P.J. Soles Remembers the Original Carrie, Brian De Palma, and the Inimitable Sissy Spacek

P.J. Soles as Norma. Photo: MGM

When the pigs’ blood spills at the end of Carrie, front and center in the crowd of delighted bullies in that school gymnasium is Norma, the girl who always wears a red baseball cap, even to prom. Norma doesn’t just laugh at Carrie, she points and laughs; she hops up and down with glee. Little does she know, she’s about to get telekinetically blasted to death with a fire hose. Revenge is sweet. With a remake of Carrie (starring Chloë Moretz and Julianne Moore) out this weekend, we called up P.J. Soles, the actress who played Norma, for her memories of making the original. Herewith, her stories about director Brian De Palma, Sissy Spacek, and the real hero of her Carrie experience, that hat.

Let’s start with the locker-room scene: How did you get away with not being naked?
Personally, my mission was, you know, this was my first movie and I didn’t want my parents to see me nude, so I had a towel on. Probably the only one. [Laughs.]

What sort of mental state was Sissy Spacek in that day? She obviously had to get into a certain brain space to play this character.
I think it was the first or second day, Sissy came over to a group of us, maybe at lunch, I don’t remember, and said, “I love you guys, we’re going to have a great shoot, I’m very excited to be working on this. But I just want to let you guys know, I’m going to alienate myself from you. I want to feel that alienation. But I really like you and afterwards we’ll party and we’ll have a great time. But don’t take it personally. I just want to let you know I’m doing it on purpose because I want to get into the part.” We all really respected her for that, and that made us even more eager and able to be as mean as we could to her, because we knew it was going to help her.

What was her relationship with Brian De Palma like? Were they off on their own a lot?
No, I wouldn’t say Brian was an actor-y/coach kind of director; he was more into the look of the movie. He had deep conversations with Mario Tosi, the cinematographer. I remember they were always talking about the look of a particular scene. I think Brian’s work [insofar as the actors were concerned] was done once the casting was done.

Do you remember getting cast? Were you always going for the part of Norma?
No. My modeling agency, Nina Blanchard’s, said, “Hey, there’s this audition … George Lucas is casting this movie called Star Wars and Brian De Palma’s casting Carrie and they just want to take a look at everybody.” So it was a two-hour wait, all of us were sitting in the hallway, and then I went into this room and it was George Lucas and Brian De Palma at one desk, and Brian looks at me and then looks at George and he says, “I’ll put her on my list.” I said, “Okay,” and as I turned to go — I was wearing my red baseball hat because I was covering my face from the sun having come from New York to bright and sunny California — and he said, “At the next audition, wear the hat.” And I said, “My red baseball hat?” He says, “Yeah, wear the hat.” It was weird, he liked the hat. I was wearing overalls and a striped T-shirt — I was looking very tomboyish — and this hat with the pins on it. And then the subsequent three auditions, every time I would go, he’d say, “Next time bring your hat.” But I was reading for the part that Nancy Allen got [Chris Hargensen, the meanest girl] because the part of Norma was really only one line at the very beginning, at the volleyball game, when I take my hat off after we lose and I say, “Thanks a lot, Carrie” and I whack her over the head with this hat.

How’d Norma wind up becoming a bigger character, then?
The pins caught in [Sissy Spacek’s] hair and I ripped it out of her hair anyway, and I felt so bad afterwards and I apologized. She’s like, “No, no, it worked, it made the scene really good.” And I was only on for one week but after Brian saw the dailies of that and saw how bad I was to rip that hat out of her hair, he said, “I’m gonna put you on for the rest of the shoot and wherever Nancy is, you’re going to be her best friend.” I’m thinking now, Did Brian know that I’d hit her over the head with my hat? Why he liked this hat so much, I have no idea. The hat got cast, I think, before I did.

What made you go into your audition with that tomboy look?
Well, I was most comfortable with that look anyway, but having just come from New York with the very competitive world of models and everyone trying to out-gorgeous themselves, I thought, If I have any chance at all — because I heard they were looking for three or four girls — I thought, I don’t wanna compete in that arena. I just wanna be a tomboy. And so that’s what I think helped me get the part, because everybody else was always busy putting on their lipstick and trying to look as good as they can. And then there was good old Norma!

What about those short bangs?
[Laughs.] Well, you know, I’ve always had a battle: My hair is curly, frizzy, and having come from New York with the severe humidity — and that was before flatirons and all the fancy things — it was always an effort to try to get my bangs straight. And I loved bangs. So just for a different look, I cut my bangs really short. And for a while it was cool. I was the model with the teeny, teeny bangs.

