Kevin P. Taft
Forty years ago, the literary world was turned on its head with the release of the “most terrifying book ever written”—The Exorcist by William P. Blatty. The story of a possessed young girl was an overnight sensation that spawned a film adaptation that went on to frighten audiences like no movie had before. It went on to earn Oscar nods and is still considered the best horror film ever made.
So it is with great interest that the Geffen Playhouse will be showcasing the world premiere of the stage version of The Exorcist based solely on the original source material. Directed by theater wunderkind John Doyle (Sweeney Todd) and written by award-winning playwright John Pielmeier (Agnes of God), the show features a star-studded cast, including Richard Chamberlain, Brooke Shields and newcomer Emily Yetter in the iconic role of Regan.
I spoke with the two actresses about taking on such illustrious roles in a legendary story. What they had to say about the intriguing new take on the story and themes of the show were not only eye-opening, but showcases just how inventive and important this play will be.
What was your first experience with The Exorcist? It’s kind of an iconic book and film. Do you remember the first time you ever saw it or read it?
Emily: You know, I just remember hearing about it. I was an irrationally terrified child—of anything. [Laughs] My sister once told me the synopsis of Pet Cemetery and I didn’t sleep for a week. So I could not watch anything scary. I’ve seen clips of it, but I’ve never seen the whole movie. When I got this role I decided—unless the director wants me to—I won’t, because I don’t want Linda Blair’s performance to inform mine. I think the reason it scares me is that it fascinates me so much. Which is why I’m drawn to roles like this too, because this way I’m the bad one. They can’t get me.
Brooke: My first experience was in high school, when my best friend made all the cheerleaders sit down and watch it. I was too scared to stay in the living room to watch it, and I went and stayed in the kitchen. There was no way I was going to watch the film. After watching it, she slept on the floor in her parent’s room for two months. Absolutely terrified.
So you’ve never seen it?
B: Nope. I have not seen it and wouldn’t see it and was so scared to see it. So I asked the director [of the play], “Look, I’ve read the book and if you want me to see the movie I will see it tonight.” He said, “No, it’s not necessary. There’s no pea soup or head spinning in this production and it’s all taken from the book.” So, he said the book was enough. There’s going to be so many people that have seen the movie, but there will be people who haven’t seen the film. In a sense they might get a different experience, but hopefully because of the way John is doing this it won’t take long for people to stop the comparison.
When reading the script, I immediately didn’t think of the book or the movie. It’s sort of a poem—so fluid and beautiful.
B: The [script] itself is kind of what got me. Having not seen the film and just hearing the hype of it, I thought to myself, “I know I’m not going to like this.” I sort of wanted to not like it because I thought it’s going to be ridiculous. I read the script and I was so moved by the language in the script, and what John Pielemeier did. It’s just like you said, there’s a very poetic nature to the discussion of good and evil. The more evil it is, the more beautiful it becomes.
Stepping into a role that is iconic, how are you approaching the character to make it your own?
B: I’m putting it all in John’s hands to be honest. It’s being done in such an abstract way, so that’s helping me not fall hopefully into a trap—luckily I haven’t seen it so I’m not going to be copying Ellen Burstyn—but other people will have been very attached to her. As was John. I think he was fascinated by the role that “the mother” plays in this. You know, the mother from the beginning of time in regards to the Old and New Testament, and Mary and the maternal, the loss of children and the loss of parents. There’s so much symbolism within that, John seems to be treating it in a very poetic way so it’s less about trying to copy anything that I even assumed was happening in the movie. I’m just trusting him and trying to be present for the way he directs.
E: I’m trying to approach it as something new. Because we are creating something new. So yes, when I read about it online and it talks about how [Blair] exploded at the time and how effective that role was, it feels a little scary. But in general, my Regan will probably be very different from hers. I’m a different person and it’s a new version and we’re exploring different ideas.
Brooke, how are you and Emily creating that mother-daughter dynamic?
B: You know, it’s interesting, because my tendency as a mother is to be a very “attached” mother to my children. This is more of a detached relationship. That’s what we’re just starting to explore. It’s not touchy-feely. Again, there’s a poetry in it, but it’s in the way it transforms them.
Emily, what is it like working with Brooke?
E: It’s awesome. I feel so lucky. Working with Brooke is great. She’s so sweet and warm and she oozes my mom to me. I just adore her. It’s special.
Emily, how are you dealing with the challenge of playing a character that is 12 years younger than yourself?
E: It’s simpler because children don’t have all of the guards and blocks that adults have. They haven’t had as much life experience so they are usually more open, more vulnerable, more honest. That sort of makes it simpler and not so layered as adults would be. At the same time, children live in a world that is ruled by their parents, so everything is really high stakes. Because you can always get in trouble, and everything is new. There’s this huge aspect of curiosity and everything is really important. So actually it’s a really interesting character to play. I wouldn’t say I’m approaching her like any other role because, well, half of her is possessed! [Laughs] So it’s a little different. It’s like I’m approaching two different roles. Sometimes we’re talking about Regan, and then sometimes we’re talking about the demon. The tough part is navigating when I am who and being able to switch quickly in between the two. Sometimes it’s both. Sometimes the demon is talking to her. Sometimes it is using her. And so she as a child has more experience than most children her age do, because she has this all-knowing being inside of her.
