The Scream Queen of “Halloween” — an exclusive interview with Danielle Harris

Danielle Harris
Horror gets in your blood, your cells. And scary movies may give viewers nightmares, but during the nail-biting, pulse-pounding hours spent watching, the cares of the day become inconsequential. Life’s problems are put on hold.

Danielle Harris, who has spent a good part of her career running from Halloween‘s Michael Myers, can also assert that making horror films is great fun. She was Jamie Lloyd, the little girl in the clown suit in Halloween 4. The experience, she says, was so much fun, she decided that would be her career. How many other 11-year-olds are lucky enough to know that?

I spent nearly an hour talking to Harris, who is about to star along with Robert Englund in Fear Clinic, a five-episode web series available at beginning Oct. 26. We spoke about her work on the Halloween franchise, horror in general and the film Stake Land, a vampire movie she was about to begin filming.

You have an incredible resumé in the horror genre, particularly the “Halloween” films. What makes Michael Myers such a quintessential villain?

Danielle Harris: Halloween came out in 1978 and there hadn’t been much like it out there. There were very few films seen from the killer’s point of view. That’s what separates this from the other villains. … He’s very calm; he doesn’t run around slashing at things. He’s the creepy guy next door, the guy that could be your neighbor or the guy walking down the street. You don’t expect to see Jason, you don’t expect to see Freddy, but Michael Myers, there’s actually a man underneath that mask and he is evil. People kind of related to that and it was scary. We didn’t need CGI in the Halloween series. There’s not any great big death gags — Friday the 13th has a lot of that stuff. What’s fun about seeing Friday the 13th, the really cool ways people get killed. And how brilliant Freddy is [in Nightmare]. I mean everybody’s got to sleep and he comes out in your nightmares. But Michael Myers, he’s just a little more like a guy you don’t want to know.

You were 10 when you began Halloween 4 — did it give you nightmares?

No. Working with a bunch of adults doing something in that genre, everyone around me made it like a big game. You’re a kid and they want it to be as fun as possible for you. We were goofing around. I have pictures of holding the knife up to Michael Myers with him crouching down and being scared.

I was treated pretty much like an adult through the entire thing. And that was good because I was a pretty mature 10-year-old. We had [an 11th] birthday party for me on the set. We were one big family and everyone paid extra attention to me because I was their little star. I came from a beauty pageant background and the film was for me, “Woo hoo! Every day I get to be the winner while I’m here.”

I thought that in Halloween 5, it would have been really cool if I had come back as the killer, but it was 1989 and I don’t think we were ready for that yet.

What was life on the set like for Halloween II [2009]?

It was great. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to shoot. They cut down the production schedule by three weeks right after we started shooting [and] we were already doing quite a bit of work per day. We started work in February and the release date was Aug. 28. It’s crazy. I remember the days when it took years for a film to come out.

It’s more different for me as an adult making these movies than as a kid because it’s a lot more work now. You have to go there emotionally, whereas as a kid you are just sort of playing it. Especially me, knowing that my fans are watching closely at what I am doing and they expect a certain level of ability from me and I can’t let them down. So I want it to be the best, better than all the others I have done. I’m happy with my performance in Halloween II. It’s very simple and understated and for me I just needed to find where I thought I would be after going through what I had gone through in the last Halloween.

There are so many scenes in which the unsuspecting victim has to scream and, possibly with different takes, scream again and again. How do you keep that element of surprise? And how do you save your voice?

The voice starts to go after a day. You drink a lot of tea and spray a little throat coat in there. But I think my pipes are programmed to do that. It’s sort of in the blood. It comes pretty easy. I was actually on the set of Fear Clinic, in this makeshift recording booth to get some screams and stuff, and I screamed and the producers came around the corner and said, “Oh, my God! Your scream is unbelievable! That’s amazing.” I don’t know what it is about me. It’s hard to scream and have it be real. The octave almost wants to go higher and be a higher-pitched scream. I feel like I’m genuinely scared, your heart’s beating, all of the emotions are completely real. Your mind is playing tricks on you … but when you are working with amazing actors it’s pretty easy to get there. You just look at them and you’re there.

What were some of your more memorable horror scenes?

There is a scene in Halloween 5 where I am running in front of a car and through the woods before Michael Myers smashes the car into a tree and there is a horn going off because his head is resting on the steering wheel. And I remember going to work that day with food poisoning and in between running and screaming and crying, as soon as they would yell “cut” I would throw up. You’ve got to work; production doesn’t stop for you. That just shows you how excited I was and how much I wanted to be there and do my job and run from Michael Myers.

And some of the more difficult ones?

Rob Zombie’s Halloween (2007) was probably the most emotionally difficult for me to do, so far. As an actor it’s pretty easy once you wrap a scene and leave the set, you can just shake things off. None of it is real, blah, blah, blah. [But] I would get into my car and sit behind the wheel and just cry it out. And I didn’t know where that was coming from. Why was I so emotional? But I had never been touched by Michael Myers before. He’d never got me. As a kid, I was always one step ahead of him. Now I was being attacked by him in a movie. … I was grabbed by Michael Myers and had a big brawl and I kicked him and fought him and I did this over the course of a few days. It was really traumatic. All of those emotions and that feeling was really real and I was laying on the floor crying. He was not even in the scene and I couldn’t stop being hysterical. They were shooting long shots from across the street and I was still sobbing through all of their stuff. Even though I had a small part in the movie, I still remember that scene because it really was truthful.

