During the recent Flashback Weekend 2012 horror convention in Chicago, this writer introduced the very lovely Linda Blair before a special screening of The Exorcist benefiting The Linda Blair WorldHeart Foundation, and here are some highlights.
Presented in a stunning 2k restoration at the Muvico Theaters in Rosemont, Illinois, The Exorcist (and Blair, too) looked better than ever, and before the screening started, the outspoken actress shared her thoughts on William Friedkin’s iconic film and how her life forever changed after The Exorcist.
Linda Blair on how she landed the role of Regan in The Exorcist:
So, let me tell you a little story about The Exorcist. The first interview was with the casting director in New York, who actually casts a lot of Woody Allen’s films; her name is Juliet Taylor. I was 12 years old. I went in and I read a sheet of paper, and it had dialogue on it that was pretty racy. And I remember reading it thinking, “Oh dear God, this is smut!” Remember I’m a kid. So they said, “Okay, can you do it again with a little more oomph, a little more anger?” And so on. So I did, and I pleased them.
Well, I got a call back. So I came back and met with the director, Billy Friedkin, and we talked for a long time, and the next time he met with my mother. And what he was doing was trying to see how stable I was, what kind of mother I had, was she a stage mother, what he was up against, because they knew this was going to be very difficult. He asked us to go home and read the book, which we did. And as I read it, I had the same questions that you ask me all the time. Which is, “How does the bed move up and down? How is my face going to be transformed? How do I levitate? How this, how that.” And I thought, “God, I certainly can’t turn my head all the way around.” So when I went in and I asked Billy all of these questions, he said, “Well, those are called special effects. Don’t worry; we’ll take care of it. All you have to do is just act out the part.”
So Billy had me do a lot of physical things. He would be testing me to see if I could do certain movements and things. Was I directable? Could he tell me what to do and I would do what he said? He found that I would do pretty much what I was told to do because that’s what a child actor does. You take direction. And a lot of people are good at that.
Blair on the racy dialogue and the special effects process of The Exorcist:
A lot of racy dialogue was not in the original script; it was added later. I got the job about three months into casting. We did a lot of makeup tests. Just a lot of testing. They wanted to make sure I was mentally stable, that I could get through it. The makeup was very difficult. The apparatus that they used for the special effects, for the vomiting and so on, it was all intricate tubing underneath the makeup. They got the makeup down to a point where it wasn’t a mask that was on my face. So when you look at the film, you’ll still be able to see the makeup, but you’ll know it’s me. And that was very important to Billy because he said, “Otherwise the movie is a joke.” Which was why there’s a certain person that has been going around giving autographs, I’m not going to give a name, claiming that she played the devil in the film. And that was taken away a long time ago when Billy removed the mask and therefore allowed you to see that it’s me. So I am the only one. And that was a question for a long time.
Blair discusses the timeless theological thriller nature of The Exorcist:
When you watch the film, some of the things I think are really important…it is a theological thriller. Bill Blatty, who is the writer, William Peter Blatty, was a comedy writer. He decided he wanted to write something scary. And he had studied in Washington, DC, to be a Jesuit priest. He didn’t follow through with that; he went to Hollywood to become a comedy writer. But he knew about some secrets that the Catholic Church had. So when his agent said, “Bill, you’re a comedy writer. You can’t write drama. You can’t write anything scary,” he said, “Oh really?” Because he knew about this story, based on a boy out of Maryland, who then was moved to St. Louis, which is where I was born.
Then what he did was basically take this case study – he had to get permission from the Catholic Church to talk about it – and he wrote a novel that blew the world away. And he had a lot of trouble getting the novel made into a film. The stories are really amazing that he’s told me through the years. They were afraid of it. When it was completed, Warner Brothers was on board, but they lost this director and that director.
Billy had just won [an Oscar] for The French Connection. Bill Blatty knew he wanted Billy Friedkin so it is the team that makes The Exorcist what it is. It’s just not a solo effort. Without Billy Friedkin directing this film, from his vision, I don’t think anybody else could have directed the film. Without Bill Blatty’s writing, obviously nobody would have known the subject matter.
I asked Bill one day…he’s talking and talking and talking, we’re on tour sometime, “Well, Bill, why me?” And he said, “Well, it had to be somebody.” So it could have been any character. He could have taken a boy, it could have been an adult, it could have been anybody. He just though an innocent little girl would scare the bejesus out of you, and it did.
Blair on the publicity and the effects of the release of the film on her as a young actress:
When the movie came out, there wasn’t anybody that was ready for how the world would take this subject matter. In the beginning they decided to launch a campaign. They thought the movie would just crash and burn. They launched a campaign where all the photo shoots, all the publicity stills, made me looked very troubled. So I was really unhappy about the publicity stills they were taking because I was the Cinderella girl. So I used to appear in the New York Times magazine, I was in Sears Roebuck, J.C. Penny. I was one of the children, if any of you go way back, that’s me. All of that. So I didn’t like that they were putting me in a position where I was like, “Uh, I’m all troubled.” That wasn’t who I was. Anyway, it backfired really badly.
