Interview: Dee Wallace, Elliot’s Mother in “E.T.”
Posted on October 9, 2012 at 8:00 am
It was so exciting to talk to Dee Wallace about her role in one of the most beloved films of all time, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in honor of the 30th anniversary of the film’s release. To celebrate, there is a new anniversary edition with an E.T. Spaceship available for a limited time only. Ms. Wallace talked to me about how she got the job and why director Steven Spielberg picked her, how she bonded with the children, and how her character change the way mothers were portrayed on film.
Did you audition for this part?
Actually, I auditioned for another film that Steven did called Used Cars. I didn’t get that one, I’m happy he saved me for “E.T,” He said it was because he thought I was very child-like. He wanted everybody in the film to be child-like, so when “E.T.” came along I just got the offer.
Actually, there was a whole ‘B’ story about that, most of which got cut out of the film. The only part that’s really left was when he comes in and puts the Reese’s Pieces down on my table. There was more of the ‘B’ story where E.T. was fascinated with Mary, but Steven (and I think rightfully so) thought that that took the focus away from what the film was really about.
What was the hardest part of making this film? Was it working with the mechanical creature?
Oh, not at all. You know, it’s so funny, everybody asks me that question and truly—it was like working with another character. They kept the hydraulic eyes working, kept him alive all the time. We never saw people getting in and out of the suit when there were people in there. I think that was largely for the kids, to keep him really real and alive for the kids, but it sure did help me, too.
You had fantastic chemistry with those kids. What did you do to connect with them and make them feel comfortable with you?
Well thank you, that’s a lovely compliment. You know, I don’t know—we just were. We did spend time together, we definitely bonded. I would play basketball sometimes with them and help them with their homework and stuff like that, but I think it’s the magic of what happens on a set when you really commit, you know? And I wasn’t a mother when I did E.T., but we’ve all had mothers, so we know what mothers do, and what mothers do is they love you no matter what, and part of the way they love you is by telling you you shouldn’t be doing things and protecting you, which is what this was all about for me. It’s just loving these kids. And you know I think I’m correct in this that I was the first single-mother in a major feature film back then.
You made a very specific character, she wasn’t just the usual movie mother. You had that slightly frazzled element of the single mother, and I thought you really captured that so well.
I have to say that I didn’t pattern this on my mother, but that’s who my mother was. My father was home, but he was an alcoholic and very non-present, and so my mother was always trying to figure out how to get us up, get us to school so that she could take the bus to work. She took the bus home, and how could she make dinner before she collapsed at night, and still somehow took me to ballet lessons and stuff like that. I watched a mother who was frazzled all the time who loved her kids beyond words.
I want to ask you about one of my favorite scenes in the movie which is Halloween, and your costume for Halloween. That’s what I immediately thought of when you said you mentioned the child-like quality, the fact that you were a mother and you dressed up for Halloween really drives that home. Can you tell me a little bit about that costume, did you work with a designer on that, or how did that come about?
Deborah —the woman who did all the costumes—created that. We tried on several different things, none of which I can remember right now, but we all thought the cat-woman thing was cute, with the ears. Also, Steven wanted to have it a little bit sexy, too, and so that outfit seemed to work on all different levels. And I really loved it because it really made me look skinny—the most important thing, you know!
Between getting an Oscar and looking and skinny, I think we’d all pick looking skinny.
Well, I’m not so sure about that one, though. I would like to look skinny while I’m getting the Oscar!
That would be the ultimate. And what is the best advice that Steven Spielberg gave you about making the film or about doing your part?
He said, “Be real,” which is not hard for me, because if I’m not real, I feel really yucky. Eww, I feel like stuff is crawling all over me if I’m “acting.” Sometimes in the middle of a take, I’ll just stop and I’ll go, “Wait, I have to find out why I’m acting…” and the director often-times has, “What, are you kidding? It looked great.” There’s something that’s not real that I’m trying to do because I’m not quite sure what it’s about, and when I find that, it shifts everything. Then, the director will go, “Oh my God, I see what you were talking about.” So it’s an inside-job thing, but it’s really important to me to always really be real and truthful to what that moment is.