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Q&A: Linda Blair speaks on the eve of FearNET’s 40th Anniversary “EXORCIST” marathon!

by: Kier-La Janisse on: 2013-02-16 08:03:35

In conjunction with FEARnet’s “Complete EXORCIST Marathon” this Sunday,
we had a brief chat with the iconic Linda Blair about her legacy from THE EXORCIST and
beyond.

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This Sunday February 17th, FEARnet celebrates 40  years of THE EXORCIST with an all-day “Complete EXORCIST Marathon” starting at 2pm ET, from William Friedkin’s Oscar-winning film (which also garnered its young star an Oscar nomination) straight through to Renny Harlin’s 2004 EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, at the same time honouring Linda Blair’s colorful acting career and her humanitarian efforts through the Linda Blair World Heart Foundation.

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But while her head-spinning breakout film remains her most revered role, it’s not just THE EXORCIST that has made Linda Blair an icon. We watched her grow up onscreen, and for those of us who grew up with her, she proved a remarkably powerful role model.  Her heartbreaking turn in Donald Wrye’s 1974 TV movie BORN INNOCENT offered up one of the first realistic glimpses behind the walls of a youth detention centre (a role that was pivotal in determining the course of my own life as a 15 year-old in juvie) and subsequent roles as a troubled teen (SARA T. PORTRIT OF A TEENAGE ALCOHOLIC, EXORCIST II – where she spends much of the film literally wobbling over precipices) reflected the real-life chaos of a young girl dogged by the pressures of early fame. But as she got tougher, so did the roles: she led a brigade of prison maidens in a fight against institutional injustice in Paul Nicholas’ CHAINED HEAT, taught us about the pleasures of revenge through the candy-colored camp of Danny Steinmann’s SAVAGE STREETS, and even followed that up with a methodological play-by-play in the instructional film HOW TO GET REVENGE – a wink to the glut of 1980s self-improvement videos.  She’s had songs written about her by the likes of Redd Kross (“Linda Blair” from the album named after her film BORN INNOCENT) and Alice Donut (“Green Pea Soup”), and remains one of the most beloved genre actresses of all time.

In conjunction with FEARnet’s EXORCIST MARATHON (full schedule below), we had a brief chat with Blair about her legacy from THE EXORCIST and beyond.

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FANGORIA: In THE EXORCIST you have a lot of cultural anxieties literally written on your body. Did you find that your character as a vessel for demonic activity made you by extension subject to disturbing projections by those who saw the film? I understand that viewers upset by the film’s religious hypotheses saw you as somehow personally responsible.

LINDA BLAIR: I think the best way to say it is that I was a working child actress, acting in commercials and modelling and I was approaching maybe 12 years old and I wanted to follow my dream, which was to become a veterinarian. So I was going to quit the so-called “acting” when the novel The Exorcist, which William Peter Blatty wrote, broke all records and upseated the world in such a way, like “What do you mean demonic possession? What do you mean the Catholic Church has kept this under a blanket, and in a closet?” And he knew what he was doing, he was uprooting some information that people were not talking about. I was not raised Catholic, Kier-La, I was raised protestant, so we didn’t talk about any of these things. We were raised to be good to others, give your time in your community, and treat others as you wish to be treated – that’s how I was raised. So when we started THE EXORCIST, we didn’t even talk about it. They were probably so happy that I wasn’t Catholic and didn’t ask all these questions! So it was strictly a character that was created through special effects, through makeup, through the structure of the screenplay, and the lighting, cinematography and of course all the acting with such amazing actors, Max von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller. But there were people when the film came out that, you know, they’re emotionally delicate anyway, and they may have got into a lot of the press and therefore had a hard time distinguishing between what was true, what was sensation, what was the PR machine. But it’s a theological thriller, it’s meant to make you think, and it’s meant to take you on a journey, but as far as anything else, those thoughts might be better addressed by a psychiatrist.

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FANG: Then when EXORCIST II came out, it was not as well received as the original but there is a lot of interesting stuff going on in that film – all the different schools of thought – Christianity, African mysticism, ESP studies, neurology, psychology – that coalesce and work together to address Regan’s issues. Not to mention the great art direction and score. What are your own thoughts on EXORCIST II in retrospect?

BLAIR:
Well when Warner Brothers wanted to make a part two, they certainly had approached us on several occasions, and we said, no, no, no, no. But one day they said, please will you just read the script? So we did. And it was brilliant. It just isn’t the script they shot. So John Boorman came in off an Academy Award win with DELIVERANCE,  and Louise Fletcher for CUCKOO’S NEST, obviously the late,  great Richard Burton, who – for me, it was like, you know I grew up on BECKET and ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS, which was one of my favorite films as a child, CLEOPATRA…Anyway, we all joined forces for the film, but we had no creative control. And it changed several times, so the first screenplay that we all approved became unrecognizable. There are many who think that the film is still extraordinary in a different way, and the audience has the right to take from any film what they do and don’t like, and make their own [minds up]. These are all theological thrillers meant to make you think about good and evil, and religion, as you said, you have the neurological and the African religions, you have all these different factors, and I think that’s what Boorman was trying to go for. And it got a bit too… maybe a few too many ingredients. But a lot of people really like it.

