I remember seeing Shawnee Smith in the lobby of the Chinese Theater in Hollywood immediately after the cast and crew screening of Saw II last October, to which she was kind enough to invite me along. The movie was so viscerally effective, and the reveal of her involvement in Jigsaw’s grotesque gamesmanship so unsettling, that I experienced for the first time something that is perhaps common to those who can count actors among their friends (if those actors are good at their jobs, anyway)—a very real disconnect between the person I knew (the Shawnee who invites my daughters and I over to her house for parties and is about as unpretentious and welcoming as any old neighbor we might have known for years) and the Shawnee I’d just seen on screen being tossed into a pit of filthy syringes and, finally, taking her place within the legacy of one of horror cinema’s most unusual villains. There was a brief moment when I saw her, and when she saw me approaching her from across the lobby, that I felt irrationally uneasy, like I wasn’t sure if the woman I was about to hug and congratulate on her performance might not be a safe person to be hugging and congratulating after what I’d just seen. The moment was but a flash and then it was gone, but it has stuck with me as a testimony both to the power of movies and the power of good acting.
Last Tuesday night, after the cast and crew screening of Saw III, I caught up with Shawnee again, but there was no disconnect this time. She saw me, yelled my name, and the impulse I felt was one of pride, like a big brother wanting to express to a younger sister how proud I felt of her, of the work she’d done. I also wanted to congratulate her for her involvement in what has, with Saw III, coalesced into a consistently and memorably nightmarish trilogy with a very unusual and affecting relationship at its center (one that is no less perversely fascinating for having those qualities, either)-- that of the twisted love shared by Shawnee’s Amanda and Tobin Bell’s John, known by everyone but himself as Jigsaw.
When I talked with Shawnee this past summer, during a typically sweltering Burbank, California August, she had already seen the finished film and was genuinely excited about it. After initial disappointment with the first film, my hopes had been raised by Saw II and she could tell that I was anxious to see it, but she was not forthcoming with any specific details about the film, and I would have run from the room to avoid hearing them if she had decided to start spilling beans. So instead we enjoyed a lazy Saturday afternoon in her casually elegant and inviting home, talking about parenthood, acting and the Saw films, just like we had the previous winter. And just the same as in the winter of 2005, we were occasionally interrupted by my daughter and hers—usually in the form of a fashion show descending the stairway with as much pomp and circumstance as six and seven-year-old girls could muster—and by the occasional construction worker walking through the living room on a serious mission of remodeling. It was a rare opportunity to just sit back and talk with a very good actress, who I’m happy to consider a friend, with relatively little else going on, and enjoy each other’s company, united by our experiences as parents and our hopes for another good movie to talk about in October.
I began by reminding Shawnee about a Christmas wish she confessed last year...
DC: The last interview we did, the very last thing I asked you was, “What do you want for Christmas?” So the first thing I’ll ask this time is, did you get your wish?
SS: (Laughs) Yep. (Shawnee’s Christmas wish was to hold her newborn son in her arms.)
SS: I thought I was gonna die getting that wish. My first birth, I had pain relief.
DC: You didn’t for this one?
SS: No. I made some kind of inhuman noise. (Television producer) Andy Ackerman was generous enough to rehearse with me through pilot season to try and get my pilot juices going again two weeks after giving birth—he has four kids. He said (regarding the noise), “Oh, yeah, that’s a kind of bray that all kinds of beasts in the animal kingdom do.” There was some term for it, but it sounded, when I made it, like a dying ox. It was this really low, low, guttural— It was the sound that singers in metal bands make, something similar to that. (She lets loose a low-frequency howl that sounds like a Jack Klugman imitating a foghorn.) My ex-husband was always trying to get me to make that sound in my old punk rock band, Fydolla Ho, and I just couldn’t get it.
DC: You needed the life experience.
SS: Yeah. I finally found the tone. (Laughs)
DC: Too bad there wasn’t a tape recorder in the delivery room. Or was there?
