Adrienne Barbeau is a huge favourite of many a genre fan, with her having appeared in iconic movies such as The Fog, Escape from New York, Creepshow, Swamp Thing, and so many more. Initially, we caught up with Adrienne to discuss her role as Catwoman in Batman: The Animated Series as that beloved show gets a new Blu-ray release, and we were lucky enough to grab enough time to touch on a whole range of other fascinating topics.
STARBURST: How did you first end up involved in Batman: The Animated Series?
Adrienne Barbeau: I have a voiceover agency that I’m signed to for doing voiceovers, and they just called and said, “Come on in, we’ve got an audition for you for Catwoman.” I went in, it was probably a 30-second recording, then a month later I got the call. I don’t remember watching Batman growing up. I knew [former Catwoman] Eartha Kitt because I had grown up listening to her recordings, but I didn’t know any of the women who’d gone before me in terms of the role. They just heard something in the audition that they thought would work.
As someone who was relatively unfamiliar with that world, how was it to come in to the show when so many of the people involved were such huge fans of Batman and comic books in general?
I don’t think I let on [laughs]. All I remember was thinking, “This is a fantastic job because I don’t have to get make-up on and I don’t have to wear a costume.” And I was working with all these great people. One of the delights of it was showing up at the studio and discovering who was going to be in the show that week; the guest artists or whatever. I had grown up watching Efrem Zimbalist Jr. [BTAS’ Alfred], so I was delighted to be working with him. I don’t think I knew any of the other cast members, but it was just a fun job to do.
Would you say you have a preference between live-action and voice acting, or do you just enjoy them both in different ways?
Both of them in different ways. It really comes down to the character and the project. In the last couple of years, I’ve done a handful of video games – some of them have just been voiceover, others have been motion capture – and that’s a whole different experience. Voiceovers just are easier. I don’t mean to make light of it, but, in terms of the demands, you don’t even have to memorise. With Batman, we were so fortunate to have Andrea Romano as our director because, for me at least, she just guided me through. As you know, we’re seeing a written script but we’re not seeing any visuals, we’re not seeing any animation, and Andrea is – she has the storyboards or whatever in front of her – and I remember there was one day where Catwoman goes running off the top of a building and lands on the street below. I ran off the top of the building and I land with an “Oomph” or something. Andrea said, “Adrienne, it’s a 20-story building not a 10-story building!” Then you make your adjustments. If I’d not had her there to tell me what the audience was seeing, I wouldn’t have been as loud.
While you wouldn’t see the animation while you were recording the voice work, the show itself instantly just felt so special to watching audiences. When did you realise that this series was something quite special?
When fans started telling me [laughs]. You know, I’m one of those actors who does the work and then goes on to the next thing. Some of my films I’ve never seen, or I never watch anything more than once. The artwork I was aware was exceptional, the art deco take on it. I just knew that that was something we hadn’t seen before. But I didn’t watch cartoons, I’m not an aficionado, so it really started filtering back to me. And now it’s become so loved that you’re doing an entire magazine article about it. Most of my fans, at least at the conventions, aren’t even aware that I voiced Catwoman. Actually, more and more I’m having people bring up the little Pop! figures of Catwoman for me to sign.
With the Catwoman role then, did you realise that this character was such a big deal to so many people? Maybe role model isn’t the correct word, given some of her antics…
At the time we were doing it, no, I did not realise that. I have since come to realise it because that’s the kind of response I get, even now. People coming up and saying, “Oh my gosh, that was my favourite character in the world when I was growing up, and I wanted to be just like Catwoman.” But at the time, no, I wasn’t aware that she was as special as she is to so many people.
Whatever project you’ve been involved in over the decades – be it a movie, a TV show, a video game, an animated effort – you always manage to stand out and make the most of your minutes, often showcasing a huge range. Do you ever feel that you were a little pigeonholed at times, though?
