Dee Wallace is one of those “hey, isn’t that...” actresses who keeps working and working in all manner of projects. Her resume includes almost 200 movie and TV credits, stretching back to the early 1970s. She’s perhaps best known for her scream queen roles in movies like the original Hills Have Eyes, The Howling, Cujo, Critters, The Frighteners and Rob Zombie’s reboot of the Halloween franchise. Of course, that doesn’t include her most famous character: Mary, the gentle, put-upon single mom in Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece E.T. In an exclusive interview with Mania, Wallace sat down to talk about her experience on the film, which is getting a new Blu-ray this week to celebrate its 30th anniversary.
Question: Can you tell us about how you first got involved in E.T.?
Dee Wallace: I can. Steve Spielberg auditioned me for a movie call Used Cars. He said he saw this childlike quality in me and he saved me for E.T., something for which I will be forever grateful.
Q: What do you think the role of adults was in E.T., and specifically your character, who seems to straddle the gap between children and adults?
DW: That we’ve separated from the trust of childhood, that we’ve lost the ability to stay in the possibilities. We can’t accept the idea that an alien might walk into our lives, and we can say, “What are you about? What do you want? What do you need? How do you feel?” We just tense up and run. We’ve lost that ability to treat the world with wonder.
Q: Did Spielberg talk at all about his own childhood during the filming? Being raised by a single mother and such?
DW: He never talked about that with the cast at all. I think I played the first single mom in a major film, so that may have been there, but it wasn’t a part of our work. I have, however, had a lot of people acknowledge that it gave them an identity. People who were growing up in a single parent household, who felt like outcasts. Also, I get a lot of people who were kids when it came out and identified very closely with Elliot, then they’ve grown up and started identifying more and more with my character. They show it to their kids, and they say, “It touches me in a different way because of that.”
Q: What was the working dynamic like on set? Was there a lot of room for improvisation?
DW: Oh yeah, big improvisation. You had the script and the lines, and then Steven would say, “Dee do this and Henry do that and Drew to this.” He’d take us aside and whisper in our ear. He’d say things like, “Add this line, but don’t tell anyone.” Everyone was very in the moment. We did it around lines, but you absolutely had freedom to play. For example, the dining room scene early in the film. He told Henry [Thomas] to say that the father was in Mexico. That wasn’t in the script. It hit Mary, my character, so hard. I started crying and got up from the table. I wasn’t supposed to do that, but it felt right. And because of that moment – because Steven gave Henry an improv, and I responded with another improv – Steven set up a whole new shot by the faucet, where they brought me into the big close up and I say, “He hates Mexico.” And it happened like that. [Snaps fingers.]
Q: How did you work with the three kids? How did the “parent-child” dynamic work on set?
DW: The same as it was with any kids. They were pretty much the same kids off-set as on-set. We spent a lot of time together and I felt very motherly towards them. Especially Drew [Barrymore], who was so young. Henry was interesting; he was very shy at the time, and very sweet, but also very smart and grown-up. You didn’t feel like you needed to take care of him the way you needed to take care of Drew.
Q: What were your impressions when you saw E.T., when you saw the puppet?
DW: I’ve been asked that question a lot over the years, and I never thought of it as a puppet. I thought of it as E.T., as another character. Someone was always working it when I saw it. You never saw somebody getting into it or getting dressed in it. Some of that, I think, was for the kids. Keeping it real for them and letting them feel the magic Steven was trying to capture. But it sure worked for me. Quite frankly, it was just like working with another actor.
Q: Everyone knew once the film came out that you had something special on your hands. Did it feel that way during the shoot? Beyond the fact that you were working on a Spielberg picture?
DW: Oh sure, we knew. You could absolutely feel the connection and the magic on set. But that doesn’t always mean you’re going to have a blockbuster, and certainly not a 30-year-old blockbuster that keeps on giving. You never know that. When all the elements come together and the public lets you in and doesn’t forget about you after a few months or years... that’s what makes it so special.