In May 2013 Tom Skerritt and Veronica Cartwright sat down to talk about their experiences filming Alien. Topics raised include reactions to the chestburster, seeing Bolaji Badejo around set, their views on the sequels and more. Cartwright and Skerritt took questions from host James Wallace before answering the audience’s questions. The article has been split into two to accommodate this and the questions and answers have been pruned to avoid repetition, convoluted speech and stuttering.
Interviewer: I guess my first question is: when is the last time you guys sat down and just watched [Alien]?
Cartwright: It’s been some time, but you know the 35th anniversary’s coming up, so I am sure I will be getting to see lots of screenings. So, um, gosh I can’t remember when I last sat down and watched it. Sorry!
Skerritt: We have lives!
Interviewer: Do you remember the first time you saw the film after you were done filming?
Cartwright: Yes, I do. They didn’t have a premier for this movie, so I paid for my ticket and I went down to the Egyptian Theatre and stood in line to see it.
Skerritt: I don’t, to tell you the truth, but I do remember … I was following Ridley everywhere he went to see what he was doing, his approach to it, how he dealt with the crewmembers, how he dealt with the production, with producers yelling at him, and I remember the “indigestion” scene and watching them light this thing and set it up, ’cause this was precedent setting, there was nothing else like this. I just saw the simplicity of the design – a simple ramp with a guy lying underneath who would push [the chestburster] up, and then the “erection” occurred. So, I saw a lot of how that was gonna happen.
This one [Cartwright] kept herself innocent of it. The other guys had some kind of idea about what was gonna happen. Now, I also knew that Ridley had ordered real entrails of a cow and the blood to go with it.
Interviewer: And you [Cartwright] didn’t know you were gonna get the blood splattered on you, correct?
Cartwright: Well, what happened was we were up and Harry Dean Stanton was playing guitar, nobody quite knew what was going on, I mean it seemed like hours we were up there. Then we go downstairs and everything’s covered in plastic and they were wearing raincoats and there was like four cameras in there. You gagged when you walked into that plastic room, I mean with all the guts and stuff that they had stuffed John [Hurt] with – it was sitting in buckets and everything. We’d read the scripts so we knew something was coming out of his chest, [Ridley] told me I’d get a little blood on myself. I did not know I had a jet pointed right at my face, and, myself being so intrigued by what was going on, would lean directly right into it. Yes, that was a shock.
Interviewer: Was there any point where you realised you were part of something special? Did you reckon from the start or…?
Cartwright: No, I think we’d have had better contracts if we did. I think it started out as being a B-movie, nobody was famous, Ridley just got really really good character people, and once they saw like twenty, thirty minutes of footage they popped another eight million, ten million dollars into the movie [Note #1]. I mean these sets were phenomenal. The thing that was special about it I think is that everything was built, there was not one moment of CGI but when you see John dropping down to the eggs he was actually in the rafters of the soundstage. The desert [planet’s surface] was one whole soundstage. The whole ship was just… you’d walk in and that’d be another soundstage; you walk from the engine room and you walk down the corridor, to the left was the hospital, to the right was the… I mean it was very claustrophobic, which sort of added to the whole intensity of the piece.
But… I don’t know, I think we started to realise there was something special going on, y’know, after a while.
Skerritt: I was different. I was offered the role, was sent the script, and was told it was a two million dollar project and didn’t have a director, so I guess I was the first [actor] they had asked. And I was somewhat… I was getting a lot of work and I was like, ‘this is really not an actor’s script, and it’s a two million dollar film – it’s gotta be another Ed Wood movie’. And then a couple of weeks later I saw The Duellists … it was just a remarkable film and [Ridley] did it for only nine hundred thousand dollars. It’s a stupendous film. And I saw this and thought, ‘jeez, I’d like to work with this guy’. Maybe another week later I get a call from the producer, and he said, ‘we’ve got Ridley Scott, and the budget’s up to ten or twelve million dollars.’ I said, ‘On second thought…’
Cartwright: I auditioned in L.A. the first time, and then I happened to be going over to England -I’m British, I was born in England- and so while I was over there I said to my agent, ‘did they ever cast that movie? Because I’m over there and might as well see the casting director.’ And I think I was probably lucky that I was British because they have quota systems for how many people can work over there, and so, I fit that quota.
