From The Birds To The X-Files
Veronica Cartwright is two for two - she's got an Emmy nomination for each of the past two years. After being put forward last year as Outstanding Guest Actress on a Drama Series for her appearance on E.R., she was honored again two weeks ago for her portrayal of Cassandra Spender on The X-Files - a role she will resume in the fall. Though she's currently shooting a movie in Texas, Cartwright will be in Los Angeles on September 13th for this year's awards ceremony, honoring the 50th anniversary of the Emmys.
"I won a regional Emmy when I was fifteen for a show called Tell Me Not In Mournful Numbers, so this is exciting," said the actress during a trip home to Los Angeles. "When you do the guest star awards, they used to send you off to another little building and get that done before the actual Emmys. But this year, for the anniversary, Chris Carter said he believes it's all at the same time - so we'll all be there." The X-Files received 16 nominations; Cartwright learned that she had been chosen while sitting in a hotel room in Texas waiting for a ride to the airport. "I had no idea that the nominations had come out, so it was wonderful news," she recalled.
A performer since the age of six, Cartwright has acted in several legendary genre films - Hitchcock's The Birds, Ridley Scott's Alien, Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff, among others - and is the sister of Angela Cartwright of Lost In Space fame. When executive producer Carter asked her to appear on The X-Files, he told the actress that he had been trying to find a role for her on the show for years.
"What's ironic is that I had started watching The X-Files in the beginning, but when they started getting into all those weird CHUD people and all of that stuff, I lost interest," Cartwright said. "I liked it more from the political end - is it the government that's doing this, was she abducted or not?" The producers sent Cartwright a tape of the first half of a two-parter which introduced the character through whom Cassandra Spender became aware of the existence of Fox Mulder. "I came home and I watched it...I called them the next morning and said, 'Send me part two!' And I got so addicted, I've watched the show ever since."
The role appealed to the actress because it was different from anyone she had played before - particularly the histrionic Lambert from Alien and Felicia Alden in The Witches of Eastwick (in which Cartwright memorably expired vomiting cherries). "In Alien I was supposed to be the reflection of the audience, in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, my character was putting all the pieces together, but then it became a matter of survival. In Candyman 2 I was a woman dying from cancer, and it was my daughter that was being chased by the Candyman, so I wasn't a real screamer in that one - I was an alcoholic. What I liked about [Cassandra Spender] was that she so completely believed that she had been abducted several times, and that the things that had happened to her were so that the aliens' universe could become closer to our universe - she was very calm about the whole thing. These were just statements of fact. I liked the fact that she wasn't standing on some bandwagon; this is what she truly believed."
Cassandra was able to intuit that Scully had the same microchip in her neck as she did herself, and that they shared a common abduction experience. Since we learned late last season that Cassandra's son Jeffrey Spender is the son of Cigarette-Smoking Man, it opens fascinating possibilities into Cassandra's experiences. Was she the wife of Cancer Man, or the victim of the sort of experiment in which Scully had a biological child with an unknown sperm donor, gestated outside her body? Cartwright believes her character was Cancer Man's wife, "though I don't know whether I'm still married to him or not - nobody's told me," and given all the suggestions that Mulder might also be the son of his archenemy, "that would make him my stepson."
The movie had been shot before Cartwright was cast, so she knew she would not be appearing, but plans initially called for her to return in one of the final episodes of this season. That didn't happen because of the need to carry through the burning of the X-Files and other important parts of the mytharc, so they asked her if she would come back at the beginning of next season. "I guess after getting taken up by the alien ship, I come back," she speculated. "Chris said, 'I don't even know if there's real aliens out there, but it's fun to think about the possibility.' And I think he does a good job with that - creating paranoia. I liked the movie a lot."
Does Cartwright herself believe in UFO abductions, or at least, is she open enough to the possibility to believe in the character? "I think you have to, as that character: she believes," the British-born actress said firmly. "I think there's a possibility that there are aliens down here. Why not? Are we the only people? Don't you find that a little hard to believe? What happens to all this energy?" Much to her luck, last season's television retrospective on the history of The X-Files aired in Vancouver the Sunday night before she started working on the series. "So I got the whole background, and it worked out real well. I'm not supposed to know the background on those characters - all I know is that I've been abducted and I'd read about Mulder in the newspaper." As an Academy member, Cartwright was sent "the one where if you take the chip out of the neck, you get cancer" ["Redux Parts I and II"], so she was able to catch up on that aspect of her own character's backstory.
"I had a ball up in Vancouver, and it was so much part of the look - I hope they'll be able to keep that," she noted, joining a surprising number of L.A.-based actors who say they'll miss the Canadian set. "It was a great crew and they worked really fast. Plus, as Chris said, everything was within an hour and a half away - you have desert, you have ocean, forest, the climate is so weird that you always get the rolling fog." On a more personal note, "the dollar was so good in Canada - a great place to buy leather! Now they'll just have to do the reverse and bring people down here, because there are so many interesting Canadian actors who have been established on that show."