As a horror fan, I can pick out when someone’s faking it. I can pick out when someone’s acting scared or fake crying. I hate it. I think it’s the easy way out and if you are an actor you need to bring it and there is always someone else who can bring it if you can’t.

What are the main ingredients for an outstanding horror film?

There are so many layers. First you have to start with an amazing script. You need a good villain. If you don’t have a good villain who will scare the crap out of you, you won’t have a great movie. You need believable non-cliché actors that you can relate to because if you don’t you’re just going to be laughed at. I’ve sat through many a horror movie where you just laugh at the actors because they are really dumb. If you are supposed to be camp, I get it, but that’s not the kind of horror I like to see. I like to be scared. I like it to be real.

I also think you need believable effects, and simple is better. That’s hard to do now because with kids, it’s hard to shock them. And I think we are approaching horror in 2009 the wrong way. It doesn’t need to be shocking. I think if [filmmakers] simplified things a little bit, it would be scarier. I think when they go gung-ho with all these crazy effects, it just kills the realism. Keep it simple and don’t show too much. It’s never as good as what’s inside your mind. So if you show it about to happen and after, what your mind has imagined within itself is more intense than anything you could ever film.

And location. And music, of course. If you watch a horror movie with the music off, it’s not scary.

I think the strong female lead is important, that’s for sure. What I also like about the horror genre is that women get to be the stars. In most other genres, except for maybe romantic comedies, men have the lead. In horror, the killer is always the male lead and the hero is always the female.

It’s really like a painting. It’s a big piece of art. You don’t have that with an action movie — you just need great chase scenes. You don’t have that in a romance — you just need a good couple. With a horror movie, you have to have all of the elements right to pull it off.

To what do you attribute your success in the horror genre?

I think that destiny just chose me. I have a saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” It’s been 22 years since I did my first horror movie. I was your typical child actor and now I’m in the same franchise as a different character. Fans sort of fell in love [with me]. I watch the movies I did as a kid and I think, “Oh my god, I was a good little actress!” And I think there are a few actresses nowadays that are wonderful. Dakota Fanning is amazing, and there are a few others that are really good.

Horror is fun. It’s a great platform for actors because it is really hard emotionally. You get to get it all out — all that stuff that you were working on in therapy — if you use it. It feels good to have that release. And if it works for you it works for me. It’s also fun to work in crazy locations and night shoots – I do like working nights.

I am leaving to do Stake Land in Philadelphia now [August 2009], and the entire month of November is all exterior. I have to like a script to work outside at night in the cold.

What are your favorite horror films?

My favorite horror movie is still Poltergeist. It still scares the crap out of me. The Exorcist was amazing. When a Stranger Calls. I still get creeped out by Gremlins — it’s cheesy but I was a little kid and I thought they were under my bed, but I was afraid of Cookie Monster, too. Let the Right One In was amazing, amazing. Just a beautiful piece of cinema, a beautiful love story. It was incredibly well done. I am honestly getting tired of vampire movies. There are so many out there and I think if you make one, do it right. I love The Descent. It was wonderful. I love the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. And Hatchet was really fun. There’s a lot. I could go on and on and on and on. Even the bad ones are good for certain things.

And your favorite directors?

Obviously Steven Spielberg. And Quentin Tarantino, he’s a buddy of mine. He’s a nutjob but I adore that man. He’s a cinematic genius.

Did you see “Inglourious Basterds”?

I saw it on his table in his kitchen. He writes by hand and I saw it and thought, “Oh my gosh, he spelled bastards wrong.” Then I saw it in print and realized he did it for a reason.

What did you think of “From Dusk Till Dawn”?

I actually watched From Dusk Till Dawn at his house. And he looks over at me while I am watching him on TV in his house, and he says, “I can’t believe I am watching myself on TV sitting next to Danielle Harris.” And I’m looking at him thinking, “I can’t believe that I am watching Quentin Tarantino on TV sitting next to Quentin Tarantino.” We have a sort of mutual admiration. It’s very cool because he is a rock star.

I hear rumors that you are creating an application for the iPhone where you will scream for a ringtone.

I am. It takes a really long time to get Apple to approve stuff. But I am also doing a fansite called It will launch on Halloween. It’s a fan place. It has everything that other sites don’t offer you. It’s a personal look into the lives of these genre celebrities. It gives you what you’re missing. I feel like all these other horror websites are kind of the same. I’m not a reporter. I don’t want to sit online all day; I just kind of felt like the wave of the future is the video content. We get a two-minute blip on ET for the Halloween premiere. What about the audience that does want more than two minutes? Maybe I can give that to them. I have a lot of friends, I have a lot of access. I can produce these little segments. I want to be the Barbara Walters of the horror genre. I can ask questions that journalists don’t feel comfortable asking. I can go into their house and sit on their couch. I’m starting to ask the fans what they are missing … and I am getting bombarded with amazing ideas.

I’m also looking into directing. I’ve wanted to option a script for a long, long time. Maybe I’ll have a contest where I’ll direct [a fan’s] movie.

And I gather that you do a lot of conventions. Do you like interacting with fans?

I do. It’s why I do what I do. Without them I would be nothing.