Interview: Shawnee Smith

Shawnee Smith is a well known name for horror fans. Her work in the SAW franchise has forever made her a horror legend. There is something really spectacular about watching both her and Mr. Tobin Bell work their magic. But aside from SAW, she also gave us genre lovers some fun with her work in the remake of THE BLOB and “Stephen King’s The Stand”. But throughout the years she had created a wide variety of characters including work in SUMMER SCHOOL, the series “Becker” and much, much more. Not to mention her musical side with Missi Pyle in the exciting and ballsy Smith & Pyle… whose good old fashioned country music is pretty damn sweet. Not the kind of music you’d expect from Amanda.

I’ve had the opportunity to talk with her several times on red carpets and such, and the more I do, the more I like her. The funny thing is, when I gave her my number, I actually ended up giving her the wrong one. So there I was waiting for her to call and nothing. That kind of thing happens a lot in Hollywood, you know, people not returning calls… but I knew Shawnee was nothing like that. So when I found out she had the wrong number, things were quickly resolved… aside from me feeling like a bit of a moron.

But when we did talk, I found it clear that there are some things in her career she is extremely excited to talk about. And there are other projects that seem to not necessarily offer up a whole lot of stories for her personally. But when she loves something, you can absolutely tell. That is definitely the case when it comes to Smith & Pyle. I have gotten the opportunity to see Missi and Shawnee perform together, and it is a blast. It was one hell of a show, and if you are even remotely a fan, you need to see them whenever you get a chance. You can also watch her doing some hosting duties on VH-1’s reality contest “Scream Queens”. Check it out, and check out Ms. Smith and her downright honest approach to interviewing.

So I have to say Smith and Pyle were great the other night.

Oh, thank you.

Long way from punk rock eh?

Yeah, I mean like, kind of… and in a way it is kind of punk rock.

I want to go back early on in your career. How difficult was it for you to get into this business at a young age?

A lot of pounding the pavement. I mean, I get annoyed now if I have like, one interview… or let’s say, three interviews in a week. You know, I feel like, ‘God man!’ That’s the part of my job that I don’t like. You know, it’s a minimal part of the job, thank God. But when I was a kid it seemed like everyday after school man, I knew when my moms car pulled up that I had to go to some interview you know. And she’d have like a change of clothes on the seat, a hairbrush, and it was a drag. But we went through a lot, it was kind of a numbers game. You gotta make friends at the audition and the meetings because… I try to get it in my mind that when I’m not working, this is my job. I much prefer to just work. So it was a lot of driving around and pounding the pavement. I mean if I had a number of how many auditions, from commercials to theatrical to dance auditions, and all the classes that went along with that… all those things, you know. It was a lot of work.

It’s also surprising to hear that your mother was so supportive.

Yeah, she was. She’s an oncology nurse… she remarried when I turned eight. And that’s when I started. We moved to his house and she went from two kids to four kids ‘cause he had two kids of his own. But she stopped working so she had extra time. And I guess she was used to working hard.

Was it ever a case of maybe your mom wanting it more than you?

Yeah, I’m sure. Because I was just a kid, you know. You don’t know what you want when you’re a kid. I had a proclivity for entertaining but that just kind of ran in the family. And I think that just kind of comes naturally to kids. You know, you’re just trying to get attention.

Now I’m going to move up ahead a little bit… at that time, you not only did “Silver Spoons”, you did “Cagney & Lacey”, you did these T.V. shows, but the real “horror” started with THE BLOB.

Yes it did.

What was the audition process like for that?

The audition process was brutal. I mean, I was back so many times… I remember Chuck Russell, who directed it, who now goes by Charles Russell I think… but, he’s really grueling on the audition process. I mean, I fought for that role and I remember being in his office and he said, okay now, the couch right here is the truck and you start back there, and literally I was acting out the scene using the furniture and the room… like a big action, horror scene you know [Laughing].

Was he difficult to work with once you had the job?

