Long, long ago in an era of Hollywood that’s now far, far away, a young model and aspiring actress named P.J. Soles found herself at a joint casting session for two new movies from a pair of up-and-coming directors. “I didn’t even have an agent,” Soles tells Yahoo Entertainment now. “I had a modeling agent from New York, and she said that these two directors were seeing everybody in town. No scripts were handed out, and I didn’t know what the projects were. I opened the door, and there was George on the left and Brian on the right.”
“George” was George Lucas and “Brian” was Brian De Palma, and the two filmmakers and off-screen pals were seeking to fill out their cast lists for Star Wars and Carrie respectively… although Soles wouldn’t learn the titles of those movies until much later. “Brian looked at George and said, ‘I’ll put her on my list.’ And George said, ‘Okay,'” Soles says of her ultra-brief audition. “It was only later that I found out what the casting session was for!”
Soles didn’t just make De Palma’s casting list for Carrie: she also made the final cut of the 1976 horror classic, based on Stephen King’s blockbuster first novel about an emotionally abused telekinetic teenager (played by Sissy Spacek). Funnily enough, her character — baseball-hat wearing teen bully Norma Watson — doesn’t appear in the book, but De Palma expanded her screentime after being impressed by the way she played an early scene. “In the volleyball game, we miss a point because of Carrie and I whacked Sissy over the head with my baseball hat,” Soles explains. “It had pins in it and got stuck in her hair, so I yanked it out. It looked really vicious and Brian loved that.”
“I apologized to Sissy, but she said, ‘No, no — it’s going to look great. You’ll see,'” Soles continues. After reviewing the footage of that scene, De Palma made the impromptu decision to make Norma the accomplice of Carrie’s chief tormenter, Chris (Nancy Allen). “I was only going to be there a week, but after that Brian called my agent and put me on for the rest of the shoot! He told me, ‘Okay, you’re now Chris’s best friend and you do her bidding.’ So everything after that was improvisation on my part! Brian always stuck me in where he could.”
And just like that, Soles’s career was off and running. Two years after Carrie, she cemented her Scream Queen status with a memorable role in John Carpenter’s pioneering 1978 slasher movie, Halloween. Soles played Lynda — the best friend of Jamie Lee Curtis’s iconic final girl, Laurie Strode — who meets her untimely end courtesy of a noose fashioned from telephone cord by unstoppable killer Michael Myers.
Before she dies, though, Lynda enjoys some bedroom antics with her boyfriend, Bob (John Michael Graham). That enshrines Soles in horror history as one of the first slasher movie victims who is killed after having sex — something that quickly became ubiquitous in the genre. It’s an honor that Soles is dubious about accepting.
“I’d rather be known as the girl who says ‘Totally,’ all the time,” she says now. “It’s a shame because Bob and I were having such a good time, and were really just good kids. We were just goofing around! We didn’t deserve that.”
Soles took a break from horror movies after Halloween, going on to appear in diverse hits like Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Breaking Away, Private Benjamin and the Bill Murray favorite, Stripes. To this day, she’s grateful that she landed on De Palma’s list instead of George Lucas’s at that fateful Carrie/Star Wars joint casting session. “I don’t think I would have been a good Princess Leia,” Soles says with a laugh. “Everybody got their parts that are meant to be.”
The opening shower scene of Carrie is as horrific as anything else in the movie. What do you remember about shooting that sequence?
I was the only girl with a towel on, because cause that was my first movie. I knew my parents would be watching, so I was like, “I’m not the dropping the towel.” So much for later on in my career! [Laughs]
Was Norma’s signature red hat your idea?
We had three auditions — that first casting session, and then two more at Brian’s apartment. I always wore my red hat, but when I got the part and showed up on set I didn’t have it. Brian said, “Where’s your red hat?” It was in my car, and he told me to go get it. So it was his idea, but it worked out great. And then I decided that Norma would be the tomboy, who is always one step behind Chris.
We’ve talked to Sissy Spacek, William Katt and John Travolta about Carrie‘s immortal bloody prom. What was your experience shooting that sequence?
Oh, that was the fun part! It was like a little campfire: We had dressing rooms set up inside the studio, and we would report to the set everyday. It was at least a week or two of shooting that, and Brian never knew who was going to be in the background or whatever so we were all asked to be [there]. It was really fun when we weren’t shooting, because we were goofing around and having a really good time. We were all young, we were happy and we were getting paid $600 a week. We were bonding like high school kids even though we were all in our 20s.
