No exorcist required

Linda Blair talks about her new Hallmark Channel horror spoof, her love of animals and, yeah, that movie from the '70s with the pea soup and the crucifix.

Published October 25, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

When you become famous for spewing green bile and alarmingly vivid invective, peeing on the carpet, spinning your head around 360 degrees and masturbating with a crucifix at the tender age of 14, what do you do for an encore?

In the case of Linda Blair, the young actress who was nominated for an Academy Award for her shocking and strange work as the possessed child Regan in the 1973 classic horror flick "The Exorcist," you work. First, as a slightly less troubled teen in memorable mid-'70s telefilms like "Born Innocent," "Sweet Hostage" and "Sarah T. -- Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic." Then as time goes on, on whatever "quality project" you can get your hands on.

"My dad used to tell me, 'Be like Bette Davis. Just work. Every job will provide an opportunity,'" Blair, now 44 and a devout vegan who has dedicated herself to promoting animal and children's rights, tells Salon from her home in Los Angeles, which she shares with dogs, horses, chickens and various other critters.

We called her to discuss her latest role -- playing a mother in the Hallmark Channel's family-friendly Halloween spoof "Monster Makers," which premieres this Sunday at 8 p.m. -- and how she got here from there.

What's all that noise in the background? Are you washing dishes?

No, I am making my yummy healthy morning breakfast shake, which I drink every day. It has soy beverage; Stevia, which is an alternative sweetener that's good for your spleen; powdered grains; brewer's yeast, which women need for their B vitamins; blueberries, which is what I was washing; a big apple; and a cantaloupe.

Does it come out looking like pea soup?

No, it's blue, actually. From the blueberries.

Oh, good. So how do you feel about playing somebody's mom?

That's really funny, isn't it? Technically I could have kids of all sorts of ages by now, but I don't. My kids are all the animals and all the work I do for both animals and children. I knew a long time ago that if I had a family I would not be able to do the work that I do. Because you can't do both. You cannot stand up for the rights of others as effectively as I do and still raise a family.

How'd the part in "Monster Makers" find its way to you?

I had been working for a couple of years for Fox Family Channel, doing "S Club 7 in L.A.," which was kind of like "The Monkees." It was really fun because little kids now come up to me and say [does squeaky little-kid voice], "You're that lady on 'S Club 7.'" I say, "Yes, I am. And I'm in that movie you can't see."

Anyway, then I did Fox Family's "Scariest Places on Earth," and when that got canceled, a lot of people -- including me -- were very disappointed. So when Hallmark called me and said they were doing their first spoof and it was a comedy and it was for Halloween and would I be interested, I basically had tears in my eyes because I was so happy that Hallmark thought of me both for comedy and for their channel. I'm really proud to work with them. To me, you don't have higher integrity than Hallmark.

It's been quite a journey for you from "The Exorcist" to the Hallmark Channel, hasn't it?

Uh-huh. What people forget -- and this has been the hardest part -- is that I'm an actor. A lot of people forget that.

Well, you've never really stopped working, have you?

Not really. First, right after "The Exorcist," I did "Born Innocent," an NBC movie about girls prisons and juvenile homes and there was a rape scene in there. The girls rape my character in prison, and it caused a whole big national scandal, made national headlines, because -- you know me, controversial. It actually led to the "family viewing hour" [a short-lived agreement in which the networks promised to keep the 8 p.m. hour free of sex and violence]. And then I did "Sarah T. -- Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic" and, of course, that won an award from Alcoholics Anonymous that year for helping teenagers with alcoholism.

And then "Sweet Hostage" [in which she played a kidnap victim who falls in love with her captor], which was my favorite movie because that was a love story. I don't get offered too many love stories, but working with Martin [Sheen] back then was still probably the biggest highlight of my life. He's just so creative and so amazing and I hadn't seen anybody take a nothing character on a page and create this magic. And he taught me a lot about acting.

And in the intervening years, you've certainly done a lot of horror movies.

Well, I was asked to do "Airplane!" [in the late '70s], but Universal would not let me spoof my character, which is a shame, because I think that if I could have done that back then I could have had a completely different career. And later, I was filming "Roller Boogie" [1979] and "Ruckus" [1982] back to back and I missed the opportunity to have a meeting with Robert Redford, who'd requested me for "Ordinary People." If I had been able to work with him, I think things might have been different.

But over the years I have a huge fan base that knows that I'm very diverse and another set that just can't get past "The Exorcist," that forgets I'm just an actor. I mean, look at Anthony Hopkins, he plays the other scariest human being on earth and then he goes and makes a romantic film with Miramax. Nobody thinks twice about that. They need to remember that with me.

Do you think it's because you were so young when you played that role that you're so closely identified with it?

I don't know. Why can you look at him as Hannibal Lecter and let him scare the living bejesus out of you and then look at him at other movies and just be fine with it? Why can't they do that with me? Yeah, I think it's that that's how they were introduced to me and so that's how they will always think of me. Nothing I can do about the human brain.

Actually, you started acting long before "The Exorcist," right?

