role call

Lesley Ann Warren Answers Every Question We Have About Clue

“When it opened, we were all ravaged by disappointment. But ultimately, we got our revenge.” Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Paramount Pictures

There’s a one-plus-two-plus-two-plus-one chance that Clue has reentered your cinematic orbit over the past few years, with the 1985 comedic whodunnit, like one of Wadsworth’s decanted wines, aging into a full-bodied cult classic destined for further greatness. It stars a wildly talented ensemble cast that includes Tim Curry, Martin Mull, Michael McKean, and the now-deceased Eileen Brennan and Madeline Kahn, but perhaps nobody leaves as indelible of a lipstick mark as Lesley Ann Warren’s Miss Scarlet: She’s a D.C. madam hustling in the Red Scare era who’s proud to be blackmailed for her line of work, which she describes as “a specialized hotel and telephone service to provide gentlemen with the company of a lady for a short while.” But not really. Her business is actually government secrets, and she’ll kill to keep that a secret, as is revealed during one of Clue’s three unique endings. “Communism is just a red herring,” she purrs during her confession. “Like all members of the oldest profession, I’m a capitalist.”

Upon its 1985 release, Clue was met with a shrug by critics and viewers alike, who didn’t take kindly to the fact there were three separate endings that required three separate tickets to see. (The idea that it’s adapted from a board game, though, didn’t seem to matter.) Thanks to the dawn of streaming, Clue has found a new class of fans, who got sucked into the mystery of every character having the opportunity, the motive, and the weapon to go on a polished murder rampage in a New England mansion. “It’s an amazing, wondrous outcome, because when it opened, we were all ravaged by disappointment,” Warren recalled during a recent call with Vulture. “But ultimately, we got our revenge.” Read on for Warren’s detailed memories of filming Clue, fitting into that dress, the rumor of a “lost” ending, and her thoughts on a reboot.

So, it’s 1985, and a few years prior to Clue you had your most defining film role with Victor/Victoria. Can you give me a sense of where you were in your career at that point and the roles you were seeking out?
I remember like it was yesterday. I had done Victor/Victoria and was still enjoying the success that came with the role. But for Clue, the offer came in when I was on vacation in Greece with my family — my mom, my son, his girlfriend, just a whole bunch of us. I wasn’t wanting to do roles that emulated Norma in Victor/Victoria. I was getting a lot of offers for that kind of character, and I didn’t want to recreate that in another project. I was really being careful about what I did next and where that was. So I got this call about Clue when I was in Greece. I wasn’t familiar with the board game. I just knew some of the other cast members who had already joined, and I got really excited to act alongside them. I saw in this role an opportunity for me to do something very, very different. So yeah, that was the reason that I did it, and boy am I not sorry that I did.

What were the “very different” roles you were trying to seek out at the time?
Miss Scarlet, as compared to Norma … well, Norma was canny in a street sense, but she portrayed herself as ditzy and superficial. She was very materialistic and driven, but not terribly talented in what she did. Miss Scarlet to me was really smart and really in charge and ran a very successful business — albeit a little nefarious. She was in control of her life as she saw it. She was a powerful woman and used her sexuality to get what she wanted, but she wouldn’t be used by anybody else. Those were some of the qualities that attracted me to her.

You said that you weren’t familiar with the board game, but I’m curious what your initial reaction was to learning that Clue, as a game itself, was being adapted into a film. It seems so common for Hollywood now, but that type of adaptation wasn’t the norm in the ’80s.
Yeah, that’s right. Because I wasn’t familiar with the board game, I was really looking at it as a script that came to me with all these fabulous characters and this exciting and creative murder mystery. I wasn’t comparing it in any way to the board game, and I didn’t have a reaction to the fact that they were making a film out of a board game, because I was looking at it as an isolated script and character.

