Not every performer manages to launch their movie career with appearances in two masterpieces, but that’s how things worked out for P.J. Soles. With a lengthy film and television career spanning a variety of genres, Soles is perhaps best known for her roles in two seminal horror films of the 1970’s: Brian De Palma’s “Carrie,” where she played the title character’s red-capped bully, Norma; and John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” as Jamie Lee Curtis’s totally ill-fated friend, Lynda.
Those roles alone would be enough to cement her status as a horror icon (a title she admits she’s hesitant to embrace), but when you factor in performances in “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” “Stripes,” “Private Benjamin,” and Rob Zombie’s “The Devil’s Rejects,” Soles has a truly impressive filmography to her name.
P.J. Soles will be in Rochester on Saturday, October 14, for a screening of the classic “Halloween” at The Little Theatre. Doors open at 6 p.m. for a meet and greet, and the film starts at 8 p.m. Admission is $15, which includes a poster signed by the actor.
CITY spoke with Soles about her career, her place in the horror community, and getting her big break with one career-defining audition. An edited version of that conversation follows.
- PHOTO COURTESY COMPASS INTERNATIONAL
- P.J. Soles in "Halloween."
CITY: Tell me a bit about your background. I’d read you were born in Germany, but traveled around quite a bit growing up. At what point did you become interested in acting and head toward Hollywood?
P.J. Soles: It took a while to get there. My father was from Holland, my mother from New Jersey, and they met in Germany after the war. From Germany, I moved to Morocco, then Venezuela, and I went to a high school in Brussels, Belgium. And then I came to New York State to go to college and ended up in the city. The schools always had the drama club, which was just something that I liked and did for fun. I was always interested in that, but really my main interest and passion was languages, and I always thought I would end up at the UN or doing something along those lines.
It’s kind of odd, but between transferring from Briarcliffe College to Georgetown, I spent that summer in New York City and I just happened to walk by the Actors Studio. I noticed a sign on the door to audit classes in exchange for running spotlight on weekend productions. I ended up getting that and audited classes. And I just was kind of tickled and thrilled with the whole idea of acting. But it was something I did for fun, not ever to be considered serious.
But they sent me out for auditions, and I said, “Well, I don’t know, I’m just here for the summer. But I could use some extra money.” And I shot like 10 commercials. It was ridiculous. I made so much money that summer that I really didn’t want to go back to college. I also modeled, and I worked on a soap opera, “Love is a Many Splendored Thing.”
Everybody kept telling me you have to move to Los Angeles because you should be in film, you know. So after five years in Manhattan, I moved to L.A., and I was here for two weeks in 1975 before I went to the big casting call, the famous casting call with George Lucas and Brian De Palma. George was casting for “Star Wars,” and Brian for “Carrie.” Nobody knew really either one of them at that point. It wasn’t like, “Oh, my God!” It was just two directors behind a desk. I was chosen by Brian to be in “Carrie,” and then that movie started the ball rolling.
What was that audition process like?
It was my first film audition. I was modeling at the time, and the agency had the inside scoop about this audition: both directors were casting these movies and they wanted to see every young person in town. So do I want to go? Yes, of course! I waited three hours in the hallway, and got to meet a lot of other people, laugh, have a good time. For me, you know, this was fun.
I wore my red hat to the audition, and when I turned to go, Brian De Palma said, “Next audition, bring the hat.” I said OK, and the subsequent two or three auditions later, every time I would leave, he’d go “bring the hat.” And the first day on set, he’s like, “Where’s your hat?” I said, “I don’t know. It’s in my truck … you want me to wear the hat?” And he goes, “Yeah, Norma always wears her hat.” So I kind of thought, “Did he cast me, or just like my hat?” But it was great because I got to be the tomboy in a group of seriously gorgeous women: Nancy Allen, Amy Irving — and of course Sissy, but she tried not to be as Carrie. So it was nice to play the tomboy.
Did he ever say what it was about the hat he liked so much?
Well, when we went to those subsequent auditions at his apartment, every wall was covered with storyboard papers and he had drawn every scene out. And I think as a visual person he just knew that because there were so many girls in the cast, it was going to be nice to have one with a hat and not have to worry about her hair. Just hat and pigtails, that was easy for me. Nancy and Amy always had to worry about their hair, but I had the easy job as the wisecracking Norma.