Interviewer: Is it true that you originally auditioned for the role of Ripley, and didn’t know that you didn’t have that role until you showed up for costuming?
Cartwright: Yeah. I only ever read for the part of Ripley – how things could’ve been different. I go over there and I get a call and they said, ‘okay, you’ll need to come in for your warbrobe for Lambert’.
I said, ‘Oh no, I’m not playing Lambert, I’m playing Ripley.’
‘No… you’re Lambert’.
I said, ‘I’ve have never even looked at the script from the point of view of Lambert’. I called my agent and said, ‘Am I Ripley?’ And he goes, ‘Yes.’
So I said, ‘Then why am I playing Lambert?’
Because all it seemed to me… all she did was cry, and she drove me absolutely… No, no, this character is not me. And so I read the script from Lambert’s point of view, and I talked to the producers and they said, ‘well actually, she’s the audience. It’s from her point of view basically that the audience is looking through-‘
Interviewer: She’s the only logical one on the ship-
Cartwright: I know, I am. I’m the one who says, ‘Let’s draw straws, let’s get the hell out of here’ – I’m logical. I was emotional, but logical. And so anyway, it was quite the experience, I must say. And the British crews are just fantastic, they are just amazing. But there were some conflicts on the show. I remember… You see, Ridley has an insatiable appetite for creation, and he doesn’t care if he sleeps or not. Well, we were at Shepperton studios and most of the crew was at least half-away, and when we wrap they have to wrap up everything. It was the only show I’ve been on where the entire crew [decided to strike]. They said, ‘we are leaving on Friday at six o’clock at night. Just be aware that we are doing this, we’re all exhausted.’
So they let the scene finish, Friday six o’clock, and they leave. Gordon [Carroll] was out there with all the producers going, ‘what the hell are you doing?’
And they said: ‘Oh no, we warned you – we need to sleep.’
‘But Ridley’s willing to stay-‘
‘Yes, he’s always willing to stay. That’s why we’re going home.’
And they did – they wrapped up the cables and they left. And they had a long weekend and came back feeling refreshed. I mean it was an exhausting shoot. It was very claustrophobic, and the more you went on they would stand with these lovely things full of viscera that they would just pop on you. You were filthy-dirty by the time you left. Ridley’s vision was of truckers in space and that’s what we felt like.
Interviewer: And you got your revenge against the Ripley character ’cause you got to slap the shit out of her. That was improv, right? She didn’t know that?
Cartwright: It was written in the script that I’d hit her in the face. The problem was that every time I went to hit her across the face she ducked. So Ridley comes up to me and he goes, ‘Just get her this time’. So I went like that, she went like this, and I backhanded her. She was not happy. It was cut from the movie but it’s in the Director’s Cut.
Skerritt: I had some funny stories, one of which I’ll tell. I had come to the set right after lunch, everyone was back from the lunch and shaking it out, fairly calmly digesting whatever they had eaten, and one of the actors, an American actor, whoever he was (winks at Cartwright)… we didn’t have a lot of extra people- [Note #2]
Cartwright: There were seven of us.
Skerritt: -Anyway this one chap comes out, he’s starting the day too, and he ‘s in the first scene, he’s the kinda guy who needs to get worked up in order to really get the juices flowing. And the English crew is very serene, always very serene and very understanding – and he starts ranting, ‘c’mon what hell’s going on here … let’s get going, get some light here!’ and finally he stops and was all ready to go. And I was standing at the back with two English crewmembers in front of me, and after this wonderful exercise one turns to the other and says, ‘isn’t if grand, being English?’
Interviewer: I would like to ask, what was it like filming in the tunnels, and then being in that Space Jockey set?
Cartwright: When we did those tunnels we had to go back after the movie was finished and stand in a recording studio, and we did the entire thing in ADR … it was a weird experience.
Skerritt: You feel more of the genuine fear [when watching your character on screen]. ‘Holy crap, what was I thinking to do that?’ At the time you do this work, you just do it. You really trust your impulses, we all trusted our impulses. The actors, [Ridley] trusted implicitly, he never said much to us-
Cartwright: Never said much at all.
