Lesleh Donaldson needs no introduction to die-hard horror film aficionados, but her humble beginnings were anything but horrific. Studying acting beginning at the age of ten at the Toronto School of Drama, she appeared in “For the Record: Homecoming” and “Ambush at Iroquois Point” for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Documentary films such as “Teenage Sex and Going Steady”, “Birthright”, and “On the Level” followed, as well as an acclaimed stint as the titular heroine in “The Diary of Anne Frank” at the Manitoba Theatre Centre.
Following her feature film debut as Michael Douglas’ daughter in the Canadian drama RUNNING, Lesleh performed in four consecutive low-budget Canadian horror films starting in the late 1970’s and into the early 1980’s that have fans the world over. She began with FUNERAL HOME, an atmospheric tale of strange goings-on in rural Canada that featured an eccentric performance by Kay Hawtry.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME featured Lesleh as a student who is dispatched early-on in this revenge thriller starring “Little House on the Prairie’s” Melissa Sue Anderson and released by Columbia Pictures. DEADLY EYES followed, a strange yarn about giant rats invadingToronto. Her last foray into horror was in this scribe’s personal favorite, CURTAINS, the Jensen Farley flick about six actresses all hoping to audition for a film director who is casting his new film, AUDRA, and needs to find the perfect woman to portray her in all her beautiful madness.
Although she does not consider herself to be a strictly horror-based actress, Lesleh possesses an affinity for the horror films of the 1960’s which helped shape her direction in the acting world. Coming on the heels of Canadian genre favorites, Lesleh received critical acclaim in several television productions and has done considerable stage work in her native Canada. Having left Canada in the late 1990’s, Lesleh now lives in New York City with her husband and two children and is looking to act again. It would be wonderful to see Lesleh in a stage production as New York is the best place to showcase one’s thespian talents.
House of Horrors spent some time with Lesleh to discuss her work and love of movies.
HOH: Tell me a little bit about your background and your experiences growing up as a movie-lover in Canada.
Lesleh Donaldson: I loved watching the Hammer horror films when I was a kid. My Aunt Sheila loved them and she took me to see those when I was about seven or eight; I would sneak off with her! I was raised by my mother and my aunt. I was also very close to my grandmother. My mother was a schoolteacher, and I was an only child. When I was about nine I started taking modeling classes and getting booked for modeling gigs and then I went on to do commercials and television and that led to the film and the theater. I had a pretty normal childhood.
HOH: Were you an avid filmgoer when you were young?
Lesleh Donaldson: Yes, most definitely. My mother grew up watching all of these wonderful film musicals. She loved the Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney films about Andy Hardy, etc. So I pretty much grew up watching that stuff when I was young. When I was about eight I went to see OLIVER! and I just fell completely in love with it.
I must’ve seen it about 10 times in the movie theater. And even though I went to the movies a lot, I didn’t have any real plans of wanting to become an actress. I never thought to myself, Oh, I can really do that. I just loved how you could get lost in a movie theater. Some of the movies made you think, some of them were really entertaining and I just loved it. I’d love the idea of just going to the theater and watching a movie and getting lost for two hours. It was a lot of fun and was a big part of my life.
HOH: What are the earliest memories you have of going to the movies? Did you ever go to drive-ins?
Lesleh Donaldson: I don’t recall going to drive-ins, I just remember the theaters. I was raised in Toronto. I would go to the movies very frequently, and the theaters were huge. Today they’re these little Cineplex things. But, when I was a kid they had big theaters, like the Ziegfeld-style theaters. So, when you went to the movies, it was a big deal. But, I don’t recall going to the drive-ins much.
HOH: Do recall the very first movie you ever saw in a theater?
Lesleh Donaldson: I believe that it was THE SOUND OF MUSIC.
I have images in my mind of the movies that made the biggest impact on me, the films that affected me the most. I’m thinking of OLIVER! and LITTLE WOMEN. And I think I saw MARY POPPINS as well. I think kids probably see these movies today too, but they see them on home video, certainly not in the big movie theaters that I grew up going to. For me personally, it was the horror films that really started to pique my interest.
HOH: Do you recall the names of the movie theaters that you went to?
Lesleh Donaldson: Yes, they were the Odeon Carlton, the Danforth, and the Fairlawn. There was another one on Bloor Street that they tore down. It’s now a multiplex. Most of the theaters were named after the studios, you know, like the Paramount, etc. I remember another one was the Mount Pleasant Cinema.
HOH: What were your career ambitions as a teenager? Were you thinking about acting at this point?
Lesleh Donaldson: Well, yes I was because I was doing it, and I decided that that’s what I really wanted to do. I knew early on that I wanted acting to be my profession.
HOH: When you played Michael Douglas’s daughter in RUNNING, did that lead to FUNERAL HOME?
Lesleh Donaldson: Yes, RUNNING was my first feature film and that opened up the door to allow me to meet with other casting directors. We shot FUNERAL HOME right after I was done with the 9th grade. I was fifteen, and we shot in 1979 during my summer vacation. We shot that primarily in Markham right outside of Toronto.
HOH: Did you have a good rapport with the cast and crew?
Lesleh Donaldson: Yeah, in fact I became good friends with Kay Hawtrey (who played the woman in the film). We saw each other for a long time off and on after filming wrapped. It’s funny, because my kids watch “Max and Ruby”, a cartoon, and Kay actually does the voice of grandma on it!
