October 20, 2012

Interviewing Blanche Baker on the role of evil


I hadn't intended on re-covering so much of THE GIRL NEXT DOOR.  I've certainly visited this dark place enough times.  But I feel this film carries with it a impact that's as important as ever and because I can't offer you coverage I have without letting you listen in on a conversation I had with Blanche Baker on bringing evil Ruth to life, I leave you with this interview.  You may already know Blanche Baker as a lady who is eclectic in her working life. Her acting experience spans from such memorable roles as Ginny in Sixteen Candles to costarring with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Raw Deal and a plethora of solid characters in between. Taking time off for her family since casting in Dead Funny, Blanche has kept mostly under the public radar since 1995, but with her recent leading role in the controversial Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door film from Moderncine’ as the cruel and subtle Ruth Chandler, Blanch Baker has firmly set her mark as someone who can give life to the flesh of the quiet killer much like Anthony Hopkins had done for Hannibal Lector or Christian Bale with American Psycho. It was my pleasure to discuss what it took to live out her role as the ruthless Ruth Chandler and how her experience might transcend to its shocked and uncomfortable audience.

*If you have yet to read the book or see the film, be warned that here there be spoilers.*

Rick Hispon - In the scenes in which your character dishes out her most foul of indecent punishments to Meg, was there ever any point where you found yourself being torn between going all out for the sake of the film and holding back for the sake of the young actors you had to work with?

Blanche Baker - No because the kids were all professional. Our Director, Greg Wilson, was extremely sensitive to the sensitive nature of the material and did everything to prepare and protect the kids. I felt that we were in good hands so I never had that dilemma.

RH - Describe for me, if you will, a typical day on set as Ruth, taking me from arrival on set to execution to leaving her behind at the end of the day.

BB - Film acting is an arduous process in terms of time. It’s often early starts and 15 hour days. We were picked up in a van around 6AM arrived on set in NJ around 7AM, had hair and make-up done and then, sat around till we were needed and often didn’t get home till 10PM. It’s not so much a question of leaving a character behind as always having to think about what will be required in the next scene, the next shot and for the next day. It’s not a leisurely process – especially in independent films!

RH - I have to think a role like Ruth’s leaves its mark on even the most seasoned of pros. How do you bring yourself out of a role like that, and which part of Ruth’s character is destined to have the longest lasting impact on you?

BB - Regardless of the role, I always examine my performance to see what worked and what didn’t and what I learned as an actor. This role in particular opened my eyes to how people can be manipulated. Now, I’m more aware when I read in the papers or see on TV how even seemingly normal people can be manipulated under certain circumstance to do horrible things.

RH - Blanche, obviously you’ve gotten to play a very respectable list of characters so far in your career, from playing along side mega star Arnold Schwarzenegger in Raw Deal to winning an Emmy for Holocaust in 1978. How do you compare a role like Ruth Chandler to any of the others you’ve worked?

BB - I’ve never played a villain before much less one capable of manipulating others to commit such heinous acts. It was challenging to find ways to make the kids do Ruth’s bidding. I thought it would be more effective to do it without screaming so, I tried to have Ruth calmly undermine them, make them co-conspirators and make them feel that her giving them ‘permission’ was a good thing. I wanted to establish Ruth’s unquestioned authority and then, in interesting ways, get the kids to do these horrible things. I didn’t want anything to seem heavy handed or obvious because then no one would have believed that the kids would go along with it.

RH - The book and now the movie doesn’t end on a cheery note. A sort of justice is served, but more resounding than this is the heavy atmosphere of loss and regret. This ends up being the fundamental emotions we are left to take away with us as we walk away from this film. Why do you think it is so important to have the story end that way instead of something proving to be more hopeful, such as the books and scripts original ending in which we learn more of the justice that is served out to some of the characters like Woofer and Ruth?

BB - Because it’s a tragedy and since the ancient Greek tragedies don’t end on uplifting notes! What they do is show the weaknesses and shortcomings of human beings. What is hopeful in tragedies is that we have the opportunity to learn about our weaknesses, the dangers that they pose and hopefully avoid them.