Brian has talked about how he had another actress in mind for Carrie before he cast Sissy Spacek. Was that Amy Irving [who wound up playing the nice girl, Sue]?
Yeah, I think Amy thought — she was hoping to get the part of Carrie. Because she had kind of an odd look with that curly hair and the piercing blue eyes. After that George Lucas/Brian De Palma casting session, we had three more casting sessions that pretty much everyone who ended up in the movie went to. It was three weekends in a row at Brian’s apartment. We all sat around the coffee table; we all took turns reading the script from beginning to end, and his dining room had storyboards of practically every scene of the movie. I thought, Wow. He was so invested in this film. And Sissy was never there. I think Amy Irving was up for the role of Carrie [at that point]. She was the one who got Sue. And I think Nancy was up for Sue but then she got Chris Hargensen and I was up for Chris but I got Norma. So it was very interesting. I mean, like I said, Sissy was never at those three reads so we didn’t meet Sissy or even know about Sissy until the day after the screen tests. She had only come in because Jack Fisk, who was her husband and the set designer, begged Brian and then she ended up getting the part. She came walking in with this sailor dress or something, and we were like, Oh my God, she looks just like Carrie should look.

Did you guys get to hang out when you were done, like she said you would?
Yes! The last week of shooting she lightened up and became a little friendlier because then it was just all about standing there on the stage and doing her, [makes the sound effect that accompanies Carrie’s telekinetic killing spree] Eh! Eh! Eh! She had a trailer pulled behind MGM Studios in Culver City, and she slept in that blood for three days. I was like, “You’re amazing that you would wanna sleep in that sticky, icky stuff.” And she was like, “No, it’s gotta match, I want it to look great.” And, yes, after that, for about a year, I would come out to Topanga and we’d hang out, go hiking. And Jack Fisk, her husband, is just such a great guy and I’m so envious that they stayed married all these years.

What was your initial reaction to the Carrie remake?
Well, just the initial reaction of, Oh my gosh, why would they try to remake Carrie? You know, they tried with Halloween, they tried with Rock ‘n’ High School — I mean, please, that horrible Rock ‘n’ Roll High School Forever? It’s just the worst. You can’t remake that movie without the Ramones, it’s not gonna work! And so, Carrie, it’s just, I don’t know. I mean, I love Julianne Moore; I think Chloë Moretz is terrifically talented. And I’ve seen the trailer and it definitely reminds me of our movie; it doesn’t look like they strayed too far, although obviously computer graphics are going to take it to a whole new level with the telekinetic powers and there’s going to be cell phones and other things put to use, I’m sure. It’s going to be incredibly modern is all I can think of. But how you can ever think that you’re going to get a better performance than Sissy as Carrie and Piper Laurie as that totally deranged mother — I mean, that performance just looms large as one of the scariest-women-on-the-planet-ever roles [Laughs.]

Who were you closest with on set? Was it Nancy Allen [again, she played Chris], since most of your scenes were with her?
Yeah, Nancy and I are still really, really good friends. And we were very close [on set]. I was always trying to steer her away from having a crush on Brian. Didn’t work — she married him! And got divorced [Laughs.] But I tried to warn her, I said, “Why are you doing this? Look, he’s got that look on his face, like he’s enjoying all this. There’s a sadistic guy in there.” [Pretending to be Nancy], “Oh, he’s so cute.” No, Nancy, no! I was also close to Betty Buckley [who played Miss Collins], she actually had been a previous girlfriend of Brian’s. And she didn’t know how to drive and I had a blue pickup truck, and Brian asked if I would pick her up every day at the Chateau Marmont and bring her to the set. And so I’d go by every day and pick up Betty, who would pull down the visor and put on makeup. And I’d go, “It’s 6 a.m., Betty, we’ll be in makeup in like half an hour. What are you doing?” She’d go, “Brian’s gonna see me, I want to look my best!” I’d go, “Brian? He’s not even gonna look at us. We’re gonna go right to makeup.”

So Brian was the set stud?
Well, I wouldn’t say that. I think Nancy had a crush on him and Betty was an ex-girlfriend. She was nervous about how he was going to do away with her character, that’s all she would talk about. Because it wasn’t specified in the script. It said, like, “chaos in the gymnasium” and then it was up to Brian how each individual person was killed. Like, my character got killed by the fire hose, which obviously wasn’t in the Stephen King book because there was no Norma in the book. But Betty was nervous about how he was going to do away with her and then the basketball, the backboard comes crashing down on her. She was terrified of that.

Were Brian and Nancy actually dating on set or did that come after?
No, no, I think it was once it ended. I mean, everybody was busy. We filmed all day long and then Brian was one of the rare directors that would say, “Come on, kids, let’s go look at the dailies.” And then we’d all march over to the screening room and watch dailies together. It always amazed me that he would want us in there, because he was making his notes, working, while we were in there laughing, going, “Hahaha, look at that.”