Skerritt: -except for one time that I will also talk about, very briefly. We were gonna have a read through in his office. And he kept interrupting. We’d say a couple of lines and he’d say, ‘then I’m gonna add just a little bit of the tail of that monster to come out, because I’m sort of using Texas Chainsaw Massacre to set up that suspense: you never see [the monster], you rarely ever see it: stir people by getting into their imaginations.’
Interviewer: Like Jaws?
Cartwright: Well, it’s an Alfred Hitchcock thing.
Skerritt: So finally the A.D. comes into office and says there’s a problem on the set, and [Ridley] left. We never got through one scene. And I looked at you guys, ’cause I was the captain of the ship, and I said, ‘okay, it’s up to us’. That’s what happened, we directed ourselves. And his only direction was… I remember him looking through the lens all the time, he’s looking through the camera, and pulls back and he goes, ‘…interesting’. And that was the only thing.
Interviewer: I’d like to know if you have any memories of Bolaji Badejo. He’s the seven foot tall Nigerian who was a graphic design student that, you know, they tested Peter Mayhew for the Xenomorph, and then they find this guy in a coffee shop… and there’s this kind of weird urban legend about him. Nobody knows what happened to him. He just kind of disappeared. But he brought so much to the Xenomorph in terms of movement. Do you guys have any memories of him?
Cartwright: Well, I remember going in for the first time and he was half in the suit. He was amazing. He was Masai. His limbs, his arms, his hands, went below his kneecaps. I mean he was this long, gorgeous person. He had huge feet which they always stuffed white sneakers on him. But Tom is the one who said, ‘this poor man cannot sit down, because of this tail,’ and they built a sort of swing for him, so he could sit down on his swing. But if Tom hadn’t spoke up the poor guy would’ve been wandering around, god only knows.
They had sent him to tai chi classes, and some mime classes, so he could move very slowly – believe me, when he comes after me in that scene I didn’t have to do anything. I just looked at him and, the thing was, once he uncoiled he just stood there. And I just had to look at him, and you go, ‘oh shit’. And instinctively what he did was just amazing. He had this incredible presence. And you know people say, ‘how did you make yourself scared?’ I didn’t do anything, I just had to look at him.
And you know that costume fit him. It was made to him. Those were gloves on his hands, that helmet he put on his head. It was just like it was… he was the Alien.
Skerritt: I will have to say that you, in my mind, when I saw the work you were doing, and a lot, unfortunately, had to be cut out of the film, but I really thought you gave the best performance out of everybody.
Skerritt [cont]: Just to thrown in a little bit about the Alien, with whom I spent a lot of time. Great instinct, very bright guy…
In any case, I came in after they broke for lunch one afternoon and these huge stage doors would open, and [Bolaji] came out with everything on except for the head. He’s seven feet, and he was talking to a five-foot wardrobe mistress, and they were really having a conversation. Obviously, they were talking about something very profound. He’s got this outfit on and talking to her as they’re moving along, and he’s wearing very bright blue Adidas tennis shoes. And his tail’s being carried by a very flamboyant wardrobe assisstant, who had a white scarf on. And the wind was blowing so -I wish I had a photo of this- this scarf is flying out behind this guy who’s holding the tail… It was… if I had that photograph you’d all be paying a lot of money for that.
Cartwright: It was so interesting because when we were doing the scene where he comes and gets me, all the stuff that comes out of his mouth is K-Y Jelly. There was Mother, as we called the wardrobe man, and Ridley shouts. ‘there needs to be more glistening’, and all of a suddent Mother goes, ‘I’ll do it!’ and comes out with a tube of K-Y. I’d never seen… I saw shocked, and there he his, Bolaji is standing there, and [Mother’s] squeezing this stuff and he’s caressing [Bolaji]… it was hysterical, unbelievable… ‘I’ll do it!’
Interviewer: It’s funny you mention him in the suit without the head on, because they just recently released this test footage of him in the suit moving in one of the corridors of the ship, and there’s no sound and it’s genuinely terrifying. I mean, just to watch this man move, and he doesn’t even have the head on, it’s just his face.
Cartwright: He did put his foot down though when they wanted to put the maggots in the top of the head. You know there’s that shot… it looks like his brain is moving, they were maggots. They were red and yellow and blue maggots, and he said, ‘nuh uh, I’m not doing that!’