Warner Brothers spent the next six months sending me on these world tours that were so exhausting. They put me by myself, with or without a translator, and there would just be a sea full of people, photographers and journalists, 40 years ago! And they would be asking questions about religion and God and the devil and how did I make it and was I institutionalized.
So they asked me all these questions, and I thought, “Do they really think that I know the answers?” But their faces seemed to yearn to want to know that I knew the answers to God and religion and good and evil. Wow, that was a bit of pressure. But I did the best I could.
But then they started making up lies. In the headlines, if you go way back in history, I’ve been in a mental institute, they say. I have this problem and that problem and so on. And I’d say to my mother, “Why are they lying about me?” That’s very hurtful to a 15-year-old. She said, “I don’t know. But if you always tell the truth, you’ll be fine.” And that’s why to this day I’m known for telling the truth. Because sometimes the truth is…is…let’s just put it this way: If you tell the truth, you’ll never be in trouble and you’ll always win. When you start telling lies and deceits, like the devil, you’ll only get yourself into trouble.
Blair on Exorcist II: The Heretic:
Then Richard Burton came along, and we made The Heretic and many people ask me about The Heretic. There was so much pressure from The Exorcist. When they came to me and said they wanted to make a second film, I said, “Oh, hell no!” Then they came and offered a script that was really good, Richard Burton, and Louise Fletcher and James Earl Jones and John Boorman, who had just won for Deliverance. How could you say no? It was all good.
Then they rewrote it five times. John Boorman brought on another person to direct with him, and they destroyed this movie. Richard Burton came in sober; he started drinking. Louise Fletcher decided that she and the director absolutely did not get along. And there’s a lot more stories. So it was sort of destined to be a failure. And I know some of you like it, and that’s good; it’s entertainment.
Blair reflects on the enduring legacy of The Exorcist:
I’ve seen many things, good and bad, because of the movie. So the movie means a lot, not just to an audience where you’ve had a lot of entertainment, you’ve shared it with your kids and your grandkids and the generations that keep going, but it’s also given me a lot of knowledge. And for that I think it’s a win-win for everyone.
One of the things that I want you to do, I want you to watch the movie differently tonight. I want you to look at the acting. Without Ellen Burstyn’s performance as the mother, who knows that is not her daughter, who asks the priest for help. First she goes to the doctors and says, “That’s not my daughter.” And they do all these different tests. Then she goes to the priests, “That is not my daughter.” Without Ellen Burstyn’s amazing performance, you would not have cared about me as much, I don’t feel. She’s generous, she’s amazing, and her performance blows me away. It’s one of the best performances ever in cinematic history.
Jason Miller, he wanted this part bad, and I swear it tore him apart. Max von Sydow, he was 45 years old. He was not however old Max is in the movie; I think he’s like 80 something. So to watch him go through the makeup, he’d be in one chair over there and I’m in a chair over here. I think my makeup started at 5:30 in the morning. I think it took two hours. So Max’s performance was incredible.
Dick Smith, the makeup artist, without him we couldn’t have made this movie. I’ve gone back and learned quite a bit of his work. He started all of the prosthetics. He’s the grandfather and was given the Academy award this past year, which several of us gave to him. Rick Baker, who many of you know and love, he was our intern. So Rick Baker and I are pretty tight. And I encourage you, if you have an interest in makeup, to study Dick Smith because of all of the work he had done in so many amazing movies, Little Big Man and all the old monster movies. And he’d tell me stories as he was putting on my makeup because he had to entertain me; I don’t sit still very well. He’d have to entertain me and tell me stories, I liked that.
The cinematographer, his name is Owen Roizman, and he’s retired. But he would talk to me about the lighting and explain that he had to use different kinds of lights and things in order to light the contacts. Watch every time I move my head or move a certain way. It creeps you guys out intentionally. It’s directed to do that. I want you to watch the filming. Every time they take that camera down the hallway to the door, it’s meant to upset you.
The music, the sound score, everything, listen to all the things that they have playing on the soundtrack. Of course you hear “Tubular Bells,” a piece of music that was thrown away, that Billy Friedkin found. He did everything he possibly could to upset you. He did it visually, he did it vocally. If he could have had smell around, I promise you he would have had it. He certainly did it to us on the set. So when you see sometimes where I’m with the psychiatrist and the psychiatrist says, “If there’s someone in there, come forth now.” The smell that Billy had put in the room for that would make you gag. The reason he did that was so the actors would feel the stench that was in the room. The room was 0 degrees. It was 17 below in the morning. They had fans that they brought in from California that were meat packing fans. They would turn them on all night; it was 17 below. It was 0 degrees, and the minute it came to about 17 above, they would turn the fans back on. We did not have video and digital editing so everything you see is a magic show. So the room was freezing, I was freezing, that was not funny. So you can see the breath.
Above all else, I want you to realize it’s one of the most amazing films ever made. It’s why it will withstand time, I believe. It’s extremely intelligent. And, believe it or not, it’s not a horror film. It’s a theological thriller, and it is meant to mess you up.
You can get more info on Linda’s mission by visiting the official The Linda Blair WorldHeart Foundation website. The foundation is devoted to the loving care and rescue of animals throughout Los Angeles.
Photo Credit: Jim Sorfleet
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