The Canadian-American actress chats about reuniting with Tim Burton on Frankenweenie and reflects on how the film industry has changed over the last 20 years.
Known equally well for her voice work on films such as Where The Wild Things Are and The Nightmare Before Christmas, and live action appearances in Home Alone, Martin Scorsese's After Hours and several Christopher Guest films, Catherine O'Hara has been part of the Hollywood furniture for the best part of three decades. Now she's back working with Tim Burton, whom she first collaborated with on 1988's Beetle Juice, voicing three characters in his latest stop-motion animation, Frankenweenie. LWLies met with O'Hara recently to reflect on her career so far.
LWLies: Why did you decide to work with Tim again?
O'Hara: Well, he called [laughs]. Yeah, his agent called and said he wanted me to come in a voice three characters for the full-length animated version of Frankenweenie. I honestly thought it was maybe an audition, I thought maybe I'd try three and maybe one of them would work out. I went in for five or six sessions before I realised I would be doing all three.
You first worked together on Beetle Juice. Has Tim changed as a director since then?
Well, Beetle Juice came very early in Tim's career of course. He'd done Pee-wee's Big Adventure but it hadn't been released yet and our schedule and our release date was really dependant on the results of that movie. So he was not a known director at the time and he was really fun to work with. He was just somebody really cool. He does it so naturally, and he doesn't talk it, he just does it. He's open to ideas and he makes it so fun and creative. I'm sure he's changed a lot but in a lot of ways he's the same old Tim. He's still the same sweet, innocent guy.
How does working with Tim differ from other directors?
Well sometimes it's good to be told exactly who your character is and how you should play it, but when you're included and treated like a collaborator then it's great. That's pretty much the way Tim does things. But it's also kind of fun when someone assumes you're going to pull off what you need to pull off, that maybe knowing the whole picture doesn't play into your role. Then you can go the other way where someone might tell you about the character from the outside, how they see your character through the audience's eyes, and that doesn't help me becaue I don't want to think about the impression I'm making, I only want to think about what my character's thinking in that scene.
How did you get into acting?
My first real job was Second City Theatre. I lucked into it because my brother was dating Gilda Radnor, who was in the first cast of Saturday Night Live, and just this lovely, funny woman. I was lucky enough to have her in my home and she said she was going to join this show called Second City that started in Chicago and moved to Toronto. I saw her in it and I knew that's what I wanted to do. I auditioned and got in.
Did you find it came naturally to you?
Yeah. Improvisation is just so fulfulling as well and I really took to that. I started out working with people who were a lot better than me and that gave me something to strive towards.
How has the industry changed over the years from your point of view?
It's really changed a lot. I sound naive, and I was because I really lucked into it, but I really came in off the street. I'd do auditions where you'd be asked to play five characters. You'd come on stage and there'd be another person sat on stage and you're told they're an information booth and you've got to find out something about anything in the world. So you play a character, leave, come back in as a different character and try to get information. That was your audition, you'd either pass and get or go home. Now they have years of classes to get to the level to get to the level where you can even begin to think about auditioning. I would not have made it through that. It really was a lot simpler back then. So many people jumpstart their careers now on YouTube and there's less innocence – which is good in some way, but I think they're missing something too.
What's being missed?
Just that everything is now a stepping stone. It must be harder to enjoy the moment. But that is naive on my part because a lot of the people I worked with in the '70s knew where they wanted to go and I just didn't.
How do you look back at the early days?
I feel like such an old lady saying this, but I have no concept of what it must be like for someone going into improvosational theatre right now. I never went to the theatre thinking 'I wonder who'll be in the crowd tonight who might hire me' because that wasn't so much a possibility, whereas now it is. I look back at when I started out with great fondness because I feel like it's important to be able to grow into a profession. The internet is great though – I don't mean to negate that in any way. So much has changed with the money side of things now as well. The whole idea of negotiating is now based around tiers of favourite nations – which is supposed to mean everyone is earning the same – and there's no sense of 'Gee we'd love to work with you and wish we had the money'. It's a lot more corporate now. There's so few real artists out there who are not only artists but have somebody putting up the cash for them to be able to see their vision through to the end, like in the case of Tim with this movie.
My husband's a production designer and has been for a long time and he talks about how you used to get hired and then you'd start working and now he – and especially younger guys who are starting out – they go in and they have like a four-hour meeting where they have to give every detail about the production design. You might do five meetings and all the while they're speaking to other production designers. Then, if you get the job you start making the models and you have to bring them to the PR department and do a dog and pony show so that they can market it. It's a very different way of doing things. I'm not saying it's better or worse, just very different. The biggest shame is that things, especially TV shows, aren't given the time to grow. Shows get axed after a season or a few episodes because it's all about the most profitable, marketable thing and there's not room for error so less chances are taken.
Do you think you could make a movie like Home Alone today?
There are waves of things that are popular, but I think anything that you think is gone comes back. Somebody will have the nerve to do it. A lot of it today is to do with effects and marketing, that's the nature of the beast now. It's all about opening weekend, and if you don't hit your target you're dead, that's the way it's seen in Hollywood. A $50 million movie and have a $100 million marketing budget. That seems mad, doesn't it? But I'm generalising. Certainly the middle budget movie has disappeared, but it seems like the middle-class has disappeared altogether. You're either poor or you're really wealthy, there's no middle-class left in society. So it's the same in film because film reflects life. You're either doing indie and getting paid nothing and making it on the run, and then there's a $300 million movie that could be spectacular or a spectacular waste of money. John Hughes was pretty special. His movies don't exist anymore and I don't think we've ever managed to fill the gap he left. But at least we have R rated comedies now. I think that's great because comedy is offensive sometimes and it's great that the R rated comedy has been given his day.
What do you love about movies?
I guess just that they take you somewhere, they take you for a ride and make you think a different way. They can give you a great laugh or a great cry and they provide an experience that you wouldn't have had otherwise.