Thursday, October 14, 2021

THROWBACK THURSDAYThe Evening Class Interview With Cassandra Peterson (All About Evil, 2010)

Eleven years ago, dragstar impresario Joshua Grannell (better known to his fans as Peaches Christ) embarked on his first feature film All About Evil (2010), which featured actress Cassandra Peterson (better known to her legions of fans as horror hostess Elvira: Mistress of the Dark) setting aside her revealing goth lingerie to play it straight as a concerned mother of a troubled teen. The shift in persona revealed Peterson as an actress to be reckoned with. 

Little did I know at the time that the true horrors in Cassandra’s life were not being evoked in Grannell’s film. According to Wikipedia, it wasn’t until the recent publication of Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark (2021) that she admitted being sexually assaulted by Wilt Chamberlain during a party at his Bel Air mansion in the 1970s. Chamberlain allegedly offered to show Peterson his custom-built closet for his NBA jerseys, before he forced her to give him oral sex. Peterson had stated that she had blamed herself and was almost "convinced that I was a very bad person for letting that happen", until the Me Too movement made her rethink the experience. Peterson felt that the assault was "creepier" because Chamberlain had been a personal friend. 

As her publishers Hatchette Books synopsize: “On Good Friday in 1953, at only 18 months old, 25 miles from the nearest hospital in Manhattan, Kansas, Cassandra Peterson reached for a pot on the stove and doused herself in boiling water. Third-degree burns covered 35% of her body, and the prognosis wasn't good. But she survived. Burned and scarred, the impact stayed with her and became an obstacle she was determined to overcome. Feeling like a misfit led to her love of horror. While her sisters played with Barbie dolls, Cassandra built model kits of Frankenstein and Dracula, and idolized Vincent Price.

“Due to a complicated relationship with her mother, Cassandra left home at 14, and by age 17 she was performing at the famed Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas. Run-ins with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Tom Jones helped her grow up fast. Then a chance encounter with her idol Elvis Presley, changed the course of her life forever, and led her to Europe where she worked in film and traveled Italy as lead singer of an Italian pop band. She eventually made her way to Los Angeles, where she joined the famed comedy improv group, The Groundlings, and worked alongside Phil Hartman and Paul "Pee-wee" Reubens, honing her comedic skills. 

“Nearing age 30, a struggling actress considered past her prime, she auditioned at local LA channel KHJ as hostess for the late night vintage horror movies. Cassandra improvised, made the role her own, and got the job on the spot. Yours Cruelly, Elvira is an unforgettably wild memoir. Cassandra doesn't shy away from revealing exactly who she is and how she overcame seemingly insurmountable odds. Always original and sometimes outrageous, her story is loaded with twists, travails, revelry, and downright shocking experiences. It is the candid, often funny, and sometimes heart-breaking tale of a Midwest farm girl's long strange trip to become the world's sexiest, sassiest Halloween icon.” 

What neither Wikipedia nor Hachette mention, however, is what it took Emily Kirkpatrick writing for Vanity Fair magazine to celebrate: love. In Yours Cruelly, Elvira, Peterson “comes out of the coffin” and reveals she’s been in a relationship with Teresa “T” Wierson for the past 19 years, following the end of a 25-year marriage to Mark Pierson. “For the first time in my life,” Peterson writes, “I’m with someone who makes me feel safe, blessed, and truly loved.” And I think that’s the best memoir anyone can have! But am I the only one who thinks it’s odd that Wierson rhymes with Pierson? Had I known anything about any of this when Cassandra and I sat down to talk during one of Evil's exhausting night shoots, I might have had opportunity to ask her directly. Instead, appropriate to time and place, we talked about her participation in the film; a conversation, incidentally, that ranks as my most popular entry on The Evening Class to date. Not Bela Tarr. Not Hao Hsiao-hsien. Not Andrey Zvyagintsev. And what silly arthouse aficionado claims that genre doesn’t traffic? 

In tribute to finding love and scoring blog megahits, I tip my hat to yesteryear and republish my conversation with Cassandra Peterson, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. 

* * *  

Michael Guillén: Cassandra, I consider you—not only iconic—but probably one of the most intelligent and talented artists of my generation. You've had such a profound effect. As I was surveying your career, I was shocked how many places you pop up. A classic example is you as a strip tease performer on the cover of Tom Waits' album Small Change. 

Cassandra Peterson: People are talking about that so much lately and the very bizarre thing about that is that I don't know if that's me! I don't know. People say it is, it looks like me, but I don't have any recollection of ever doing that. But it was the '70s, so I don't have a recollection of a whole lot that I did then.  

Guillén: I'm very pleased to talk with you as Cassandra Peterson. Not to disrespect Elvira or anything; but, her accomplishments are well-documented, so I wanted to focus instead on the fact that—within All About Evil—you actually get to play a role, to act. How does that differ from playing an icon like Elvira? 

