On the afternoon of Saturday November 21st, Days of the Dead Chicago treated fans to a special “Women in Film” panel featuring guests PJ Soles, Rae Dawn Chong, and Sandahl Bergman. Below are excerpts taken from that experience which, despite the event tent being freezing cold, was a lot of fun! These ladies were both informative and entertaining; dishing on their film’s leading men and experiences while holding nothing back. So, without further adieu…
Moderator: How did you all get involved with acting?
Rae Dawn Chong: I was twelve and singing at my 6th grade graduation and a casting person from Disney was in the audience.
Sandahl Bergman: I grew up in Kansas City so I’m really happy to be back in the Midwest (audience cheers). My mom put me in dance class which she said she did selfishly to free up her time. Eventually, people started telling her that I was talented and Kansas City has the second largest summer stock theater in the United States so, when I was 14, I got my equity card and would do musicals at night after being in High School classes all day. I graduated at 17 and then went to LA and that’s how it started with me. So I’d like to say…thank you mom, for needing some free time!
PJ Soles: I was in Venezuela at an American school and they had a talent contest and I sang “The Wanderer” and won. I took lessons on the cuatro (guitar) and always loved singing and then they held auditions for “Hansel & Gretel” and I got the coveted role of the witch. Then, in 6th grade, I won a leading role over an 8th grade girl, Susan Landon, and I remember her name since she hated me ever since. Who knows, maybe I’ll go find her on Facebook (audience laughs)! We traveled around since my dad worked for an insurance company and I ended up going to college in New York City where I got involved in acting. I ended up making five commercials one summer and was like, “Hmmm…school or work?” and that’s how I got started.
Moderator: Rae and Sandhal, you were both in films with Arnold Schwarzenegger, what was it like working with him and do you have any funny stories?
Sandahl Bergman: I actually enjoyed working with him. I remember when we were filming our first movie together, Conan the Barbarian, we filmed six months in Spain and were like a family. We would joke with the director (John Milius), “What were you thinking hiring a surfer, a dancer, and a body builder?” When he first approached us he said, “So do you want to jump into a tornado and go for a ride?” We all agreed but had no idea what we were getting ourselves into and it was almost like getting paid to play cowboys and Indians. Arnold has an ego but also the greatest sense of humor and we were all a family and it was a great project. The next movie we did together, Red Sonja…not so much. Red Sonja was a nightmare and I had to keep my mouth shut forever on that movie because he was having an affair with Bridgett Nielson while he was with my friend, Maria Shriver. I had to be like this (makes gesture of zipping her mouth shut) for years. There was a lot of ongoing drama with that film and neither of us liked the movie nor the director (Richard Fleischer). I got sick while I was there, had allergy attacks…
Rae Dawn Chong (interrupts):…but HE was having good sex! (Audience laughs)
Sandahl Bergman:..Yeah he was having a grand old time and I was caught in the middle of it because I was friends with Maria but it just wasn’t my place to tell. He’s a character and has a great sense of humor. He came to this country as a body builder which was a joke profession at the time and became one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood, invested a lot in real estate and married a Kennedy. So he’s no dummy. We talked about doing another Conan film before he ran for Governor, and I didn’t vote for him by the way. I told him, “Sorry I didn’t vote for you, I’d rather do a film with you instead.” But that project went down the tubes when the director had a stroke. Conan was well received by fans like you guys, and I really want to thank all of you for that.
Rae Dawn Chong: I met Arnold when I was nine years old. My father took us to Muscle Beach where he was preening and very pumped up. Later when I was older and having observed how he was, I walked into my audition (for Commando) wearing a very short skirt and complimented him on his muscles…and I got the part. That was smart of me (audience laughs). Working with him is great but he’s a little “handsy” and we were in a small car scene together during Commando. So him being Republican and me being opinionated and stuck eight weeks together in that tiny car, there must be some great audio recordings somewhere because while I’m fending him off we’re talking politics. What’s interesting about Hollywood is that no actress will ever tell you how rough it is with the “handsy” parts of the business but it is terrible. So I always recommend to young aspiring actresses that they take self-defense classes. I’m not joking, ultimately you really have to be a ninja; silent but able to endure this incredible thing. It’s not something I want to point fingers on but I think all of us were traumatized by it.
Moderator: PJ in Halloween, let’s talk about the “Totally” line. Was that something you came up with or that John wanted you to do?
