Anyone who has seen the Charles Bronson action/grindhouse crowd-pleaser Murphy’s Law will no doubt be familiar with the name Kathleen Wilhoite. Her turn in the film as the street-wise Arabella stole the show from her older and more established co-stars. Be it kicking Bronson in the nuts or her use of creative insults at every turn she simply ruled the film. Since that great 1986 film she’s had an extensive career in film, tv and on the stage…but, as you’ll soon discover, hasn’t been utilised as an actress as much as she’d like of late…her fans, of whom I consider myself to be one, hope this will soon change.
Crimson Celluloid: When I mentioned that I would be interviewing you the universal response was one of “she’s GREAT!” and “She rocked MURPHY’S LAW” etc…have you had much similar feedback over the years?
Kathleen Wilhoite: In general, people are very nice and supportive. Unfortunately, since I’m in a bit of a slump, it seems I’ve been hearing things like, “Did you quit acting?” and “You were so good, what happened?” These kinds of lunk-headed things. I know people mean well, but walking through the answers to some of the questions is depressing. Answer: “Um, no. I didn’t quit acting. I can’t get a job. I’m not getting cast in anything. I feel like a has-been . . .” None of the answers are pleasant.
Crimson Celluloid: As a 20-something actress it must have been quite the kick to appear in such a popular mainstream film. When you think back on that time what are your key memories?
Kathleen Wilhoite: I remember Charlie. I remember doing scenes with him in the car where it was just the two of us and we had long periods of time together and he would, out of the blue, ask me a question, to start up some kind of chit-chat. He was funny and smart. I was careful not to speak to him unless spoken to. They had told me not to “try too hard” with him before shooting started. We formed a sweet working relationship. I remember when he felt the production was lagging, he’d say, “Let’s shoooooooooooot.” It was funny. I remember Carrie Snodgrass. She was my friend. She was an amazing actress. She taught me how to break down my script and organize my scenes. She was extremely generous with me.
Crimson Celluloid: Do you recall much about the whole casting process and how you came to be put forward for the role?
Kathleen Wilhoite: The original script was written for an actual potty-mouth, someone who had dialogue that resembled something a person would actually say, a street person, a person who swears a lot. I have always talked like a sailor so the words tripped off my tongue easily. I seem to recall that ultimately it came down between me and Apolonia. I might be wrong about that. Maybe she turned the role down. I don’t know, but I remember her name being tossed around. Charles Bronson’s wife, Jill, was also an executive producer on the film and she was extremely supportive of me. She was english and funny and smart. I kept getting called back. I must have gone in four or five times. I got the part and then was delivered the script. They had rethought the swearing and turned her “potty” mouth into what it is today—a bunch of odd phrases no one but a mentally ill person might say. My challenge then became, How to make this strange dialogue believable. I did the best I could.
Crimson Celluloid: What were your opinions of Charles Bronson and Carrie Snodgress when you first met them?
Kathleen Wilhoite: Oh. Well, I think I answered that. I liked them a lot. Both, pros, both, kind, both, smart good actors. Charlie, I had a healthy respect for, and Carrie was someone I enjoyed hanging out with.
Crimson Celluloid: Charles Bronson’s mustache was said to have mystical powers, did you ever witness any evidence of this?
Kathleen Wilhoite: No. Hah. I have never heard of that before.
Crimson Celluloid: I revisited the film recently and on the surface your character Arabella had the potential to be the most annoying in history with her non-stop insults and aggressive nature. Were you worried about how she would be perceived?
Kathleen Wilhoite: Not at all. I was fairly “bullet-proof” back then. I never thought how I would be perceived. I was just happy to have a job.
Crimson Celluloid: It goes without saying that you won people over with your performance. Were all the insults scripted or did director J. Lee Thompson give you the chance to improvise? My fave insult is when you deliver the pizza to the mafia goons with a hearty “Hey Anchovy!!”.
Kathleen Wilhoite: No, I didn’t improvise. I had some resistance to the dialogue, actually. I thought it was silly. I come from a method acting school, a school that teaches its students to create real people, to connect to everything you say, to honor the playwright. So, when they were wracking their brains trying to think of the weirdest and goofiest insults possible, it felt super cheesy to me. I did it because, again, I was happy to have a job and acrimony in the work place is not something I think is conducive to a creative environment. I like having fun when I work. I am a better actress if I feel supported and peaceful at work. If that means I have to say a bunch of silly shit that no one would ever say unless, as I’ve said before, they’ve got emotional trouble, then I’ll say it. Once I got that rewrite, I knew that I’d have a mountain to climb if I wanted to get it changed back to the way it was. I had never had such a big part before. I was unwilling to make that climb. I’m positive i would have gotten fired. So, I made the best of it. It got a little weird when after the film came out, I was doing a play in New York and a homeless guy followed me down 8th ave, saying, “Hey, donkey dork. Hey, hey, donkey dork.” I’d forgotten that was a line from the movie.
Crimson Celluloid: As an actress, did you work on a back-story as to why exactly Arabella was the way she was?
Kathleen Wilhoite: I did, but again, once they got stuck on making her dialogue the ramblings of a crazy person, I lost my inspiration and just went to work to do my job. My goal, my back-story became — “Don’t suck.”
Crimson Celluloid: I’ve noticed that some fans of the film have developed a drinking game in which you take a shot each time Arabella insults someone. Would it be possible to pass the half way mark of the film without being totally hammered?
Kathleen Wilhoite: Hah. I didn’t know that. That’s funny.
