My brushes with celebrity are limited to the time I think I served John Mellencamp coffee when I worked the overnight at Denny’s and some of the cast of Battlestar Galactica (the new one) at a con. This was my first celebrity interview, and I’m pretty sure even if my next interview is James McAvoy feeding orphans while he’s wearing a kilt, it can’t top this one. In fact, it’s too much for one post so I’m breaking it up into two.
First off, Alison Arngrim is fantastic. She was generous enough to give me over an hour of her time when we’d scheduled 45 minutes, and it was an hour of pure gold. She’s bawdy and hilarious, the whole conversation was like getting hammered on margaritas when the sun is still up with a great friend.
Little House on the Prairie has always been dear to me. I watched it every week on the tiny 13″ TV in the kitchen with my mom. I made all the neighborhood kids play Little House. I once moved every bit of twentieth century technology out of my bedroom so I could really live like I was on the prairie. Mom was not amused, and reminded me that my mattress, jeans and Muppet Show albums would have to go, too. I’m such a fan, at 3811/12 I was still a little saddened when I read in Confessions of a Prairie Bitch that all of the exterior shots of Walnut Grove were facades. Getting to interview someone from Little House is like The Nanny or Rachel Berry getting to meet Barbra. But enough about me, let’s get to Alison!
Ophelia: You mention watching a lot of old movies when you were a kid, and make a very apt comparison between Nellie and Laura’s wheelchair on the hill scene to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane ““ what other influences, Old Hollywood and otherwise, helped you create such a great villain?
Alison Arngrim: The Bad Seed, with Patty McCormack. This was back in the day before you could run out and rent it, you had to scan through the TV Guide and say Ooh! It’s on Saturday at midnight, and call your friends and make popcorn. The Bad Seed was always on. I had a friend, Chrissy, Chrissy Norton who was blonde and blue eyed like me. We used to braid our hair and put on our party dresses and tap shoes. It was like Rocky Horror for nine year olds. That movie was important to me even before I saw it because people used to come up to me all the time and say “honey, have you seen the movie The Bad Seed?”
Years later, in fact just a few years ago, I actually got to meet Patty McCormack, I actually got to do a magazine shoot with her for Daeida magazine. She’s a lovely woman, gorgeous as she ever was. She’s the opposite of evil, in fact she was even more innocent than I was. She said she didn’t even fully understand everything that went on in [The Bad Seed] until years later.
I love all the horror movies. The teenagers grow up with all these slasher movies, the Halloween stuff. When I say I’m going to go watch a horror movie, it’s usually in black and white. I’m a Bela Legosi fan. I would go and see Dracula and Frankenstein and The Mummy, the real old school stuff. And anything with Vincent Price! I don’t know when I first decided that Vincent Price was, like, GOD. But at some point, I was maybe five or six years old and watching some afternoon horror film and I decided Vincent Price was the greatest thing ever to walk the earth, and I’ve probably seen every single movie Vincent Price has ever made. I met him once, many years ago, and he was really cool.
O: I can see a lot of Vincent Price in Nellie.
AA: Yeah! Yeah! That sort of simpering yeeesss. I adore him. Actually one of my favorite movies, from the seventies is called Doctor Phibes and Doctor Phibes Rises Again. It’s hysterical because it’s this outrageously graphic, very British, horror film, but it’s a total send up of horror films at the same time. It’s screamingly funny and supertwisted, all at the same time. It’s really great.
Another villain I really noticed when I went back and watched The Jungle Book? The one for kids, the big Disney Musical with “I wanna be like you-ooh-ooh”
AA: I love that movie, I loved that album. I had it for my little first record player, along with Peter Pan with Mary Martin . I saw that movie like eight million times, and listened to the soundtrack. The two villains were Shere Khan and Kaa the Python. Shere Khan was a fantastic villain in that movie. I realized when I went back and watched it that there are certain Shere Khan mannerrisms and vocal in Nellie that I picked up from Shere Khan. Ooh, and the Grinch, which I watched way too many times.
O: Do you think Little House is a series that could be successful now, if it could even get made?
AA: God yes! But getting it made, good luck. If it could get made it would tear the place apart. People are still hooked on that historical era. The thing is still a hit in 140 countries. Do you notice how whenever they make one of those family oriented cartoons, it is a hit? I mean, how many movies have come out in the past eight weeks? How many blockbusters? Isn’t Megamind the #1 hit for like the second or third week in a row? It’s killing all these other films that are marketed as sophisticated and with adult content and whatnot. It’s not because eight year olds are driving themselves to the theater.
O: I get that. Sometimes it seems like here in the middle of the country it’s a whole new world from the coasts.
AA: And that’s just a total lie, because all these Hollywood industry people are closet Little House freaks.
When they make something wholesome and family friendly like 7th Heaven or Anne of Green Gables, people freakin’ eat it up. People in New York or Hollywood say “˜No, no, people don’t want to watch that!’ Then every single person in the rest of the country wants to know where that wholesome stuff is! Ooh! Do you want to know who some of the most secret Prairie Freaks are? I’m letting this out to the press, not a lot of people know this, although it’s kind of been released on Twitter”¦ The producers and writers of Family Guy. The most totally whacko, sicko debauched show, also really, really funny. But yeah, Seth and all those guys who write the dirtiest, raunchiest show on TV are the biggest bunch of bonnet headed freaks you’ll ever meet. One of the woman producers on the show posted pictures on Twitter of herself sitting by the pool reading my book. She sent Melissa Gilbert a fruit basket when she was sick. They’ve slipped in a few Prairie jokes.