PJ Soles: No, it was in the script but it wasn’t in the script as many times as I said it. Since it was in the script and a part of “Linda’s” character, it actually got me the part after reading with John. He said I was the only actress who said “totally” the right way and I asked, “Well how else would you say it?” and he responded, “Well that’s why you have the part.” I said to him on the first day of shooting, “I’m gonna push the ‘totally’ word and try and say it as much as I can” and he said, “Okay.” I told him to let me know if it ever became too obnoxious, but he never did. People tell me it’s become a drinking game and it was a hallmark word for Linda and for all Valley Girls, I guess. You can blame me for “totally” but I didn’t come up with their use of the word “like,”so you can’t blame me for that one.
Moderator: Sandhal, you worked with someone who was very special to us here at Days of the Dead, Roddy Piper. Tell us what it was like working with him in “Hell Comes to Frogtown” (1988) and what type of person he was.
Sandahl Bergman: Oh my goodness…well for one, I hadn’t seen Roddy since we made that movie and we had a blast making that film. It was definitely a B movie, I mean c’mon, you’re acting with frogs. He was probably one of the nicest human beings I ever met and an incredible family man. I was at a convention where I finally ran into him again just this past year and not a nice one like this one…
Rae Dawn Chong (interrupts):…This is seriously one of the nicest events either of us has done in years! (audience cheers)
Sandahl Bergman: …Definitely! Anyway, it was so nice running into him and he looked so great and we had a great conversation. Then, just a few months later, I’m watching the news like so many people when we all heard what happened. Such a wonderful human being and hysterical…was about as down to earth as you could get…adored his wife, adored his kids, and was not a player. I had the utmost respect for him and God bless him, I’m sure he’s in a better place.
Moderator: Rae, do you think any studio would ever touch a movie like “Soul Man” again?
Rae Dawn Chong: (looks up at the ceiling to contemplate) Yeah…Yes…Yes, yes, yes…Yeah. (Audience laughs) And I’ll tell you why because when we first did Soul Man, which was in the ‘80s, it was actually Spike Lee who put a stamp of disapproval on it. And he’s such an MF, I just hate him…I actually hate him. I don’t usually hate many people, but I hate him. I think C. Thomas Howell did a good job even though he looks like a truffle. He was so cute I had to marry him…and I did…for a few seconds. He’s here as a guest too and we were just talking about how much fun we had and I’m sure his kid who was there with him was thinking, “Wow, how boring, I gotta sit here and listen to these two talk about the good old days.” Anyway, I think racially, particularly today where it’s so polarized; it would be a good idea. The make-up would be better too so you wouldn’t look like a chocolate truffle. I thought it was a good story and the movie was very funny. It would probably have to star someone like James Franco and have the Seth Rogen crew but, yeah…fuck yeah!
Moderator: PJ tell us how you were cast in “Devil’s Rejects” and working with Rob Zombie.
PJ Soles: Well a casting call came out for a ‘notable ‘70s actor,’ so my agent called me up. I put the scene on video and didn’t hear anything for a few months before getting the call. It was just a one day shoot and I hadn’t really heard of Rob Zombie and was horrified when I rented House of a 1,000 Corpses but, in my scene, I don’t get killed; just beat up by some crazy looking clown. I loved meeting Rob and it ended up being a fortuitous meeting as he invited me a couple of months later to his house for a party and Johnny Ramone was there. This was about two or three months before he passed away so I was able to sit with him and talk to him and his wife while telling him how much I revere Rock n Roll High School. We hugged and it was great that we were able to have that moment.
Moderator: We all know Rob is a fan of horror, didn’t he have a stack of things for you to sign?
PJ Soles: Yes, it was a one day shoot and at lunch I’m sitting there and Rob comes walking in and lays all this stuff down on my table and I’m like, “What’s that?” and he’s like, “Oh, I thought maybe you could sign a few of my things!” and it was like fifty things. (laughs) Also another party he invited me to was for his 40th Birthday and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, what do you get Rob Zombie?” So I knew he was a huge Halloween fan; said it was his favorite movie and inspired him to do what he does so I decided to give him my Halloween script. It didn’t have a cover and was all messed up and my kids already had most all of my other scripts so I thought, “Oh, I’ll just give this one to Rob.” So I wrapped it up and it was pouring rain while we’re going to the nightclub where the party was at. There’s puddles everywhere and I walk in and there’s this huge stack of presents and I thought, “Oh my God, I’m gonna put this on there and it’s gonna fall off and end up in a puddle!” But I trusted it and it didn’t happen. The next morning it’s Sunday and the phone rings at 7:30 and I’m like, “Who is calling us at this hour?” and let the answering machine get it. All of a sudden I hear, “Hey, this is Rob! Oh my God, this is the BEST present I’ve ever gotten in my whole life!!! Nobody is gonna touch it but me! I’m gonna wrap it in plastic and it is going on my wall…thank you, thank you, thank you so much!!!”
Moderator: Sandhal, I heard you did all of your own stunts on Conan. Did you get any injuries while filming?