Peterson: Well, it's a lot different because I don't know what I'm doing as an actor in All About Evil. I feel pretty comfortable as Elvira. As myself, I act so rarely that my biggest challenge is not to act like Elvira, y'know? People go, "What are you thinking of while you're acting?" and what I'm thinking is, "Don't roll your eyes and mug."  

Guillén: I respect your humility but I wouldn't deminimize your chops as an actor. The other night I was watching you do multiple takes on a scene, over and over and over, and I was genuinely impressed with your concentration. I knew you were exhausted, it was something like 3:00 in the morning, it was stop and go with the scene, but you kept going back to the same space, in character, focused. 

Peterson: Thank you. I guess I've been around for so damned long that I've finally picked up on it, whether I'm trying or not.  

Guillén: You've had a longstanding friendship with Joshua Grannell and his alter-ego Peaches Christ for at least the last few years, how did you get pulled into this project? 

Peterson: It was obviously through Peaches. She told me she was doing this movie and wanted me to be part of it. I really didn't know if I could act in a role. She had seen this other short film I did called Tomoko's Kitchen (2006) that was apparently screened at the Sundance Film Festival. I had a small role in it (and I don't know how I got dragged into that one either). I never watched it because I didn't want to see what I looked like in it; but, Joshua had seen it and he said, "I thought your acting was really great." I was like, "You're kidding?" Then I actually watched it and I wasn't as bad as I thought. So I thought, "Hmmmm, okay, maybe I can act in All About Evil, I don't know." It had been so long.  

Guillén: Have you grown as an actor as a consequence of committing yourself to performing in Evil? 

Peterson: I guess I have. The hard part about being an actor is not being self-conscious. From being Elvira for so many years I have absolutely no shame or self-consciousness—that's all gone—so I feel very relaxed.  

Guillén: That must feel fabulous to be so confident and centered? 

Peterson: It does feel a little bit like, "Oh well, I can do whatever now."  

Guillén: What has it felt to be directed by Joshua, or I guess I should say "Peachua"—Joshua, half in drag? 

Peterson: Peachua's a great name! It's been great because Joshua is just so damn sweet and nice and any suggestions you make, he thinks they're great. He's such an easygoing guy. I love being around him. He's funny and we work great together. I love doing stuff with him.  

Guillén: This moviemaking environment and this experience of late night shoots, multiple takes, how does that differ from your TV experience where you have set skits? 

Peterson: The hardest part for me is not having a teleprompter. Oh no! I'm a teleprompter queen. To actually have to remember lines is stressful because—with TV—I never have to remember any lines ever. So that's the hardest part for me, plus staying up all night. I know I'm "Mistress of the Dark"; but, y'know….  

Guillén: And I imagine that—even after working all night—it's hard to decompress and get to sleep? I did three nights of extras work while recovering from an appendectomy and was doing pretty good until the third night, when I finally had to beg off and go home to sleep and recuperate. I was so exhausted, I thought for sure I was just going to go home and die. But, instead, I couldn't go to sleep. I was so wound up. It took nearly three hours to calm down enough to sleep. 

Peterson: That happens to me too. I go home after filming on set; but, I'm so beyond exhausted that I'm still wired, y'know?  

Guillén: Do you want to do more acting gigs beyond your Elvira persona? 

Peterson: Maybe. But I don't want to start the whole thing of getting an agent and going back out on the calls; I'm too lazy. I've been doing this too long. The thought of going out on interviews is more than I can stand.  

Guillén: All About Evil is more a labor of love, then? 

Peterson: It is. When friends call me and ask me to do something, then I love to be there. But the practical thing of looking for work? That's just too hard.  

Guillén: Tell me about your character Linda. What was it about the role that you felt you could move into? 

Peterson: Well, she's a mom with a teenager and I am a mom with a teenager. Every line that is written in this script for the character of Linda is something I have repeatedly said before to my own kid.  

Guillén: I was observing with interest the manner in which you handle your co-star Thomas Dekker, who plays your son Steven. Dekker is something of a live wire on the set. 

Peterson: Yeah! "Get over here! Where's your coat? Stop smoking!" Face it, being cast in the role of Linda was typecasting.  

Guillén: And you haven't had to do any of the gore effects in the film? 

Peterson: Not really, no. Just what I have on now: a little blood. I get to kill a bad person. That was fun. I never get to kill anyone. I did get to threaten Pee Wee Herman once in Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985); that was good. That was a dream job for any gal: getting to threaten Pee Wee.  

Guillén: You'd worked with Paul Reubens earlier, however? 

