Women In Horror: Annette O’Toole Talks Stephen King’s IT

Many may recognize Annette O’Toole from her more famous roles, such as Lana Lang in Superman III, or Clark Kent’s mother in the TV show, Smallville. An older generation might even know her as the tutor/girlfriend of Robby Benson in 1977’s One on One. But my introduction to Annette came from the 1990 miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s IT. I was 10 years old at the time, and IT was all anyone at school could talk about the day after it aired. Tim Curry took Pennywise the Dancing Clown from being one of the greatest villains to ever hit King’s printed page, to becoming one of the greatest villains ever to grace the silver screen. …Or, the TV screen as it were.

At the time, Stephen King’s IT was without question the scariest movie that had ever been made for television. Networks were starting to push the envelope of what was permissible to show on TV. The blood, the razor-sharp teeth… just the content itself being a movie about an evil clown that kills children, was something that had never been seen on TV in such a time slot. It aired during prime time, before kids like myself had gone to sleep — a sleep which inevitably brought with it dreams of a yellow raincoat, golashes, and a boat made of newspaper floating towards a sewer drain.

Tim Curry’s performance, though the centerpiece of the movie, is not the only thing that makes it work. Nor is it the only thing we as kids found terrifying. The larger-than-life intensity of bullies like Henry Bowers and Belch were all too relatable to some of us. Director Tommy Lee Wallace once noted of the film: Stephen King is about childhood. He’s about the mysteries of childhood. The secrets. The bonds. The pacts that children make. The promises. The fears. And the tough times of coming through childhood in one piece. He writes to that so much and so often, and never more effectively than in IT. The movie, and the book… is a looking back, an attempting to return to childhood trauma.”

For me, as unarguably as Tim Curry’s Pennywise is the most terrifying villain of the piece, Annette O’Toole’s portrayal of Beverly Marsh is equally the most mesmerizing of our seven heroes. You cannot keep your eyes off of her for a second, which is quite a feat considering she’s surrounded by six A-list actors and comedians. O’Toole plays “Bev” with a rare combination of strength and vulnerability found in only our most favorite women of the genre, from Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley to Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode. It’s that hard-to-pull-off combo that not only served to elevate Stephen King’s IT at the time of it’s release, but also continues to see it endure as an unforgettable piece of television history.

In our continued celebration of Women in Horror month, I reached out to Annette O’Toole for an interview, asking if she would mind taking a look back at Stephen King’s IT. This is only the second time I can think of in recorded history when Annette has spoken so openly about the movie. She is noticeably absent from the audio commentary with the other cast members on the DVD and new Blu-Ray release, making this Q&A an even more rare and exciting treat.

 

JS: Stephen King’s IT might not get everything right, but one of the things it does get right on the money is casting. The adults seem like they’ve known each other since they were kids, and moreover there does seem to be a special chemistry between yourself and all of the guys. One of the actors mentions in the audio commentary on the new Blu-ray release that pretty much all of them had a crush on you. Did you have a crush on any of them?

AO: I loved ALL my guys in IT. It felt like I was the only girl at summer camp, and all of the guys were trying to impress me. I remember laughing every day shooting that movie, which is weird considering it’s all so scary onscreen. But… John Ritter is/was/will always be my favorite. There, I said it.

Annette O’Toole and John Ritter in another TV movie from 1990, The Dreamer of Oz.

JS: Well, he said it too. In the audio commentary, during the kissing scene between the two of you, he says, “I love you, Annette. I always have, I always will God help me.”

AO: Wow.  Thank you for telling me, Jason. I never heard the audio commentary. John was a wonderful human being and we thought the world of one another. I continue to think that. I feel his warmth around me all the time.

JS: Who among the actors have you stayed the most in touch with over the years?

AO: Richard Thomas and I go WAY back.  We first worked together in a play called Merton of the Movies at the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A.  That was 1976, I think. I babysat his and Alma’s baby Richard for about an hour at the theater one day while they went to lunch. Richard and my husband Michael [McKean] just started rehearsals for The Little Foxes here in New York so I will get to see Richard again soon. I also keep in touch with Dennis Christopher on Twitter.

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JS: As you know, this is Women in Horror month. For me, your portrayal of Beverly Marsh ranks right up there with the best, and if you’ll indulge me my James Lipton moment, I’ll tell you why. … At the start of the movie, we see each of these characters get “the call” saying old Pennywise is back and they’ve got to return to Derry. Pretty much every one of them has a total nervous breakdown upon getting this call. Except for Bev. For her, it’s a moment of transformation, of remembering who she really is. In the first moments we see her, she’s a somewhat neurotic, anxious, mess of a woman, but once she removes herself from the abusive partner and gets in that taxi, there’s a kind of peace and calm that settles over her. So before Bev even leaves, she’s already begun fighting “the demon,” dealing with those scars from her childhood. This shows us that Bev is stronger than the lot of them. Bev is the key, really. You convey all of this in a matter of seconds. How did you prepare emotionally for those more traumatic moments we see at the beginning of the film?

