Note: This interview was done on May 19, 2008.
Like most of her contemporaries, Eileen Dietz began her path to becoming an actress by attending acting schools and performing wherever she could. She landed roles in some early drive-in movie fare prior to being cast in William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST. She followed this up with ROAD MOVIE, guest spots on “Korg: 70,000 B.C.”, “Planet of the Apes” and “Barnaby Jones” and the made-for-TV movie HELTER SKELTER about the Manson murders. She also appeared in THE CLONUS HORROR, the film that critics blamed Michael Bay on ripping off when he made THE ISLAND.
Dietz has also accumulated a good number of stage credits, including LYSISTRATA, STEAMBATH, MADRE, THE BALCONY, and AFTER THE FALL.
House of Horrors spoke with her recently regarding her most famous film, THE EXORCIST, as it approaches its 35th anniversary.
Exclusive Interview with Eileen Dietz
HOH: What were your first impressions of the cinema when you were growing up?
Eileen Dietz: I went to see a lot of foreign films when I was a kid. My parents took me to see Ingmar Bergman’s WILD STRAWBERRIES, SUMMER WITH MONIKA, you name it. Just amazing. And I always liked horror films. I saw things like Roman Polanski’s THE L-SHAPED ROOM and PSYCHO. There’s also a Susan Strasberg movie that nobody seems to know anything about and it’s called THE SCREAM OF FEAR. And it totally affected my life. I have to go see if I can find it.
HOH: Oh, my God? that’s one of those movies that came out on VHS in the ’80s and it’s hard to find now.
Eileen Dietz: Yeah, I haven’t seen it in many years.
HOH: I remember RCA/Columbia put that one out. I never saw it, but I’m familiar with the title. You should look it up on Half.com or eBay. Sometimes they have DVD-R’s of the films that are not yet on DVD but were on VHS.
Eileen Dietz: It’s one of those really weird ones that I always remember. And of course, I watched a lot on TV. I saw all the Universal horror films like FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA. But for as long as I can remember I always loved horror films. (Mock laughter) And I don’t know why.
HOH: I became interested in horror films in 1981 when I saw BURNT OFFERINGS on NBC and later HALLOWEEN.
Eileen Dietz: HALLOWEEN is a very scary film. And it still holds up today, it’s very effective.
HOH: For me, it’s the PSYCHO of its generation. Rob Zombie’s version? I loved that one, too. A very different take on it, but I enjoyed it immensely.
Eileen Dietz: I heard a dirty rumor that they are looking to remake THE EXORCIST! I mean, come on. That’s sacred ground.
HOH: It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. I mean, they’re remaking just about everything now. PSYCHO has been done, THE HAUNTING, THE OMEN?
Eileen Dietz: Have you seen the new version of THE OMEN?
HOH: No. Have you?
Eileen Dietz: Yes. It doesn’t work. Number one, you already know the whole story. Mia Farrow was really good at it. She played Mrs. Baylock, the character originated by Billie Whitelaw in the Richard Donner film. The original was so scary. But, the remake isn’t scary at all, and the little kid doesn’t do much but grin!
HOH: How did you come to be an actress?
Eileen Dietz: I know that this is a weird story. A traumatic event occurred in my life when I was five, and I swear one day I woke up when I was eight-years-old, and I just didn’t remember the past three years of my life.
HOH: Are you serious?
Eileen Dietz: Yeah. When I was eight, I decided that I wanted to become an actress. I was born in Manhattan, and then my parents moved me out to Long Island. When I was a teenager, they took me to go to New York City to take classes at an acting school. And then I bounced around to different schools and did summer stock, and I also went to the same school that Adrienne Barbeau went to. I really set out to go and conquer New York, you know what I mean?
When I was young, I was very androgynous, you know, very much a tomboy. I had people tell me that I was funny-looking and wouldn’t make it as an actress. The popular actresses at the time were very buxom and had big boobs and I was constantly told that I wasn’t good enough and wouldn’t make it. That really made me a lot stronger and the desire to show everyone that I could do it was what drove me.
In fact, my father was in the photography business. He decided that the way that he was going to get me to not want to be an actress was by sending me off to the Eileen Ford modeling agency in New York. When I went in there I was surrounded by beautiful girls who were five-foot-nine, and thought, “What’s that got to do with me??” So, that just made me more determined.
HOH: THE EXORCIST is unquestionably your best-known film. How did you get the role of the white-faced demon?
Eileen Dietz: I was doing a play by Joyce Carol Oates called ONTOLOGICAL PROOF OF MY EXISTENCE, which means that there is no proof to your existence. But it was a wonderful little play about a runaway who comes to New York looking for love, meets a pimp who locks her in a basement, and falls in love with the pimp, even though he brings her people to love. She basically does anything that he wants her to. It’s very Joyce Carol Oates.
HOH: Yes, she wrote one of my favorite short stories called “Where Have You Been, Where Are You Going?” which was loosely based upon the killer Charles Schmid, aka the Pied Piper of Tucson. It provided the basis for Joyce Chopra’s SMOOTH TALK with Laura Dern.
Eileen Dietz: So, an agent saw me in the play, signed me, and sent me a casting notice saying that they were looking for somebody about the same size as Linda Blair to play a principal part in this movie. There is a misconception out there that I was hired to be her stunt double. I never did extra work in my life, so I got the part of playing the demon in the film. And then my sister wrote a book called “Fifty Cents for Your Soul” which, in the first five chapters, she describes how I got the part.
HOH: What was your reaction to the hype surrounding the release of the film?
Eileen Dietz: (thinks for a moment) Wow. That’s a good question.
HOH: Were you shocked by the reactions that people had to the film? Surprised by them?
Eileen Dietz: Oh, I was very surprised by it. I mean, we had seen the movie, and it seemed fine. But, all of the height, it was really quite surprising. And I was young then. I must admit that I was a little put off that people were getting sick, having seizures, and having all these really violent reactions to the film. There’s a great line in a new movie I did called SIN-JIN SMYTH. It stars Jonathan Davis (from Korn) as the Devil, and he has a great line in it where he says, “You know, I’m really God’s helper. Because I keep all the bad people away from heaven.”
HOH: I had read that people were getting sick during the scenes where Linda was having all of the hospital tests done on her and so forth. Did you find that to be what upset people the most?
Eileen Dietz: I actually found people to react so violently to both the hospital scenes and the demonic scenes. I think the reason why any film succeeds as well as any film does is the audience’s ability to identify with the characters in the film. In this case, a lot of people probably identified with and felt a connection to Ellen Burstyn’s character because they themselves are parents and something terrible is happening to her child.
I think the reason why the film succeeds so well is that Billy Friedkin really made the audience believe that this is possible, that this is something that really could happen. He made it in a very realistic way. So many horror films which are made today are so out there, you know, they are so far out and over-the-top that you just can’t take them seriously.
But, in this particular case, the overall end result was a movie that really made the whole notion of being possessed by the devil one that was completely plausible. I’m writing a book for the 35th anniversary of the release of THE EXORCIST. I have one chapter on how the novel (by William Peter Blatty) affected people. And, the youngest age that I’ve heard about were five-year-old kids who were really freaked out. They honestly thought that demons were under their bed.
HOH: Have you watched THE EXORCIST with an audience?
Eileen Dietz: Only at my house. On a 115″ screen.
HOH: Oh, wow. How would you describe that experience?
Eileen Dietz: (smiling devilishly) Fun!