SS: Hey, it’s all on video.
DC: Well, obviously you think of motherhood as something you’re really enjoying, something that’s particularly meaningful to you.
SS: It’s been, essentially, my experience with truth and love. Being a parent is like standing in front of a brick wall of consequences. Somehow we are allowed this illusion of an absence of consequence in life and the illusion of freedom. You get relieved of that illusion when you have kids, because you see almost immediately direct consequences--everything you say, every choice you make. And having another little infant in my life reminds me that they’re just pure essence. It’s such a gift, this first year. Whenever I connect with him, his presence is so pure. It makes me really miss my daughter being this age. And it really condemns me in a lot of ways. I’m either facilitating her presence in my exchanges with her, or I’m not. And there’s been a lot of ways that I’ve helped build this husk of a personality over her seven years. It’s inevitable. It has to be built.
DC: Do you find it’s hard to be a new mother and to also interact with her in the way she’s come to expect? How much of a balancing act is it?
SS: Sure. I forgot, too, how much work a newborn is. Those first six weeks, especially, are like running a marathon at full sprint.
DC: And when you’re in the middle of it, it seems like it’s never going to end, never going to change.
SS: Mm-hmm. So, yeah, she got totally neglected that first six weeks. (Laughs)
DC: She’s better now, though, right?
SS: Yeah. It’s a constant striving for balance. It’s good, and it’s been good for everybody. It’s been useful for her not to be the center of attention for a while, because that won’t serve her in finding true love of her own.
DC: How do you feel new motherhood has renewed you, other than just remembering what it’s like to take care of somebody so small?
SS: Every time I come to him in a day, every time I look into his eyes, there’s none of the things that constantly pull you out of being present and having that pure exchange-- whatever history has been built, whatever habits. A child, a baby, doesn’t have an agenda as such, so you’re not guessing at what their motive is or whether they have one or not. There are just those automatic mental, emotional triggers that get pulled and the connection is made.
DC: There’s a purity about that that’s got to be refreshing, especially when you’re in a business where you are constantly guessing about things like people’s motivations. You know, as a parent of an infant, that you’re needed in every possible way. That’s scary, but it’s also nice bit of awareness to have.
SS: Also, when I look at my son it’s an affirmation that there’s more than this life. I don’t look at him and go, “Oh, what a cute little baby—“I mean, I do go, “God, what a cute baby!” But it’s not limited to that. I can see that, in a lot of ways, he knows a lot more than I know. He’ll start forgetting soon. But right now he knows a lot more. I know it; I’ve just forgotten.
DC: An infant who is just starting to be alive goes through a tremendous process of adaptation.
SS: Yeah, every time he wakes up, I look at him and think, “Ah, you’re back.” And you can see him getting back into his body and settling back in. It’s hard to remember what they seem to know—that there’s more than this. Everything about every day feeds our bodies and affirms that this, the material world, is what’s “real.” If you can’t feel it or buy it or eat it, it must not be real.
DC: Other than the arrival of Jakson, what’s been going on since we last talked officially?
SS: Well, it went like this-- Jakson, TV pilot season, Saw III and the home renovation you see going on around you right now.
DC: That’s a big enough bite to chew on.
SS: Yeah. Nothing much has been going on in my world. (Laughs)
DC: Well, I know you can’t get into too many details, and I wouldn’t ask you for them, but what can you say about Saw III?
SS: It’s a love story and a tragedy.
DC: Not the response I was expecting!
SS: It’s different than either Saw or Saw II.
Shawnee fits costar Bahar Soomekh with a deadly piece of jewelry in Saw III
DC: One of the things that I think is interesting about these movies is that, as opposed to the average Jason Voorhees kill-fest, the Saw series is driven by the philosophy behind the killing as much as the revealing of the elaborate traps. Whether that philosophy is a warped one or not, it is still a philosophy that creates believable motivation in the set-ups to the killings, rather than just setting the table for mindless, unfathomable bloodletting.
