Interview: Betty Buckley on Adding IMAGINARY to Her Horror Film Résumé

Imaginary is out in theaters on March 8.

By: Mar. 08, 2024
Interview: Betty Buckley on Adding IMAGINARY to Her Horror Film Résumé
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Since her film debut in Carrie, Betty Buckley has carved out a lengthy history with horror movies.

Working with film industry giants like M. Night Shyamalan and Jason Blum, the Tony-winning icon has also appeared in films like Split and The Happening. Now, she's adding Lionsgate's new film, Imaginary, to the lineup.

The new film taps into the innocence of imaginary friends – and begs the question: Are they really figments of childhood imagination or is something more terrifying lying just beneath?

When Jessica (DeWanda Wise) moves back into her childhood home with her family, her youngest stepdaughter Alice (Pyper Braun) develops an eerie attachment to a stuffed bear named Chauncey she finds in the basement. Alice starts playing games with Chauncey that begin playful and become increasingly sinister.

BroadwayWorld caught up with Buckley to discuss working with Jason Blum on Imaginary, how she got her start in horror films with Carrie, and how she created her new short film, The Mayfly.

What made you excited to return to the horror movie genre with Imaginary?

Well, I love Jason Blum and we became friends when he produced split for M. Night Shyamalan and I'm one of the co-stars of that opposite James McAvoy. I just think Jason Blum is the greatest guy in show business. He's just so lovely. So he kindly offered me a film right after I finished the Hello, Dolly! tour that I wasn't able to do. Then, he introduced me to Jeff Wadlow and we had a Zoom meeting and Jeff tells me I was the first person they cast, which is very sweet.

So they sent me the script and I was like, "Yeah, this seems fun." I think it's really a very creative script, really imaginative, to quote Imaginary, I think it's a very creative place that he designed.

They made that set. It's not CGI. They made it in New Orleans. They built the whole place. The set designer, the production designer are just out of this world in them. The monster-makers and the puppeteers, it was an incredible team. I was really delighted to be there. I
think DeWanda Wise, our beautiful leading lady, is amazing and Taegen Burns, who's the teenage girl, she's gorgeous and a wonderful, wonderful person and a great actress. Then Pyper Braun, who was nine when we made the movie, she kills in the movie. She's amazing. Then Tom Payne, I was a huge fan of his from Walking Dead. I was just delighted to be there.

Interview: Betty Buckley on Adding IMAGINARY to Her Horror Film Résumé
Betty BuckleyDeWanda Wise, and Taegen Burns in Imaginary

From the horror movies I've seen you in, there's that intersection between horror and thriller, going back to that psychological level of it. What do you enjoy about those types of films?

That that you're describing. I'm not really into slasher movies or anything, but good scares. I think Jeff Wadlow is a brilliant young director. I watched a couple of his films. He did one that was No. 1 on Netflix a year and a half ago called Curse of Bridge Hollow. I just admired the way he builds the tension and then turns the corner and there's the scream factor. And then he's very funny. There's a lot of wit to his scripts and his movies. I really like that too. I think that's a good use of thriller, psychological thriller, scary, haunted house-aspect. Build the tension and then keep people laughing along the way. I think my character provides some of the laughs in the movie so that's good.

You mentioned that this wasn't CGI. They built the set in New Orleans. For some actors when they do a horror movie, you're acting with something that may not be right in front of you with CGI. How did this help your process as an actress when it was all right there?

Well, being that I come from theatre, that's very helpful to have the people to react to right there with you. I loved our Chauncey Bear. That actor is amazing. He was a professional basketball player. He's like 6 feet 8 inches tall, so he was really fun to work with, too.

Interview: Betty Buckley on Adding IMAGINARY to Her Horror Film Résumé
Chauncey and Betty Buckley at the Imaginary premiere

You have such a long history with horror films. How does Imaginary add on to this library and this catalog that you've been a part of?

Well, I didn't realize fully until I was on the set, we shot for two months in New Orleans. I think it's my fifth. I was very blessed to do Carrie, which was just a great movie, with a great director, Brian De Palma, that was a complete gift. I mean, he created that role for me.

I had looped some minor characters for two of his other movies, two or three. I realized that what he was doing is going on location and hiring kids and people that didn't have any acting experience or training to play these small roles. Then, he would bring me in to create their voice, which can amazingly bring authenticity to someone's character, just the sound of the voice. So I did some young girls for him, an old person. In Carrie, I actually play the little boy that Carrie knocks off the bike. That was Brian De Palma's nephew. He brought me in to loop his voice like "Creepy Carrie, Creepy Carrie." I've done a lot of stuff like that.