And, my god, the cast. Those were, and are, some of the most iconic comic actors of all time. And I say comic actors because they are all great actors who happen to have an extraordinary comedic bent. It was thrilling, a joy, and an honor to be amongst those people. We drove Jonathan Lynn completely crazy because we were ecstatic and laughing and carrying on over each other’s work all the time. I always say it was like herding a bunch of cats. We were just so involved and overjoyed at each other’s work that it was difficult to keep us on track.

The setting seems perfect for group hangouts, too, since you were filming in one location.
It really was. One of the things that began our journey prior to filming was that Jonathan had us come to a screening room at Paramount, where he screened His Girl Friday with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant. We all watched it together as a group, because he wanted us all to have that sort of ’30s- and ’40s-era quick-paced particular way of talking. It was great for us all to see it together because we got to talk about it and do it as a unit. That’s how it was on the set. Paramount broke into the ceiling of one of the sound stages to build the set upward, so we were able to run up those stairs and utilize space that wasn’t necessarily available to us on a regular sound stage. We were there together for three and a half months. It’s one of the highlights of my personal career.

How many miles of cardio do you think you ended up running with all of those staircase and hallway scenes?
Way too many miles. [Laughs.] I’d be out of breath sometimes. Because it was three and a half months of filming, we did so many takes — we had to, in a way, because there were so many people and so many characters in one shot. The interesting thing about all that running was that Michael Kaplan, the costume designer, had designed me this gorgeous dress that looked like it was about to fall off at any moment. Which it never did, thankfully. But when we started rehearsing, we found that I couldn’t run in the dress. It was that tight. I couldn’t move other than a few poses. So he made another dress that had a hidden zipper on the bottom, which I wore to run in. So in some of the scenes where I have to take off and run with everybody really quickly, I was able to unzip and open up the bottom of the skirt.

Was it a comfortable dress?
The dress itself was made out of a lovely fabric, but Michael also designed the undergarments, because he wanted Miss Scarlet to have a very hourglass shape. So I was in a real corset the entire time, too. At the end of each day, I felt like I hadn’t taken a real breath for 12 hours. But it gave me that divine shape and look, and it felt perfectly right for Miss Scarlet. I was much younger, let’s just keep it real.

From left: The iconic dress, from different angles. Photo: Paramount PicturesPhoto: Paramount Pictures
From top: The iconic dress, from different angles. Photo: Paramount PicturesPhoto: Paramount Pictures

I read that Carrie Fisher was cast before you as Miss Scarlet, but she withdrew to seek treatment for her drug and alcohol issues. Have you given much thought to how your portrayals would’ve been different?
You know, no. I knew Carrie pretty well back in the day — her sense of humor was acerbic and so fabulous, and she was such a brilliant writer. I can assume how wonderful she would’ve been, but in a very, very, very different way. Going into Clue, I didn’t give it any thought because it would’ve paralyzed me creatively, so I just addressed it like I would address any role in any project that I was doing. In this case, I made up a history and made up relationships for Miss Scarlet. I had to fully commit to my own vision and version of it.

What was your vision for Miss Scarlet’s backstory?
I created a world that she operated in where she was the boss. She knows how to utilize and manipulate people through her sexuality, but never gets used by anybody else. I wanted to build on that in my mind and be truthful. Just the world that she occupied and how she felt about it and how it affected her and all of that.

I find it interesting that of all the angles Clue could’ve taken, it was written with this very specific ’50s era in mind, with ideas about communism and the Cold War seeping through a lot of the dialogue. Did Jonathan tell you and your other castmates what compelled him to take on that creative direction?
I was also intrigued by that, but he never did tell us. Jonathan is a very prolific writer who’s also very educated, very cultured, and someone who’s very interested in politics. I’m sure that his propensity for all of that impacted the direction that he chose to go with Clue. We all, whether consciously or subconsciously, were affected by his vision.