Sissy at first was like, “Gosh, I want to hang out with you guys. You are so much fun, but I need to feel alienated from you.” By the time the prom sequence came around, she said: “I can’t stand it, you guys are having too much fun.” She was just a doll, and we thought she was amazing. In fact, the first time the bucket drops blood on her, that was a three-day shoot. They had a trailer in the back of the studio and she slept with the blood so it would match. She didn’t want to take off the dress and she didn’t want to take a shower until the end. I thought “Wow, that’s dedication because that stuff is sticky!” I don’t know how much sleep she got.
I understand you busted your eardrum during the making of that scene, too.
Yes, because Brian had his interesting ideas for everybody’s death. I know Betty Buckley [who played kindly gym teacher, Miss Collins] was terrified! I think they had previously dated, so she was worried. She said: “He has a warped mind. He’s going to do something mean, and I hope it doesn’t really hurt me.” I was like, “Betty, this is a movie.” For me, he thought it’d be fun to have the firehose batting my head around. The fire chief said, “Well, it’s really dangerous at full force,” and Brian said, “So you could just make it a little less [forceful].”[The fire chief] said “I really can’t do it,” but the stunt coordinator said, “I’ll do it.” They didn’t realize what it would be like. It was supposed to look like “Whack, whack, whack,” and on the third “whack” it just went full force into my ear and broke my eardrum. I slid down the bannister, and I think I blacked out and the grips carried me to my dressing room. I did go to the ER and they said, ‘Yeah, you broke your eardrum.” I got workman’s comp because that was my last day of shooting. I guess Betty was right, because they kept it in! You can see me wince and that’s real pain. Brian’s like, “Yes!” [Laughs]
Compared to that, how hard was it to die by phone cord in Halloween? Which did you prefer: death by water or death by phone cord?
Well, I definitely wouldn’t want to break my eardrum again! It was really painful, although now I hear in it better than ever. Those drops are good. [Laughs] Halloween was a totally different movie. John Carpenter was very relaxed, very sweet and very interested in what you had to contribute. Brian had everything storyboarded out, aside from the moments I improvised. For that scene, it was Nick Castle who was playing Michael Myers at the time and he was not really hired to be Michael Myers. He was John’s buddy, and said, “Hey, I’ll help you out when I can.” So John said, “Okay, put this [mask] on and go strangle P.J.!”
He was tickling my neck with the phone cord for the first take. We did three takes, and on a low budget you can’t tell what you’re getting. You have to wait that night [for the dailies], so hopefully the lighting is good and there’s not a shadow or somebody crossing the screen. For the first two takes, at least, I’m not very good for dying. I kept telling Nick, “You’re going to have to pull a little tighter.” He was like, “I don’t want to hurt you,” and I said, “You’re not going to hurt me. I’m supposed to die and you’re tickling my neck!” So he did it a little harder. I did have to act a lot of that.
I knew it was my last scene, so as I’m falling out of frame, I just kept grunting. John had to say “Cut,” because I wouldn’t stop! I didn’t want it to end. That was three weeks of pure joy. Jamie was 19, and Nancy Loomis was the same age I was. We all looked so young back then. Linda was a great character to play because I was a straight-A student and I certainly didn’t smoke or have any boyfriends. So it was enjoyable to to play her. Jamie was always telling me that I had the better part and she wanted to switch parts. I told her, “No I want to plays this part! She’s more fun — you’re boring.” [Laughs]
In the last shot we see of you, you have this great expression on your face — your eyes are kind of crossed. Did you know what your expression was going to be there?
I didn’t look in the mirror! When you’re playing dead, you just have to be very still and I was just super-conscious of it. I didn’t want any facial twitches; I didn’t want to blink. Today, they can see everything that they’re filming, but back then they had to cross their fingers and hope because there weren’t going to be any reshoots on that budget. It’s all about commitment in the moment, and the commitment was: Be still. I thought, “Just keep your eyes open, because you want to be recognizable still.” The hardest part was being in the closet and my butt was up against the end and my legs were up in the air, you know? I couldn’t do that today!
You made a quick cameo in the 2018 Halloween. Was it fun to come back?
I do these horror conventions, and fans are always saying, “Why can’t you be in a sequel? You don’t have to play Lynda, you could play somebody else.” I think it was Ryan Turek [who produced the 2018 revival] who came up with the idea of having me do the voiceover of that high school teacher. I said that I’d be happy to as long as I could throw a “totally” in there, and they loved that! I did it in a studio on Skype with the director, David Gordon Green. I was very excited to be part of it. I know the fans love these little Easter eggs, and there’s an Easter egg in the new one!
— Video produced by Kat Vasquez and edited by Luis Saenz
Carrie and Halloween are both streaming on Sling TV