Peterson: We'd been in The Groundlings together and we were in a Cheech and Chong movie together [Cheech and Chong's Next Movie, 1980]; but, mostly working at The Groundlings.  

Guillén: I haven't heard much about Paul Reubens lately. 

Peterson: He's around. He's been doing quite a bit of acting and working on a whole bunch of TV projects that he's trying to get out there; but, he does quite a bit of acting as himself.  

Guillén: When I first interviewed Joshua a few years back, you hadn't yet made it up to Peaches Christ's Midnight Mass; but, you were scheduled to make your first appearance and I remember Joshua being all excited about it. How difficult is it to have such a strong alter-ego; Joshua has Peaches and you have Elvira? You mentioned a little earlier that you had trouble getting rid of Elvira acting the role of Linda. 

Peterson: Well, when I see a camera in front of me, like I said I just start mugging, rolling my eyes and stuff, automatically. I play it pretty straight here in All About Evil, I'm Mom, I'm not making jokes or anything and the hardest part for me is, "Don't be Elvira, don't be Elvira." That's all I'm thinking. "Be normal for once for God's sake, woman!"  

Guillén: And how would you describe working with the ensemble on the All About Evil set? 

Peterson: It's great! I love all these actors. Everybody here is just so great. Oh my God, Jack Donner—who plays Mr. Twigs—I think he's stealing the show, damnit! He's such a pro.  

Guillén: You say that with complete love? 

Peterson: I do! I love it! He's such a great actor and such a nice guy; but, everyone in the cast—I feel like they're all little kids; they're all adorable—we've been getting along great. I've been swapping music with them and they've been showing me how to do things on the computer because I'm so computer illiterate. We've been having a lot of fun. Even on our day off we all got together and had dinner. That was nice. 

 Guillén: Your involvement in this project is something of a gift to San Francisco. It certainly has been to the extras involved in the film. They bemoaned the fact that they missed Mink Stole—she shot her scenes before the extras came on board—but, they've been excited to interact with you and delighted to watch you in action. 

Peterson: That's cool! The extras have told me they're very excited and I've been out sitting in the audience with them, talking with them. They seem like real fans. They're great.  

Guillén: Have you always loved genre films? 

Peterson: I have. Ever since I was a kid, I've loved that kind of thing. I've always been into it. For me, All About Evil is a cross between Herschel Gordon Lewis and John Waters. They've melded together. It's a dream job for me.  

Guillén: I was recently watching the YouTube clip of you and Peaches on stage at Midnight Mass. Peaches acknowledged that she was influenced by you and you credited the creation of Elvira to a drag queen… 

  

  

Peterson: Oh yeah, definitely! Lots of drag queens.  

Guillén: I'm intrigued by that sense of continuity. 

Peterson: Isn't it weird? I really do feel that I learned everything—how to walk, talk, dress—from drag queens and now I'm influencing drag queens. It's come full circle. Isn't that weird? I can't tell you how many drag queens have come up to me and said, "Oh, you were my idol growing up." And I'm like, "Well great, I see I've rubbed off on you."  

Guillén: I'm aware that you're holding auditions to find a second Elvira to make appearances that—as I think you've said it—don't pay you enough? 

Peterson: [Laughs.] That's exactly right. Gimme that money! No, actually it was a low budget attempt at doing what I would eventually like to do, which is to franchise the character of Elvira. Not quit Elvira right now—as someday I'm going to have to—but, sort of doing what Bozo the Clown did. I love basing my entire career on a clown. Bozo—for anyone old enough to remember him—was wearing tons of make-up too so that he could go out and get a lot of other actors to play Bozo to make various appearances and do TV shows across the country. I started thinking, "Hmmmmm. Bozo. That sounds like a good gig. Maybe I could do that too."  

Photo by Aaron Rapoport/Getty Images 
Guillén: This is why earlier I was praising your intelligence. You market better than almost anyone I know. Elvira has been a successful "product" for you. 

Peterson: Thanks. Well, I have a lot of help. I get good people and I'm still working on that, believe me. I'd like to say it's much bigger than it is; but, it's been going along pretty well for 28 years.  

Guillén: So your hope is to continue the Elvira franchise but to be behind the scenes? 

Peterson: Exactly! Yes. So I don't have to be schlepping around in this outfit when I'm 85.  

Guillén: As I mentioned earlier, It's been a true pleasure to watch you perform as an actor in a non-Elvira role. 

Peterson: Thank you. It's been fun for me. A nice break.  

Guillén: And I trust that—even though you may not want to go out and actively solicit roles—that when people see your performance in All About Evil it will open a window on a whole new facet of your personality and earn you invitations to act in other films. 

Peterson: It would be nice to be given an opportunity to do something without having to work too hard to get it. [Laughs.] 

Originally published April 10, 2010.

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