot of stuff in that period. How many times could I really play a high school or college kid and just show up and die. At that point I was just the girl who dies because they just want one of those “With” or “And” billings in their credits, and they figured that it would just get someone in the theatre to see me there and dying. That’s what I kind of mean when I say it just wasn’t any fun anymore after a while. You just have nothing to do. How many times can you just lie there gasping for breath or pretending to bleed to death? How many times can you be stabbed or choked or whatever? I want people to get to know me on film and I want to have a character arc and have to do my homework. I’m an actor, guys.

I think that I had to stop doing it, and it was really my manager who just said “No more. You’re not doing these movies anymore.” Then I got kind of defensive and said “Don’t put down these movies. You don’t know about the horror genre!” And at times I had to fight her on this and she just said that I would never get out of this. But then I thought, why would I really want to?

DS: Well, some people would kill for the steady work.

DH: Of course! I’m really just a working actor, and I just happen to get lucky and get to do movies that I think are awesome. I think that I still get a chance to sink my teeth into some really difficult work. I mean, a romantic comedy for this point for me would be a vacation. Heck, an action movie at this point would be a vacation. These movies are friggin’ hard. They’re hard physically. They’re hard emotionally. It’s exhausting.

I think I still get the chance to flex my acting chops a bit. Maybe someone would see these films and like what I do and bring me in to do something else. I kind of don’t know if I even want to do that anymore, though. I’m kind of okay now with being able to still direct and do my own thing, and I will always be an actor, but I don’t feel that desire and crazy push that I have to get a show or I have to get a movie – those feelings that I would get when I wasn’t doing a lot of genre films. I thought I always needed to do that, and now that I’ve had these great roles and opportunities, I don’t really feel like I have to scratch that itch anymore.

DS: That particular attitude that you have actually really informs the Marybeth character in Hatchet III because when we first see her she basically tells everyone around her “Fuck you guys, I did this already. Go and do it yourselves.”

DH: Right! That was exactly how I felt. I was able to tap into Danielle and just say that I wanted to sit in the goddamned jail cell. I’m comfortable. I’m fine. Just stop talking to me and leave me alone and I’ll be fine, and then I’m forced into going back into that damned swamp to battle this guy when I really don’t want to do it again. I was trying to find a sense of humour about that while at the same time acting uncomfortable. I was able to bring all that in. That’s really where I think Marybeth would be at that point. Fuck it. She doesn’t give a shit. She’s also a product of her past. If her dad at some point told someone to go fuck themselves, she would tell the same person to go fuck themselves. I have to be like that. There has to be that sort of white trashy element to her, that wasn’t really there in the first movie. I brought a little of that to the second one, but not too much, and then I ran with it a bit more in the third.

And, I mean, the accent that I have isn’t really meant to be perfect. It’s not really the point. I’m going to do the best I can. I’m not doing a period piece. I’m not getting fatigued or concerned that anyone would ever be seriously looking to my performance for some kind of award. We’re just out there having fun, making a great movie, and enjoying our jobs while we’re out there working.

DS: Would you be more disappointed to stay in this kind of genre doing these more physical roles all the time or would you get more disappointed when it gets to a point in your career when you would get the role of maybe “the cool aunt” or someone’s mother?

DH: (laughs) Oh, jeez, you can let somebody else take it. There’s going to be a lull coming up again for me in my acting career. It’s kind of why I chose now to get into directing because I know that people aren’t going to want to see me getting chased for much longer. I’m not going to be that cute girl much longer. I’m going to be someone’s mom. I think that until I can be the mom of someone who gets chased by the killer – which is still going to be quite a few years from now – I don’t know what’s going to happen in that time. I’m 36 now, so I have a couple more years because I look a bit younger, but there’s going to come a point where people are going to say “I don’t know what to do with her.” What are they going to do with me after 40? And I don’t have someone around who’s going to consistently put me into the lead in my 40s.

I might be okay? I dunno. I really thought this was honestly done for me after I was college aged. I really didn’t think I would actually still be doing this at my age. Maybe I can see myself playing the mother of a young baby. You know, kind of like Jo-Beth Williams in Poltergeist. She was kind of 30s or 40s-ish. That’s a possibility, but really, I’m fine with the run I had as the heroine or the victim. I am totally cool with passing the torch. (laughs) Go ahead. You guys go do that.

