Interview: ‘Search Engines’ Star Daphne Zuniga Talks Technology, The Initiation And A Long Career Of Learning
If there’s an actress that exemplifies both beauty and charisma while still creating cool characters to root for it’s definitely Daphne Zuniga. So much more than just a pretty face with a slightly smoky voice (though both are breathtaking still to this day!), the highly underrated Zuniga has been captivating audiences with her memorable performances for decades. From her early work as John Cusack’s lovable and spirited sparring partner in The Sure Thing to her iconic turn as the self-involved Princess Vespa in Mel Brooks’ hilarious Star Wars send up Spaceballs, the talented Zuniga has a knack for making every project she’s involved with just that much more satisfying. (And I may be a movie guy with a singular cinema focus, but even I know she made Melrose Place worth watching!)
Her latest film entitled Search Engines (available now on VOD/Digital from Indican Pictures and showing this Saturday at the Santa Fe Film Festival) sees the actress playing a divorced, but still sassy gal who braves both family dysfunction (in this case real-life mother/daughter team Joely Fisher and Connie Stevens in fine form!) and a lack of cell phone reception for one Thanksgiving holiday to remember. The brainchild of writer/director Russell Brown, the film is equal parts moving and biting and it’s an area that Zuniga always seems to shine in. So thanks to the notable new Search Engines I got a chance to chat with a gal who’s been on my bucket list for a long time and needless to say the delightful Daphne did not disappoint. Charming, humble and incredibly engaging (can you tell I’m a gushing?!), Zuniga sat down to chat with WhySoBlu.com for almost an hour and the result being one of the funnest career interviews I’ve ever done. (Movies only – leave her wealth of tasty TV work to a boob tube expert!) From one of her first turns in the 80’s chiller The Initiated (Daphne dual role alert!) to hits like The Sure Thing, Spaceballs, Modern Girls (Clayton Rohner alert!) and The Fly II, I dig deep to get some filmography perspective via one of my favorite actresses of all time. (Plus we do chat briefly about her inspiring environmental work – I give credit where credit is due!) Ladies and gentleman get ready for a very fun ride down movie memory lane with the divine…
I loved the story idea of exploring the turbulence of family during the holidays with an added story device of a detachment of technology – what was it about the script for Search Engines that spoke to you?
Daphne Zuniga: The same thing – about how dependent we are on internet connection and devices. I hadn’t really read something that talked about that or had that theme as much as this script did. I also just loved Russell’s humor and intelligence. There was an intelligent sarcastic wit about the script, which I really responded to and liked.
Your character Kate is a divorced gal facing single life in a new world of technology – what do you think she was ultimately searching for?
DZ: My character was more in the middle of all of it. There are people around her who were totally dependent on technology and on active dating sites as the movie shows and people who are clearly addicted to it. She’s not addicted, she dabbles in online dating, but she’s become discouraged by it. She probably tried it to look for a partner and felt reduced and less than by it, but I liked her because even though she drank a bunch of martini’s she didn’t really take it that seriously, which I thought was cool. But like anyone who goes online she’s looking for partnership. And it’s funny because when I talk to people a lot of couples have met online and have done really well and found someone and then there are the others who are still struggling and still stretching because there’s so much false representation online. But Kate isn’t too bitter – I still feel like she’s going to stay in the game and she’s going to find it one way or another.
There’s an interesting dynamic between you and real-life mother daughter team Joely Fisher and Connie Stevens playing family – what was it like working with them?
DZ: They’re a real unit those two. Joely Fisher was cast when I was cast and we didn’t have the mother cast yet. So they talked about a couple people, but ultimately I guess she just asked her mom, ‘Do you want to play my mother in a movie?’ And it worked out that Connie came on to be our mother, which was so bizarre to me because she’s this blonde beauty from the past and she’s still cute and sweet and I just don’t think of myself as coming from that kind of person! (Laughs) But I always love working with actresses who are older than I and are just consummate actresses and I just watched Connie. I really learned from those two – they keep the balls up in the air and that’s not easy.
At one point when the cell phones in the house don’t work board games come out to play – what were some of your favorites back in the day?
DZ: Oh God! Well, I didn’t have a TV growing up, so we had a LOT of board games. I had a small family, my sister and my mother whom I lived with. We had Yahtzee, we had Score Four and Masterpiece. Monopoly wasn’t so great with three people, but we did do some Boggle. Also when I was younger Clue, Candyland, Chutes and Ladders and card games. That’s another thing I loved about the script and Russell’s words was talking about the pieces and the sand timer you have to flip over, the sound of the shaking of the dice – so specific. Oh, also Backgammon and I still play Backgammon. In fact I visited my mother earlier this year and some of these things she literally still has. I saw score sheets from Yahtzee from forty years ago…
DZ: (Laughs) I think I made her get rid of that stuff!