I have been pigeonholed along the way. When I came to California, I was a Broadway actress, I was a musical comedy star, I had just won the Tony nomination for Grease. So my first label, I guess, was stage actress, theatre actress. Then my first show here was Maude, which was a half-hour sitcom, so then I was a comedienne, and nobody would see me for drama. Then I started getting the dramatic roles. By the time I did do The Fog I was associated with John Carpenter romantically, so suddenly I’m a genre actress or a horror actress. So, along the way there have been labels, but they’ve continued to change. Then I did The Cannonball Run and Back to School and all of those, and then I did a lot more TV and all of that. I think that it probably wasn’t until Carnivàle with HBO that maybe I was given an opportunity to show some other aspects of my ability. I’ve taken the roles I’ve taken for a lot of different reasons. I wrote a memoir in 2006 – and it was just rereleased as an eBook so I was able to update it – in it, I talk about when I hear a producer say, “Oh, there’s no sense in making the offer to her. We couldn’t possibly get her.” I think to myself, “Make the offer!” You never know why an actor takes the role. I filmed one of my movies because it was filming in Moscow and I wanted to be in Moscow. I knew it was going to be a terrible movie, but I wanted to go to Moscow. I’ve taken other jobs because I had termites and I needed to tend to my house. So, it’s been an eclectic career and continues to be. I just made nine movies in the last year and a half. Then there’s the writing and everything. And I do a lot of voice work these days which is not widely heard; I do video describing for the blind, which I really love to do – whether it’s features or television series or whatever. That’s just sort of for my own enjoyment really. Sometimes I think it’d be nice to have an animated series for the same reason I said to you at the beginning – it’s not quite as much work, it’s not 14-hour days in the middle of a blizzard – but it all just comes down to the role that’s offered. Actually, I have a project coming up that will be just voice. I can’t talk about it yet but it’s a podcast series that I’m looking forward to.
To talk about The Fog for a moment, that was your first feature film and you were working with John, who you were then married to. Did you manage to keep your professional and personal lives detached on that shoot, or would ‘work’ often carry on over to ‘life’?
Yes, we got married on New Year’s Day of 1979. Then we started filming in probably February or March, maybe a little later than that. We had met about nine months before on Someone’s Watching Me. I remember the first day of shooting on The Fog, we were both determined to be extremely professional. We had taken separate hotel rooms and everything, nobody was going to say he was treating me differently. We were all great friends – Tom Atkins is one of my closest friends, and Nancy Loomis and Tommy Wallace were at our wedding – but nobody was going to say that he was treating me any different because we were married. About halfway through the morning, John came over to me and said, “I’m not having any fun at all. This isn’t going to work.” We weren’t even talking! Maybe it was because I knew John first as a director, and I trusted him completely. He had written the role of Stevie for me, so I assumed he trusted me as well. There was only one moment on the set when we had a little frisson. We were getting ready to do, I think, the scene where the piece of driftwood starts burning up. So John said, “Okay, sit down and we’ll shoot.” I said, “Sit down?! Oh John, I don’t think she’d sit down. She’s much too upset and nervous. I don’t think she’d sit down.” He said, “Okay, stand up and we’ll shoot.” That was the only time we had a disagreement about working together.
The Fog is very much a slow-burning classic ghost story that was very different to a lot of what else was being offered in the horror genre at that time. For you, why did that movie work so well?
I think it’s because you care. For me, there are two reasons. I think the location that he chose is as much a character in the film as the rest of us. It’s one of the most beautiful part of the country. We ended up buying a home up there, which unfortunately burned down years later. I think that’s a portion of it. And then, you care about the characters; you know them, you like them. So much of the material that I get these days, by the second page four people have been sliced to death in the most gruesome manner. You don’t even know who they are, and it doesn’t matter. This is people in jeopardy that you care about because they’re witty, they’re interesting. Those are what make the movie appealing to me. And I guess it’s really scary to a lot of people. There’s even one man out there who uses The Fog as a like a clock radio – he puts it on every night to fall asleep – and I have other people who say they watch it once a month, more than that. It’s not a genre that I am that familiar with except for what I’ve done, because I don’t like horror films. I don’t like to be scared, I don’t like to jump, I don’t like the tension. Of course, that’s the thing about John. Nobody can create tension like John can.