SS: There’s a genuine sort of search for truth that goes on in every department, from writing to directing, to acting, to props, to costumes, painting, set design, all of it.
DC: And it translates, certainly in Saw II, into a more interesting beast. This philosophy, if you will, can be refigured through a host of different characters and set-ups, so each new movie has the potential to set itself apart from a narrative standpoint. The most shocking things in that second movie were the discoveries the audience made about your character. We were witness, from the first movie, to how you were transformed-- in a way that’s not acceptable in standardized storytelling—not into angel of mercy in the typical sense, but a damaged angel, one who is just forming her own warped take on the mind-set of the most influential person in her life.
DC: Yet, in reading people who have written about the first two movies, particularly those who don’t seem to think much of them, there sometimes seems to be a set of preconceptions working there. Those who disdain the genre, or the specific subset of horror that has come to be known as “torture porn,” are often lumping the Saw movies into categories that don’t indicate just how transgressive the Saw movies, particularly II, actually are. Not just in terms of gore, either, but in terms of violating some of the basic tenets of the genre, like being so up front about imploring or otherwise insisting that the audience examines why it wants to see some of what it has come to see, or why it’s so easy to understand, and perhaps even, to some degree, empathize with the Jigsaw philosophy on a basic level. This is a disturbing route for the series to take, but a meaty one, and one that doesn’t let the audience off the hook in terms of its level of enjoyment. And it bodes well, I think, for Saw III.
SS: The movie is serving something bigger than any one individual part of it, whether that’s the director’s vision or the storytelling of the writer or the talents of the actors. So the series has to change its shape and form to grow, which is a bizarre and unlikely occurrence, especially in this marketplace.
DC: It’s the antithesis of what usually happens with a sequel-driven franchise which is, “Let’s make another one, and let’s make it as close to the last one as we possibly can.”
SS: Right. Keep the formula, and just make it “more”—bigger, gorier.
DC: I remember a couple of reviewers writing about Saw II who were pissed that the movie didn’t travel exactly the same road as the first one.
SS: Well, they should get ready to get pissed again!
DC: What was it like for you to find out what direction this character, Amanda, was going to go? And what kind of reaction did you get from people who either liked, or didn’t like, the second movie, based on the trajectory of your character?
SS: I haven’t yet encountered anyone who had a negative reaction personally. And Saw III evolves Amanda in ways that, as an actor, you just dream of. It’s like the character arc that never ends. I went from being an actress who typically had one scene or two scenes in big movies—the joke was, my characters never had an arc—and now the half-a-day’s work I do on the independent, low-budget horror movie turns into the arc that keeps on giving. In Saw III you really get to know Amanda, and there actually is a person here to get to know.
DC: To my eye, that was clear from the first movie, and so for me the way your role keeps expanding, in size and importance, in each movie feels like a kind of vindication of what I saw in that first wonderful performance you gave in Saw.
SS: It’s weird. It’s like there’s some kind of fairy dust on it, as if I’d mapped the whole thing out, starting with part one. Everything is connected, and it’s beyond me. There’s some bigger something at play—luck, or whatever.
DC: In that first movie, just in that two minutes you were on screen, there was a concentration of some kind of acting energy or essence that I don’t think the movie exploited. If it had, you would have had a much bigger part.
SS: And it’s interesting, too, how Saw II, of all the things it could have been—I happened to get pregnant. It wasn’t planned. So I had a four-month-old pregnant body, and I decided to chop my hair in a crazy manner. As an actor I could have just gone for the gold in that part. I could have spruced up my physical appearance, given myself more lines. But instead I took half my lines away from myself—“Do I really have to say this here, or can I just--” You know, I purposefully was very subdued. Well, the hairstyle wasn’t so subdued, but it wasn’t like—Like, her sexuality was totally repressed. And I had no idea that there would be any kind of pay-off for any of that in Saw III. Maybe it was because I was four months pregnant that I just wasn’t concerned, I had bigger things on my mind, I don’t know. But it’s been an actor’s dream to be able to connect it all in a meaningful way.