The classics never die!
DZ: (Laughs) What about photographs? I was talking to someone the other day about when you go from analog to online you miss this whole thing about having boxes of photographs and photo albums. And yet we take probably ten or a hundred times more photos now, but do we ever go back and look? It’s all just data that takes up space on your computer or your phone and so it’s bizarre – photos are a whole different thing now.
For me it all peaked with the rotary phone!
DZ: (Laughs) Do you remember the push button?
Hell yeah – love it! (We both laugh) So…past work – The Initiation was a great first starring role that not only was a film made better by your performance, but had you playing two very different sisters. What was it like shooting it and did you learn anything on that film that you kept with you as an actor through the years?
DZ: Playing twins in that, the good one and the evil sister, as my first role was a lot. Of course I was excited because I love to act, so why not? (Laughs) I got to play two characters who hated each other and when we had scenes with these two characters together we had to do split screen and in 1984 it was done the old fashioned way. There was no CGI of course, so they had to lock down the camera and I would literally get on one side of frame, yell and scream, and they would freeze and I would have to go and change my make-up, costume and hair and come back, get on the other side facing the other way and fear for my life. I haven’t seen that movie I think since we made it, but there are some scenes where I’m all in one frame where they overlay those two – I don’t know how they did it – but you see one frame with these two sisters acting opposite each other. And also killing. I remember she was strangling…wait, I had to strangle myself! (Laughs) My first time out a lot of technical stuff. And of course I worked with two older pros in there too…
Yeah, the great Clu Gulager and legendary Vera Miles!
DZ: Yeah, Vera Miles! All through my career I’ve worked with folks that I have had such great respect for and I’m always up for learning because I knew I loved to do this and I was going to be doing it my whole life. But it was all new to me – the technicality of the filming and everything. Before that I had done theatre, so another thing I learned in The Initiation was to tone it down. (Laughs) I think during one close-up the director said to me, ‘You’re supposed to be listening – why are you moving your forehead and mouth so much? Just listen.’ And I’m thinking I’m listening, but the audience has to know that I’m listening, so I have to show them I’m listening. He’s like, ‘No, you don’t. The camera is this close – just listen.’ So that was a huge beginning into learning about film acting, especially when the camera is so close. You just have to do it, just think it as they say, and it will translate across to camera.
I loved the killer chemistry between yourself and John Cusack in The Sure Thing – was it immediate or did you guys have to work for a while to get it right?
DZ: No, that was immediate. Rob Reiner talks about when he cast us he knew that that was it. And there was an example that he talks about when we were flying to location where he was in the middle seat, I was on one side eating my rice cakes I brought with me and I ordered a diet coke and on the other side was John eating whatever peanuts they gave him. Back in the day they used to feed you on the plane! (Laughs) Whatever junk food you found there he was eating and Rob just looked from one side to the other and knew he had cast it correctly. And that dynamic right there before we had even shot a frame grew and grew and grew because we’re very different people. I was very disciplined and again this was my first year in the movies so I took it very seriously and I really wanted to do a great job. And John took his part very seriously (laughs) and Gib was not that serious of a guy, so there were times when he would go out with Tim Robbins – I think he was only sixteen – and he would stay out and stay up late. And he would show up in the morning looking tired and I would just go over to him and think to myself are you serious? We’re on a movie! We’re at work – we’re being paid! (Laughs) And I’m sure John was like this is fun, I’m in a movie! And it’s not that he didn’t know what he was doing because John Cusack came from a theater family in Chicago, so he knew what he was doing and he’d already been in one other movie I think Sixteen Candles. We just had different approaches to the same thing, which really did suit the characters perfectly.
In Stone Pillow you got a chance to act alongside an icon – what was it like working with the late, great Lucille Ball?