But I told him I couldn't do this anymore because here I am, I was 27 when he cast me in Carrie. I said, "Any one of these roles would be great for young actors." I was in Pippin for a really long time on Broadway to pay for my acting classes and my therapy, but I was studying acting and studying acting and I wanted to be a really good actress. I said, "Any one of these parts would be a great debut for young actors like me and there's a lot of us. I don't think this is fair for you to hire non-actors and then bring me in to fix their performance. That's not fair."

So a few months later, he called me and he gave me the book, Carrie. He said, "This is going to be my next movie I want you to play the gym teacher." In the novel, the gym teacher's name is Miss Desjardin. So I was like, "Okay, this is a tiny little role. This is what I
asked for and that's really nice of him." A few months later, he sent me the script written by Larry Cohen, who also wrote the musical, Carrie, later on. I got the script for the film and I was like, "Oh my god." I cried because it was such a beautiful film debut that they had created for me. I was just like, "Wow, this is special."

There were seven of us making our film debuts, including John Travolta. The only person in that cast who had done film before it was Sissy Spacek. So that was an incredible experience. We knew it was going to be a hit, we just felt it. But we didn't know it was going to be the cult hit that it was. Then it was funny to play the mother, Margaret, years later in
the musical. So yes, I loved doing that movie.

Then years later, I auditioned for a couple of M. Night Shyamalan movies through his brilliant casting person Doug Aibel, who was the head of the Signature Theatre in New York. He always would have me in on stuff and I didn't get the part, I didn't get the part. Finally, I auditioned for The Happening. I had to do a self-tape. They called me and said, "We have to have this by tomorrow. So you have to do the tape and send it to us." So my assistant and I raced to Fort Worth, an hour from my ranch, and bought this very expensive camera. This is pre-self phones, pre-iPhones. The guy swore it was compatible with Macs.

We come back to my ranch, my wonderful assistant Cathy Brighenti and I, we shoot the audition. Then I go off to ride my horse. I'm in the back part of my ranch, riding my horse in the arena. Cathy calls me on my Blackberry. She said, "This won't download to the Mac. So I’ll take the camera and go to the shop and tell someone to download it." I was like, "Take the camera and go to the shop and tell this guy to download it." An hour and a half later, she calls me again and said, "The guy said there's no way this is compatible with Mac." I was like, "Oh my god, what are we going to do?" She said “I’ll wrap the camera in bubble wrap and send it to Doug Aibel.”

I said, "Alright, wrap the camera in bubble wrap and send it to Doug Aibel." So I wrote an email to Doug Aibel. I said, "We're sending the camera. I'm sure you've got a techie that can download the audition."

So then, the very next day they call me and said, "M. Night wants to see you in New York tomorrow." So they flew me to New York and I'm there to meet with him and he walks in the room and he's this shiny guy. He's really a great person. Just this radiant, joyous, almost like a little boy. He's just so wonderful. He walks in the room and he says, "You sent the camera?" I'm like, "Well, I had to!" He goes, "You want to play this part?" And I was like, "Yes, why do you think I sent the camera?" So maybe it helps in an audition to send the camera.

Some couple of years later, he called me and said, "I wrote this part for you in Split," which was a wonderful gift. I did that in Philadelphia with James McAvoy, who's like such a great actor and such a nice man. I mean, amazing and Anya Taylor Joy. It was really a wonderful shoot. So that's when I met Blum.

The one time I went to see Hamilton on Broadway and I was sitting right near Jason Blum and his wife and found out he's a huge musical theater fan. We all went backstage afterward to meet Lin-Manuel; and he was like a little kid, and so was I. We were like, "Oh my god, Lin-Manuel, we love this musical so much." So that, is one of the reasons that Jason and I are friends, too. He's really a musical theater buff. He really likes musical theater. So I was delighted to be a part of this. They all add up and I've got this history in horror movies.

Interview: Betty Buckley on Adding IMAGINARY to Her Horror Film Résumé
Betty Buckley in Imaginary

Switching gears, I want to talk about The Mayfly, your short film that's premiering later this month. What was that experience like for you?

Well, I went to see Judy Collins in concert in like, I think it was December of 2019. I saw this little Mayfly flying over her head. It was making these beautiful light patterns and light trails. In the last note of her concert, the mayfly was suspended in space and then just floated down and landed in her hair. I turned to my friend and I was like, "Oh my god, did you see that?" I was really intrigued by that. I thought, how did this little golden creature get to Café Carlyle?