DC: Paradoxically, you weren’t trying to attract attention to yourself. And my guess is, you probably had to deal with some consequences of that, in the promotion of the film, because you couldn’t really talk about what you were doing, or what you weren’t doing, in the film.
SS: Yes. The marketing and promotion was skewed purposefully toward Beverly Mitchell, just to put people off the scent of the twist at the end.
DC: There’s integrity in your performance in the second movie, too. You did some great things in Saw, and looking at the second movie you might think, “Okay, she’s dialing it down here. The performance isn’t as distinct as it was in the previous film.” And it only becomes clear as the movie ends that there’s a rationale for that, and in a way your entire performance in Saw II is still rooted in the very unlikely choices you made in the first film to not wave your arms and call so much attention to yourself, to not chew the scenery. I actually thought it was rather brave to basically give yourself to the concept, and to the other actors.
SS: That’s what we were talking about. And maybe that’s the fairy dust of the Saw franchise—everyone sees to be serving something bigger than the individual.
DC: Talk about Tobin Bell (who plays “Jigsaw” in all three films).
SS: Working with him was the kind of experience that you hope, as an actor, you get once in your career. He’s one of the under-the–radar actors—kind of like myself—who’s been around for a long time.
DC: And his parts tend to be on the small side.
SS: But he fills every one of them out as though every part were as good as Jigsaw. Acting is a sport, like a game of tennis, and you and your opponent take turns setting the level of play. Rehearsal with Tobin was intense. All his script pages were taped to the wall of his hotel room. He was looking for flow and details within the script. He’d ask one question, which would lead to 10 more questions, which would lead to 10 more questions. And we’d keep asking ‘em. We’d just walk around the city of Toronto and talk, stop at a café, have some coffee, ask some more questions.
DC: Would you say that your work with Tobin in Saw II, and now Saw III, has been the most fruitful collaboration you’ve had with another actor?
SS: Well, Becker was certainly a fruitful collaboration. And so was Leaving Las Vegas, even though it was a tiny part. And even Summer School. But as far as a serious tennis match, working with Tobin on Saw III is it.
DC: This is a process that I don’t think a lot of people, even fans of this genre—maybe particularly fans of this genre-- believe takes place. And in most cases it may not happen. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the Saw movies stand out to the degree that they do. I just can’t imagine anyone sitting around on the set of Friday the 13th Part 7 talking about character motivation.
SS: Well, it might not still be happening by the time Saw VII rolls around. But it does sound weird to be talking about things like “the search for truth” in the context of making the third part of a horror franchise. And if you dare bring the concept of true love into it, it’s laughable, right?
DC: To those who have a pretty good idea of what a horror movie should be, maybe that might sound pretentious. But horror is a very malleable genre. It can be adapted to just about any kind of purpose-- political, social, satirical. There can be, and should be, more to it than just the gore factor.
SS: Yeah, I’ve definitely gotten an education in this genre in the last couple of years, as well as more of an appreciation.
DC: If you looked back on everything that you’ve been able to do so far with your acting, is there one project that you feel particularly proud of, one that touched you in a singular way that made it more special than the others?
SS: Mmm… probably Saw III. Isn’t that a silly answer?
DC: Not necessarily, because I see it coming from a place that’s clearly not marked “junket promotion sound bite.”
SS: (Laughs) That didn’t even enter my mind! If anything, I’d move against that kind of answer, especially at this stage. But I had the time of my life—personally, professionally. I had both my kids with me. I had a starring role, so I was really involved in the process on many different levels. It was challenging, frightening, no pun intended, and fun.
DC: Tell me a little about working with Darren Bousman again on Saw III.