Brooke, is it difficult to look at her as that age when she’s much older?
B: It’s interesting because never once are we not thinking she’s a kid. It’s the way it’s presented; it’s the way she’s playing it, the way she looks. The whole thing becomes less literal that you don’t need an actual 12-year-old to play the 12-year-old. Nor do you need actual blood to see blood. It’s the suggestive nature of it and the storytelling nature of it. Allowing people to form their own images in their head rather than spoon-feeding it to them.
I didn’t read the entire play because I didn’t want to spoil actually seeing it, but don’t other cast members also play the demon on stage? Emily, how are they incorporating that into your performance?
E: How do I answer this without giving anything away? Our play is very theatrical and we are utilizing the fact that we are in the theatre, in a different world, and we want this to be nothing like the film—or any film. You’re going to walk into the space and sit down in the seats and abandon all ideas that you’ve had before because we’re forcing you to go into the new world and use your imagination a lot more than you probably thought you were going to have to. I’m on stage the whole time, and [pause] I don’t want to tell you what they do. [Laughs] Basically they are using theatrical mechanisms. We’re using nine actors on stage to tell the story. I’ll leave it at that.
Do you think an atheist—or someone who doesn’t believe in the devil—would be able to relate to the underlying theme of the struggle to have faith?
E: I think that faith is a pretty broad term. Even though we are specifically dealing with Catholicism in this play, I would like to extend it beyond that. Beyond even just believing in God or a specific faith. What the demon is trying to do—it’s basically forcing everybody in the play to put a mirror up to themselves and hopefully live their lives differently, more fully. Whatever that means for each specific character. One of the things we’re doing is that the demon can’t exist without God. So the demon—part of him—is good. He needs the good to exist. So what he’s doing actually ends up being good…? Forcing people to live differently. And that you can extend beyond faith. It doesn’t have to be religious at all.
B: I think [the play] demystifies the idea of the devil, and brings into it the existence of evil around us all the time—in the smallest of things and in the largest of things. So I think it takes you out of the “Oh, there’s this guy and he’s the devil and he’s got horns and he’s up there… “ Even an atheist must at some point admit the existence of evil. Whether it’s the devil or whatever—how do you not admit the existence of evil in Somalia? You know what I mean? I think it takes it outside of just the argument. I think an atheist can sit there and be moved by the simplicity of where people are in their lives at different times and how they struggle with their own existence. Whether it’s as a mother, whether it’s as a priest, whether it’s as a director. Or a kid going through puberty. It can pertain across the board. That’s what I loved about it. We’re not trying to prove the existence or the nonexistence of either, it’s “let’s all step back here and regard this as an exploration of all of it.”
What has been the most challenging?
B: Not being OK in the stillness of that. There are no props. There’s nothing to hide behind. You can’t stay busy. We’re all onstage the whole time. It’s self-conscious. We’re all used to, sort of, doing a lot. The stripping away of that, for all of us, has really been the most fascinating part of it.
Do you think that’s the most rewarding part of it, so far?
B: Absolutely! It’s the most revelatory— how much one feels in the silence rather than filling them up, or the sort of projecting of emotions so that you try to force people to feel something. The busy-ness of it has been taken away. Sometimes one of the hardest things in the world is to either be quiet or be alone. Every character and every actor is experiencing that in this play. It’s uncomfortable. It’s in those quiet moments that the suspense is created.
And Emily? The most challenging?
E: I actually feel the director has set up a theatrical language that I deal quite well with. It’s a physical language. So I’m doing OK throwing myself into it, but at the same time, we’re approaching the telling of the story in a very non-traditional way. And trying to make that intellectually make sense—is difficult in the doing of it.
And the most rewarding?
E: Working with the cast, absolutely. I’m by far the youngest and the least experienced, so working with all of these veterans and powerhouses of stage and film is such a huge treat. It’s just amazing for me. I’m getting a ton of really awesome acting lessons.
For many people The Exorcist was the scariest thing ever. Have you ever had any supernatural or paranormal experiences that truly frightened you?
E: Oh, wow. I’ve had experiences with dreams. In the spiritual world. It was very strange for me because growing up I was somebody who didn’t believe in anything. So it was very strange to be confronted with the idea that perhaps there is a spirit world and I’ve been communicating with it. [Laughs] I wasn’t scared and it was really amazing. I didn’t want it to stop, but it’s something I still haven’t been able to figure out or decide what it means. For me and my spirituality.