DZ: Again that was early on and I went in to audition for Stone Pillow this TV movie and I was a huge fan of Lucy’s. And she said when we were shooting that she’d babysat three generations – she had all these fans around on the set every day with gifts and she would say that’s what happens when you babysit three generations of people. But I remember auditioning for that and when they were working on the deal and they made the offer I was thinking, what deal? This is the deal – I will pay to do this movie. Don’t blow this! They’re like, ‘We’re negotiating!” I’m like no – don’t negotiate! Just do it, whatever they say that’s what we’re going to take! And I was so afraid that they were going to do whatever agents do to get more money – but it all worked out obviously. But I chose to be the professional that I was and not tell Lucy that I was a fan and had written her fan letters. I really wanted her to feel like she also was in good hands. But of course I knew how lucky I was to be there and to learn. Talking about learning and talking about a pro – there was a scene where we were shooting in Port Authority and her part as a bag lady she was covered in layers of clothing and coats and mittens and hats because it was the winter time and she was shooting long hours and she was seventy-six at the time. And she fainted in a scene in Port Authority right in the middle of us shooing. We were in the middle of a scene and I thought she was improving and I’m like God, she’s taking it to another level – I have to go with her. So she kind of gracefully fell down to this bench and I just kept going on with the scene and then she didn’t respond and I looked up and said, ‘I think she fainted.’ Of course there was a cut and the ambulance was called and she came to. But George (Schaefer, Director) had told everyone, ‘Okay, take down the sets, we’re done, we’ll call it a day.’ And when she came to she said to George, ‘What are you doing? Why are you taking down the lights?’ He was like, ‘Oh, you fainted, you’re not well, we’re gonna call it a day.’ And she said, ‘Oh, no we’re not – we’re finishing this scene. You have to get your day George.’ So he told everyone to put the lights back up and we finished the scene – it was a lesson I will never ever forget. That it’s work, it’s a job and it’s important.
Modern Girls is a totally tasty 80’s time capsule with the likes of Virginia Madsen, Cynthia Gibb and Clayton Rohner – was it as much fun making it as it was to watch?
DZ: I would say it was fun. It was fun because we were all young and had that kind of energy where we could shoot nights for a month. It was at least a month of shooting and it was all nights obviously because it was a one-nighter in a club, so it was one of those shoots where you’d come home and you’re like please sun don’t come up yet! And you have the curtains drawn for a month and you want to get to bed before the light comes up. But I loved Virginia and Clayton and Cindy – we all had a blast. It’s funny because I still have fans that watch that and they’ll post a picture and I’ll think oh my god – that was the 80’s man! It’s not until I see a picture now that I go wow, they totally look like costumes! But we didn’t think of them as costumes back then. Maybe a little bit, but I looked at what I wore and that’s what I would wear if I went out. It’s so bizarre to think that that entire decade we were all wearing costumes everyday when we went out of the house.
Spaceballs has become one of the most quoted of all of Mel Brooks films – did you know some of the dialogue would go on to become so iconic when you made the film and is there one that busts you up and made you laugh?
DZ: No, but the pros like John Candy and Rick Moranis probably knew. I didn’t think of lines that would stick for a long time at all, but it was a role where I played the straight one, the serious one. So it was more the other characters I would think that would have these lines that would become classics. But what I love about that movie is every other line is a line like that. I mean it was hard enough to hold a straight face while I’m opposite John Candy or any of them, but I’m sure Mel knew. What’s your favorite line – do you have one of Vespa?
My personal favorite Vespa moment is when the cinnamon buns, the hair gets hit and she grabs the gun and goes to town – it’s not a line, but it’s definitely my favorite Vespa moment!
DZ: Well, let me tell you Jason, I created that moment! So I need to get some credit here because obviously it’s all Mel – except for that moment!
DZ: So basically, and he tells this which is great and I love that he gives me credit for it, that moment wasn’t in the script. She’s like ‘I don’t like guns’ and she runs to safety and I was like, ‘Can’t I do something here?’ And he’s like, ‘You’re the princess!’ And I said something like, ‘We made such a big deal about my hair and she is the princess and she doesn’t like guns, except…what if someone almost hits my hair and I freak out and all of a sudden turn into Rambo?’ And he was like, ‘That’s a good idea – that’s funny!’ And back in those days again there was no I don’t know if you would call it CGI or special effects – the special effect was a wire that ran up my dress, behind my neck and into my hair and that was a little squib that triggered on action. The whole thing was manual, but obviously it worked and I loved that turn for her too. And I just learned recently that the new Tesla car, Elon Musk’s car, has ludicrous speed in it! Did you know that?
DZ: I was in one the other day and I said, ‘Hey, did you know that there’s ludicrous speed in this?’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah – it goes from zero to eighty in two seconds.’ And I’m like, ‘Well hello – it’s from Spaceballs!’
I loved the story twists and turns in famed TV icon Donald P. Bellisario’s Last Rites – what attracted you to that project?
DZ: I had just finished something and they said we have this big MGM movie and you leave tomorrow to New York City and it’s with Tom Berenger. I had just done a little indie and it felt like something big and dramatic to do. Again, as a young actor I just loved the drama and intensity. So a chance to be a month in New York doing this thing about religion and the church and being this deceptive woman – I was twenty something and was like let’s go do it. Plus David Watkin was a huge Oscar winning DP and he lit it, so that’s another thing and we shot in New York and Mexico in beautiful towns. And I was at CAA and they really encouraged it and I think they probably packaged it.
The Fly II – what was it like working with both the great Eric Stoltz, who famously wanted to be called Martin Brundle on set and the slew of practical make-up via helmer Chris Walas?