SS: I think the world will taste many fruits of The Great Darren Bousman’s talents-- he likes to be referred to as The Great Darren Bousman. (Laughs) Darren was a total unknown, a wild card, for Saw II. I remember talking to James Wan (director and co-writer of Saw) and saying, “Oh, my God, do you think this guy can pull it off?” And not only did he pull it off, but he was a first-time director and he put his own stamp on a franchise. Well, I guess it wasn’t a franchise then, but he sure helped make it one. I mean, he stands tall on the shoulders of many talented people, but he knows it, and that’s pretty rare. It was smart on the producers’ part to put the same team behind him for Saw III. But even in Saw III he outdid himself from the previous movie. He put a new stamp on the series. He could have thought, “It’s a fluke. This movie I did was a success and I’m taking a chance doing part three, so I’d better just stick to the same formula.” But instead, he fought every good fight. I mean, there were all-out creative battles, and that happens in a worthy creative endeavor. But, intuitively, he knew what to fight for, and he fought.
DC: Did he collaborate on the script again, with James Wan and Leigh Whannell?
SS: Yeah, they all worked together on the initial concept, and then Darren and Leigh really got in there and reworked it together. Then Tobin and I got up to Toronto and started doing our own rehearsals and research. We had to fill in the life of these characters’ relationship—everything that will never be addressed in the script but has to be there for the movie to work. And so a lot of that ended up influencing the script in different ways—stuff that Darren and Leigh couldn’t have come up with just sitting in a room, talking. It’s stuff that came out of these characters. Darren told me that one of his favorite scenes in the movie is a scene that came out of just that process—a character moment with Amanda. And he said it’s one of his favorite scenes because it has nothing to do with the story. Right, and it’ll probably end up on the editing room floor! (Laughs) But he loved it because it’s purely a character moment.
DC: You don’t see that happen very often in a plot-driven horror sequel because there can be too much money at stake to risk alienating your audience base.
SS: Right. And he had to fight to even get that scene filmed. But I learned on this movie that you have to throw your ego out the window with these kinds of fights. You fight for all you can, take what you can get, do the most with what you do get. You kind of throw all shame out. Because sometimes you end up with a gem on film and it’s worth the struggle. But there were times when it got intense. There was one moment where the producers were really putting the pressure on Darren during this scene we were filming, and I saw this exchange happen. It’s one thing to hear, “I’m getting a lot of pressure, Shawnee.” It’s another thing to see the exchange and see the pressure coming down. And inside of myself I said, “I never want to be a director! I never want to be in this position! Ever!” But then the very next chance I had to take some heat off of Darren, I took it. You take it all for the team. You do it for the sake of a good movie.
DC: I suppose it’s easier to keep that frame of mind when you really believe in the material and see that it’s coming together. And I’m glad to hear of him allowing for those kinds of character scenes.
SS: Yeah, to have that kind of confidence or instinct that early in your career—amazing.
DC: And those situations are from where privileged moments in movies, moments of unexpected business, special touches, often emerge. And it’s unusual for a young director, especially in this genre, to be open to the possibility of those things happening.
SS: I’m excited to see other things that he’ll do in his career, the stories that he’ll tell. He’s so full of enthusiasm. I adore him.
DC: So, if you stopped acting today and did a complete change in your career and your life, what do you think you’d be doing?
SS: (Pause) I would probably move to the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas, get a big piece of land, tend to some animals, tend to my children, grow some food, and write, and read. There’s a lot of movement out here, and in Hollywood everything changes every second. But there’s not really much substantial happening. But take yourself to the Ozark Mountains and tend to some living things and each other—there won’t be a lot of movement, but there’ll be a lot more real, meaningful things happening. Why I’m still here I’m not sure, but I know it’s not time to move to the mountains just yet.
DC: Given that, then, where would you like to be in 20 years?
SS: Wow. Twenty years. (Pause) I’d like to still be in love. And that just implies that there’s truth involved, or else it wouldn’t be love. I’d like to be more comfortable with the pursuit of love, as opposed to the pursuit of power.
DC: In 20 years what do you think you’ll be able to say about your career and your life that maybe you can’t say now?
SS: I sure look good in Depends!
(You can read my 2005 conversation with Shawnee Smith by clicking here.)