This time I’m bringing you a different kind of interview – the first one, in what will hopefully become a new cycle, devoted to cult movies. I’m starting with someone absolutely special – Catherine Mary Stewart. She’s one of my most favorite actresses ever and a person who definitely knows a lot about cult movies (she’s played in quite a few of them, including The Last Starfighter, Mischief and Weekend at Bernie’s). In this interview we talk about Night of the Comet by Thom Eberhardt (released in USA on 16 November 1984). The myriads of die-hard fans of the movie know its plot by heart. Just in case, however, here comes a little reminder of how that movie starts.
For the first time in 65 million years, the Earth is passing through the tail of a comet. After the night of the comet’s passage, two Valley girls, Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Sam (Kelli Maroney) wake up in a completely new world, realizing that in the meantime most of the people had turned to red dust, and those who had survived are dying or turning into dangerous zombies.
We talk about getting the role of Reggie Belmont, first day on set, working with Kelli Maroney, Robert Beltran and the director Thom Eberhardt, about unforgettable scenes, fighting a zombie, dancing, improvised lines and inspiring movie heroines – and, of course, that’s not all. These unusual times inspired me to add some questions to this interview, and thus Catherine Mary Stewart speaks also about living in the times of pandemics and her plans for the times when it’s over.
Łukasz Garbol: Do you remember how you got the role of Reggie Belmont, the girl next door turned heroine from Night of the Comet?
Catherine Mary Stewart: I remember reading with Heather Langenkamp. Heather and I were similar types. I know Kelli read with someone who was more her type. So, it was a surprise when they put Kelli and me together.
What were your first impressions when you were reading the script to that movie? What did you think of your character?
I loved that it was quirky with comedic elements and the character of Reg was a departure from the characters I’d been cast in before. I could relate to Reg. I grew up with two older brothers. I was never really a girlie girl. I loved that Reg was strong and independent.
And what about the first day on set? What are your most vivid memories when you go back to that time?
One of my most vivid memories is that on the way to set I had an accident in my car. Fortunately, it wasn’t that big a deal. I slid into the side of a hill avoiding another car on a slippery, wet, windy mountain road. No one was hurt and my car made it to the set although the alignment was out and needed to be repaired. Incredibly, someone from transportation took the car into a repair shop and it was fixed by the end of the day! It was so cool that they did that for me.
First days are always a bit tense. Everyone is feeling each other out. The first scenes we did were post comet after I rode the motorcycle through town back to the house. I’m looking for Sam. It was the perfect scene to shoot on the first day. In the script on the set we were feeling everything out and trying to figure out what is going on.
As you’ve just said, you and Kelli Maroney, your movie sister Samantha, auditioned separately for your roles. Do you remember when you two first met on the set? What did you think about her when you first saw her?
As I mentioned, I was surprised when we were cast together because we weren’t necessarily the same “type”, but I think they saw that we would work well together in this story. Reg and Sam are very different, as are most sisters, and we fit what they wanted the characters to be.
In the movie the characters Reggie and Sam are quite an explosive duo, with different attitudes to life and different temperament types, although at the same time they are sisters loving each other and ready for sacrifices if need be. How did your cooperation as actresses look?
I think we approach characters and even acting quite differently. But again, I think that it really worked for us. Reg and Sam are very different people, but there is that sister connection. Our personalities may conflict, but our sister relationship is our bond, as it would be in real life.
I know that you and Kelli Maroney have sometimes a chance to meet during conventions, special screenings and Q&A sessions for fans. What is the best memory you two share, something you like to go back to and talk about when you see each other?
Kelli and I have different memories of the shoot. It’s actually fascinating to hear her recollections. I learn a lot! I enjoyed the comradery on the set. Thom Eberhardt was a wonderful director. We were given lots of room to play and explore our characters.
What about Robert Beltran who played Hector, a truck driver turning a post-apocalyptic hero? How was it working with him?
He’s a doll. I found him very talented, attractive and sexy. That also worked for this story. He was so generous, subtle and brilliant. He allowed Night of the Comet to be the sisters story. He embellished the story and gave it a wonderful dimension.
And again, when you think about Robert Beltran, is there any memory from the set connected with him that stands out for you?
I loved watching him work. The scene where we are in the radio station was terrific for me. He wasn’t trying to prove anything, he just was. The quietness in his performance made the movie. He kept it real.
Do you have any contact with him nowadays?
I haven’t seen him for years! It would be great to cross paths again someday.
What kind of director was Thom Eberhardt? How would you describe his style of work, of cooperating with actors?