Yes, I started when I was 5 in New York doing modeling and commercials. The goal was to work and save my money to go to school and be a veterinarian, but also, I wanted to buy a horse. That was the first driving force when I was very young. [Laughs.] I was like, "Horsey! I want a horsey!" And I still have the horsey in the backyard. Not the same one, mind you.

That would be a feat.

Yeah. Stuffed! Like Trigger! [Laughs.]

So when I was 13, I said to my mother that I wanted to quit and really buckle down because I'd bought my first horse and was on my third pony and I was like, "I worked hard and got what I wanted and now I want to just really apply myself to my studies." She said yes, that was fine and we just had to finish off a few jobs. And that's when "The Exorcist" came along. If it had been just a few more weeks, I would not have been the girl in the movie, because we were done.

Do you regret it?

No, because if I had achieved my dreams of becoming a vet, I would be in a town somewhere having a clientele, let's say, of 500 clients. This way, "The Exorcist" gives me a platform around the world. Out of curiosity, people will always come see me and listen to what I have to say about animal and human health issues. The film allows me that platform. So that's the big picture. That's a big deal, and I know it. For that, I'm grateful.

Plus, it has offered me the opportunity to travel around the world and meet people I'd never have met. So, no, it's nothing but good. Though it is a hard cross to bear on a daily basis that other people assume that it has been a difficult journey and wonder why I made the film.

In "The Exorcist" and the TV movies that you mentioned, you were dealing with some really strong stuff at a pretty young age. How did that affect you?

It made me grow up sooner. But that's what's so funny, I'm probably younger at heart now than I ever was then. I went through a lot of adult issues at such a young age that they're over. So now, it's like, OK, I get it, and the next 40 years that I have on this planet, they're mine, nobody else's. A lot of people in their 40s and 50s, they wish they'd done something else and go through a midlife crisis. I've already been through it 10 times. Now I know who I am. I'm very secure. As long as you keep your health and you keep a job and you've got good friends and you're doing things that you are proud of, you can feel good about yourself.

What are you proudest of in your career?

I would say I'm proud of the work that I did in "The Exorcist." I now realize: "Good for me. I did my job. Good for me."

Have you ever taken any time away from the business?

I took one year when I was 18. I was exhausted and I just wanted to ride my horses and pursue that. I wanted to be in the Olympics and every time I would get good horses and get to a level where I was getting somewhere, I'd get a job. Then months would pass and I'd have to kind of start again. I was very serious about my dreams, but then I realized, well, gee, I have to work in order to support a very expensive sport. So I went back to work.

The Olympics?

I used to train hunters and jumpers. In my 20s, I finally got all my great horses and was doing very well. I mean, I competed since I was 15. It's a very competitive sport, very expensive. The horses cost up to a million dollars and the projects -- I wasn't making a million, you know. So I had to make a choice in my middle 20s about what to do, whether to go professional as a rider and trainer or to come back and give the same amount of love and compassion and desire to my career as I had to my athletic life, which I kept so private. And that's what I did. But the '80s were very difficult for women in the industry. I just kept working through, but there weren't a lot of great jobs.

Do you think the '70s were better for women?

Well, I can't speak for women at that time, but I think for a teenager the roles that I did were such breakout roles because they'd never done anything like that for a teenager before. It'd always been, like, the teenager was the secondary character, not the main character. And in the '50s and '60s, you certainly would never talk about big issue stuff. So the '70s were the first time that they brought things out of the closet with kids.

Can you see a child actor today being asked to do the kinds of things you did in "The Exorcist"?

Well, they wanted to redo "The Exorcist" a few years back, I think in 1997. They asked if I would help with the casting and work on the set with the kid, and I said, "What are you, nuts? No! Don't ever subject another child to that. It's too difficult." I was blessed. I was strong. Certainly I struggled with all the issues, trying to understand why I was attacked by the Catholics for a long time. Now they realize that it's their own church that had all the secrets. It had nothing to do with me. But at the time, I was the bad egg. Hey, I was just doing my job. But I would never do that to another child. No.

Did you struggle with any emotional aftereffects?

No, I think I was really lucky. I was prepared very well. But you make choices and hope you're strong enough to deal with them. Everybody goes through difficult journeys in this life. Whether you lose a child, whether someone gets ill with a disease, whether somebody goes through great financial loss, whether somebody makes a bad decision, gets taken advantage of, is not born into a situation that's easy to make something of themselves, everybody will have a challenge. That is what life's about.

I was noticing on your Web site that you, like your governor-elect, once did a Oui magazine shoot. And you posed nude.

Oh, that. Well, that's something that, in our business, women do at some point in their careers. And it still exists today. I mean, God, look at Britney Spears! I mean, holy moley! But really, it's kind of part of it, whether it's Playboy or Oui or any of those. The point of doing Oui was to show people that I was an adult, that I was grown up, that I wasn't a 14-year-old kid anymore -- and there was a good article that accompanied it. And you know, I would rather see nudity any day than violence. To me, when violence and killing become entertainment, the state of our nation is in trouble.

By Amy Reiter

MORE FROM Amy Reiter

Related Topics ------------------------------------------