No, he was fun.

Yeah. Kevin Dillon was really fun. Plus, you know, I was like seventeen, eighteen.

Had you seen the original, or was it all fresh to you?

Well I think I watched it after I got the movie. I’ve never been into scary movies. You know, it’s just, I was so scared of just… life [Laughing]. You know, I didn’t want to go and watch a movie and get more scared. Today, I still don’t… I don’t even watch television because it’s so upsetting.

Yeah, I don’t blame you. I actually watch very little television.

We don’t either. We use our TV for DVDs. Meanwhile I pay for like all the cable channels just in case there is something for work I’ve gotta watch. But yeah, we never watch it.

That’s funny because you are known for horror, but you don’t watch it, it’s a genre that you don’t prefer…

Yeah. Well, I appreciate the genre for a few reasons. But I don’t prefer to… you know, I get my adrenaline rush other ways I guess.

Now even though the film SUMMER SCHOOL isn’t horror, it sure has a nice homage to it. That was one of my favorite movies.

Oh my God, that was one of the most fun jobs ever.

What was that experience like, working with a really talented cast like that?

Yeah, really talented. Really fun. That was the most fun set I’ve ever worked on. I mean, we had like Carl Reiner, who was such a joy. He was funny and positive. We had like a trailer decorating contest for Halloween. I would help load up the electric truck at the end of the day… it was such a ‘go team, go’ with so much humor. Kirstie Alley was hilarious.

It was a really good script too.

Yeah it was. It was funny. Meanwhile I was the only one who had to go to school on that set. Everyone else was over eighteen.


Yeah, I was like fifteen.

Wow. You were that young?

Yeah, I was young.

While I was doing my “research” for this interview, I decided to watch a little bit of “Becker” because I hadn’t seen it. And I gotta say, you were hilarious on that show.

[Laughing] Oh, it was a great part.

Do you prefer doing television to film?

I like them both for different reasons. I mean, hour dramas are kind of like a never ending movie. Half hour comedy is just like a ball. It’s really the ultimate job I think. Your goal is to find the funny. You have kind of like a nine to five schedule. You shoot in front of a live audience. It’s a total game of tennis with your fellow actors, you know, you’re just bouncing off each other and it’s fun. Really fun and you can have a life, raise your kids and make good money. It’s really the ultimate. I’d love to do another “Becker”. Being in a good show with a great cast. It was really a dream job.

And it seemed like a great character for you.

Yeah, she was a great character. I miss her.

What did you like about her, what made Linda such a fun role?

Oh, I loved her mind. You know, it was a brilliant mind and a open mind. It wasn’t that she was dumb, by any means, she just… there was a front door and a back door. So the thoughts would just kind of flow right through [Laughing]. She was very present, you know.

And I also noticed your shoes? What was up with that?

I know, right!

Those things were huge man.

I know, that was so funny, the first couple years.

So you stopped wearing them after awhile?

I think so. After the first few years. I mean, I always tried to make myself as tall as possible. But those big, really clunky, clunky ones… I think were the first couple of years. And I was pregnant the first season.

And the original SAW came about when that was on right?

Yeah, it was kind of at the very end of the “Becker” run. Towards the very end. It was cool because I’d done comedy for so long, people just didn’t want to see me for drama. So it was great to play Amanda. It was just such a completely opposite direction from Linda, you know, in the SAW films. It was kind of great just to remind myself and other people that I can go into drama.

And of course, James [Wan] had a crush on you and wanted you in his film [Laughing].

And plus I was with the same management company at the time. And they were like, you know, they had no money and you know… but the scene they wanted me to do, the jaw trap, that’s the scene they filmed to get the movie made. Leigh Whannell played the part that I was playing.

Did you have any idea that the character of Amanda would go further?

No, no one had any idea. No idea. It was just this independent film that the Twisted Picture guys really believed in and they put their own money up for it. It was a good gamble, obviously.

When the sequels came up, did you have any idea that you would become a villain?

