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Sissy Spacek: 'My Extraordinary Ordinary Life'

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Sissy Spacek’s filmography is long and varied — and includes a Best Actress Academy Award and more great performances than you can count on both your hands — but to many moviegoers she’ll always be remembered as the blood-streaked prom queen in Brian De Palma’s Carrie. In the 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about a bullied high school girl with psychokinetic powers, Spacek goes from meek whipping post to fearsome avenger. One of her more difficult scenes came right at the beginning of the film, when she’s being tormented in the locker-room showers by her classmates. In this excerpt from her upcoming memoir, My Extraordinary Ordinary Life, which will hit bookstores on May 1, the actress recalls how she managed to get through that difficult scene in the movie that helped launch her extraordinary career.

Brian de Palma loved working with [my husband] Jack, and he hired him as art director for his adaptation of a Stephen King novel called Carrie. By now Brian was one of the hottest directors in Hollywood, and all the young actors in town wanted to be in the picture. I read for all of the female parts, but I wanted the title role of Carrie White, the bullied, alienated daughter of a religious fanatic who unleashes her telekinetic power on her high school class. Even though I was 25, I still looked like a kid, and I thought I’d be right for the part. But Brian and the studio had already decided on another actress to play Carrie. I didn’t know that Brian had argued with the studio to stop them from canceling my screen test.

I was unaware of what was going on behind the scenes. I wanted this part so badly, I could taste it. I was convinced that Brian only thought of me as Jack Fisk’s wife, the no-talent set decorator, and I was going to prove him wrong. I stayed up all night and reread the whole book. In the morning, I got ready for the test by not showering and smearing Vaseline in my hair. I rummaged through my trunks and found a pale blue sailor dress that my mother had someone make for me when I was in seventh grade. I looked like a total dork, and that was the point. When I got to the studio, the hair and makeup people started swarming around me, trying to fix me up for the screen test. I ran away from them, yelling, ”Noooooooooo!” I was already channeling Carrie. She reminded me of a timid girl I knew in school who dressed in hand-me-downs and had a reclusive, skittish personality. But there was a sweetness that I could see underneath her façade. It made you want to save her. That’s what I took in front of the camera that day.

After the film was processed, Brian, the producers, the casting director, and Jack got together at the studio to watch all the screen tests. I had ridden along with Jack, but was outside waiting in our car. I was feeling awkward, crouched on the floorboard, thinking, What am I doing here? Then Jack came running out to the parking lot. ”Ask for whatever you want!” he shouted. ”You’ve got the part!”

We filmed on location all over the LA area, from the desert suburb where Jack and his team found Carrie White’s house, to the track at Pacific Palisades High School, to the back lot at Culver City Studios. The cast and the crew were wonderful. Piper Laurie was over-the-top-great as Carrie’s mother. Then there were my classmates: Amy Irving, William Katt, P.J. Soles, Nancy Allen, and John Travolta. They were all young and beautiful, and I could see that they were having a great time together. But I was doing my thing, inhabiting the character of Carrie. I kept myself separate and lurked in dark corners of the soundstage, brooding, while everybody else had fun. I decorated my dressing room with religious tokens and played heavy classical music on the stereo. Jack had a book of Gustave Doré’s Bible illustrations that I pored over every day, studying the body language of people being stoned by their persecutors or tortured for their sins. I tried to start or end every major scene in one of those melodramatic positions. I was pretty serious back then. I was young and thought I had it all figured out.

The first days of shooting were the hardest for me, because Brian started with the sequences in the high school girls’ shower room. My scene called for Carrie to be standing naked under the shower, then panicking when she discovers she’s bleeding, which she doesn’t understand is her first period. I was wracking my brain, trying to come up with an experience in my life that I could draw on to make the scene feel real. I went to my director and said, ”Brian, tell me about the scene.”

He thought for a moment, then said, ”It’s like getting hit by a Mack truck.”

”Got it,” I said. ”Like getting hit by a Mack truck…”

I wandered back to my dressing room, trying to imagine what it’s like to get hit by a truck. Jack was there, and I told him my dilemma.

I took off my robe and stepped under the spray. Jack was sitting at my feet, ready to pour fake blood in my hand when the time came. The water was warm, and I thought how Carrie would have enjoyed a hot shower.

”Well, I got run over by a car once,” he said.

”You did?”

Jack told me he was walking home from school in the winter, and it was snowy and icy outside. He found an abandoned sled along the side of the road, and decided to carry it with him…when he glimpsed a flash of light. He looked up and there was a set of headlights coming straight at him. He pulled the sled up just as the car hit him. The car rolled over him, pinning him to the ground. The sled was splintered, but it had probably saved him.

I listened carefully to his story. And that’s what I used when it was time for the shower scene.

Brian cleared the set of everyone who wasn’t needed. I took off my robe and stepped under the spray. Jack was sitting at my feet, ready to pour fake blood in my hand when the time came. The water was warm, and I thought how Carrie would have enjoyed a hot shower, because she probably didn’t get one at home. If you think of something, it will register on your face. Then I imagined, I’m walking home from school, and all the Christmas lights are twinkling on the road. They’re so beautiful, and I’m thinking how beautiful they all are….I am soaping my arms and torso and my thigh….And then I see a flash of light. The headlights are right on me. There is blood all over my hands. The car hits me with all its force….I start to scream. And scream. And then….I run.

All the beats in that scene perfectly matched the rhythms of Jack’s story. It worked perfectly. I was so relieved.

Then Brian said, ”Okay! Great, Sissy. Now let’s try that again.”

I wasn’t the only actor having trepidations about that opening sequence. The script called for all the high school girls to be partially nude as they romped around the locker room at the end of gym class — a fantasy scenario that only a man could dream up. Some of the girls were balking. That is, until we all watched the rushes from my shower scene.

I had it written in my contract that I would not appear fully nude on screen. But that was a trick of the editing room; the camera saw everything. Every time Brian shot another take of the shower scene, the clapper board was placed in front of me. And each time the board was pulled away, the camera was right where my contract said it couldn’t be. Now, I’m not a shy person — you can’t be in this business! — but by the time the rushes were over, I didn’t know if I should laugh or crawl under my chair. I decided to laugh.

”Thanks a lot, Brian!” I said, as sarcastically as I could.

After that, Brian later told me, the female cast members stopped complaining about their topless locker scene.

Excerpted from the book My Extraordinary Ordinary Life, by Sissy Spacek with Maryanna Vollers. Copyright © 2012 Sissy Spacek. Published by Hyperion

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