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Zelda Rubinstein   ('Poltergeist') Zelda Rubinstein ('Poltergeist')

'This Interview Is Clean!'

An actress who came to her career relatively late in life, Zelda Rubinstein has made two roles her own: a wise-mouthed psychic and a down-to-earth police dispatcher.

Rubinstein worked for twenty years in medical labs before undergoing a "midlife crisis" and moving to Europe in the late 1970s. She lived in Siam, Denmark and Rome doing odd jobs until returning to the USA and an acting career in 1980.

The 4'3" actress had a tough time being cast at first and did a lot of voice-over work (with one role as a Munchkin in "Under the Rainbow") before being cast as a no-nonsense psychic in the "Poltergeist" films ("Poltergeist" 1982, "Poltergeist II: The Other Side" 1986, and "Poltergeist III" 1988).

She played a dramatic role as a domineering mother in the Spanish-made film "Anguish" (1987), and reached her widest audience in the quirky TV drama "Picket Fences". Her character was killed off (by falling into a freezer) in 1995. Rubenstein went to guest on the NBC series "Caroline in the City" and "The Pretender" and narrated the Fox Family Channel/ABC Family series "Scariest Places on Earth."

And so with the imminent release of the 'Poltergeist (25th Anniversary Edition)' DVD - the supernatural thriller that stars Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams as a California couple swept up in a wave of horror after sinister spirits invade their home and kidnap their child - we had the chance to catch up with the lovely Zelda. And I first wondered if she had had to go through a rigorous set of casting calls before being chosen to take on the role of the eccentric medium ‘Tangina Barrons’ in the 1982's 'Poltergeist'?

Zelda Rubinstein "It was by audition. I was actually screen-tested several times before I was entrusted with the role. And I do not know who my competition was."

In the film I think ‘Tangina’s declaration that "This house is clean" has to be one of the most famous speaking-too-soon miscalculations in movie history! All these years later is it a privilege or a burden to have your name spoken and have everyone’s minds primarily always fly back to that infamous early ‘80s character and away from anything you've done since? "No, it's neither a burden nor a pleasure: It's a fact. It's work. I'm not a Southern lady, I'm from Pennsylvania and we speak sort of correctly there and people identify me that way. And they also easily identify me on the street because of my short stature. So I get picked out in many ways and so no way is ever a burden."

In today’s film society where CGI special effects are over used for the most part, can you please tell us more about how the special effects worked back in 1982 on the set of 'Poltergeist'? "The special effects were added after I had finished my role. I only worked six days and since it was my first real role I kept my mouth shut and my ears open. I just let things play out. First of all I'm not a technology major. I couldn't give a rats behind about technology. As far as I'm concerned it's an unnecessary evil that put a lot of good people out of work. Those people that didn't have that special education."

What was Tobe Hooper like as a director on the set? "I don't think I can answer that, because the six days that I worked it was Spielberg primarily who took over that helm on my scenes. But Tobe was there all the time. And, as I saw it - as I was not an experienced person at that time - it seemed that Tobe set up every shot and Steven made adjustments to every shot. But it was a year before I saw those people again."

So, what was it like working with the legend Steven Speilberg for those six days? "Oh, he's magnificent. His image gets on the screen. What I found is what he wants to show and say is what gets up there the way he wants it. There's no deviation from that. I don't know the man well, I love him dearly, but he was very influential in handing me a career. And, I'd love to work with him again. For as far as I'm concerned he's the best film director that I've had so far."

After all these years would you ever agree to appear in a 'Poltergeist' remake today? "Oh, of course, but we don't have the little girl. We lost Carol Anne in 1988. So, that was the end of the series. But, it would depend on how I felt at the time about the script. I don't think anybody's permitted to go word for word what's already down. I don't think that's in public domain. But I'm also 25 years older. I don't quite look like Tangina looked at that time. I'm still in pretty good shape and facially I look the same ... maybe a little chunkier," she laughs.

Not knowing to the full extent how your role was going to fit into the film, who did you receive it back a year later when it was screened for you? "Well, for me it was very dramatic when I saw the film at the screening for cast and crew. I practically had to be carried out of there as I realized it would change my life! It did cost me a 14 year relationship that I was involved in, because neither one of us particularly knew how to handle this. So, I feel that looking back it was only a fabulous experience filming wise. I didn't get to know many people as I only got to work those six days on the film. And I didn't socialize at that time with anybody from the film either."

And what is your take on all these rumors of the curses associated with the film 'Poltergeist'?"I'm very pedantic and I don't believe in any of that. I believe there are phenomena that we don't understand because we have no way of measuring them. But, I don't believe that there was anything going on on the set, no."

But was it true that on the set of 'Poltergeist 3' that a photo of you was taken and that behind you was a bright, eerie shadow of light ... which then very soon after you learnt that your mother had passed away around the time that photo had been taken? "Well, yes but my mother had been ill for five weeks before following open heart surgery. So, she was alive but not with us for those five weeks. And, I knew she was dying and so I went home every weekend to Oakland, California where she lived."

"But, I myself did not have that experience. The director did. Gary Sherman was taking pictures with a still camera and over one picture there was a very light clouding. And, it scared a few people. It didn't scare me though, because if that was my mother's sprit I had a superb relationship with her. That's why I'm such a healthy woman today. But, I'm also a healthy old woman," she laughs.

Where you involved in any other weird incidents whilst filming in those six days? 'Well, I do have one although I don't know why it happened to me. While I was filming it I was involved in an automobile accident. I was driving a little Volkswagen Beetle at the time and just as our cars impacted I felt my deceased father reach into the roof of the Beetle and grab me like a puppy by the scruff of the neck and pull me out. And after the collision he sent me back down. And that's the closest I've had to anything extraordinary ever happening to me personally."