Thom was lovely. This was his baby. He fought hard to keep the integrity of the script. There was some pressure to make it a straight-out horror movie but keeping it a little campy and funny along with the intensity of the subject is what makes this movie unique.
Is it true that the scenes of Night of the Comet were played by actors (and filmed) in two ways: one was more serious, while the other more tongue in cheek style?
Some of the scenes were. The producers wanted to have it both ways in the can so they could decide which way they wanted to go after we wrapped. As I mentioned above, Thom Eberhardt convinced them that they should stick with the original more tongue in cheek concept. I’m glad they did.
Did anything funny or unexpected happen during the shooting? Do you remember any hilarious moments from the set?
We did struggle with the MAC-10s jamming so we had to improvise or else there would’ve been a lot of wasted film. As an example, the scene where we’re practicing on a car, the MAC-10 kept jamming. Sam’s line “See that’s the problem with these things. Daddy would’ve gotten us UZI’s”, was not in the script. I added, “The car didn’t know the difference…”.
Speaking of dialogues, I would say they are among the elements that make this movie so enjoyable to watch. Was it a matter of Thom Eberhardt’s great script, of the improvisation you’ve just mentioned, or maybe the combination of both?
Apparently Thom did quite a bit of teenage girl behavior and talk research. He did invite improvisation on the set though. There was a real feeling of freedom in that way.
If we talk about people crucial to making that movie, let me ask you about another important person – but this time someone important in your contact with fans. Tom Ryan is not only helping you run your social media, but also, as I could see visiting several web pages with texts devoted to Night of the Comet and your other movies, he is very active promoting your websites and interacting with your fans wherever possible. Could you say a few words about your cooperation? Is it true that everything began on the set of Mischief – another movie you starred in that is still very popular?
Tom Ryan has always been very enthusiastic and supportive to me. We did meet on the set of Mischief. He was a stand in and extra. He was also going to college in Athens, Ohio near where we shot the film, and interviewed me several times for the school newspaper. He contacted me again a few years ago through a mutual friend. I eventually asked him if he would help me with my Facebook page as an administrator. He has been invaluable to me in that way. He also assists me at conventions on occasion.
Reggie and Samantha managed to become an inspiration for other movie heroines, but also for many young people (not only women, but also men, as you often say). It was possible thanks to your awesome performances as actresses, but also thanks to the way these characters were written. What do you think makes Reggie Belmont so special, so appealing to the audience?
I think Reggie represents a strong, independent, unapologetic female. You don’t see many of those in movies except maybe in female superheroes. The difference is that Reg is accessible and relatable. Audiences appreciate that. Male and female. I think she inspires them.
Reggie, like you’ve said, as well as Night of the Comet as a whole, inspired (and even now keeps inspiring) a lot of people. What were your inspirational movies from that time, from the 80s?
I thought Aliens was awesome. Sigourney Weaver was incredible. I’m not a huge horror, sci-fi fan I guess, ironically, but this movie was extraordinary. At the other end of the spectrum is Airplane with Robert Hays. It is still considered one of the funniest movies ever made! I love all genres and all eras.
Belmont Sisters are tough women, action heroines, but at the same time they are not devoid of interesting personalities, intriguing backstory and of femininity (which are unfortunately elements of building the character that action movie heroines often lack in many productions). When you look for such movies and movie characters, which roles, which films do you find most convincing and inspiring?
I love the haunting quiet of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. I’m fascinated with end of the world movies. I find it fascinating how a writer approaches the idea. Another favorite is Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach from 1959. I’m interested in the exploration of the human condition especially in dire circumstances.
Going on with the topic of well-developed characters, let me ask you: when you think of your favourite movie characters ever, which ones come to your mind? And what makes them so memorable?
I’m a huge Maggie Smith fan. I’ve loved her since The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and I just can’t take my eyes off her in Downton Abbey. She is brilliant! One of my favorite movies ever is Sophie’s Choice. Talk about well developed characters. Meryl Streep is mind blowing in that movie and in most of her movies in terms of character.
I’d like to talk now about some of the iconic scenes from Night of the Comet. In the opening sequence Reggie is playing a video game. She is upset because she sees some “DMK” beat one of her high scores. In one of the scenes from the beginning of the second season of Stranger Things series Dustin, one of the main characters, finds himself in a similar situation when he discovers that his high score was topped by someone named “MADMAX”. I think that could be a little tribute to Night of the Comet, one of numerous easter eggs for fans of the ‘80s present in that show. Have you seen other similar references to Night of the Comet or to any other movie you played in?
