It’s a quiet Monday afternoon, but I”m nervous. I’ve kind of been pacing around the living room and anticipating a phone call I’m about to make.
You see, this isn’t just any phone call and it isn’t just any interview. I’m going to be interviewing JILL LARSON, like THE Jill Larson. This is an actress who was literally on my television five days a week when I was growing up.
She played Opal Cortlandt on “All My Children” and my mother never missed an episode when I was a kid. I had told my mother I was interviewing her and I think it was the first time she ever got really excited about something I was writing.
But beyond that, she also happens to be the actress who starred in the title role in The Taking of Deborah Logan, a direct to video independent film that literally took the internet by storm beginning in late 2014. Let’s face it, if you’re reading this, you’ve heard of the film at the very least, and if you’ve seen it, then you know that Jill Larson was just about as terrifying as any other actress I have ever seen.
She gave an understated but effective performance as Deborah’s Alzheimer’s gave way to skin tearing, snake handling possession. It was one of my favorite films of the year and is still a go to when my friends want to see something they might not have encountered before.
So, yeah. I’m nervous. I get the email saying she’s ready to begin and with trembling fingers, I dial her number. My mind is racing (OH MY GOD, I HAVE DEBORAH LOGAN’S PHONE NUMBER. OH MAN, I’M GOING TO BE TALKING TO THE WOMAN WHO GAVE PALMER CORTLANDT A RUN FOR HIS MONEY FOR YEARS ON ALL MY CHILDREN. OH MY GOD…)
A sweet, quiet voice answers the phone. “Hello?”
“Mrs., uh, Miss Lar-Larson?”
“Is this Waylon?”
“Well, you’re going to have to call me Jill, all right?”
And in that single instant, I am utterly charmed. We spend the next few minutes just chatting and getting to know one another a little better. I tell her that mom is a huge fan and she tells me to say hello for her the next time we speak.
We talk about the business of soap operas a little and finally, we worked our way around to the subject of horror films and The Taking of Deborah Logan.
I was asking her if there was any reticence in taking on this role. I knew that this was her first horror film she’d acted in, but then she dropped the real bombshell.
“Totally,” she began. “Totally. There was a lot of reticence because I’ve never even seen a horror film.”
“No, I’ve never actually even seen one and while we were on location shooting, I thought well, I should really watch one. I’ll try Rosemary’s Baby, you know? So, one night after shooting, I pulled it up to watch it and I guess I got about a half hour or so in and when they got down into the basement and those spooks starting coming up, I had to turn it off. I was just like, ‘Sorry, can’t do this.’ So, it could be said that I still haven’t seen one.
“I did watch [Deborah Logan]. But of course, that wasn’t so scary to me because I knew what it was. And I was curious to see it. And also, when you watch your own work, it’s such an awkward experience. So, no, no, I had never seen a horror film before and I had a lot of reticence. I couldn’t even really follow the story. I read the script and I read the script and then there was the sacrifice of the virgins and the snakes and so forth. And I just, I kept saying, I don’t really get what happens. But thanks to Adam [Robitel, the director], he took me on anyway, and he was wonderful and he got me through it.”
When I mentioned that Adam had commented to me about what a trooper she was on the film and how amazed he was at her willingness to just jump in and go with what was happening, she replied, “Yeah, well, once you give over to it, to the process, it’s just so fun. And it’s the kind of thing that usually you don’t get to do. But you know, at least for me, I always LOVE to play someone who is a little off their rocker. It’s so fun, and for whatever reason…I’m sure my daughter would say it’s because I’m halfway there already, but it’s very freeing, you know? You don’t have to justify your every action or every move or every twitch.
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m an actor or what, but I feel like we all have moments when we feel possessed in some way or another. Even if it’s just, like, you’re cleaning your house and you just get so involved in it and so you do it until you, collapse or whatever, you know. It’s…to me it’s a very easy and a very freeing thing to play. And it’s really fun, and the more I got used to and settled into the idea of this pediatrician, the dead guy buried in the back yard…the more, oh I don’t know, the more fun it was. And it just happened so organically in the film.”
By this time, we’ve both settled in and really become comfortable with each other in the interview process, so she began to open up a bit more about her co-stars, the production team and director, and *shudder* the snakes.
“Jill,” I said, “I don’t know how you worked with those snakes. I would have been too terrified to even walk on set!”
“I didn’t know how I would feel about the snakes and I didn’t think about them much at all until the day came when the snake handler arrived. And Anne Ramsey, who plays my daughter in the film and is much more adventurous than I am, right away had that damned thing wrapped around her shoulders. Which also was a good motivation for me because I could see her and think, ‘Okay well, she can do that. I should be able to pick one up for the scene.’ And it was a little creepy at first, but then it was okay. It was really not a problem for me at all.”