Was he inclusive, then? I thought he was known for being more like a dictator.
He wasn’t really a dictator. It was definitely his set. You always know who the director is: They’re the one in charge and they’re sitting in the higher chair. But he wasn’t very verbal. For instance, at the end of a scene, a lot of directors will go, “Cut. That’s great, let’s do another one.” Or, “Oh, that’s great, we can move on.” He would say cut and then you’d look and if he had this sly smile on his face, you knew he liked it. And then he’d just kind of mumble. And if you saw the camera move, you’d go, I guess we’re moving on. That’s good. We’re not gonna do it again. So it wasn’t a loud set; it was a very quiet set. It was really about the shots, and the lighting, and the look. We came in at the last minute like a football team, like, Okay, run this play. We have the field mowed, the people in the stands, and then the players come in to run one play. We were sort of the afterthought to everything that was going on. Everything that led up to it was what took the time, and it looks like that. To me, when I watch it now, it looks like a work of art; it looks like somebody painted this movie.

How would you compare working for John Carpenter on Halloween [she played Lynda van der Klok] to working for Brian?
Well, that would be really different, because John was very verbal and very concerned with what we were all thinking and wanted to do, and were we comfortable and what were our thoughts? Whereas, like I said, Carrie was Brian’s set and we were part of his — I hate to use the word puppets, but he was the director and this was his story and he was going to tell it using us. Whereas John, he included us all and we were all equal partners in making Halloween. It was a very different vibe. You felt like you could sit next to him on a break and talk to him about anything.

Brian has a reputation for being a misogynist, which he has denied. Was he? Why do you think he got that reputation?
I don’t know. I don’t know that I would classify him as that. I mean, obviously most of his movies, the woman is toyed with and is definitely [laughs] treated as a sex symbol and usually gets it in the end. But I don’t know personally what he’s into.

Because that’s storytelling. But working with him, was that the sense you got?
No, no, and I wouldn’t say he treated the guys any differently than the girls. He didn’t really know what to say to us, even though he wasn’t that much older than we were. I always attributed it to him being shy. And, like I said, it goes back to the fact that he felt he’d done his job casting us and whatever was going to be … He was more into what it was going to look like; he trusted what was coming out of the actors. But he didn’t pal around with any of the actors. Travolta hung around with us. If anything, Brian kept to himself or he was busy talking to the DP.

John Travolta had just done Welcome Back, Kotter, right? Was that a big deal on set?
None of us had really seen it, and we were in a movie. And back then, in the seventies, you were choosing movies or TV. It was hard to straddle both, so it was amazing that he was even in Carrie because if you were in TV they weren’t likely to pick you to be in a film. I don’t know, it wasn’t cool to us to watch that show, I guess [laughs]. You know what I mean? Anyway, he was so much fun. Very childlike, playful. We all were.

Did Nancy Allen ever tell you what she and Travolta talked about under the stage?
What’d they talk about in the truck before they did that scene [when she gives him a blow job] is the better question. Nancy was so cute. It’s funny, because thinking of that truck scene, she was probably trying to turn Brian on [laughs]. She wasn’t doing it for John. That was the screen-test scene, actually. That was the screen-test I did with John Travolta. We spent I guess two days together, I went to his apartment a couple of times.

Wait, why were you doing a screen-test with him?
Because, again, I was up for the Chris Hargensen part, because there was no Norma. And so when Nancy was cast as Chris, Brian called my agent and said, “I want PJ in the movie, she can be Norma, she has one line in the beginning.” And they put me on for one week, but that’s when they saw the dailies and he said, “I’m going to put her on for the rest of the time.”

Oh. Okay, going back to the end scene: You die by getting blasted by a fire hose. Did you actually get blasted by a fire hose?
I did. The fire marshal did not want to do it, he said it was too strong a force, there was no way to turn it down. So the stunt coordinator said, “I’ll man it, I’ll make sure P.J.’s fine.” But it was really forceful and it hit me in the cheek and it actually forced my head to turn and then the full blast of that fire hose went in my ear and broke my eardrum. And the pain was excruciating. When you break your eardrum you lose your equilibrium and I remember just feeling faint and I slid down the bleachers, and that was my last take, and it looked real, too. It looked like, Okay, she’s gone. The grips came over and lifted me up and carried me over to my dressing room and I was just screaming in pain. It was outrageous, but they got the shot. You can see me wince and then they cut.

Why didn’t you have a stunt double?
Well, they had a stunt double to be slammed against the [bleachers]. The one thing I don’t like about my part is you can see the pads on the stunt double’s knees, when her dress flies up. That makes me cringe whenever I see it. So they had someone with another red baseball hat and the same dress slam against the bleachers, but the close-up is of my face. And they needed it to look like the fire hose was full force, and it was [laughs]. I can hear better than ever; I suffered nothing. For six months, I had to go to the doctor and get shots or whatever, but it was fine.

Will you see the new Carrie this weekend?
Probably not this weekend. I’ll wait until the initial reviews come in, and then I’ll go at two in the afternoon or something. I’ll wear my red baseball hat.

You don’t actually have that anymore, though, do you?
I don’t. I have a couple that fans have made me, including the pins — they’ve duplicated the pins. It’s amazing. No, mine was made of felt and I washed it in the washing machine and it just disintegrated. That was back in the days when you didn’t think of keeping your stuff like that.

Now it’d be worth money.
I know!

P.J. Soles Reminisces About the Original Carrie