[INTERVIEW] The Birds and Alien Star Veronica Cartwright Heads To Retro Expo

Veronica Cartwright began her acting career during Hollywood's Golden Age and has a career that has lived up to those expectations since. Cartwright appeared in some of cinema's most memorable films with roles in The Birds, Alien, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Her career has allowed her to worked for and alongside an extremely long list of Hollywood legends.

She is currently slated to appear in Fox's television series The Resident later this month. Those acquainted with popular films have most likely already seen Cartwright in action, but now those around DFW will be able to see her in person when she makes an appearance at the Retro Expo in Plano. Fans will be able to meet her this Friday and Saturday at the Plano Event Center.

We were too excited about her arrival to wait, so we got in touch with her ahead of time to discuss her acting career. We talked about her time filming some of her most notable movies and also got a unique insight into the mind of Alfred Hitchcock. Read below to see what she had to say during our chat and ask her some questions of your own at Retro Con!

One of your largest roles early in your career was in The Birds. Did Alfred Hitchcock ever give you any career or personal advice that has stuck with you?

Well, he told me how to cook a steak and he told me a bunch of really great wines to purchase. I was born in Bristol, England, and his favorite wine cellar was in Bristol. When I first met him, I had to go to his bungalow. I had done a movie called The Children's Hour, which he had seen and he wanted to meet me. He proceeded to tell me these great wines. I was twelve, but I wish I’d have had a pencil and written them down.

Then, he told me how to Cook a steak so that it was a perfect rare because I would need to know that when I got married. I said, "Oh, okay..." And believe me, I have tried that and it works. It's bizarre, but it works. He was incredibly gracious to me while I was on the set. I would ask him questions and he was always available to answer them. He was never intimidating. I wanted to know about the birds on the jungle gym. Wouldn't they [the audience] know the real birds from the fake? He told me, if your eye sees movement, it assumes that everything is alive. To this day, I watch that jungle gym scene and when I think I find a fake bird it moves!

It's really amazing, his tricks of the trade. For instance, when we're walking out at the end when I have the lovebirds and we're leaving, there was no door. I asked him about whether or not people will notice there's no door. He goes, "if there was a door, I wouldn't be able to see you, dear. Let's show her, Rod, how it's done." So, Rod Taylor reaches down and mimes opening a door. Just the light shadow that crosses my face makes it looked like there was a door there and that's what's in the

I would have tea with him every afternoon; at 4:00 he would take his break. It was terrific. He was always wonderful to me. That's where I realized that when you had to do these big emotional scenes that, if you just watch the actor you were working with and listen to them, the emotionality would come. Like when the birds were all coming down the chimney, I just watched Jessie [Jessica Tandy] and all the emotions were there. It was better than thinking of a dead cat or a dead bird or something like that, which would eventually cause you run out of juice, if that's what you were doing. As long as you stay accessible to the other person, it all works out great. That's something that I learned for future takes.

I always wondered how good actors are able to portray their character's emotions so well. Of course, you had actual birds in the movie, running scenes on treadmills, and heavy action sequences. Did you personally have to deal with any injuries on set?

Well, no, but you did learn to run really fast because if you didn't on that treadmill, you were like a bowling ball that was coming down. They just kept speeding it up and if you didn't stay to the front of the crowd, if one kid fell, you all fell and you all landed in a big pile on a mattress on the other end.

My only personal injury, which is so totally weird, was because I had just worked on Route 66. George Maharis had come down with hepatitis and anybody who had worked with him in a certain span of time had to get these penicillin shots. So, they took me over to the nurse on the lot. In those days, the needles looked like they were twelve inches long and they would measure it out according to body weight, then stick it in each cheek. When I came back onto the set, there was a prop guy running around with a down pillow the entire day. When I'd go to sit down, there was this man who would just put this down pillow under my ass. That was the only injury I had but it was due to the shots and not Alfred Hitchcock.

Alien is also a movie that has a reputation for have been a tough movie to film. Between the heat, exhaustion, and flying animal guts, would you go back and do that one again knowing what you do now?

Yeah, but I think I'd ask for more money. It was a tough shoot because everything on set, like the whole ship, was connected. You'd walk into the engine room and then you walked into another room, so it got very claustrophobic after a while. And of course, wearing the gear that we had, which was about 50 lbs. of shoulder pads and helmets, then walking across the desert of imported sand carrying John Heard's body. We couldn't use a dummy; we had to use John. We were passing out like flies because they'd forgotten to put any air holes in there, so we were just breathing our own breath.

On top of that, there was a CO2 canister in the back. At one point I asked, "Does anybody see white swirling smoke?" Well, it turned out the CO2 was leaking into our helmets, and there was no place for it to go. John was the first person to pass out. I was the second and then Tom Stewart passed out. We were only considered actors complaining until they did the super distant shot. Tom Skerritt's son was one of the kids and Ridley's kids were the other two. When they passed out, they realized that there was obviously a problem.