So I started researching mayflies. I kept hearing this little voice in my head say, "Write my story, write my story." I found out that Mayflies are born in water, so the Central Park Lake. So I imagined she was born under the bow bridge. They have no mouths. They're only a part of the ecosystem. That's their only purpose. Not that that's not a big purpose, it is but they just are born and they breed more mayflies. They only live for like three or four days
tops. I was fascinated by that. And I was like, "Wow, how did she get there to the Carlyle?"

So I imagined she was born out of the lake and she hears the percussionists in Central Park. And she's like, realize that she has all these moves and she can dance. And she confronts her father, Mayhew, and her mother, Mayve, under in Mayfly Manor under
the bow bridge in Central Park and she tells him she's going to go on this path to express
herself through music and dance.

Interview: Betty Buckley on Adding IMAGINARY to Her Horror Film Résumé
A still from Betty Buckley's The Mayfly

It's beautiful. I can't wait for you to see it. My director was Sue Perrotto. My character designer is a big Disney character designer named Eugene Salandra. My director is one of the top women directors in television. She's won all kinds of awards.

So what happened was I wrote this story and I thought it was going to be a song. My pianist-collaborator, Christian Jacob, he rejected it. He said, "That's not a song." I tried to make it smaller and smaller and smaller till it was down to the basics of the story. I heard this track at Bond Street restaurant in New York, which is my favorite New York restaurant, I heard this track and it was exactly the music. So I went to the maître d' and he said they're this Norwegian band. 

I was in New York doing a two-week engagement at the Carlyle. I'd written a story thinking it could be a song for the Carlyle, but Christian rejected it. I read my story to this track to try to get him to understand how it worked. It was exactly six minutes long, which is exactly the length of my little story.

In April during COVID, I kept haranguing him. He lives in LA and I live in Texas. I said,
"Listen, you're not paying attention to this. It's good. I want you to score this like a movie,"
because he'd scored two Clint Eastwood movies. He's a great composer. So finally, I just pressured him to do it. We all recorded our parts at home, because we were locked up due to COVID. So we had this beautiful track. I was like, "Oh, how do I release this? It's not a song, it's like a story."

I knew these people in animation on Twitter. This is so crazy, I can't believe it. But there was this great guy named Sam Levine, and we kind of like the same stuff on Twitter. I wrote him a private message. Sam introduced me to Eugene Salandra, who's this character designer and a former Jesuit priest, is really a cool guy. He immediately sent me sketches of the Mayfly. Like it was genius. Then, he introduced me to Sue Perrotto, my director, who
loved the track. She gave me a decent budget and so I went to all the rich people I knew and nobody was into it. Then Cathy, my wonderful assistant remembered this incredible couple, Brad and Melissa Coolidge, who then lived in Austin. And they were independent film producers. We sent it to them and they call me the next day, in tears, and say, "We'll pay for the whole thing." So we were like, "Oh my god," we're dancing around my
house. We called Sue and I said, "We've got the money. Let's go."

Interview: Betty Buckley on Adding IMAGINARY to Her Horror Film Résumé
The Mayfly

We put the whole thing together. Sue and I started shopping animation studios. We found this beautiful studio in Poland called Blu Blu. The color palette has mostly to do with them. They did most of the minor characters. They did an incredible job and they are such nice people. We were meeting once a week on Zoom, getting our game plan together.

It took a long time. I love animation so much. I always have since I was a kid. When I first saw Lady & the Tramp and saw that Peggy Lee sang "Peg the Pekingese" and the
Siamese cats. I've always wanted to create voices for animated characters. That's the one thing in my career that has eluded me. I even took this voiceover class with his great voiceover genius named Charlie Adler during COVID.

I've got all these voices. I can do like kids and teenagers. In the olden days, when I was doing commercials back at the beginning before I did film, they used to hire me for
models to create a voice for these beautiful models. This was before the age of supermodels. So I would go into the studio and they'd say, "Okay, she's 21. Give us a voice." I would create these voices for these models.  I really love doing that and I'm pretty decent at it. I'm not very good at looping myself, but I'm fairly decent at looping other people, which is really strange.

It took us two years and eight months and we finished our movie. Our debut is at the American Documentary and Animation Film Festival in Palm Springs. Our movie airs March 24th at 7:00 pm.

Watch the trailer for Imaginary here:

Photos Courtesy of Lionsgate