Crimson Celluloid: Have you had any interesting or weird fan interactions over the years?
Kathleen Wilhoite: Well, I had the donkey dork thing. Honestly, the weirdest, worst thing people say to me is when they ask me if I’ve quit acting, or “Why don’t you work more? You were so good,” or “I don’t mean to be rude but I know I know you from somewhere. What movies have you done?” I mention something I think they might have seen and they’ll say, “Ummm, no. Not that. Oh, no. Not that. Oh, I hated that movie. No, so what was it? I know I know you from somewhere. Name something else you’ve done.” It’s awful. Now days I just come right out and say that it’s a hell of a thing to ask an aging actress. It’s not easy out there. I’m trying to work and haven’t gotten anything in a while. I guess I’m in a slump. I don’t think they’re trying to make you feel like a total failure/loser, but—really, what answer to the question, “Did you quit acting?” will ever not be awkward? I guess if you actually did quit acting, it wouldn’t be so bad, but it still implies that you didn’t make it. You failed. I mean, being a professional actress is like hitting the lottery. Actually working, going to work, is where the winning is. As an auditioning actress, it’s a humiliating grind, and you have to constantly rediscover ways to turn each audition into an opportunity to create a solid character and connect to someone else’s material, and when you’re lucky and the casting people have taken the time to provide you with someone who can actually act, to read with, you might get to immerse yourself in a true performance. That’s fun, but it’s rare. I did that all last year and I didn’t so much as get a call back, so you caught me at a “Come to Jesus” kind of time, where I’m questioning whether or not I’ve played this part of my life out. Maybe it’s over for me. Maybe I should quit acting. I don’t know, but I certainly don’t want to discuss something as painful as failure with a fan of a movie I did a hundred years ago, so when they ask “Did you quit acting?” It’s a freakin’ loaded question.
Crimson Celluloid: It’s quite an intense film at times, was it an enjoyable and light shoot? Did director J.Lee Thompson speak endlessly about Planet of the Apes?
Kathleen Wilhoite: J. Lee was hilarious, talented, kind, and ran a tight set. I loved the cast and crew. I adored them. I was in Heaven doing that shoot. The intensity, the gory stuff was a blast. I’m a tomboy so running around with guns and getting “squibbed” was an extension of a good old fashioned “Cops and Robbers” game. I loved it. Getting “squibbed” is when they put a small explosive devise on you that when detonated, blood spurts out and a bullet hole appears. That stuff is fun. I don’t remember anything negative about that shoot. Oh, I remember, Charles Bronson used to tease me and tell me that the guy I was dating looked like a chicken. “He looks like a chicken, your boyfriend. He’s a chicken, right? He’s a chicken.” But, he was just being a goof.
Crimson Celluloid: You’ve had an amazing and extensive career in film and tv. From Murphy’s Law to ANGEL HEART (oooh, sexy nurses outfit….David wipes sweat away from his brow)..is acting everything you hoped and expected it would be?
Kathleen Wilhoite: I’ve had a great time of it. It’s just been surprising now how chewed up and spit out a person can feel after being a productive member of a business for most of their adult life. Anybody who’s worked in a business: maybe doctors, entrepreneurs, teachers, lawyers—if an attorney told you they had worked at a law firm for thirty years, you’d not be crazy to assume they were partners at that law firm, that now that they were in their late forties they were at the top of their game, with plenty of money and respect from their peers. Not so, with acting. You work thirty-five years as an actress, your agents will have a hard time getting you decent dressing room. You become willing to work for free, for the bare minimum, just to be working, just to feel like you’re still in the game. The parts I used to play now go to Canadian actors or aging moving stars that, due to their fading looks, have been pushed into playing character roles. So, that has left many of us chick character actors out in the cold.
Crimson Celluloid: Finally, you have an incredibly entertaining series of podcasts happening. Please fill your fans in on the kind of topics you discuss and where they can tune in.
Kathleen Wilhoite: Oh, fantastic. Yes. I love doing my podcast. It’s a blast. We talk about all sorts of things. We’ve interviewed actors, casting directors, fashion designers, make up artists, writers, show runners, convicts, all kinds of people. We’ve got a left leaning slant. Oh, we interviewed my friend, Dean, who’s a libertarian. We did a kind of debate style format on that one. We talk about movies, politics, music, all kinds of stuff. www.suckthejoy.com Go for it. Listen to it. I also spend the majority of my free time writing. I’ve written two novels. I write screenplays, poems and songs. I’m in the creating business and thank God, I don’t have to wait for other people to hire me in order to do it. I can do it whenever I want and it’s liberating. My goal next year is to put my stuff out there. I don’t do that very well. I’m a fear-based chicken shit. So, that’s my goal—to get out there.
Crimson Celluloid: Thank you very much for you time and for all the entertainment you have provided.
Kathleen Wilhoite: Thank you for asking me. I hope i wasn’t too much of a downer. I’m just being super honest. If you want to know whatever happened to the girl in Murphy’s Law then, as far as my career goes, this is it. Seemingly, not much. But, here’s the amazing news. Thankfully, my life is no longer centered around whether I’m a success or a failure in show business. My life rules, to be honest. I’ve got a husband who loves me and treats me like gold. I’ve got three outstanding children who blow me away every day. I laugh with my friends all the time. I’ve got my health, my dog, George, a car that runs, a community of people who support me—So, again, if anyone asks you, “What ever happened to Kathleen Wilhoite?” tell them she’s doing great. Tell them she’s happy and you won’t be lying. It’s true. I’m happy.