I really only had the one line in the opening scene during the volleyball game, when Carrie misses the shot and I go, “Thanks a lot, Carrie.” That was my only written line in the script, and I thought that was it. But I was signed on for a week, and after that scene, Brian called my agent and said, “I’m putting her on for the rest of the shoot and she’s going to be Nancy Allen’s best friend. We’re just gonna put her in whenever I can, but she’s on for the shoot.” So I was expecting one week and I ended up with six, and it was very exciting. Right off the bat I thought, “I must be doing something right.” Now I’ve got to make it — I’ve got to stand out wherever I can. So whenever he put me in next to Nancy Allen, I tried to make the best of my screen time.
What was it like working with someone like De Palma that early in your career?
I can’t say he was somebody that would spend any great deal of time talking character with his actors, but because of his casting I think he trusted that we all would take care of ourselves and guide ourselves, which we all did. So I think he had an eye for casting. And like I said, he had a visual eye. So he was very much interested in the crane shots and doing as long a shot as you can get without cutting, and not too many takes. He commanded the set, and I just remember thinking, “Wow, the director’s like the god of the set.”
How did his style of directing differ from John Carpenter’s while you were filming “Halloween”?
John Carpenter was just out of film school, and I guess the difference for me would be that Brian De Palma was extremely planned out. John had a little bit more of an organic approach — very soft spoken, very much wanting to talk with his actors and make them feel it was a collaboration. And Brian would say, “Ad-lib whatever you want to do, and either we keep it or we cut it.” So I appreciated that. With John Carpenter, it was similar, but it was more that you were on an equal footing with him. He wasn’t the god of the set. We were all in charge, and we were all collaborating to make this good film.
- PHOTO COURTESY COMPASS INTERNATIONAL
- P.J. Soles with Jamie Lee Curtis and Nancy Kyes in "Halloween."
How much influence did you have on creating Lynda as a character? Or was that pretty much set in the script?
Well obviously you have a script and you’re given lines, but then you have to come up with the visual. In all my movies I’ve always brought my own wardrobe, and that was very important for me. I would separate the scenes, and my best outfit I would put in the scenes where I thought I would have the most lines and the most screentime. And then the “totally” in “Halloween”: I told John, “There’s a bunch of ‘totallys’ in here, but I think I’m gonna push it so every time Lynda talks I’m going to say ‘totally’ if I can. And if it gets too obnoxious or you think it’s too much, let me know.” And he never did.
I wasn’t the typical American girl, so this was so exciting to me. From “Carrie” to “Halloween” to “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” to get to play these girls that I imagined were typical Americans. I always admired them, and had a desire to be like them — which I wasn’t at all — but this was my chance.
You mentioned the amount of ad-libbing on the set for “Halloween.” I read that there was some ad-libbing in your death scene ...
Well, the whole scene, yeah.
It doesn’t immediately seem like a scene that would lend itself to improvisation. What are your memories like of shooting that sequence?
Well, the written part was obviously Michael Myers kills Bob down in the kitchen, and puts the sheet over his head with glasses. But what John told me was Lynda’s doing everything she can to try to seduce him and to get him back into bed. So that process was the ad-libbing part. He said, “Hey if you want to throw in a little nudity we’d appreciate it, if you’re not comfortable with that, I understand. It’s only going to be me and [DP] Dean Cundey and [writer-producer] Debra Hill in the room, the rest of the set is clear. So whatever you want to do.”
And John was famous for doing one or two takes primarily. Obviously this is a low budget film and we’re using film stock. You don’t see what you’re shooting, so you pray that when you watch dailies, the lighting is good or there’s not something in the line of vision that you didn’t notice when you looked through the lens. I had a nail file in my purse, and I surprised him. I said, “Well, I’m just going to do something. Let’s just do one take and see if you like it.” Because I thought, “Gosh, I don’t want to just sit there with my breasts out. So what can I come up with?” And I did the “See anything you like?” scene because John said to try to get him try to get back into bed. So if that didn’t work, something’s off here. [Laughs] And he loved it. I think we did just one other shot for coverage.
Then the actual strangling part, Nick Castle was playing Michael Myers under the sheet and he was just so nervous about putting that cord around my neck. It really was not a big deal, and everyone asks, “Is it scary in a movie like that?” And no, but it was tickling me. It took like three takes because he didn’t do it hard enough — I didn’t want him to do it really hard, obviously — but it kept tickling my throat, and I kept laughing. So there’s definitely a good blooper reel out there somewhere.