Several of my movies from the ‘80s have been referenced in other shows. Weekend at Bernie’s has been referenced many, many times, from Friends to online political jokes. The Last Starfighter was acknowledged in the series Future Man. There was a Night of the Comet tip of the hat in the series The Walking Dead. One of the zombies was dressed and appeared exactly like the zombie that I fought in the alley. Joss Whedon has said that the character of Buffy in the movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer was inspired by Night of the Comet.
In many interviews you mentioned that you weren’t a big video games expert or fan. I’d like to ask about something connected with this topic. These days, more and more movie actors are cast to lend their voices to computer game characters. Have you ever had a chance to try this kind of acting work? Or, if not, would you like to try it?
I play a character called Moira in Red Dead Redemption II. It was fascinating performing in “motion capture”. I had never done anything like that before. It was wild!
When we meet your character, she’s working at a movie theatre. Imagine that you run your own cinema and can decide which movies are screened there – and you can choose from all the films in the history of the cinema. Which titles would you definitely include in your movie theatre repertoire? Which are the most unforgettable movies you’ve watched and you would like to share with others?
Apocalyptic genre: Melancholia, On the Beach
Dance and Musical genre: Turning Point, Fame, Jesus Christ Superstar
Classic genre: Sophie’s Choice, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Romeo and Juliet, To Sir, with Love
Silent Era: D.W. Griffith
Wow! That’s quite a diverse list! Let’s get back to Night of the Comet. When the comet finally arrives flying close to the Earth and most of the people celebrating and watching this spectacle are wiped out, Regina, who doesn’t know what’s going on yet, is attacked by a zombie, fights back and escapes on a motorcycle. I know that you did that fight scene on your own, you weren’t doubled by a stuntwoman. Was that sequence more of a fun or a challenge?
I loved the fight scene. I’m a trained dancer so I was prepared physically. Plus, the Zombie was a really good stunt guy (ŁG: Alex Brown) so I felt safe. It was a LOT of fun.
What about riding a motorcycle? Was that you or a stuntwoman?
I did have a stunt double for the motorcycle riding.
By the way, sometimes you have to play doing something that you aren’t really doing in front of the camera (like playing the video game in Night of the Comet scene already mentioned) or probably can’t even do in real life (like piloting a plane in a movie titled Sharpshooter). How do you prepare for such scenes? Do you know any tricks to make them look convincing on the screen?
To look convincing, you have to ask questions of those who know how to play, or fly, or whatever it is you are doing that you are not an expert at. The director, DP and editor make sure it looks realistic.
Going back to memorable scenes from the movie, I’d like to move on to the scene in which Reggie and Sam test their guns on a car standing near by. Some of the Night of the Comet fans have noticed that you don’t blink while shooting, which doesn’t happen so often in case of actors and actresses dealing with guns. Did you undergo any special firearms training before the shooting of the movie? How did this preparation look like?
We did target practice with the MAC-10s so that we were comfortable with them. To me it’s essential that if it’s supposed to be second nature that your character can fire a gun or smoke a cigarette, or whatever it is, you MUST look like you are 100% comfortable with it and committed to the action.
Another unforgettable part of the movie is the sequence of scenes in the shopping mall, including the one of you and Kelli Maroney dancing to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” song while trying on different clothes. Was that scene totally scripted and planned or were you allowed some spontaneity and improvisation?
We kind of made it up as we went along. It was a collaboration between Kelli, me and the director.
And how were those scenes filmed? Were you using an actual clothes shop during the shooting? And, if you were, didn’t you accidentaly destroy anything that wasn’t supposed to be destroyed?
We shot in an actual clothing store in a real mall, but everything that appeared in the movie was a prop. I can’t speak as to whether or not we wrecked anything. I didn’t have to clean up afterwards.
Speaking of clothes, is it true that, going shopping with a costume designer, you had a chance to pick the costumes you were wearing in the movie?
All the clothes I wore I picked out with the wardrobe person right from the store. It was great! I loved those clothes and got to keep what I wanted!
You say you could keep whichever costume you wanted to keep. Which one was your favourite one?
I think I kept pretty much everything from my wardrobe, aside from the stuff that got destroyed or stained during the shoot. I loved those little grey boots I wore. I wore those for years after the movie.
I’d like to ask you about one more thing in a way connected with the scenes we’re discussing. There was a short dance sequence in the fragment mentioned – of you and Kelli Maroney dancing around the mall. You‘re an accomplished dancer. In one of your Facebook Q&A sessions with fans you mentioned that you’d love to dance in Dancing with the Stars. Is there any particular dance style you would like to dance? Or any particular song to dance to?