No. You know, the ending of these movies, especially SAW 2 and SAW 3, the ending didn’t really present itself, almost until we were there. Which is wild because when I would look back on a movie, like just choices I would make intuitively, it was as if I knew what the ending was going to be. And the choices were specific to that. But I had no idea… nobody did.

I really liked what you and Tobin Bell had together in SAW 3. It was an interesting chemistry.

Yeah, when we got the script for SAW 3, we were like, alright all our rehearsal has got to be about filling out our relationship in the last couple years of their life. How they spent their time, what do we talk about. You know, the opening scene I come in with a bag of groceries.

In a weird sort of way, SAW 3 is really a love story.

For me, SAW 3 is definitely a love story.

How deeply did you guys get to rehearse?

Tobin is a real scientist when it comes to his acting. He’s thorough, beyond thorough. So basically our rehearsal is just this sort of walking and talking. You know, we just left marks on the sidewalks of Toronto, walking and talking. And then we’d sit down at some café, because we figured that’s what John and Amanda did.

It’s a very interesting May-December romance.

Right! [Laughing] You get it. No one gets that James.

I totally got that. And I think maybe that’s why some people didn’t like SAW 3, even though it was a hit, you do see people bashing it sometimes. For me, it was the best of the bunch. How do you feel about them continuing on [with four and five]? Had you actually done any work for SAW 5?

No. I didn’t do any work for SAW 4 either.

Do you like the direction it has gone in? Or do you think they should have stopped at 3?

Nah, I mean, obviously, when you have something that is successful you don’t stop. You keep it going as long as the fans want to see it.

Are you still watching them?

Nah… well, I went to the 4 screening just to kind of show my support for everybody. But I spent half the movie with my hands over my eyes. You know, for me I think the first three really stand strongly together. So maybe 4, 5 and 6 will be more coherent. I really am happy and proud to be a part of the first three.

And you’ve become a major mark in the horror world. Amanda is a very popular character.

She’s interesting. She’s not quite the femme fatale, she’s not quite the monster. She kind of falls a bit in between.

She’s a very humanistic monster.

Yeah, that’s what I was going for. That’s all that I wanted to play. I might’ve screwed myself, you know, being a super villain. I just kind of intuitively went for what I wanted to act and I figured, you know, there’s a lot of killers out there and they’re human beings. So find their stories and find out who she is and where she comes from. You know, I’m just not the actor for a cliché, you know… like… Tobin and I used to laugh at the “master apprentice”, we laughed at that. You know, what is their relationship for real. Who are these people and what do they mean to each other.

Well you are definitely the most attractive “Igor” ever.

Thank you [Laughing].

Can you talk a little about the upcoming “30 Days of Night: Dust to Dust”?

Well, it’s actually a series of webisodes for Fearnet.com. And Steve Niles is a friend of mine, he asked me to do it and you know, it’s kind of like the music industry. There are people at the front of the line and at the back of the line for the whole digital, web world in the music industry. And you can see it happening in the film industry now, and I just want to be in front of the line. So I thought this was a real opportunity to executive produce something and be involved on many levels in that new medium. It can be a great tool and it’s like the wild west… people are still trying to figure out how to make money off of it but you may as well be out there exploring it. It’s fun you know, if you are a person who just likes to do good work with good people… it’s great because you can make movies and make records. Music videos without having to spend an arm and a leg and get studios involved and have fifty cooks in the kitchen. You know, you can really kind of tell your story and do your thing and work with people you like. I mean, I think people will always go to the movies, but there is a lot to be mined. It is the wild, wild west. That’s what we call our production company, Urban Prairie.

I can’t go without talking about Smith & Pyle.

Yes! One of my favorite projects ever. Which started out as kind of a joke among friends.

Did you guys just get together and say let’s do some country and kick arse?