Sandahl Bergman: Well, I burned my hair and almost lost a finger. The thing with John Milius is that he’s such an amazing story teller and basically saw me in All that Jazz and wanted me for the part. So I thought, “What do you wear to an interview like this?” I walk into his office dressed like Beverly Hills and he’s like, “Where have you been?” (laughs) I was there for five hours with him and Dino De Laurentiis and then got into a car accident on my way home because I was so busy wondering whether I got the part or not. I rear-ended a mother and a daughter and I get out and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I think I just got a part in a movie!!!” And the mom goes, “Oh, that’s fantastic!!!” And I said, “Yeah, it’s with Arnold Schwarzenegger!” and her excitement level dies and she goes, “Oh…well he’s not a very good actor.” (audience laughs). Anyway, with Milius you ARE your character so, after I sliced my finger on the set, most people would have said, “Oh no, are you hurt!?” whereas Milio just walked up to me and said, “Valeria (Bergman’s character’s name), you’ll never let that happen again, will you?” We did our own stuff and we were the characters, which is why he wanted physical people less than actors in the roles. There were no stunt doubles and no CGI, what you saw in the negative is what was there.
Moderator: Rae, what was it like working in “The Color Purple” and with Steven Spielberg?
Rae Dawn Chong: I fought hard to get the role and the scene I auditioned for they cut out of the movie. My heart was broken to say the least because I really think it would have gotten me nominated for an Oscar. Also, that scene where Oprah smacks me, somehow it defies the Law of Physics and I end up flying into a hole. So I’d just filmed Commando and was feeling overly confident when this guy tells me what’s going to happen in the scene with Oprah. I’m like, “No.” And you know that commercial where they say when “E.F. Hutton speaks, people listen?” Well when someone says “No” to Steven Spielberg, Universal Studios practically shuts down. It was so bad that I immediately backtracked and was like, “Oh, yeah…I guess we can do that.” So that was my Spielberg experience.
Moderator: Discuss the role changes (evolution) of women in film.
PJ Soles: Well I never fought back in horror but did fight Bill Murray in a comedy (laughter). Stripes was originally written for Cheech & Chong by the way. (Rae Dawn Chong and PJ bring up the late Harold Ramis and how much they loved working with him).
Rae Dawn Chong: I just did a movie where I fix everything and the whole movie say, “I can do that!” And really, it had me thinking how women are very capable. I was definitely the boy in my family.
Sandahl Bergman: I always played the girl that can take care of herself in my movies. I dunno, maybe it was my look but I was never in a position of being the victim in my films. But I do see the evolution of female characters…definitely.
Moderator: Sandhal, I read that you were offered the lead in “Red Sonja” but you turned it down in favor of playing the villain, is that true?
Sandahl Bergman: No…and I get asked about this all the time along with me not loving Bridgett Nielson so much.
Rae Dawn Chong (sarcastically): What? You didn’t like Bridgett Nielson? (laughter)
Sandahl Bergman: NO! It’s a good thing we were adversaries in that movie because we did not get along at all. No, the truth is that villains are always really fun to play and I was never offered the role of Red Sonja since they thought it would be a huge conflict for the audience after already playing alongside Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian. But, uh, not my favorite movie, Red Sonja.
Audience Question (to PJ): You did that film Carrie with John Travolta where you and he were slapping each other…
PJ Soles: No, that was Nancy Allen and not me, though I did get to slap him in the auditions.
(Audience Member walks away from the stage)
PJ Soles: Wait…did you have a question regarding my character? (Audience and panel erupt in laughter)
Audience Member (returns to stage): What was like working in that film?
PJ Soles: That was my first film so it was an amazing experience. Unlike John Carpenter who made everyone feel like they were all equal and part of a collaborative effort, with Brian De Palma it’s his film and he had clear ideas of what he wanted you to do. He wasn’t really a “talk to the actors” type director but it was my first experience so I didn’t know any other way. We all bonded because we were there together every day, especially the prom scene where we had like a little campfire setting and just hung out until whenever we were needed which was awesome. What I liked about Brian was that he had his vision and, since it was a studio picture, we had the luxury of more time. After that I was used to, ‘okay, we’re shooting for 21 days and with $300,000’ (laughs) but it was wonderful getting to know Sissy Spacek and Piper Lorie. It was an incredible cast and it actually took three weeks and extended casting to pull it all together and I credit De Palma with having a good eye for picking out who everybody should be.
Moderator: This concludes our panel on “Women in Film,” Thank you ladies!
PJ Soles: Yeah now that we’re all ice sculptures!
The women get up and all start posing like statues while sashaying off the stage…
Coming up…The Ace Frehley Q&A Panel as coverage of Days of the Dead Chicago concludes!