March 19, 2015 Interview – Lesleh Donaldson
The Horror genre garnishes perhaps the strongest and most loyal following of any in film. With a love and devotion for fright films of the past, long forgotten by the mainstream, these fans remind how important Horror is to the landscape of cinema. Seasoned Canadian-born actress Lesleh Donaldson found her place in Horror film history with such memorable offerings such as Funeral Home (1980), Happy Birthday to Me (1981), Curtains (1982), and Deadly Eyes (1983). Not initially foreseeing herself a Horror film queen, Donaldson’s has embraced her role in the fame of the fright films while still looking forward with a career in theater and writing. Recently we sat down with Donaldson to talk her experience in Horror, the future of Horror, and much more.
CrypticRock.com – You began your career in entertainment as a model at a very young age. Is it safe to say that you knew you wanted to pursue a career in acting from that young or was it an interest that developed over time?
Lesleh Donaldson – It was an interest that developed over time. I actually wanted to be a teacher like my mother when I was younger. When I got into modeling, I quickly realized that it was something I was good at doing. I was a kid, and how hard could it be to pose and look good in front of a camera? I really liked it, and it was a great way to make money. Things just sort of evolved for me. After modeling, I started doing commercials, and from commercials to television and then to film. It just evolved in that way for me. When I started doing commercials, I realized that I really liked it, and this was something I can do well and I wanted to do it. I have gone through phases where I did not want to do it. I think it was not until I was in my mid-twenties when I realized I really want to do this.
CrypticRock.com – One can imagine you find new inspirations as you go. You have played quite a diverse mix of roles over your career but it seems a lot of these roles have been concentrated in the Horror/Sci-fi genre. Was that something you fell into or something you desired to be a part of?
Lesleh Donaldson – No, I fell into it, because, as I said before, the films they were making in Canada – there were two types of films. They were making a lot of Comedies, like Animal House (1978) and Porky’s (1982) and that kind of stuff, and then they were making Horror movies, like Terror Train (1980), Prom Night (1980), My Bloody Valentine (1981), and those movies that I was in. It just happened that I would go to the auditions and get them. I wanted to do the Comedies. I was more interested in the funny ones. Back then, for Horror, there was The Exorcist (1973) and that was it. Horror was still sort of a one step up from porn, in a way. It was always like, “Ugh, it is a Horror movie. Nobody is going to see it,” while you knew that there was a big audience for Comedies. I always wanted to do that, so I just totally fell into doing Horror, a fluke thing that I got them back-to-back, year after year.
CrypticRock.com – Sometimes what happens with an actor or actress is they get typecast a lot, a lot of people have fallen victim to that. If you are in a particular genre of film they will look to you as that type of actor or actress sadly.
Lesleh Donaldson – Yes, that is why I gravitated towards the theater. That is where I felt I was going to play the meaty roles.
CrypticRock.com – That is very understandable. Many of your recognized roles having been in Horror cinema, such as 1980’s Funeral Home, 1981’s Happy Birthday to Me, 1982’s Curtains, and 1983’s Deadly Eyes, take us back in time a little and tell us – what was your experience working on those films?
Lesleh Donaldson – Funeral Home was fantastic because I was the lead. I had a huge responsibility and I was on set pretty much every day. It was done by William Fruet (House By the Lake 1976, Goosebumps series 1996-1998) who is a fantastic director. It was my first Horror film, even though I never really thought of it as a Horror film. I thought of it more like a Psychological Thriller, because it is really Little Red Riding Hood meets Psycho (1960). It has that sort of story-line. I was excited to do it because of the role and because I grew up watching Horror. I went to a lot of Hammer Horror movies when I was younger. I did want to do one, it was not like I never wanted to do Horror. When I got one, it really was exciting. Happy Birthday To Me was fun because I got to work with a lot of my own peers that I had auditioned with all of the time and I knew from the industry in Canada. It was in a way like a sorority and that was fun. Curtains was interesting because there actually was some tension on the set between the producer and the director. It ended up being shot in the beginning by Richard Ciupka but finished by (producer) Peter Simpson, because they both had two different ideas of what they wanted to do, so it was a little complex and complicated and it went on for almost a year. By the time Deadly Eyes came around I just felt “ugh,” and it was about rats. It had these Dachshunds in rat suits and I just thought “Really?” (laughs) By that time, I just wanted to work, I took the jobs so I could develop my craft.
CrypticRock.com – Those are all interesting stories to reflect on. Happy Birthday to Me was made in the middle of the Slasher film craziness. What was interesting about that film is it was a Slasher, but it also had an interesting twist at the end. When you saw the script for that film, did you feel that it was different than the average Slasher and that you wanted to be a part of it?