Interviewer: There’s a funny story about you guys when you go explore the ship and go into the Space Jockey room, that the suits were so hot you were fainting. Is that true?
Skerritt: We just weren’t breathing.
Cartwright: They had forgotten to put any air holes in it for us … and all of sudden you’d go, ‘I don’t feel so hot’ … Tom caught me [fainting] up at the top of the twenty four foot spaceship, and we had hockey gloves on that had been painted, so they didn’t move, and it was like football gear we had on.
Interviewer: Obviously I mentioned that this spawned this whole following, four sequels … and of course Prometheus. Have you guys seen any or all of the sequels?
Cartwright: I like the second one. I like the second one very much, I think that was good; I think there was a few too many Aliens. I couldn’t get through the third one, sorry, or the one with the resurrection …
But I did see Prometheus. And I liked Noomi Rapace, I thought she was very interesting. The thing that bothered me about the movie – I liked the movie- was the fact that Michael Fassbender as the robot: his [decapitated] head was here, his body was here, and he could still talk – and this was supposed to be before our movie, where we had Ian Holm in a table and he had to be reconnected. It became unreal to me. It bugged me, it really bothered me … how come it was so much more advanced than our little robot on the table?
Skerritt: I haven’t seen any of them. I always had a sense that you make a film like Alien, which is so rich and so full and beyond anything the script even suggests … When you know you’re in a classic film … it becomes almost sacrilege to go back and see sequels, because you know they’re not gonna come up with what the original was.
[Note #1] Cartwright is generalising the information here. She attributes Fox’s enthusiasm for Alien by claiming they saw footage of the movie and stumped up another eight-ten million for the film. Ridley himself has always attributed this interest and generosity to Fox receiving his storyboards and ‘Ridleygrams’ – before shooting had begun. The additional budget was significantly lower: around three-four million. Alien’s final budget was between 8-11 million (the numbers vary) and went $500,00 overbudget, according to Scott on Blade Runner’s commentary track. Tom Skerritt’s commentary support’s Ridley’s version of events.
[Note #2] Going by other stories from the set, the actor in question is certainly the boisterous Yaphet Kotto.
Questions from the Audience
Question: Did you guys have any interaction with Giger, at all? Was he on the set?
Cartwright: Yeah, yes he was there. He was there every day. He always wore black, and this sort of cape-thing, and his wife or girlfriend she would always come floating in beside him. He was totally eccentric and so thrilled that this was getting done, and all I could think of was, ‘gee, I wonder what his house looks like?’ I mean when you think about it every single image you see [in his book] is a sexual image, you know, big… He was very nice, he was a great guy … He did everything. The cave was incredible. Everything was life size, it was just phenomenal. The Space Jockey, it was just amazing.
Question: Lambert’s death is one of the most terrifying and haunting things I’d ever heard in my life. Is that whole thing you, how did that come about and how was that process for you?
Cartwright: Well, originally my death was meant to take place in one of the lockers. I was supposed to crawl into the lockers like the cat … We shot for five days … Well, somebody asked me once, ‘how did it feel for that tail to go up between your legs’, but those were Harry Dean Stanton’s legs. If you notice I wear cowboy boots throughout the movie. But that was the end result – we never did shoot my death, so, what I thought was going to happen -getting caught up inside that locker- was never shot. I asked them what was going to happen, they said they had enough footage. And the next thing I’m in a week later and I was hanging from a jockstrap contraption for a couple of hours, just so they could see my foot dangling and then they decided that was what my death would be.
[Bolaji] was incredible, like I said. He could just stand there … It was terrifying, it was absolutely terrifying. I didn’t have to act, I just had to play Lambert with this thing coming after her.
[Dallas’ death] was a whole different ballgame. Remember that ballgame?
Cartwright: They had sent Sigourney out to learn how to use the flamethrower. So she goes out and she practices behind the studio in this big grass lot. That thing threw flames twenty feet, I mean it was just unbelievable. So then when they had [the death scene] set up, it was Tom sitting up, he’s got ‘webs’ all over him … and Ridley said, ‘fire the gun’. At which point the crewmember from special effects goes, ‘cut! cut!’ – if she’d have hit that every one of those crewmembers, and everyone standing behind those cameras, including her, would have been a crisp … When you think of the disaster that could’ve happened it is so scary. But it brought a new tension to the scene.