Whatever the medium, Rosemarie DeWitt has shone in both starring and supporting roles, working consistently across television, theater and film. On the stage, the 43-year-old has performed on Broadway multiple times, including in director Jonathan Demme’s Family Week and John Patrick Shanley’s The Deep Blue Sea at the Second Stage Theater.
On television, she made her mark on the Showtime series United States of Tara as Tara’s sister, Charmaine, and for AMC she appeared as Don Draper’s mistress in the award winning series, Mad Men. One of her early regular roles was in 2006’s crime drama Standoff, where she met her future husband, actor Ron Livingston.
On the big screen, her role as Anne Hathaway’s sister in Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-nominated Rachel Getting Married solidified her status; she was nominated for a number of critics’ awards and won a Satellite Award for Best Supporting Actress. Other notable roles have included Ben Affleck’s wife, Maggie, in John Wells’s The Company Men; Rachel Coulson in the Golden Globe-nominated TV mini-series Olive Kitteridge; and one of the three lead characters in Your Sister’s Sister, opposite Emily Blunt and Mark Duplass.
Now she brings her considerable talents to Poltergeist, where, alongside her friend Sam Rockwell, she plays the mother in a family dealing with a devastating supernatural nightmare in the depths of suburbia. It is Rosemarie’s first foray into the horror genre.
“It almost felt like we were making two movies, one with the horror and the scare of it all, and one was a character-driven piece with a really solid cast, especially for a genre movie,” she says. “I don’t feel they often go after that, like it’s not always as important, and that made it really, really fun.”
Poltergeist is director Gil Kenan and producer Sam Raimi’s 3D, contemporary take on writer Steven Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper’s 1982 classic, about a family whose youngest daughter is abducted by a poltergeist shortly after moving to a suburban neighborhood. Starring DeWitt, Sam Rockwell and Jared Harris, it’s the story of an ordinary family dealing with extraordinary circumstances. When these angry spirits abduct their six-year-old, Madison, they recruit a team of scientists and psychics – including the clairvoyant reality star Carrigan Burke (Harris) – to get her back.
Do you remember watching the original Poltergeist movie?
I remember being terrified by it when I was a kid. I don’t remember where I saw it; I just remember the effect of it, and how it sat in my psyche. Then when we were going to remake this movie I started watching it again and I couldn’t watch it, but more from the actor’s perspective, because JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson were just so awesome. I thought I would be too scared to take the role on, but I feel like everyone you talk to my age has a very vivid memory of seeing the movie.
So, in watching it again, you were more scared of the actors than the poltergeist!?
Well, I don’t know! I shut it off during the mosquito-biting scene – I had so much respect for those actors. But I acknowledge that this is its own thing, an incredible story that we’ve modernized and done a contemporary take on.
Did you get to speak to JoBeth Williams before filming began?
I didn’t, but Sam called her and Craig T. Nelson, and he told me they were really cool and gave us their blessing, and that was all we needed to know. It would be really nice to meet them in person.
The original really does hold up well… What is it about this film that still seems relevant?
I think part of it was that it was so cutting edge for the time, and was very “of the moment” when it was made. The immediacy was right there with what was going on in the world, with pop culture – it’s all over the kids’ rooms and the dolls, and the way the parents are, and the neighbors… it was very specific. Plus, of course, the people that worked on it: Steven Spielberg is a genius, so I’m sure that had a lot to do with it, and Tobe Hooper… I feel like the whole group was just on their A game.
Why does it still seem scary?
There’s something so scary about what you don’t know, and I think at its heart it’s an abduction story, and for parents it’s terrifying because that’s a nightmare. And for children, we all remember getting lost in the mall, and this girl gets lost in her house, sucked into the TV! We’re all helpless and hopeless and have to band together to save her. For me, I remember as a kid, it just tapped into all that stuff. Plus technology is such a big part of the first one, in terms of the TV, and now we’re living in a whole new realm with this family being very disconnected. They have too many gadgets going at the dinner table every night, and you wonder how connected we even are to each other, and would you notice if one of the kids was slipping away from you… on a metaphorical level, I think it works too. That’s why the original was so great: it was about the American family, so it holds up because it’s so quintessentially American, and I think this one is, too. You just see where we are now.
An inevitable question then – why bother with a remake?
I ask myself that a lot as an actor and as an audience member, and I think sometimes when a story is so great, there’s always going to be an audience that’s hungry for it. I’m not so familiar with the genre, but I imagine a lot of horror movies ripped Poltergeist off because it’s a classic, haunting abduction story, so I think that was probably the reason. Plus this is also 3D, and that adds a whole different element to it and a different experience – it’s great for a new generation to have access to this amazing story.
Beyond the 3D, and the family’s use of technology, the story has also been updated in the way we view the American suburbs. In the original, they were an aspirational place; in this, not so much….
Absolutely. Back then that was the goal, to have houses that looked exactly alike, and in the original they were developing this land. Fast forward 30 years, these very suburban towns are in decline. Half of Americans now can’t pay their bills, and this is a family that’s really struggling. In the old Poltergeist there were decisions made in the moment about what was causing these spirits to be so angry, and it feels like in ours they’ve been living this way for a long time and now they have to address what’s going on.
You grew up in the suburbs: Could you relate?