Lesleh Donaldson – Yes, they were still trying to figure out who the killer was. It was going to be Melissa Sue Anderson (as Virginia Wainwright), then it was going to be someone else at one time, but it ended up being Tracy Bregman (as Ann Thomerson). It was a very interesting twist. Nobody saw that one coming. How I got that audition was because of Funeral Home. They knew I was this up and coming actress in Canada, and they had to fill the roll of the first victim, so they thought of me. I went in and auditioned twice and then I got hired. I did not really do that film based on what I read in the script, I did not have the luxury of that back them. I just had to go in, audition, and hopefully did well enough to get it. Now, more people send me scripts because they want me to be in their projects, and I like that. You do not have that option when you are younger. It was a great twist in the end, and it was fun to do that birthday party scene too.
CrypticRock.com – That is very interesting. Slashers are often discounted in Horror as merely slice ‘em and dice ‘em films, but there were a great deal of successful and original Slashers in the 1980s. Technically, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) was a Slasher, but it has a different kind of story. Do you feel the sub-genre gets a bad rap or do you feel some of the criticisms are justified?
Lesleh Donaldson – I am of two minds with that. It is funny, I always say that Slashers make me laugh, because they are just so absurd and ridiculous. If the story is about ghosts or devil/demon possession, for example The Changeling (1980) or The Exorcist (1973) for instance. Those are the things that scare me. With Slashers, I always think, “Oh, it is a guy in a ski mask and he never dies.” It is more like a Comedy for me and not Horror in a way. There is basically one outcome, and that is to see how you can kill people in different ways. Then, of course, recently with Hostel (2005) and Saw (2004), and all those movies went on to a different where they were more exploitation films. Back when I was doing them, it was more in your imagination. You did not really see anything, but you knew what was going to happen, you only got a hint of it.
CrypticRock.com – Right, it left it up to the imagination . Sadly nowadays we are living in a world with instant gratification. There certainly were a lot of interesting Horror films being made in the 1980s. It seems as if the genre was respected a lot more by Hollywood during that time as opposed to now, and creativity was rewarded with mainstream promotion. Why do you think, in this day and age, Hollywood does not give Horror the due it is deserved. It seems like they either go to remakes, or use the same old ideas. What is your opinion of the Horror film scene in 2015?
Lesleh Donaldson – It is interesting, though. Of all of the types of movies that get put into theaters, a lot of them are Sci Fi movies, disaster movies, and Horror movies. Relationship stories and love stories are harder to get them out into the theaters and distributed. I think back then there were a lot of directors, like J. Lee Thompson Happy Birthday To Me (1981) who wanted to do them and jump on the bandwagon. I think, now, pretty much anyone can do a Horror movie. It is just so easy to do one. Hollywood does not recognize it at the Oscar, I am flabbergasted that that woman from The Babadook (2014) did not get nominated. She was fantastic in that movie. That was a really good movie and it should have been nominated. I think Hollywood does know that Horror moves are what make the money. When Horror movies come out on the weekend, they are the ones that end up raking in the most money when they open. It is sort of like wayward son of Hollywood. They do not want to just throw it out onto the street because they know that it is a big money maker.
I do not know why the 1970s and 1980s are the Golden Age. I hope it comes back, because there are filmmakers out there that are actually trying to bring that tone of the ‘70s Horror movie back. It is happening with certain filmmakers.
CrypticRock.com – There definitely are a lot of talented story-writers out there and a lot of talented filmmakers. It just seems like projects nowadays are a lot more difficult to get done.
Lesleh Donaldson – It is like that with everything. As much as they are looking for stories, people have new story ideas, it is just really difficult to get anything done because money is so precious. They want to make sure that they know they have a handle on that. It is so hard to tell, you can never tell.
CrypticRock.com – No, you cannot. Everything, as far as the media, is so fragmented. You are still actively acting, in your opinion what do you see as the key difference in filmmaking today as opposed to back in the 1980s?
Lesleh Donaldson – Well, how they make them now – they make them on a cell phone! Back then, they had a big 60 mm or 35 mm camera. There was something real about it. You actually felt like you were making something that was going to be large scale. Now, as you said, there are so many outlets for things. You can make a movie on your phone, or they use these tiny cameras, you could be making a movie of me right now. Everything is so easily accessible. Back then, you had to audition. You had to be good. You had to know your stuff. There was always a crew. and it was a big crew.
CrypticRock.com – Right that is extremely true. Things can get lost in the shuffle in modern films. My last question for you is pertaining to movies. CrypticRock.com covers music and Horror films. If you are a fan of Horror films, what are some of your favorites?
Lesleh Donaldson – Obviously The Exorcist. The two that really freaked me out and got to me were The Sentinel (1977) and The Changeling (1980). The scene in The Changeling with the séance, when John Russell (George C. Scott) is listening to the tape and he hears the little boy say his name, that gave me the creeps. It still does to this day, and in The Sentinel, when the guy comes out of the dark, Oh, my God! Those are the standouts for me. I will actually watch a Horror movie before I watch anything else on Netflix or OnDemand. Sometimes I wanted to see a Drama, or a Historical film, or something that is been lauded by critics or something like that. If there is a Horror movie that I have not seen, I will watch the Horror movie before I watch the critically acclaimed movie because I love Horror.