As a man with multiple personalities (23, to be exact), James McAvoy is enthralling to watch in in M. Night Shyamalan's Split, but just as intriguing is his psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher, played by the great Betty Buckley, who plays a nail-biting mental chess match with her multi-dimensional patient in some of the film's most fascinating scenes.
With Split now out on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, I had the great pleasure of speaking with Buckley (whom many may know as Abby Bradford from Eight is Enough) about working with Shyamalan on both Split and The Happening, playing Miss Collins in Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976) and Margaret White in the ’80s Broadway musical adaptation of Stephen King's seminal novel, her new album Story Songs, and more.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today and congratulations on Split. I loved the film, and your performance as Dr. Fletcher is one of my favorite performances of the year so far. What was it about this role that attracted you to it?
Betty Buckley: Thank you so much. Well, it's M. Night Shyamalan. They sent the script, and he called me and said he wrote the role for me, so I was thrilled. I'm fascinated by the subject matter anyway, so that was really cool. I was fascinated by The Three Faces of Eve when I was a pre-teen and the Oscar-winning performance of Joanne Woodward in that, and then, years later, the book Sybil and then that miniseries starring the great Sally Field.
I've been in analysis and fascinated by human psychology my whole adult life, and so I basically have the equivalent of a psychology degree at this point. I worked with a psychologist in New York in the weeks before we started rehearsals and the shooting to prepare and make sure that I was doing the part as professionally as possible, in terms of her [Dr. Fletcher's] professional decorum with her patient. Then, Night recommended a couple of books about DID [Dissociative Identity Disorder] patients, and then I had a book in my own collection that I was reviewing, and so I was as prepared as I could be.
I'd say you pulled it off, especially with those scenes where it's just you and James in your home office, it was like watching a chess match between the doctor and her patient.
Betty Buckley: Yeah, I loved them too, and I loved working with James. He's one of our great actors in the world, and I think his performance in this movie is one of the great film performances by an actor of all time. I really hope he is justly rewarded with every award possible in award season. He's a really nice man, so down-to-Earth, and very sweet.
You had also mentioned that M. Night wrote the role for you, and you two had worked previously on The Happening. When was the first time you met M. Night, and how did your working relationship begin?
Betty Buckley: Well, he has a brilliant casting guy named Doug Aibel, who has cast nearly all of his movies, and he has submitted me for almost everything that Night has done, and I've done a number of auditions for him. Doug called my agent and had me up for The Happening, and I did the audition.
I live in Texas, and so my assistant [Cathy Brighenti] and I got a camera at the Fort Worth camera store. We said, "Is is it going to be compatible with a Mac computer?" and the salesman said, "Yes," and so we spent a considerable amount of money for a nice camera. We came back to the ranch, shot the scenes, and then I went off to work my horses. Cathy was trying to download it to the computer and send it because our deadline was to get it to them by the next day so that Night could view the audition.
So Cathy calls me on my phone and said, "Oh my God. It won't work," so I said, "Okay, we'll take the camera back into Fort Worth and get the guy that we bought it from to download it." She rushed off to Fort Worth, and the guy wasn't in the store, and the rest of the sales people were like, "We don't know what you're talking about."
So Cathy called me up from Fort Worth all panicked, and I said, "Okay, we'll wrap the camera in bubble wrap and ship the whole thing to New York," so that we'd make the deadline. I called Doug Aibel. I said, "We're sending you the camera. Surely, you've got a techie that can do this." He goes, "You're sending the camera?"
I was like, "Yeah, there's nothing else to do." He thought that was really funny, and so did my agent. They next day they called and said, "Okay, we're going to fly you to New York to meet with Night," and that was the first time I had met him, even though I'd auditioned for his various movies on video. I've done at least several auditions for different films.
So when he comes walking into the room when I got to New York, he goes, "You sent the camera?" I was like, "Yeah, I wanted to be sure you got the audition," and he thought that was really funny. He said, "Well, basically, I just wanted to meet you and see if you're okay with your death scene. You're going to have to put your head through a window," and I was like, "That's okay." I don't know if you remember, but a basketball court rafter crushed me in half in Carrie. I said, "I'm up for it." That's how I got the part. It was pretty funny.
That's fantastic. That's dedication to get the role.
Betty Buckley: Yeah, you've got to persevere. Never take "no" for an answer. Just keep going.
So you had been a fan of his previous work and were sending in video auditions for his other movies?
Betty Buckley: I've been up for I don't know how many [of his films], but if there was a white-haired lady and she got killed, I was up for it.
I'm glad that you were able to get into these two recent ones, because I think you two work really well together. I love that comic relief scene in Split where you're with M. Night when he plays the security guard.
Betty Buckley: I love that scene, too. I was so excited I had a scene with him. I was just like, "You're hilarious." He was really nervous about that scene, too. It was really funny.
Well, it came out great, and you also have another reason to celebrate because you have a new album out now called Story Songs.
Betty Buckley: Yeah, it's a really nice live recording with a two-CD set and with a great, great band. I'm very happy it's out. It's very exciting.
We recorded it last fall in Costa Mesa, California. We just put the grouping of songs together and debuted them in New York at Joe's Pub, and it was received very well. Then we went to San Francisco and then Costa Mesa, so we recorded the Costa Mesa shows on a multi-track recording, and they came out really well.
So I called my friend Missy, who's released my last two albums: Ghostlight, produced by T Bone Burnett and The Boys of Broadway that I did with my collaborator Christian Jacob, who also scored the film, Sully, for Clint Eastwood this past year.
He's my collaborator, and she was intrigued by the the live recording and gave me a budget so I could hire T Bone's engineers and like we did on my last two CDs, they mixed the album so beautifully. Then, I asked Missy if we could add a second CD with bonus tracks from five of my favorite songs that we'd recorded from board mixes at Joe's Pub in 2015 as well, and three stories about friends and mentors of mine through the years that have meant a lot to me. It came together. I like it a lot. I'm really happy about it.
You've had the privilege of playing not only playing Miss Collins in Carrie, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, but you also played Carrie's mom in the Broadway version of Carrie. What was it like to play two roles in such an iconic story?
Betty Buckley: Well, it's pretty cool. I loved Piper Laurie in the film, obviously, and it was great to get a chance to play the role of Margaret in the musical. The musical is a wonderful musical. It was very strange for a musical back in that time, but they revived it recently and had a good little run of it off Broadway in L.A. Yeah, it's a good show. It was my first movie. Seven of us were making our film debuts in Carrie, and it was a great experience to get to work with Brian De Palma.
Are you aware, by the way, that Split was nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Thriller?
I am, and you were nominated as well, were you not?
Betty Buckley: Yeah, for Best Supporting Actress, and I'm also being honored by the Actors Fund with the Julie Harris Award for their big Tony Award party on June 11th, so that's pretty exciting.