There’s certainly an irony there of you marrying a man often referred to as the Horror Master…
I’ll tell you my favourite story. The night that I went on The Johnny Carson Show and announced that John and I had gotten engaged, I went right from that taping to the first screening of Halloween. I had invited Tom Atkins and his wife at the time, Garn Stephens, and another friend of mine, Mews Small, who was in Grease with me. She was one of the two girls in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – in those days her theatrical name was Marya Small. I mean, I’ve never even seen Psycho, so this wasn’t my sort of thing. I spent the whole film hitting John every time something happened! I’m sure he was black and blue by the time it was over. And Tom and Garn and Mews, who had not met him yet, when the film ended the three of them looked at each other and said, “We cannot let her marry him!”
These days, John is often focussed on his music and touring – which sees him working with your son, Cody. How is it for you to see Cody and John working together?
I have to be honest, the first time I saw the show I was driving over there thinking, “Oh my gosh, an hour and twenty minutes of electronic music…” I was hoping John was going to sing, to do some music from The Coupe De Villes. I didn’t realise they were using the videos. I was just blown away by the show, it was so exciting. But for me to see the two of them communicating and working off each other, it brought tears to my eyes. It was just wonderful.
It would be remiss of us not to talk about Escape from New York, which was again with John and was a year after The Fog. How much fun was it to be involved in that and to get to play the badass role of Maggie?
Again, I had the advantage of having the director write the role for me [laughs]. I loved Maggie, I loved her morality. It’s all right there in that last scene, when she reaches out her hand for the gun from Snake because she’s going to try and do away with The Duke. I loved Maggie. It was an easier shoot for me than it was for all the guys, because most of my stuff was done here in LA at the USC Law Library. So, I wasn’t in St Louis working. It was very, very, very hot and they were working nights. It really was an exhausting shoot for John. But to have the opportunity to work with Donald Pleasance, who was one of the funniest men I’ve ever worked with, and Harry Dean [Stanton] and Ernie [Borgnine]. It was fantastic.
With you being such a popular genre figure and John still being involved directly with the Halloween franchise up until Halloween III: Season of the Witch, was there ever any point where there was talk of you joining the franchise during that time?
No. Well, I did do Rob Zombie’s Halloween, but it ended up on the director’s cut, it ended up on the cutting room floor. But no, I don’t remember ever discussing it. That was one of those things where Rob called me on the day it was premiering. He said, “Are you going to the premiere?” I said, “No.” He just wanted to warn me that I wouldn’t be seeing myself.
Another huge favourite of so many is 1982’s Creepshow, where you again stole the show as the bitchy Wilma. How was it to work with George A. Romero and the fantastic ensemble cast put together for that anthology?
I had a ball, I just had the greatest time. If you get a chance, and it’s very cheap on Amazon, check out my memoirs, There Are Worse Things I Can Do. I have a whole chapter there about turning down Creepshow, because I read the script and I thought, “Oh gosh, I can’t do this. This is terrible! This is vile and bloody, and the language.” Then I called Tom Atkins and I said, “Tommy, you’re doing this movie?” Of course, John, to whom I was married at the time, was saying, “Are you kidding?! You’re going to turn down the opportunity to work with George Romero?” Tom said, “No, no, Adrienne, you don’t understand. It’s going to be a comic book, it’s going to be stylised. You’ve gotta do it!” I almost turned it down. And I don’t drink. I showed up to the rehearsal and said to George, “Look, if this isn’t what you want, you better send me back.” George created that role for me. It was the first time in my acting career where anyone ever said, “Go big or go home.”
To wrap things up then, is there a particular experience that stands out as the all-time career highlight or experience for you?
I loved doing Carnivàle. I don’t know if it’s seen very much in England, but it was just one of my all-time favourite jobs. Not only for the role but for the entire concept of the show, the metaphysics of it, the spirituality of it, the cast, the crew, even the caterers. It was the kind of job where I could still get my kids to school in the morning and sometimes be home before they went to bed. I just loved doing that, and I just loved the character. So Carnivàle stands out. Creepshow, of course. The Fog. I just was on the road with Pippin – the national tour of Pippin – where I was hanging upside down from a trapeze 15 feet in the air, singing my song and doing my trapeze act. That was a great job, too, but not in film and television. I’m just hoping they’ll bring it to the screen before I can’t do it anymore. You know, I’ve done a lot of stuff that I hope nobody ever sees, but everything I’ve done I’ve had a good time doing.