I love all styles of dance. I suppose I would be most comfortable with “modern”, but I would love to learn ballroom dance and would enjoy the challenge of learning the different techniques.
In the last scenes of the movie we see your character who, we could say, changed from “Reggie” to “Regina”, becoming, at least probably in her opinion, the model mother of a post-apocalyptic family (a moment mocked by her sister Sam). Have you ever thought about her possible future? Have you tried to imagine what her later days and years could have looked like?
She is probably in for a rude awakening in terms of the responsibility of her new grown up role. Hector has his hands full with her too! It was fun to portray Regina as a kind of antithetical character to Reggie. I’m going to assume that Regina and Hector procreate at some point, but she has some growing up to do for sure. I love that the movie ended with the kind of fantastical fantasy of the perfect nuclear family, except of course for the rebellious Sam.
And what would Reggie be like now if you could play her in a sequel? What vision of her does your imagination bring?
It would be fun to see what a writer would come up with.
I don’t know if there are plans for the sequel, but I’ve recently found the information that Roxanne Benjamin is working on the script of the remake of Night of the Comet. Do you happen to know any details?
I think it’s been shelved, thankfully. It was to be a remake. I’m not a fan of remakes, and I didn’t get the feeling her script would have had any integrity to the original concept. That’s a problem to me.
If not a remake, maybe a sequel? What do you think of such a possibility?
If anything, I would vote for a sequel, but Thom Eberhardt has no interest in being involved so that would be the deal breaker for me. Only he could create a worthy sequel.
One more element that comes to my mind when I think of Night of the Comet is its really awesome soundtrack full of great songs. What are your personal favorites as far as music goes? Which singers / bands, which kinds of music or particular songs do you like most?
I’m a big 60’s and 70’s music person. I do like Cindy Lauper.
Night of the Comet is one of those movies that never get old, but instead keep gaining new fans from new generations of movie lovers. You often mention that fans tell you that Night of the Comet and The Last Starfighter are the movies the love to which they pass on to their children. Were there any movies that you wanted to share with your children, to pass on to them when they were growing up?
We are big Bugs Bunny fans from the old days. Some of those classic Mel Blanc characters are timeless and awesome.
And have your children seen Night of the Comet?
They have seen Night of the Comet. They were quite young when they saw it last, I think, so I don’t know if they have an opinion about it, or have much of a memory of it, really.
The recent events unexpectedly changed the shape of this interview making me add some questions I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. Empty streets in the places that used to be crowded, the atmosphere of loneliness, the lack of contact with many people we used to see very often – these are not only words that could describe the plot of Night of the Comet now. All these, although hopefully to soon be gone in some places, are elements of our everyday lives nowadays, our lives in the times of pandemic. You once said that you would like to direct a kind of apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic movie some day. Do you think that current situation, which in a way makes us think about the fragility of human life, may be an inspiration for movie makers?
Absolutely. There are so many elements of the human condition that remain dormant when we just carry on in our “normal” lives. This pandemic has awakened all sorts of life dimensions that are ripe to explore. I think this time will inspire all sorts of interesting creativity.
What is your way to survive these hard times? What do you do to find your inner strength and not to lose hope?
I am struggling with not being able to move around and socialize the way I’m used to. Not only on a day to day basis, but normally I travel quite a bit. I’m feeling a little trapped at the moment. I’m trying to stay creative and busy. It will pass at some point so we all just have to hang in there.
A lot of people share their dreams and plans for the times when everything goes back to normal. Is there anything you particularly miss now? Anything you plan doing when the pandemics is over or at least under control? Anyone you’re looking forward to seeing?
My priority is to see my kids up close and give them a huge hug and to see my dad in Canada.
And what are your acting (or directing) plans for the near future?
I have three projects I’m developing to direct at the moment. One of which I will also act in. Of course everything is on hold, but I’m keeping them moving forward.
Thank you very very much for this remote talk. I’m really glad you managed to find time for this correspondence interview. I’m really honoured and grateful and I hope this won’t be our last interview for this blog 🙂
by Łukasz Garbol, May / June 2020
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Photo 1 by Tilden Patterson. Photo 2 is a movie poster to Night of the Comet. The rest of the photos are the frames and stills from Night of the Comet (copyrights: Atlantic Releasing Corporation & MGM Studios). Photos 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 10 from Catherine Mary Stewart’s archives used by her permission. All photo copyrights belong to their respective owners.