I did, yeah. When I read David’s [Lindsay-Abaire] script – he’s pretty amazing, a playwright and screenwriter from New York – it was clear he’d written really relatable characters, so it’s kind of dreamy for an actor to work with a writer of his caliber, as well as such a super actor-friendly director like Gil [Kenan]. I think we all related to the element of disconnect in our society, and I think we’re a little scared of where that’s going to take us. This family is definitely having a hard time connecting to each other and having a hard time staying afloat in the world. They’re still really connected to the things we prize, which is more and more and more stuff, and during the course of the movie that really gets stripped down and they have to come back to their core values. I think that’s very much where we’re at, and I think part of what we fear for our kids is the unknown. So I guess the poltergeist could really be anything; it’s whatever we put on that’s evil or dangerous, and Madison – the youngest daughter – is pure, so she communicates well with them.
You say you’re not over-familiar with the genre… do you like horror movies at all?
My husband, Ron Livingston, did The Conjuring a couple of years ago and I hadn’t gone to a movie like that in the theater with a full crowd for a long time, and for me so much of what was fun about it was that communal experience with the audience, where you scream so much that everyone starts laughing, a bit like a ride at an amusement park. So although I may not see a horror movie at home, there is a whole different experience when you go and see a horror movie in the theater.
You’re right – horror movies have remained a cinema medium, despite the general move to home viewing…
Yes, there’s something about being scared together that’s actually fun. It’s not that much fun to be scared at home in your house when you’re by yourself. Seeing it with an audience, there’s an element of safety where you can really let yourself be as scared as physically possible because everybody in the theater has your back.
Was it at all scary on set making the movie?
No, it wasn’t scary in that way. This movie isn’t graphic, it’s not violent… it’s subversive in its scariness. What was scarier for me was when the kids would get scared. Kennedi, who plays Madison, was six when we started filming and we were shooting a scene towards the end of the movie and there are corpses in it, and she pulled Gil aside and said, ‘You know, I’m really scared of corpses, do you think we could CGI these in later?’ So basically we re-configured the whole scene so that she didn’t have to come into contact with them at all. I loved her standing up for herself at that age and saying, ‘I’m scared and don’t want to have bad dreams about this later.’ I guess the goal is to give other people bad dreams, not the cast!
Did you think at all about the original ‘Curse of Poltergeist’? Some pretty awful stuff happened to some of the cast and crew…
That wasn’t part of my Poltergeist experience, following the story of what happened afterwards. I think I was aware of it as it was playing out… I think because I’ve known Sam Rockwell for 15 years or so, it felt like I was making more of a family movie and it was nothing to be afraid of. And I knew Jane Adams and Jared Harris, so I was just thinking about how lucky I was to go and work with these people that I love. What could be bad in that?
How was it working with your on-screen husband, Sam Rockwell?
It was so good. We both have similar backgrounds in the theater, we both like to work really hard and also have a lot of fun, so I felt like it was this great balance of putting your nose to the grindstone when it called for it, and then also really letting loose. He had some really fun moments in the movie and he brings a lot of spontaneity and unexpectedness to the role. When you’re playing ‘The All-American Mum and Dad,’ you want it to be real, so it felt like we were in a real relationship.
Which were the most important elements to keep from the original?
Really, the only thing you want to keep intact is the story itself and hopefully the heart of the family, because we have to care about them. You can go break it all down and say what’s important, but it’s not a shot-for-shot remake. The speed of life has changed so much since the original, which means the pacing is different. What was scary to me when I was a kid was these low, slow, quiet shots where you’re waiting for something to happen, but I don’t think young people right now have that same attention span. This movie has a lot of faster edits, and the kids are playing computer games… it’s very different.
However, there are some iconic moments that are, at the very least, paid homage to in your version, like the spooky tree, the ‘They’re Here’ line, the clown….
I wasn’t privy to any of those decisions. Those kind of things, as an actor, tend to get in my way anyway. It wasn’t until afterwards when people would say, ‘Are you wearing that baseball t-shirt and underwear?’ I’m pleased I didn’t wear that because Mary JoBeth rocks that ensemble.
Though there appears to be a nod to the underwear-and-t-shirt outfit in one of the earlier scenes in the movie…
Yes, I think it was a nod to it too, but it doesn’t feel like we tried to recapture every moment. The tree scene had to happen, because it’s one of the symbols of the story. However, I’m glad I didn’t have to get pulled up the wall…
I notice that mom and dad’s secret vice has shifted from weed to booze…
It’s funny, in the original it didn’t even feel like a big deal, they were just smoking pot, it was the 70s. This one feels like dad’s drinking because he’s out of work! He’s trying to lighten up the mood. It didn’t feel representative of what the culture at large is doing; it felt more about setting up how rough a spot these parents were in. In the original there’s a sense of buoyancy and levity; now it feels like we’re living with more uncertainty and it’s heavier. It’s more about the times we’re living in than them trying to get their fun on.
Another key difference is, rather than your character going in to retrieve your daughter, your son does instead…
I feel like this is a really significant change and maybe also why they felt they should remake the movie. I think it’s much more told from the children’s perspective. Just in general, we’re seeing this world through their eyes, so it kind of makes sense that he’s the one to go.
Now that you’ve done your first horror film, are you interested in doing any more?
I wasn’t ready to do more right after it, but of course once you do one of anything they think of you for something else. I did enjoy the experience way more than I ever imagined. A really good story is a really good story, and I don’t think it matters what genre. So I would do this again, sure.
Poltergeist – Out for Halloween!