Right now I have the freedom of choice of where I want to shoot and how much physicality and how much I want to put in emotionally. Those are the deciding factors for me in terms of what kind of roles I’ll take on. That’s why I haven’t worked so much in the past few years. My health has to always come first, and I had stretches where I was just doing so many movies back to back and in a row, and my health really paid the price for it. Your body doesn’t know that you’re acting, so how many times can I get raped or beaten or stabbed or get thrown around in movies? There’s gotta be trauma that gets into your body that lasts long after that and you just can’t shake it off right away. I had to take some time and take a step back

It’s interesting to think about that stress with the stress of directing, which is a different kind of stress, but at least there I don’t have to go through all of the same things.

Among Friends - Danielle Harris

DS: Right. You can make everyone else go through that in the case of Among Friends.

DH: (laughs) Yes, which I love! It’s amazing. “I’m so glad I don’t have to act in this movie! You have throw up AND blood on you? That was a fun day one, wasn’t it?” (laughs) They loved it, though even though I really tortured them. I pushed them to the limit, but I gave them and helped them as actors in ways that I hadn’t been helped in so long time. I directed them like how I sometimes wish I had been directed. I got to know them, got to understand their psyche, and then I was able to use it against them! (laughs)

I pulled up things that I knew were already there. Alyssa (Lobit), who plays Bernadette, the host and the string puller, is such a control freak in real life. I don’t mean that in a bad way. She’s just in such control of everything in her life that she’s just got it all together. I knew that I had to crack Alyssa, not Bernadette, so I had to push her, and push her, and push her, and push her, and break her down and talk down to her and embarrass and ridicule her in ways that were so subtle that she wouldn’t see it as me calling her out in front of everyone else. It was just little things that I knew her and no one else would understand that I was upsetting her just enough to a point where she couldn’t hold it together anymore. The moment that I saw her unable to hold it together was when I got the best stuff from her. I needed to see Bernadette unravel and not be able to keep it together. There’s a scene where she needs to pick Chris Backus up off the floor and he’s not helping her. I kind of told him to not be a nice actor on that. He’s just saying “fuck you” and as a result, Alyssa the actress is getting kind of pissed off and huffing and puffing. That’s all real. Those are the moments that work.

Another example of something like that is when Brianne Davis’ character Jules has to apologize for not intervening in a rape, and she kept doing it and doing it and saying she was sorry, and during that time Brianne wasn’t really connecting to the actress who she was supposed to be connecting and relaying this apology to. It didn’t feel authentic. Now I could have gone with just that, and some other times in my career I know when directors have done that with me, but I needed to see that emotion from this character at this particular time. It’s a really pivotal scene and a really important character. You almost want to feel sorry for her with how it breaks her down. I just kept shouting from behind the monitor “Do it again. I don’t believe you.” So I kind of just went up to her and looked her dead in the eye and said “I just got raped and you didn’t do a damn thing to stop it” and I walked away. And Brianne just got hysterical and we shot it and I just knew we had it and we moved on. She then just wouldn’t look at me and said “I can’t even look at you right now. I need a minute.” She had to go outside and she had to let it all out.

But when you can’t get there and a director can’t do that for you and bring something like that out of you, you end up getting something kinda close and as an actor you just sometimes wish that someone would just push me, you know? I pushed them to that place a lot because we didn’t have time to really work on things. We had ten days. I had to pull my tricks out of my bag that I think only actors know how to do with other actors. And I’m a woman at the same time, so I can use all of that as well because I direct very emotionally and not visually on set. Once I get what I need from them I can go and cut it into something visual and add layers to it.

In the film there’s a three-way sex scene and I wanted these very specific layers to it. I wanted “Jingle Bells” to be playing. I wanted the sound of the bed squeaking. I wanted these wet kinds of sex noises. I wanted to hear all the dirty and vile shit that they were saying, and I am making them say all of this in the ADR booth and they just looked at me like “Are you serious?” “Hell yeah, I’m serious. I want to hear it.” We’re going to see it on screen, sure, but I also know that at time it’s going to be faint and in the background while we watch the reactions of everyone watching the tape playback, but I still want that video to be in the viewer’s mind. I want to have them hear what’s going on.