AO: Well, I love that you got all that about Bev and who she really is from those first moments of the movie. My work here is done! I don’t remember exactly how I prepared for it except for reading the book and thinking the same things you described — that somehow Beverly had been waiting all her adult life for the call she knew would come, and to go back to the people who were her real family. Dread, plus a lot of relief. It’s an interesting combo, and fun to play.

JS: It’s almost like you’re playing two characters, because that anxious side of Bev returns when she goes back to her father’s house in Derry. This is one of the most frightening scenes in the whole movie I think. What do you recall of filming that?

AO: I mostly remember the cup of tea that had this weird sludgy chocolate syrupy stuff that was the blood. It was probably the only scene in the whole film that FELT scary to shoot, because none of my buddies were there. It was just me. Just me and the really scary lady and the cup of chocolate blood stuff.

JS: How much of you is Bev, and how much of Bev is you? Did you feel close to the character?

AO: I don’t think there’s anything remotely similar about Bev and myself. Her background is completely different from mine, but that’s the wonderful and therapeutic thing about acting. You can imagine yourself in any situation, filter it through the character’s history, from what the writer gives you, and come up with something that can surprise even yourself.

JS: Tim Curry’s talent is unmatched really, and it shines as bright as dead lights in this movie. What was it like working with him?

 

AO: I agree. Tim is the MAIN reason this movie works. I have to qualify this though, because I’ve only see IT once when it first was on, so I’m solely going by memory and what I’ve read about the movie. He spent a LOT of time in a separate make-up trailer with his own team of people who at first were doing all these tests for the Pennywise make-up. I remember that he read constantly — always had a stack of books.  We only had one scene together that I recall, when Ben is kissing Bev but it turns out to be Pennywise. I had to wear Pennywise’s pants in one part of the scene because of a trick of how they were shooting it. This was WAY before all this CGI. It was just cool to be around Tim. We all went out a couple of times for dinner and he always came with us. We bonded as a little family, even with Pennywise. He is the reason for the family after all.

 

JS: You once were quoted as saying, “I do wish they could have included the fact that young Beverly is the first lover of each of those guys. It’s a huge part of the bond between them, because it’s the greatest act of love she feels she can give to each one of them when they thought they were all going to die.” Did you have any say in the script? Was there any dialogue you retooled yourself, or asked to be changed?

 

 

AO: I had no say in the script, as it should be. It was made for TV at a time when you could NOT allude to the kids having sex with one another, no matter the dire circumstances. Beverly and the guys all KNEW it had happened between them, and so that’s how we played it. I never ask for anything to be changed unless it makes absolutely no sense, which is rare. I admire and respect writers so much and always try to do what is on the page exactly. It’s just the actor’s job to do that — to figure out why someone says, or does something. I find it more interesting to make it make sense than to ask to change it.

 

JS: What is your fondest memory of making Stephen King’s IT?

 

AO: My favorite time was going to Stanley Park with mine and Richard’s kids. They were about the same age, and my girls adored his triplets. Just going to work everyday, really was a joy. I loved all of the cast, and Vancouver is a beautiful city.

 

JS: How do you feel about them remaking the movie?

 

 

AO: I don’t think they need to remake anything that was good the first time.

 

JS: You were in a horror remake of your own in the 80’s, starring opposite Natassja Kinski in Cat People. Were you a fan of the original movie? How did you go about re-creating the famous pool scene?

 

AO: I love the original Cat People, but really only the title is the same. It’s a completely different story from the Schrader version.  The pool scene though was something they did try to recreate exactly. It WAS scary because it was shot in Pasadena at this really old YMCA. It was the first time I had ever experienced being followed by this camera that was being operated from another room. So there was NO ONE in the pool room, except me and this enormous crane-thing with the camera following me. It really was quiet and creepy and my voice would echo in the place, so it was not hard to be scared out of my mind. Plus I was wet and cold, which helped.

 

 

JS: You surprised a lot of Stephen King fans by appearing in another adaptation of his work last year, the Hulu miniseries 11.22.63. How did that come about?

 

AO: I was just asked to do 11.22.63 out of the blue. I hadn’t read the book, but I got it right away, and then realized that my character is only a mention of a name in the book. So I didn’t really have anything to live up to for Mr. King this time, and just came up with who Edna was on my own. One of the producers told me on the set that I was an “Easter egg,” for the Stephen King fans. I thought that was hilarious and apt.

 

JS: Did you read both IT and 11.22.63 entirely before you started shooting them?

 

AO: Yes, I read both of them before shooting started. I kept the book of IT with me as a sort of Bible because there was so much I wanted to get into even though it wasn’t written on the page. I LOVE Stephen King’s work so reading the books was a great pleasure.

 

JS: Because so many of our readers are avid Stephen King fans, I have to ask, what’s your favorite Stephen King novel? … And if you could play any Stephen King character you haven’t portrayed yet, who would it be?

 

AO: I have read a lot of Stephen King. I think my favorite though is his novel, Salem’s Lot. It really terrified me. I also loved The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and Mr. Mercedes. I like the more off-brand King the best, I guess. Hmm… character I’d most like to play? I think I already did. Beverly Marsh is the best.

To get these Annette O’Toole films on DVD or Blu-Ray, or to watch now in streaming HD on Amazon Video, click the box cover for your movie of choice below.

 

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