Of course, we went on to finish all our work. I think I lost 15 lbs. that week; it was mind boggling. You had these nylon lined, big spacesuits, and there was a heat wave in England. When you'd take those things off at the end of the day, it'd be like a pool of sweat inside. It was disgusting. It was not a pleasant experience at all. But there you have it; that's movie

It's was said that you didn't like your character's emotional fragility to begin with, but you still accepted the role. Why did you go forward with it?

The thing is, I thought I was supposed to be Ripley. That's who my agent thought I was and who I thought I was. It wasn't until I got over to England that they said I was coming in to try costumes for Lambert. I thought, "Well, she's incredibly whiny." I said I hadn't even looked at the character from that point of view. But now, if you think about it, she was the only one with the brains to say to get off of the ship, draw straws, and get out of there. Nobody bothered to listen to her but they said that I was the audience's emotion. I was what the audience was feeling. I did think she was a little emotional, but at least they put back in the scene in the director's cut where I slapped Sigourney across the face because she wouldn't let us into the ship. It gave her some sort of defiance, so I thought that was good. I think it all worked out, although we never did shoot my desk scene, which was sort of a shame. But what can you do? That's how the business works.

Now, retacking on your career, you were on Leave it to Beaver. You gave The Beave his first kiss. Considering you're only nine years old, was there a moment of awkwardness between you and Jerry Mathers a short time following it?

*Laughs* I don't really remember. I had to kiss him on the cheek. Richard Deacon played the father and he kept saying, "Come on, come on. You can do this!" It was just silliness. They actually revived my character and interspersed it when they did Still The Beaver. They put in footage of me giving them a kiss on the cheek and stuff like that, which was hysterical. Then, I turned into this Dominatrix real estate person. It was really fun to do. So, I can't remember. It was just part of the job, I guess. I don't really recall whether I felt squeamish or not. He and I were both about the same age, I 

I have seen your portfolio and you've probably worked on more TV shows than I can count. Is there a particular television show that you really enjoyed filming?

Well, it was really fun doing ER because I got to meet George Clooney. That was very exciting. He came over, introduced himself, and said he was so excited that I was doing the show. He had no idea how excited I was. I also really enjoyed doing X Files. It was very trippy and she was a wonderful character, so I thoroughly enjoyed doing that. I got to do four of those episodes. I do have a show coming out on November 23, The Resident, which will be on Fox on Tuesday nights. I had fun doing that. I'm excited because, as I'm getting older, the parts have become very interesting. There isn't one show I like better than the other.

You've talked about some of the roles that you've got coming up, is there a particular character role that you would still like to be cast in?

Oh, no, I can't think of any. If it catches my eye, I'm willing to do pretty much anything, but I don't want to do crummy stuff. It's an entirely different world now. We don't even go to interviews where you can meet people; you go on tape to do your auditions. It's a very bizarre kind of world that we're in right now due to the pandemic. When interviewing in person, you can talk to them and ask if they would you like you to try something else. Now, it's an entirely different ballgame. You have to take several shots at different angles, say how tall you are, and say where you're located. It's just weird. It's very weird. It's like you're double duty. I'm hoping that ends soon.

Me too. Just one final question. You're generally associated with darker roles for the most part of your career. Horror movies seem to have drastically changed throughout the years since Alfred Hitchcock, more so focusing on gore and less on the plot. Since you spent so much time with Alfred Hitchcock, what do you believe he would think of the genre today?

Well, Alfred Hitchcock always thought less is more; you don't always show everything. When we did Alien, there wasn't really any CGI. I think James Cameron was very influenced by Alfred Hitchcock. I mean, you saw parts of the alien but you weren't quite sure what it was. Your mind did the thinking. One of the scariest scenes in Alien, for me, is when Ripley is in that shuttle and, all of a sudden, the alien is right behind her while she's undressing and we didn't even know. He just sort of steps out. He's part of the window dressing, so to speak, and that is very scary. Hitchcock always felt that less is more, and I think there's so much CGI now that it gets a bit distracting.

Alfred Hitchcock used 15,000 birds in the chimney scene. We were all in a big bubble and they kept pulling shafts of birds. The birds would come down, and then they go up, and when they can't go anywhere, they just drop. It was very disconcerting to be doing something like that, but that's what made it look real. Even in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you didn't see everything that was happening with that plant. People just sort of changed; their personalities changed. I'm just a big fan of not showing as much.

There are some movies that I think are really scary. I loved Get Out. I thought that was really scary, but you didn't know what the hell was going on. It was like your mind was doing tricks on you, and that's what made it scary. However, I think things have changed dramatically. Sometimes, I think these movies just get a little too bloody, and it's not really necessary.

Retro Expo will be held November 12th and 13th. Doors open at 4pm tomorrow but VIP members will be able to enter an hour early each day. In addition to celebrity guests, Retro Expo has a huge selection of vintage collectibles and memorabilia. Click here for more information and tickets to the event!