Anne Ramsey, it seems, was a quiet but stabilizing force for Miss Larson on the set.
“Anne works very privately. She really does her own work and she digs very deeply, but she doesn’t do a lot of socializing. It’s not like we hung out together. I have tremendous respect for her, though. It was a joy to work with her because I knew I had a really great sparring partner. In that respect, it was a joy. She and I sat down for an hour or two one afternoon and talked about back story and our relationship, but beyond that it all kind of happened on the set. I was very kind of distressed actually when I got to the set because Adam said, ‘Oh you can just throw away your script, we’re just going to improvise some of these things.’ And I’m thinking, ‘I’m not that fast on my feet. I’m not going to be good at that.’ But in a funny way, it was quite freeing. And she [Anne} was so good at it that she just brought me along with her and made me feel comfortable.”
And as to working on the production overall?
“Well, it was great. Not only because of Adam, but also because of the producers who were wonderful. You know, Rene [Besson] always took great care of us and was always concerned that the environment be one that was conducive to doing our best work. And he looked out for us…well [laughing] except for maybe that time when I had to be outside in my nightgown digging in the mud and they waited until about 2:30 in the morning to shoot that and it was freezing. But other than that, it was…they made sure the set had a very professional and yet calm and reasonable environment. And that enabled Adam to stand behind the monitor with his little turtleneck pulled up over his face and just his eyes were out and he’s sort of panicked and squealing, ‘Oh my god, I’m so scared!’ So that was fun, too.”
But by far, my favorite stories she had to share were some of the ones that came after the film had begun to gain notoriety and people began to recognize her for it out on the street.
“In the beginning, I think we were all just really disappointed not to get a theatrical release. It was a real disappointment, but I didn’t even know what it meant. I knew VOD stood for Video On Demand, but I didn’t know what to expect from that or how to gauge it. So, I thought, oh well there’s another movie that should have gotten some attention that didn’t. But oh well, maybe someday. And then I started getting people on the street coming up to me and I would assume they wanted to talk about Opal and no they didn’t even know about her. They were talking about Deborah Logan!
“One day, I was in the subway and there was some high schoolers standing around one of the subway poles, talking. I’m reading something and I kind of heard, ‘She looks just like her!’ And I’m thinking, ‘Teenagers are all the same, they all just have to gossip about each other, don’t they?’ And then I hear one of them say, ‘Yeah, she had Alzheimer’s.’ And I looked up and I realized they were talking about me!”
But here’s my favorite story that she had to tell.
“My daughter and I had one hilarious experience. We were at a Denny’s around 9:30 or 10 pm at night in the tiny little town where she goes to school. Nothing else was open so there we were, and this young kid comes up to me and says, ‘Um…excuse me, but um…are you Jill Larson?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I am.’ And he literally stepped back and he physically shuddered, and he’s saying, ‘Oh my God, I’m so scared. I can’t believe it. I’m so scared of you! I was driving with my girlfriend by the woods last night and I said to her, we have to hurry because what if Deborah Logan comes out of the woods?’ And he went on and on, and I asked him if he’d like to take a picture and he said, ‘Oh, yes, I would love it!’ But then he couldn’t quite get close enough to me to even take a good picture!
“So, he went back to his table and later my daughter went to use the bathroom and she walked by their table and she said, ‘How did you recognize her? How did you know that was Deborah Logan?’ And he says, ‘Well, she eats in the movie and she eats in real life just the same way!’ It was just so adorable; it really was.”
At the end of the day, though she’s still not ready to commit to watching horror films, she walked away from the overall experience with such a different perspective on them than when she began. And, she says, she’s not done with horror yet.
“As a matter of fact I spent a week doing, just a small role, on a horror film this fall. This has been a lot like when I first got started working on the soaps. It’s like discovering a whole new world and there is this huge community that is completely devoted to the genre. Adam kind of introduced me to this world and the formula of making horror films. And while I, myself, had never understood the appeal of them before, I came to understand that it’s probably a bit like going on the roller coaster at an amusement park. The thrill and terror of being scared by the film is this rush for the audience and the people who enjoy them.
“I am thrilled for Adam and everyone who put so much into this film that it has had the kind of exposure it has gained. It felt like the little engine that could at times. And don’t think I don’t appreciate all of the people who wrote such nice things about me and who put us on their top ten lists. I have my statue from iHorror! They sent me one and I was so delighted by it!”
As we said our goodbyes and I hung up the phone in a sort of star struck haze, my first thought was just how classy she had been, and there was nothing forced about it. My second thought was about that horror movie roller coaster she had been talking about. Trust me, Jill Larson, we’re ready to take a ride on the horror roller coaster with you any time, any day.