Looking back and how did you feel your character progressed throughout the three films? "Every one was different. I liked the first one best of all and then would be the third one. And I was least content with my role in the second one. In that one we also lost the director."

With the imminent release date of the 'Poltergeist: Special Edition' DVD bearing down upon us, were you asked to contribute to any of the special features contained, perhaps? "Not as far as I know ... unless they've taken it from other interviews I did. But I would have been more than happy to contribute to it had they have asked. It's a product that I believe in and I would have been very happy to promote it in any way."

Did you ever think back then that 'Poltergeist' would turn out to be such a wonderful film phenomenon and that 25 years down the road you would still be doing interviews for it?! "Well, ... the first script was very good. Mark Victor, Michael Grayson, and Steve Speilberg wrote a magnificent script and that's always the basis of everything that's gonna be good in film. They picked people that were sufficient to support that script and I'm just so thrilled that I was allowed to be a part of this. It was a new experience for me and I learned so much. I was very happy to be involved."

What was it about your role as the eccentric medium ‘Tangina Barrons’ that has made everyone still remember it / you to this very day? "I know that my role was one that was very sympathetic ... but I'm always surprised when people say that it's a horror film. Sure there were some astonishing things in it that you don't see, but I think the thing that made it so memorable was the quality of the acting. I'm just still so glad that I was picked to do it otherwise I'd still be doing it here on the street corner under a street lamp," she laughs.

Did you have a following amongst the 'Ghost chaser' crowd for a while after the release of the film?! "Just the crazy ones," she laughs. "No, but shortly after the film came out a lady in the market where I shop came up to me and said, 'Please, please come to my house. Something's wrong with it.' I had to let her know I wasn't who she thought I was and that I couldn't help her fix her house. But I even found that rather amusing. I usually don't like people coming that close to me. That's left over from my childhood when people came close to me and considered me an oddity because of my short stature. Now, of course I handle it very well."

In truth you entered the film industry comparatively late. I mean, having worked for 20 twenty years in the medical labs associated with blood banks before leaving for Europe in the ‘70s, and then returning back here to the US several years later, I’m wondering if acting was indeed what brought you back at that time? "No, it was a man, if I'm to be honest. I made the film when I was 48 years old and I had been in a long term relationship with this wonderful gentleman. And, I came back from Europe at his invitation. I knew him in this country and we spent many years traveling Europe and living in London [UK]. I worked at the North London Blood Transfusion Center. That was before I realized I was an artist."

How did you come to this realization that you were to be an artist? "I had an epiphany one night in my sleep. And I don't know what the epiphany was but I went to bed a blood banker and I work up an artist ... and I had no idea what my discipline would be. But being pretty hot blooded I went into work that morning; it was a Monday and I quit my job. I had no idea what I would do after the two week notice was worked out. And then just serendipity happened and I met an agent who sent me on a couple of interviews and within two weeks after leaving medicine I got my very first job on 'The Flintstones.' Which is a most unusual use of my vocal instrument."

It must have been nice for you back in the mid ’90s to suddenly reach your widest audience yet whilst portraying ‘Ginny Weadon’ in the quirky TV drama 'Picket Fences' "Yes, it was. I was there for two years as a regular in the cast and I loved doing the role of Ginny Weadon ... who was a few bubbles off plum! And so I fitted into that very well."

Although getting killed off by falling into a freezer wasn’t exactly the way that I had hoped to see your role end! Did you yourself see it coming, perhaps?! "No, not at all," she laughs. "I was not invited back for financial reasons. The two main leads, as I understand it, required a salary increase and so they took it out of me. And by doing that it changed the whole dynamic of the series and I don't think it improved it."

What have you learnt now after all these years that has kept you going in the business? "I have learnt that I am basically a comedian ... which has been very helpful for me in getting along with this society - if you're sort of different from most folks."

So, could we see you up on stage at the Comedy Castle one night perhaps? "I'm not a stand-up comedian," she laughs. "I don't want to do stand-up as that to me is terrifying. I do a cabaret act every other year. The last one's this year. And those are autobiographical evenings where I attempt to sing appropriate songs to support the stories I tell."

Where and when can people come to see you perform? "One is coming up on October the 19th and 20th at Cabaret Gardenia in L.A. I work with a wonderful music director named Brian Miller and I can't imagine working with anyone else."

What do you see Hollywood turning into these days? "There's the tendencies to worship the beauties and forget about the depth. I've seen some very good performances in Hollywood and there are also some very excellent writers. I love the work of Paul Haggis and amongst my personal friends I feel are some of America's best directors. I think Hollywood wouldn't be in such a state if they just had some good scripts and they could get up off of the sexy body images and such."

What kind of scripts today get your interest? "Romantic comedies. I like that quality, that humanity. The chance to be men, the chance to be women, the chance to be each other. Not to have to hide that aspect of human nature. I would love to do a romantic comedy. Something like how different people can really have a fine relationship as I have had in my own personal life. I love films that allow people just to be people."

So, do you think they should remake / update 'Poltergeist' today for the new generation? "Yes, I think it's worthy. I don't know if I would be invited to be involved in any way, but it's very rare that the sequel is better than the original. It depends in whose hands the direction falls."

Finally, is it true that you filmed a scene for the film 'Casper' (1995) wherein you portrayed 'Tangina' being shot from a chimney while yelling "Don't go into the light!" but that it never made the final cut? "I never did 'Casper' ... that was not a movie that I was involved with. I think I was booked to do it, but there was a strike going on. And I would not cross the picket line. I am from Pittsburgh and we do not cross picket lines!"

Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk

'Poltergeist (25th Anniversary Edition)' DVD Purchase Link

Cabaret Gardenia

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