RH - Aside from her evil actions, I think one of the most profound aspects of Ruth is the subtlety of her mental decline. At first we watch her tell stories not fit for most decent people let alone children, then we witness her screaming at Meg, then Susan is punished for her Sister's accusation of being groped by one of the boys. Later when Meg’s belly is cut we see Ruth’s hair down for the first time, a fashion that seems to be associated with her constant bursts of cruelty.

BB - It’s important to note that when Meg is tied up, Ruth doesn’t do it. She uses the kid’s own game and gives them permission to raise the stakes. An audience can learn from this how susceptible we all are to authority and being granted permission in the wrong circumstances. Abu Ghraib is the most recent example of how perfectly normal American soldiers in certain circumstances, when given permission, can behave atrociously. They accepted the most unimaginable behavior as normal – to the point that they were sending snapshots home to their friends.

RH - How might an audience transcend such a casual, downward spiral of madness into knowledge they can use to help someone that may need some rescuing of their own, or to help prevent such an event from ever occurring in the first place?

BB - The kids in the TGND have no idea that what they are doing is wrong at the time that they are doing it. The audience at TGND can really become aware of how this is possible.

RH - How was your interaction with the kids, including Blythe and Mike, between scenes? Did you keep your distance to help stay in character or any such thing?

BB - I didn’t have to keep my distance – the kids were all wonderful and professional. It was difficult material and we all realized it and that brought us closer together. I have to credit Andrew Van Den Houten our producer for helping to foster an environment where no one felt threatened or exploited.

RH - What do you hope Ruth and this movie will do to and for the people that get to experience it?

BB - Shock them into the reality of the power that figures of authority can have over others. We can never afford to follow blindly.

RH - I can’t imagine the level of depravity you had to cast your mind into when undertaking some of the more barbaric scenes with Meg. How did you prepare for something like that and then bring yourself a safe distance back from it once the scene was shot?

BB - I just kept thinking about qualifying for my SAG health insurance.

RH - Do you think there was ever any hope in saving Ruth by fixing what evil dwelled within her and thus saving and protecting those around her?

BB - The way tragedies traditionally work is that the audience witnesses the decline and danger of the main character and sees the opportunities that the character is blind to because of inherent weakness. If we thought they were doomed from the start it would lack dramatic tension. We want to be on the edge of our seats watching them spiral inexorably to their doom. If the woman this part was based on could have seen the consequences of her actions ahead of time it might have stopped her.

RH - Let’s take a step towards the lighter side of things, shall we? Are there any behind the scenes bloopers or other such unexpected off the wall situations you can share with me? Perhaps even an odd fact or two that we wouldn’t have guessed otherwise?

BB - In the scene where I’m killed I kept resurrecting once the officer had left the basement. I would improvise lines about how Davey was ingrate since I had provided free summer camp. The sequel was to be called “The Return Of Ruth”… Believe it or not, we actually had a lot of laughs at times – maybe it was necessary to break the tension. Whenever anyone messed up on the crew I would volunteer my services as Auntie Ruth to set them straight. Also, when my daughter Wynnie was on set to play a small role I behaved like an insane Stage Mother and would fake scream at the other kids to “get out of her light” and tell them if they stepped on her lines I’d be “getting the toilet brush”. Wynnie is very funny and she played along wonderfully saying things like “I’m up for much more important projects than this film” and everyone would crack up, especially the stage parents. On a serious note, the parents of the kids on the film were an amazing group of people who really made this film possible by lending the talents of their kids and helping them get through it and supporting everyone in their efforts to realize this project.

RH - Blanche. To wrap things up, is there anything else you’d like to share with everyone out there we have yet to touch upon, or something you feel is an important addition to what we’ve already discussed?

BB - Having recently resumed my career after taking a break to raise four children it was amazing to be given the opportunity to play this part. It was beautifully written by Jack Ketcham and well adapted by the screenwriters so I wanted to breathe life into their character. It was an enormous challenge as an actress, but with Sir Anthony Hopkins in “Silence Of the Lambs” as my role model, hopefully, I give a very real performance that is therefore chilling. You’re not scared of me, are you? Heh heh