You were all blessed with working among such a wickedly charismatic and funny ensemble. What was the behind-the-scenes culture like for those three months of filming? How did you pass the time?
It was such a riot. I’ll say that actors are all unique and they have different ways of being on a set. Some people took to their trailers and needed that downtime. Martin Mull and I were inseparable, and we’ve gone on to make four or five other projects together. People are always pairing us together, and we love that. So we hung out a lot, and we would talk about our pasts and our lives and hysterically laugh together. He makes me laugh more than anyone else. I mean, no matter what we’re doing, he makes me laugh. He’s one of the funniest people I know. And then Colleen Camp and I got really close because we were going through relationship drama, so we would do a lot of girl talk. We were just trying to figure out what to do next and how we would handle the men in our lives.

Madeline Kahn was one of the people who sort of retreated to her space. Christopher Lloyd was game for anything. If we were all hanging out, he would always be part of that. Tim Curry had so many lines and had to do them in such rapid-fire delivery that he was desperately trying to learn his material as we went along. [Laughs.] But he was a great and jolly guy; just so lovely. Eileen Brennan was definitely a part of whatever was going on on set, too, if we were talking afterwards or laughing. But it’s exhausting. You’re not just having fun, you’re working hard. Blake Edwards said something to me when we were filming Victor/Victoria that I thought was pretty astute. He told me, People can’t be funny after eight hours; they’re tired. And I don’t believe that people can be funny when they’re tired. That’s a lovely way to stay refreshed when you to be.

I love Martin, a man I exclusively refer to as Gene Parmesan, so much.
He’s so funny. Just hysterical. Now, during COVID, we converse by writing each other emails, and his emails are just hilarious. I mean, he’s just as brilliant of a writer as he is an actor.

What was the scene where it was most difficult not to break?
Unsurprisingly, it was with Martin. There was one moment where we’re caught trying to get out of a door together; trying to get out of a space together. It’s behind a bar. We’re just struggling to get through the bar without being sexually involved in the moment, you know what I mean? We would crack up every time. You can sort of see it in the film if you really look really carefully.

It’s funny, because I watched Clue about a month ago. I turned on my television and it happened to be on at that very moment. My husband and I sat down and watched it again. I hadn’t seen it in a couple of years. I was laughing my head off watching it again. It’s truly for me one of the funniest, cleverest, joy-filled ensemble comedic works that I’ve seen.

When Clue came out, it was met with a modest critical reception and considered a box-office bomb, which is just wild to me in hindsight. What has it been like, as someone from the inside, witnessing the film evolve into something with cult status over the years?
We’ve all been blown away by it. I did an event with Jonathan about five years ago, and we were talking about that. Nobody, none of us, knew that this was going to happen. Martin and I talk about it a lot too. He writes to me and says, Are you receiving truckloads of Clue paraphernalia to be signed? And it’s true. The fan mail that I get comes from 9-year-olds to 70-year-olds. People come up to me on the street and recite my lines. It’s an amazing, wondrous outcome because, when it opened, we were all ravaged by disappointment. But ultimately, we got our revenge.

What quotes do fans say the most when they come up to you?
I get “it’s my defense mechanism” a lot; “one plus one plus one”; all the gun stuff. Some quotes I even have trouble remembering, but they quote them back to me and I’m thrilled.

What do you think people appreciate about the film in 2021 that they didn’t in 1985?
Oh, that’s an interesting question. I don’t think I can answer that, because I’ve been trying to understand that myself over the years. I know that something can hit the Zeitgeist and take on its own phenomenon. I don’t know why, but I’m blessed to have experienced it.

Did it come as a surprise to you that viewers didn’t love the idea of seeing three different endings in the theaters? I think, with streaming, that seeing all those endings back to back helped with its popularity.
I do think it was an innovative idea for a film. I was definitely disappointed that people didn’t want to go back and see the movie with a different ending, but I understand it. Hell, you’d have to buy three tickets. And I think you’re right. With the advent of streaming or television viewing … Clue being in circulation a lot on TV, where people could see all the different endings at one time, was helpful. It eliminated the obstacle of having to watch it again. That might be the reason why it accelerated in popularity. It hit this zeitgeist moment where it just became everyone’s favorite popular comedy.