When you were on set making “Carrie” and “Halloween,” did you have any inkling of what those films would become, or that we’d still be talking about them four decades later?
When I first saw “Carrie,” it was for a cast and crew screening. Before that — very unusual — Brian De Palma let us all go to dailies after work every day, which was fun. So we had an idea of what the film was like, and we were all very much impressed with ourselves and each other, like “Oh my god, this is so cute.” But the movie as a whole when I first saw it blew me away. I had watched them film the scene with Sissy and her hand coming out of the ground, and it wasn’t scary when you watch it being filmed. But obviously with the music, the setup with Amy and the flowers, and then that shock, it was amazing.
And the same with “Halloween.” I hadn’t known about John Carpenter’s musical ability. But when I first saw the cast and crew screening and heard the music, I thought it was amazing. I mean, to me, it seemed it took a longer time for “Halloween” to catch on. I don’t think it got bad reviews, but it sort of got overlooked in the beginning. It took a while to gain steam. I think audiences were the ones that brought back the reviewers to take a look at it again and realize that this was something special.
Starring in two classic horror movies pretty much cements your status as a horror icon. How has your experience been being a part of the horror community over the years?
There have been a lot of directors, people reaching out to me. I probably would not have been asked to be in Rob Zombie’s “The Devil’s Rejects” if I hadn’t been in “Carrie” or especially “Halloween,” which he said was his favorite movie. But I think he probably knew me also from “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” because he was very good friends with Joey Ramone.
I don’t think of myself as a horror icon, only because I haven’t done just horror movies. I love “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” and I’ve done a lot of television. “Simon & Simon” and “Air Wolf” and “Hardcastle and McCormick” and “Cheers” and “Knight Rider.” I did a lot of episodic TV over the years, and then obviously “Private Benjamin” with Goldie Hawn and “Stripes” with Bill Murray. So in my mind, I’m like, “OK, why do you always call me a scream queen?” I understand it because of those two movies being so iconic, but in my mind, I’m an actress.
But the community, in terms of going to horror conventions with the people who have played the various Michael Myers and Freddy Kruegers, the Texas Chainsaw people, and everybody who was in these amazing movies, George Romero, all these great people that I’ve gotten to meet — when we go to these places and see the fans that come out for the events to meet us and talk with us, it’s just amazing. And they come to my table expecting to meet me and buy a picture from “Halloween” and get their picture taken with me, invariably they’ll buy a “Stripes” picture or “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” and they’ll say, “Oh my god, you were in that?” Some of them don’t know, and a few of them know me from all my movies, but they’ll go, “Oh I love that one too!” It’s just the sweetest thing.
How many times a day do people ask you to say “totally”?
Every other person. I sign “totally” on my “Halloween” pictures, and when I start to write it they get so excited. They go, “Oh, I was hoping you would do that. I didn’t want to ask you, but thank you for doing that!” And I go, “What else would I write? Of course I’m going to write ‘totally!’”
Have you heard from the producers of the new “Halloween” movie that’s going into production?
It’s gonna be the 40th anniversary next year. But the minute I heard about the new “Halloween,” everybody on Facebook and my friends were texting me, “Are you gonna be in it? Are you gonna be in it? I hope you’re going to be in it!” So I shoot off an email to John Carpenter, and I’m like “Congrats, you know, I heard about the new movie. Obviously everyone’s very excited. I can’t believe Jamie Lee is going to be back … So I’m expecting a scene!” That’s what I wrote to him. [Laughs] Where, you know, Laurie has a dream or a nightmare or whatever, and she’s dreaming about Annie and Lynda. Where we’re grown up and we’ve got kids and grandkids and friends, and so it would be kind of “What if they had lived?” kind of a dream fantasy.
And I said, “That would be really cool. Just let me know if you think that’s a good idea. I’d love to be part of it. Totally.” And he wrote back, and he said, “I’m only doing the music. I don’t have any creative input. But if it was up to me, then Lynda would be the star of the movie in some alternative universe.” So I don’t think I’m going to be in it, but I planted seeds. Hopefully those pumpkin seeds will grow into a giant pumpkin and they’ll have me do a cameo. That I would say yes to, even for $100. I’m putting that out there.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated to correct the movie start time.