O: I think also, especially when times are as hard as they are now, no matter how crappy your life is, you can pop in an episode of Little House and think Hey, my life isn’t so bad”¦
AA: Ooh, yes! Well remember how in the seventies we were in this deep recession and inflation was out of control and the price of beef just shot through the roof like the gas prices, and we were all rationing. That’s why we had those jokes on Little House, like when Laura and Mary come back from the store and the price of a slate pencil has doubled from one cent to two cents, and Pa frets to Caroline about the rising prices. They were doing these little jokes about inflation.
O: I’ve frequently used my Little House DVDs when my life was crappy. You can sit back and say hey, at least no one went through the wheat thresher or next years crops didn’t get carried away in a twister.
AA: And they had all those kids in two rooms! You know they had all that land, Charles could have brought home a little wood from the mill and added on. But yeah, they’ve got eighty million children in these two rooms because that’s how people lived. They were always running out of money and somebody’s always dying of some horrible, common infection. That’s the other thing, in the 1800’s there were no antibiotics. It sucked. We, at least, even if we don’t have health insurance, if you drag yourself to county they’ve got the antibiotics. The likelihood of you dying of anthrax is pretty slim.
O: Let alone being trapped by a blizzard in the school, with anthrax.
AA: Right? We had anthrax, we had typhus, we had it all. Things are significantly better than they were for the Ingalls, for God’s sake. Right after the big crash here, I was in France right as their economy was tanking. I was scheduled to go on a show after these two economists who were talking about how horrible the economy was, and I was supposed to go on with a boxed set of the DVDs. How am I supposed to follow that? So I go on and hold up the DVDs, and I’m like “Well, in times like these, we really need Little House on the Prairie!”
O: In your stand up shows, you mention you may have the last pair of real boobs in the state of California.
AA: Ain’t it awful?
O: I think you may be onto something. Do you think that may be the key to surviving a pretty untraditional childhood as an actor as a sane adult? Be funny, keep factory original boobs, keep head above water?
AA:I think a lot of things helped. Like the fact that I kept going to a regular school. And keeping as much of myself as possible, like my own nose, my own boobs, I think all of that was good. I really think staying in regular school was instrumental. Those kids who end up just getting tutored or just going to private school, they’re going to get cut off from real people in the rest of the world. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but now, when I travel the world or travel the country, I’m able to get along with just about anybody. I didn’t live in an ivory tower/child star world. I got on the bus and went to school with normal kids, so I have some concept of how normal people live. I always had friends outside of show business, so I could always remember there was a world outside of Hollywood.
And as for keeping my own nose and boobs, yeah. When your own body is converted into this plasticized, Hollywood commodity, I shudder to think what that does to the mind. All my friends who have had some kind of plastic surgery have had issues with it. I’m friends with Mary McDonough from the Waltons, and she ended up having a horrible reaction to her implants and had to have them removed. It was all supposed to be hypoallergenic, and most of the time it was fine, but what if you’re one of that unlucky 10%? I don’t want to risk it.
O: And how sad is it that we live in a society that tells women they need all this plastic to be attractive?
AA: We’ve always done weird stuff for beauty. What’s that story about the Russian princesses, Anastasia and her sisters used to paint their teeth, and there was arsenic and lead in the face powder, and they put all these drops in their eyes to supposedly make them prettier and they were made of these horrible chemicals.
O: Yeah, we humans totally don’t have the best history in defining reasonable beauty standards.
AA: Did you know shaving your armpits is totally a fashion thing?
AA: You’d think it’d be about smell or not having hair for your sweat to stick too, but shaving your armpits was a totally foreign idea until the early 20th century women started wearing those short sleeved, really cute tank top flapper styles. And once that happened, shaving your armpits for the dress came into vogue. The razor companies loved it, a lot of guys were wearing beards and weren’t buying razors, because now they could sell razors to women to shave their armpits. It caught on, and then a few years later you started seeing these stories about how it was more sanitary to shave your armpits, and it’s not. It was just because the fashion had changed.
O: It’s like the current war on pubes.
AA: Okay. I shave my armpits. I sometimes shave my legs. Sorry. The pubic hair ain’t goin’ nowhere. If we start wearing outfits that reveal that little area, like we reveal our armpits and legs? I’ll think about it. But until I wear a cocktail gown that shows my vagina like I show my legs and armpits, I’m not shaving that.
O: That’s going to be a hit now, you know.
AA: I can’t help but think someone is going to do that. That’s just horrifying. Shaving the pubic hair, that’s not for me. I’m Irish and Scottish, so I barely have to shave my legs. Plus my family is Canadian, that’s like being almost European. In Europe, you don’t have to shave anything, in America you shave everything, in Canada we just shave our armpits. I may be a holdout from the sixties, but I can’t imagine shaving my pubic hair. And it’s kind of like the mainstreaming of porn. A lot of people who get the idea to shave their pubic hair get the idea from porn. I don’t think it’s a good idea to emulate people in porn. It’s a rough business, and I think it’s all a hinky business. Women and people just aren’t treated that well when they work in porn. And there are so many things that seem to stem from it. Like, have you seen this thing called anal bleaching?
O: Yes. That is a bad thing. That is a thing that should not be.
****Stay tuned tomorrow for part 2!