B: I do remember staying in a house once in Salem, Mass., so—you know—the power of suggestion. But I had a little dog. And this dog went ballistic in this house. I noticed the things that give me a sense of order—or used to give me a sense of order—like my Filofax. Or if I was going into a new house I would get groceries and make a fruit salad. You settle in when you have a new location. I would always find out where the church was. None of those things would happen. I’d forget. I’d be on my way to go to the church and I’d forget and I’d get sidetracked and I’d go home, and I’d go, “God, I didn’t find out when the Mass was.” Or, I brought out my Filofax and I was going to redo all of my numbers—and organization was and is a real key to my sanity—and I could not get that thing done. I’d get fruit, but I never chopped it up. I started bickering with the person I was staying with and it was just sort of a feeling of being polarized, from the things that gave me comfort and other people. I was like, “I’m not staying in this house.” We left the house and it was instant. It was as if a weight had been lifted. I mean, I have a girlfriend who loves that stuff. She claims she’s scared, but wants to feel it. I don’t want anything to do with it. I’ve never wanted it. I don’t think it’s cool. I don’t think it’s funny. I don’t like scary stories around a campfire. I don’t like any of that.
Well then what drew you to doing this play?
B: The actual depth of it. It’s really the exploration of every teeny little thing that we’re surrounded by. [The script] says it. “Look for evil in the clerk that pretends it’s not his fault when it’s a mistake. Or the parents that lie for convenience. The priest that lies for power. The little petty arguments you have when you’re picking at someone just because you know it bothers them. All of that.” The existence of that, it fascinates me how people can get pulled apart and dissected and the horror that is in the world. It’s very much working with John [Doyle] and going over the text and the book—it’s very much like taking a theology class at Princeton. Or taking a political history class, any morality class and then analyzing it. My mind is getting challenged daily just to ask questions. That’s what I was so moved by. The outcome to me—for one of the first times in my life—is that you hope for success for everybody involved, but it doesn’t matter. This experience is worth every bit of all of it. Just working with John has been such a gift for me, and these actors are just so wonderful and I’m learning so much just by being around them. This is my first straight play. No jazz hands. No “five-six-seven-eight” and you just go sell it! [Laughs] I’ve been jazz-handing it since 1996.
Is it more draining?
B: I’m so exhausted by the end of the day and I’ve been basically sitting in a chair. I’m physically more tired when I do a musical. I’m a lot skinnier when I do musicals! But it’s more draining on an intellectual level. You feel like you’re in a seminar from 11-5 all day.
Do you not turn it off when you leave?
B: I am forced to and it’s been a bit of a problem because I have these children that are still living with me! They won’t go away! [Chuckles] I have to put on a different sort of mommy hat. I think it will be my saving grace probably? Just because you can get real heady with this stuff and I think if you don’t have a place to go after, It’s on the one hand very empowering. But on the other hand, it’s just heavy.
Throughout the years, you seem to be around a lot of controversy. Through it all, you just seemed like you were doing your thing, doing movies and ads or whatever, and then these controversies would come out of nowhere. Yet you still remained this warm presence that’s just continued to go about your life, doing your thing, feeding your creativity—and it’s very inspiring. I’m wondering how you managed to do that and not have all of that controversy cripple you—at least publicly.
B: You haven’t seen the therapy bills! [Laughs] Thank you, first of all, for saying that. [The controversies] never cease to amaze me, but it’s been happening since I was so young—and had I given into it at all—I would have become a victim to it and I wouldn’t have had a life. I think from a very young age I was just so stubborn about having my life and having it not be infringed upon because of what other people are talking about. I can be minding my own business—really minding my own business—being so far out of the loop and something will find me. It will blow up in the press and I don’t really know why—but I never say, “Why me?,” I just say, “OK, well, here it goes. Here goes another one.” What I do is just try and say, “OK, well, as long as my opportunity is not being infringed upon. I’m going to just try and go with the flow and not let it eat me up.” Because then you lose twice. I also think that I’ve been lucky enough to have really good people around me, and a really healthy personal life. My family life is—at times, I think that I lucked out—but I really think that I did choose for peace of mind and happiness. It was important for me to have a life that existed outside of the mayhem. So when there’s controversy that surrounds me in anything I’m involved with creatively, or just if I’ve walked to the end of the block, which happens, I can argue that it’s not my real life and therefore I can argue that I’m not getting raped by it. I’ve lived in New York my whole life. I haven’t lived in this one-industry town that feeds on that.
Is that advice that you would give to someone who is up-and-coming in the industry—for example Emily, who is a relative newcomer—as to how to navigate the show business world?
B: First of all, I never give advice unless it’s solicited, but she’s got a good head on her shoulders. No pun intended, speaking of The Exorcist.” [Laughs] I do feel like she’s a serious actress. I watch her and she’s earnest and honest and committed and such a professional. If she’s already like that at this age…
What scares you as a person?
B: Insecurity. It’s the thing that if I let it crop up, it’s the most damaging to me. Whether it’s as a mother, as a wife, as a friend, as an actor—whenever I let that little “I’m not good enough” voice come in—it’s just really scary to me.
E: Oh. Everything. Again, I was so terrified of everything when I was young, that most things tend to fascinate me now. What scares me now is more adult issues like not wanting bad things to happen to my family and loved ones. [pause] Never finding true love. [Chuckles] You can erase that.
The Exorcist runs July 3-Aug. 12 at Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Purchase tickets at geffenplayhouse.org.