No, we met doing a TV pilot, a little over a year ago. And we just really hit it off and you know, a friend of mine… well Missi [Pyle] was kind of going through a rough time and I just felt like, God man, it just looks like she could use a friend. Shit, she has great friends, it’s not like I was saving the day or anything but, you know, we just had a chemistry. And I had been invited to come out to Coachella with a friend who it was like, you know, if you’re going to go to Coachella, this is the way to do it. He’s got all access and knows everybody and etc. So I didn’t really want to go by myself so I asked Missi. I thought to myself, well if she wants to go, then the driving time is just time to talk and get to know each other. So it’d be worth it. So I called her up and said, ‘Hey Missi, it’s Shawnee.’ and she said, ‘Hi, how are ya?’ and I said, ‘I know this is kinda crazy but, any chance you wanna go on like a 24 hour Coachella mission this weekend?’ It was the weekend between our week of the pilot. And she said, ‘Did you just ask me to Coachella?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ She said, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I was just sitting here crying… writing…’ she had just broken up with her boyfriend for a few years, and they used to go to Coachella every year. She was like, I was just sitting here by myself, bummed out because I can’t believe I’m not going to Coachella this year.


‘And you called and invited me. So yes, I’m going!’ [Laughing] And that’s how it started and she had written, I think maybe even that night she was working on the song “I Wish You Were Dead” for like a comedy show. She played a little guitar and she was going to sing this song as part of a comedy routine. And obviously, that song ended up being on our record. My break up song is “Sugar” and hers is “I Wish You Were Dead”.

When we were stuck in traffic, on our way to Coachella, she told me that her life’s dream was to be in a rock band. And I told her, ‘Really?’, I’ve done it and it was fun, but I don’t know about life’s dream. She said, ‘You’ve done it? What? What?’ And I said, well yeah, and I told her about my band… I’d written a slew of country songs with this friend of mine, Mat Dauzat, and I’d put down music after “Five Dollar Ho” and kinda lost that masochistic feeling. And then a friend of mine, Jerry Cantrell, introduced me to like, old country music. And I hadn’t really heard old country and I was kind of… completely re-inspired musically. I mean, the humor in these songs. The heart and the humor in this music was just… so then I met Mat Dauzat at a barbeque… and we were just talking and I said I’d started writing some country songs and I need a guitar player. I keep hearing mandolin and he said, ‘That’s so funny, someone just gave me a mandolin.’

And we live in the same neighborhood, so we thought, let’s get together and write some songs. And we wrote fifteen songs in two days and I went away and wrote lyrics. So I had these songs, and we just put them down with full vocal and guitar tracks… and back to Missi and me in the car, I said, ‘Well I’ve got some songs I wrote.’ So I played her some and she said, ‘Are you f’in’ kidding me? Let’s have a band! Let’s start a band!’ So finally I agreed to have a band with her just so she could like follow it through and see that it wasn’t something to be your life’s dream. And what ended up happening is she re-awakened the dream in me. I love it. I remembered how much I love writing music, making music, playing music. I mean, I’m just in my bliss when I’m doing it.

5 Questions for Shawnee Smith

What is your favorite novel, horror or otherwise?

I just read a great novel called “Sharp Objects” [by Gillian Flynn]. It’s this woman, it’s her first novel. It’s really, really good, kind of a thriller. But favorite… one of my favorites is “Charlotte’s Web”.

You’re stranded on an island and you can only bring three movies, what would you bring?

SECRET GARDEN would be one of them. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. [A moment] Um… THE SOUND OF MUSIC.

If you could play any historical figure, factual or fictional, who would it be?

[Although she answered this question, my recorder apparently had a problem with it and bleeped over it.]

This next one you’ve already answered, but if you watch TV, what do you watch?

No television.

And finally, out of all the young filmmakers today, who would you like to work with?

I want to work with James Gunn after hosting a show with him [VH-1’s “Scream Queens”] I’d love to work with James, I think he’s really talented. He’s really funny and smart.

Let me know what you think. Send questions and/or comments to [email protected]

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