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FANG: I just think it’s interesting that it’s like the fact that people were upset by the use of Catholicism in THE EXORCIST is almost addressed by EXORCIST II. In that it’s not targeting one religion but diversifies its stance…

BLAIR:
Absolutely, and Bill Blatty, who studied to be a Jesuit priest, felt he wanted to tell this story but he also wanted to make one of the scariest films of all time, because his agents told him that he couldn’t write it. And he was like, “oh, I’ll show you.” So he had a mission, and it just happened that his mission really overrode anything anybody could ever have thought to conceive. And you know, it was his destiny to write this film, and to have people still talking about it years later. Again, I was not raised Catholic so I don’t have all the veils and trappings of guilt. Guilt should come from whether you are conducting yourself in the best possible way in society. You know, did I give a hundred percent in that job and what I’m doing, or am I just relying on others to try to pay the bills and do things and be lazy? You should have guilt from that, not from…they just try, in my opinion, to keep people within the church and to not go outside to find their spiritual awakening.

FANG: Well I was raised Catholic, and even though I’m not Catholic now, the guilt is ingrained.

BLAIR: I know it is. I do. I know it is. Anything that happened to us as a child – that’s why when you start to look at child psychology and how people act out as adults, it’s all from your childhood.

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FANG: Speaking of which, right after EXORCIST you did BORN INNOCENT, which is one of my favourite films of all time…

BLAIR: Actually I’ll step in, I actually did AIRPORT ‘75 before that. And thank you for that – BORN INNOCENT was an equally difficult job, and more from an actor’s point of view, I had to really find myself in television, there was no such thing as TV movies, it was one of the first of its kind, and it was a challenge. The screenplay was amazing and the project certainly caused a lot of disturbance in America [ed note: a controversial shower-rape scene was trimmed from all prints after the initial broadcast fueled complaints], and it’s one years later that I am so proud of, because it really helped change a lot of lives.

FANG: With both THE EXORCIST and BORN INNOCENT, they both have these very troubling, grueling scenes involving sexual violence. What kind of preparation did you get for these scenes, at that age, psychologically?

BLAIR:
Well in THE EXORCIST, nothing. It was all just all just mechanics, so we never, ever discussed it. It wasn’t until many years later that I personally was like, “Oh my god!” No, no, no, I had no idea. And Friedkin will tell you a different story, of course, and I always say “Now, Billy, I was 13 years old, let’s go back 40-some years, kids don’t know that stuff.” He smiles and says, “Oh, but it’s more entertaining my way.” What-ever. And with BORN INNOCENT, that was just plain really hard to do. It was hard. Didn’t like that. But, you know, I hoped it would make a difference, and it did. It really drove people to change their course in life.

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FANG: This is kind of a long-winded question, but your early career trajectory is really interesting in terms of its transformative qualities – from THE EXORCIST to SAVAGE STREETS, the roles you chose are almost like a character arc in itself. Taken cumulatively, they reflected the transformation of a woman from a victim of violence – and even sexual violence in THE EXORCIST and BORN INNOCENT, through traumatic dissociation in SARA T., PORTRAIT OF A TEENAGE ALCOHOLIC, and then you have readjustment and repression in EXORCIST II, becoming an aware Final Girl in HELL NIGHT and then emerging as an avenger and a protector of women in SAVAGE STREETS…

BLAIR: Wow! I never saw it like that. Truly I can tell you it was the state of what was being written and the projects that were [coming to me]. There wasn’t a lot for young people, so I was presented with groundbreaking material that had never been done. And they probably would not have even allowed it five years prior. And then as women became victors – because one must remember, up until the 50s, 60s, 70s, women were oppressed – so with these roles, they were trying to follow suit from some of the big films with Stallone and all of them, and we were making it a female heroine. And you know, it was just terribly fun to play. And then we went back with REPOSSESSED with Leslie Nielsen so people could remember that we are entertainers, and chill out. Because sometimes people get so heavy into things.

And there’s wonderful films of all genres and it’s also a matter of if you’re in the right place at the right time. Right now as you know, my foundation and charity all stems from my childhood of wanting to save animals and be a veterinarian. So the Linda Blair World Heart Foundation is founded out of my feelings that we are not getting enough done in our communities to stop the shelters from having to euthanize, from people losing their homes and their pets. I feel that by putting my voice, my money, my charity, and giving people guidance as to how they can make a difference, to rescue, adopt, to foster, to volunteer, to keep our food banks plenished so that they don’t have to give up their animal because they don’t have anything to eat, you know? All the info is at the website www.lindablairworldheart.org – and through Linda Blair World Foundation on Facebook.

FANG: Okay I have one last question – I wondered if you could tell me the story behind the instructional video HOW TO GET REVENGE!

BLAIR: Oh yeah, that was a friend of mine, Bob Logan. And it’s all stupid humor that came out of LAUGH-IN and that whole era of vaudevillian-type comics, and it’s really pretty silly.

FANG: It’s a crazy piece of cultural ephemera.

BLAIR: It’s a bunch of stupidity is what it is.

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“The Complete Exorcist” Marathon starts Sunday on FEARnet at 2 p.m. ET. FEARnet will air a special introduction made exclusively for the marathon by Friedkin, and fans can interact through a poll on their site to vote for their favorite prequel to the film: “Exorcist: The Beginning” or “Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist.” The channel will also air an exclusive interview with “Exorcist: The Beginning” director Renny Harlin. The full lineup in ET time zone:

•    “THE EXORCIST” – 2 p.m.
•    “EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC” – 4:30 p.m.
•    “EXORCIST III” – 7 p.m.
•    ‘DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST’ (Network Premiere) – 9:30 p.m.
•    ‘EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING’ (Network Premiere) – midnight

FEARnet is also organizing a Twitter sweepstakes in conjunction with the EXORCIST Marathon – for rules and information on prizing, visit fearnet.com/ExorcistSweepsRules.

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About the author
Fangoria Staff
FANGORIA: The First in Fright Since 1979.
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