DZ: Eric and I were friends and we knew each other from acting class – we were both in Peggy Feury’s the Loft Studio. So I had already known him and I don’t think I called him Martin – (jokingly) I think I probably chose not to talk to him! (Laughs) But again, when you’re young and you’re trying out different techniques every actor has their own way to help them get into it because one of the hardest things about acting in films is maintaining that concentration. Especially when he had hours of that work and you have over a hundred crew members and the huge sets and the make-up and Chris is coming up and adjusting the slime right before your close-up and you’ve been there for twelve hours and it’s two in the morning and I have to fall in love with this guy and he’s turning into a thing – you’re concentration and focus is really important. So if that’s what he or any actor needs great, more power to you. I would feel foolish someone calling me my character name on set, so I’ve never done that. I have my other ways to do it and stay focused. But it’s funny because that kind of major special effects make-up really kills momentum in a scene (laughs) – it really slows everything down. And yet it also evokes imagination so greatly that it’s another kind of momentum. It just slows everything down and sucks you into that reality – you have to believe it. That was new for me. But to answer your question Eric’s great – he was great in class and he was great in Mask and he’s so dedicated. But he also had a sense of humor. I think in one take we were doing something maybe in the love scene and he (laughs) shows up with shackles or something – something totally to break the mood and to make us laugh and throw me off I’m sure. No matter what the movie is I always appreciate a little bit of levity – you have to I think otherwise you could just go crazy. Also, the film was produced by Mel Brooks and so he came on set and I had just done Spaceballs with him the year before. So he came up to Vancouver to visit and it was really nice to have him around.
You got to re-team with Matthew Modine for the medical drama Gross Anatomy – what was it like working with him again on that film vs. years previous in Vision Quest?
DZ: I loved working with Matthew and it’s funny I was just on USC campus where we shot Gross Anatomy. But what I loved about Gross Anatomy in that Matthew and I got to be together, there’s just this classic back and forth story. The director I remember he wanted just a little bit of an homage back to the old romances. But it was at a medical school, which isn’t the most romantic setting (laughs) for falling in love while you’re dissecting and your hands smell like formaldehyde probably. But it was great to work with him again – it was great the first time too. Back in those days you spent a lot more time on movies, so I got to know his wife and we would have hours together on-set.
On a personal note I’ve been so impressed with your stance and outspoken diligence on various Environmental issues – what drives you in such noble causes?
DZ: I grew up in an activist family. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s in Berkley, California where it was literally the birth of so much activism there, so it’s in my DNA. If someone calls out for help for something, an injustice or the environment, you just answer the call. This Thanksgiving my father reminded me that my first protest was when I was two. I couldn’t speak, but I was at the first free speech movement! So while my dad was occupying campus, I was in a stroller being rolled around by my mother. And I went on peace marches against the Vietnam War and I helped build People’s Park. I had been active all through college and the 80’s and then the 90’s and when there was something in Hollywood that asked for a bunch of people in the entertainment industry to come together and be a sound piece for the problems in the environment I was first in line. The thing that’s tricky is it’s easy to malign actors or anybody famous for that matter for speaking out on something because people will blame you for using the fact that you’re a public figure and you can’t exploit that for a cause. But of course, you can. Just because you’re an actor doesn’t mean you’re not a citizen of this country, doesn’t mean you’re not a human and these days all of us are living with the consequences of not doing something. To me it’s really important and I look to these people that never let it go. They never stopped fighting – they never stopped teaching.
Finally, what’s next for you?
DZ: I do have a movie coming out which I think they’re gonna release in possibly January or February. It’s something I did earlier this year called Heartbeats. It’s Duane Adler and he did the dancing movies like Save The Last Dance and the Step Up movies and we did it in India. It’s the story of an American family that goes to an Indian wedding, which lasts four days – they’re quite the celebrations over there. So the setting of India, an American family and the daughter is a hip-hop dancer and I’m the mother who tells her you don’t need to dance – you should be a lawyer. And she goes to India and there’s a lot of dance over there so they mix Bollywood with American hip-hop, so it’s a very fun and colorful dance movie. And I’m going to the Santa Fe Film Festival with Russell for Search Engines, which I’m excited about.
Sounds great – and with your previous co-star Matthew Modine doing Stranger Things I’d love to see you doing similar cool niche series stuff – head’s up to The Duffer Brothers!
DZ: Yeah – I watched Stranger Things and he was great in that! And I would love to do interesting meaty stuff like that absolutely – always.
SEARCH ENGINES IS AVAILABLE NOW ON VOD/DIGTAL FROM INDICAN PICTURES AND WILL BE PLAYING AT THE SANTE FE FILM FESTIVAL ON SATURDAY, DEC. 10 AT 8PM – CLICK HERE FOR DETAILS!