HOH: Was FUNERAL HOME’s ending the original ending, or was the ending different in the script?
Lesleh Donaldson: Yes, the script was pretty much intact. Director William Fruet’s wife, Ida, wrote the script. It was all there from the beginning to the end, so we knew who the killer was from the get-go.
HOH: You’re featured in HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME. Is this the extent of what was filmed for the movie, or did you have more footage that was excised?
Lesleh Donaldson: No, what you see in the film is what I was involved with. It was a short scene and I knew that going in.
HOH: Do you keep in touch with anyone whom you have worked with?
Lesleh Donaldson: No, not really. It’s hard because I live in New York and so many people I worked with are in the Toronto and surrounding areas. I wish that I had kept in contact with some of them because they were really cool people.
HOH: I have spoken to a lot of actors and actresses and they say that that is something that is difficult to do. Everyone gets onto a film set and believes they are going to stay friends with these people for the rest of their lives, but the reality is that once shooting is over, you’re moving on to the next project.
Lesleh Donaldson: It’s true, it’s very true. But at the same time, what’s great about it is if I were to get a role in another film with someone I had already worked with before, we could just pick up where we left off, you know?
HOH: Can you tell me about your experiences on DEADLY EYES?
Lesleh Donaldson: Oh, God. (laughs) I was told about the role of my agent. I went in to audition, and I guess because I had done a few movies at that point they felt that I was right for the part and I got the role.
I knew Lisa Langois, Joe Kelly, and Kevin Fox, and so I guess that because we all knew each other, the agents kind of kept us all together. We shot at a house in a location in Canada, I really can’t remember the exact location. We shot the party scene there, and then the scene where we go to the movie theater, I think that was in Mount Pleasant.
I was on a high at the time because I was nominated for an award for FUNERAL HOME, so that was kind of neat. I was sort of on a little high from that. I also remember the dogs that were forced to wear those over-sized fake rat outfits! Poor little things.
HOH: When were DEADLY EYES filmed?
Lesleh Donaldson: 1982. Probably after CURTAINS. Or maybe CURTAINS was still filming! That seemed like that went on forever!
HOH: CURTAINS was distributed by Jensen Farley Pictures, Inc., a terrific film company that also distributed PRIVATE LESSON, THE BOOGENS, MADMAN, HOMEWORK, JOYSTICKS, and CHAINED HEAT.
CURTAINS has a reputation for being problematic on the production side. Were you always slated to play Christie Burns?
Lesleh Donaldson: Yes, I was playing her from the get-go. And I do skate, but I do not figure skate. I’ve always gotten these roles wherein I play a disabled athlete, and I am just not an athlete! I played a blind horse rider, I played an epileptic swimmer and a mentally handicapped puppeteer in other productions. But I never had these skills to begin with. For CURTAINS I learned how to skate, but I fell and hit my face on the ice, so they had to get a stunt double!
They actually tried to give me some backstory. Peter Simpson, the producer, went out to some college with me and I had a scene where I had an altercation with a teacher that I was having an affair with. Or he might have been a coach. I don’t remember. But, the script was changed a lot and as the film progresses you’re not really sure what’s going on, you know, it gets a little muddied.
HOH: CURTAINS has a truly creepy scene of a mysterious figure wearing a mask skating towards you in slow motion wielding a sickle.
Lesleh Donaldson: Yes, that scene was one of the most memorable in the film.
HOH: Did you become friends with any members of the cast?
Lesleh Donaldson: I was good friends with Annie Ditchburn (who played the dancer). I was doing skating, and she would come with me to the lessons and since she was a ballet dancer she would help me with the choreography. I also spent time with Sandee Currie and Michael Wincott. I didn’t know Linda Thorson or Samantha Eggar.
HOH: Wincott’s role is very small. Was his role larger originally?
Lesleh Donaldson: I think it was. In the film, he’s the director’s son, and they wanted to intimate that he was the killer. But, for whatever reason, his role was reduced.
HOH: Do you have any idea who designed that scary doll and that face mask?
Lesleh Donaldson: Wow, no, I don’t.
HOH: Lesleh, you’re killing me! I want those props! (laughs)
Lesleh Donaldson: I suppose if you could get a hold of Roy Forge Smith, the production designer, maybe he would know.
HOH: He worked on FUNERAL HOME, too.
Lesleh Donaldson: Yes, he did.
HOH: A different ending of CURTAINS is shown in stills depicting Lynne Griffin onstage with all the murdered women who vied for the role of Audra. Was this a scene that was actually filmed?
Lesleh Donaldson: Not with me. At least I don’t remember doing it. Perhaps I buried it deep down in my mind! (laughs) I cannot imagine it being traumatic for me, because I remember shooting the ending of HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, I remember that quite vividly.
HOH: Do you watch your films?
Lesleh Donaldson: I do now. I hated to at the time. Back then I always felt that I was too fat, or I hated my voice, you know. If I made a movie now I probably wouldn’t want to watch it! (laughs) When I watch my films now, I can actually get involved in the story. Back then I was so self-conscious that it was impossible to be objective.
HOH: How long have you lived in New York?
Lesleh Donaldson: Thirteen years. I came down here briefly in the late ’80s for a few months.
HOH: Do you still act?
Lesleh Donaldson: I have a commercial agent now and I am slowly going on auditions, but I have kids now and I don’t have the investment in it that I once had. We’ll see how it goes!