Though she jokes that she's "a sci-fi queen" based on her large number of genre roles, Cartwright's primary interest wasn't in the genre but the roles themselves: "They were good parts. Alien seems to be the movie everybody copies now, as far as the beast goes. It was more of a Hitchcockian piece in that you didn't see everything - I think that made it scarier. Hitchcock said that your mind will use its imagination, so you don't have to show everything. What was so interesting about the first one was that you just saw glimpses of the aliens and weren't sure what you were seeing, whereas the next one showed like twenty of them."
Cartwright hopes the exposure she gets from the Emmy nomination will bring quality scripts her way, though she added that she has been lucky to have had parts on such acclaimed shows as L.A. Law and The Twilight Zone - the latter in an episode with her younger sister's Lost In Space co-star Bill Mumy. Veronica and Angela Cartwright have always been close and currently live next door to each other, sending their children to the same theater camp. "There was never any competition really - Angela was on series, she was on the Danny Thomas show Make Way For Daddy for seven years, then went off and did The Sound of Music. I had this movie career, in The Birds and The Children's Hour and Spencer's Mountain." Veronica Cartwright had also been on Leave It to Beaver as Violet Rutherford, and would spend several years on Daniel Boone. Her first was In Love and War with Jeffrey Hunter, in which she played Robert Wagner's sister.
"We emigrated here from England," the 5'8" actress explained. "My mother didn't know anybody, and the manager suggested that she put us into modeling and stuff like that." The little girl who had lived in the building before them had been a performer, "so considering the manager was the only one in the building with a telephone, she knew the inside scoop for everything on who to get in touch with. The first interview my sister went out, she got, which was a movie called Somebody Up There Likes Me, with Pier Angeli. She was three and a half. I was, like, six and a half, I had long braids and thousands of freckles, I did Kellogg's commercials and we did modeling for Catalina swimsuits." And it just snowballed: "I fell in love with it, and still do it. I must be insane! But I just loved it."
Though her early training was on the job, she studied for four years with Jack Garfine, who had been a member of Strasberg's Group Theater, teaching Stanislavski. Then for diversity she studied with Stephen Book at Improvisational Theater. While she retains the Method training, "I always break everything down and find out who I am and write my biography, if someone asks me a question about the character, I know what it is," she found that improv training enabled her to mix spontaneity with it, "because you're always thrown stuff." During this period, she had difficulty finding jobs, so she went to England where she still has British citizenship. "I got a job the first week I was there. Then I went on an interview for this movie, Inserts, and I got it. We shot it in England, and I was able to put into practice everything that I had been studying for for four years."
She cited the role of Harlene in Inserts as her favorite. "I played a porno queen junkie, with Richard Dreyfuss and it was Bob Hoskins' first movie, and I just loved it. We shot it like a play, we did it in fourteen days after rehearsing for three weeks. I'm sure if it was cast here I would have never gotten the part." Unafraid to take on controversial roles, Cartwright just finished shooting Sparkler, a film in which she plays a stripper. "It's something that's just another part of yourself, and it's fun to get out there and have to do that kind of stuff. I've been really lucky with the parts that I've had, they've all been really fun and really interesting. Parts today for women are not what they were, and of course, the older you get, the fewer there are."
Does the difficulty of working in a profession notoriously cruel to women and to people over forty ever upset her? "I figure, I'll just grow old - maybe there'll be a lull and they'll start casting me as these real old people," she said with equanimity. "The parts are out there. There's stuff that you fight for. You unfortunately end up working for less money because most of them are independent. I'm doing a movie right now, I think the character's real interesting, she's pretty funky."
In A Slipping Down Life with Guy Pearce and Lili Taylor, the film Cartwright is shooting in Texas, she plays the mother of Pearce's character. "I've given her a first name, I gave her the name of Miriam, I don't like playing someone without a name, but everyone else refers to her as Mrs. Casey. She's sort of in love with her son. Thank god for my training, because you have to be on the game right off the bat: you're lucky if you get more than two takes, you just have to be there."
Cartwright is married to director Richard Compton, who produced Sliders and has directed many genre series from Star Trek: The Next Generation to Babylon Five. She has a six-year-old son who is currently doing musicals in summer theater camp. Would she want the same sort of career for her son as she had herself in her youth? "I loved it when I was a kid, I think a lot of it has to do with your parents - how they treat you. I think people have to study, and they have to really want to do it: that's important, I don't think people can go out and wing it." Her little boy played a Munchkin and currently wants to be Zorro.
"I always find it hard just to memorize lines - I always know when I know a character because the lines just fall into place," Cartwright admitted, recalling that when she did American Gothic, she memorized the sides because the script was not complete when she went to bed, then awoke to discover that nearly every line had been changed. "I guess I must have known the character, because I actually remembered the script. There's something so satisfying when you feel like you've cracked a part, and you start to live and breathe that character. People really have to work at their craft, which can be very rewarding and lot of fun, and also very frustrating...but it's all I ever wanted to do."