But you know what’s also interesting? Clue, and Miss Scarlet in particular, have now attracted a huge LGBTQ audience. Many drag performers come to outdoor screeners dressed as Miss Scarlet, but all the characters get a lot of love. There’s a feminine swagger to her that appeals to a lot of people, but there’s something about the exaggeration of each character’s specificity. Each character is so defined and so colorfully created; they appeal to people’s creativity. It’s like Halloween, or getting dressed up and being in costume and being of a different era. It swept culture in this very interesting way.

Is the Miss-Scarlet-is-the-culprit ending your personal favorite?
Of course it is! I got to really go to town on that one. It was so much fun to play out, and it was so much fun to do that reveal with Tim. He was and is such a brilliant actor, and the repertoire between the two of us was so fast and funny and furious.

There have been some varied anecdotes from cast members about how a fourth “lost” ending was shot, but nobody seems to remember much of the details. I’m curious if you have any recollections about that.
This is the first I’ve heard of it.

This adds even more to the lore, then.
Exactly. I personally had never heard of that happening, so I don’t have anything to say about it.

I’m a huge fan of the show Psych, so it was such a joy to see you and other cast members reunite for an episode that paid homage to Clue. How was it for you, Christopher, and Martin to get together again in that context after all those years?
It was wonderful. It’s always amazing when Martin and I get to be around each other, and I love Christopher as well. However, I had broken my foot days before filming that episode, so I was not able to run or do anything more than a slow walk. I was recovering. I couldn’t wear heels! So, on a personal level, I was struggling to be able to find Miss Scarlet with those limitations, because so much of what she relies on is her body and her movements. They had to actually have somebody do the running for me because I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it. But it was fun to do the witty moments that we were trying to recreate. And did I say I just love spending time with Martin? [Laughs.] That’s just a given.

Before or after this special Psych tribute came along, had you or any other members of the cast been asked to do an homage like that?
Actually, no. We’re asked to do a lot of podcasts, but not anything that was a visual homage or a performance type of gathering.

Are you aware that there’s a Clue reboot in development from Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds?
I am aware of it, and I’m sad about it.

You’ve answered my next question.
Well, I’m sort of saying that tongue in cheek. Those two guys are hysterical and brilliant in their own right. But I love our movie so much. I feel like, Let it be. Let it be its own world and continue to do so, because it certainly has continued to draw in new fans. It doesn’t lose anything to time, probably because it’s set in this particular time period and stands alone as a result of that. I’m just very proprietary about it. I want it to be its own special unique Clue. I know it’s awkward to say that because, listen, I really do love Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds. But I feel like Clue is such a classic. It’s so iconic. Let it be.

Where would you rank Clue among all of the films you’ve starred in?
Clue, Victor/Victoria, and Cinderella are my most cherished film roles. I’ve worked for, god, more than five decades at this point. I have plenty of work that I love and am proud of. But as far as the impact on people, I would say that those three are united in their extraordinary, sort of legendary, reality. I hope that doesn’t sound too egomaniacal. But I think it’s true.

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In one ending, Yvette and Miss Scarlet are the murderers, and Wadsworth is an undercover FBI agent. In another ending, Mrs. Peacock is the murderer, and Wadsworth is, again, an undercover agent. In the third ending, everyone is a murderer of someone, save for Mr. Green, and Wadsworth is the real Mr. Boddy. Clue writer and director Lynn also directed My Cousin Vinny and The Whole Nine Yards. Mull played Colonel Mustard, an apparent client of Miss Scarlet’s. Camp played Yvette the maid, who worked with Miss Scarlet. Kahn played Mrs. White, the widow of a physicist/magician. Lloyd played Professor Plum, a disgraced psychiatrist. Curry played Wadsworth, a vengeful butler. Brennan played Mrs. Peacock, who was married to a U.S. senator. Edwards directed Victor/Victoria, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Days of Wine and Roses, 10, and the Peter Sellers–starring Pink Panther movies. Warren played the title role in a 1965 TV musical production of Cinderella.
Lesley Ann Warren Answers Every Question We Have About Clue