DS: Which works because the point of the movie is more the reactions of the people around the table than what’s on the actual tapes Bernadette is forcing them to watch.

DH: Right, but if you looked at the original script it wasn’t written that way. It was about us as viewers watching everyone turning around and watching the tape and then turning back around. And to do it that way would have just become boring and episodic.

DS: It would have kind of felt like how a game show looks when you describe it like that.

DH: Yeah, exactly! How creative can you get in one room and with these other video tapes and it just wasn’t really going to work. The moment everyone starts unveiling who they are the shots on them start getting tighter and tighter and tighter and we start moving on to the interior of the table. And I put a lot of hidden things in there, like when Bernadette brings the meat over at first, people might just ask what that’s all about at first, but there’s an explanation of everything that goes on and why everything is the way it is if you just listen and pay attention. It’s hard to layer all that stuff and a lot more complicated, especially when you’re dealing with such heavy stuff, and at the same time it’s also supposed to be kind of funny.

DS: I don’t think a man could have made the same film from this same script. There’s a really kind of interesting anger to the story that I don’t think a male perspective on the same material would really possess. Did that thought ever really cross your mind when you were making Among Friends?

DH: I think it’s like I almost don’t know any better. I direct only the way that I know how to direct and that comes from how I’m already wired. I agree with you that it would look and feel different if a man had done it, but I couldn’t really think about or tell you what would have been specifically different other than it probably would have been more visual than emotional. I think men need to see it and women need to feel it. I think the story is told from the feeling of what it would be like going through this same experience, be it from a male or female perspective. It’s very, very much about feeling. A man might have needed to have it all up there on the screen and leave it all in the open and leave it up to you the viewer to decide if you should feel anything about it or not. I wasn’t trying to tap into my feminism more that I already had, so there wasn’t any added conscious decision there. I just knew it would be different because I was a woman and I was directing it. It was shocking to me that after all these years of being in so many of these movies and seeing so many “final girls” and seeing so many women as leads that men direct to realize how much of it is put on us as actors to figure out and go through that journey on our own. No man could ever tell me what it’s like to be on that journey. No man could tell me how someone like Marybeth in Hatchet should be feeling about her situation because we process things totally different than you do as a guy. It’s usually up to us as women to figure that stuff out on our own, and it goes back to never really being pushed to figure it out and think deeply about it.

As a woman, I can tell another woman what to do and how to do it, and that works really well in Among Friends because the guys are just kind of there even in the worst of situations. They are supposed to just sit there because it becomes this catfight between these girls that they can’t get away from and they always just seem annoyed to be there. “Why are you arguing about this? We’re about to die here! You’re arguing over some bullshit!” But the ridiculousness of them not realizing how the situation still applies to them was one of the things I found most interesting to play with. And, I mean, I have been there when shit like that happens. We all have. Those moments where I can’t believe the topic of a conversation and then a guy is, like, “Um, I gotta go” and they go and stand off to the side wondering how they can get out of the situation rather than dealing with it. “I’m just going to sit over here and smoke and brood because I’m secretly the victim in all of this.” You’ve got that dynamic that you don’t see too much.

DS: And this is a situation where no one involved can really squirm away from the conversation because none of them can move from the table.

DH: You have to have it like that, and then you examine how everyone handles it. I knew how they were going to feel because I shot it all in sequence. By the end of the ten days I saw what happened to them. They were SOOOOO over it. (laughs) But they developed this bond with each other in this short period of time that was superficial at the beginning, but they became really close. All that stuff played like the characters in the movie. They became closer as we went on.

It was kind of similar to the same approach that Jim Mickle did in this movie that I worked on called Stake Land where we shot that more or less in order and we got to learn more about each other as people while we were shooting the movie. It shows that sense of belief on screen. It builds that kind of bonding. That was the one film that I learned the most from that kind of informed this process.

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