Beyond Elm Street: A Conversation With Actress Amanda Wyss
In a word: “Amazing”.
That’s the best way to describe Amanda Wyss. Both as an actress and as a person.
Amanda’s deeply involved with Project Happiness, an organization that specializes in emotional resilience-building programs and provides proven techniques to cultivate one’s own authentic happiness. Its mission is to empower children, families and communities to create happier, more meaningful lives.
Amanda is also a very down to Earth person. She’s someone you’d easily want to have a conversation with over a pizza. Especially when you consider her body of work and the characters she’s hung around with.
As an actress, she’s sat behind Jeff Spicoli in history class, listened to music with Captain Jack Sparrow and was even the first person to dream about and have a rendezvous with bad boy Freddy Krueger.
One of the earliest performances I remember Amanda from also happens to be one of my favorite movies: “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”. A film where she plays Lisa, the girlfriend of Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold).
Its senior year and Brad is trying to figure out a way to break-up with Lisa but she inevitably beats him to the punch. But why anyone in their right mind would want to dump Amanda Wyss is still a mystery to me.
The film Amanda’s become most synonymous with though is “A Nightmare On Elm Street” where she will forever be remembered as Tina Gray, Freddy Krueger’s first victim. Not only was she Freddy’s first but here’s something that only true horror enthusiasts will know: Amanda Wyss is the very first face you see in the “Nightmare” franchise.
Amanda’s resume includes diverse roles in such films as “Better Off Dead”, “Silverado” and “Powwow Highway”, a film that won the Dramatic Filmmakers Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival and one of Amanda’s personal favorites.
In addition to film, Amanda has also worked extensively in television as well, having guest starred on such shows as “Highlander”, “Cold Case”, “Dexter” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”. Chances are, you’ve seen her in prime time and may not even have known it.
Amanda has recently gone back to her horror roots, having appeared as the waitress Darlene Atwood in the Brian Pulido directed film, “The Graves”. She also appears in the film, “Deadly Impact” where she plays Julie Mulligan, a television news reporter covering a terrorist attack.
But one of her greatest moments for me personally was her performance as Tina Vincent, an obsessive “wife” of a serial killer in a multi-part episode of CSI. Maybe it was because she was channeling her inner “Freddy” at the time but one thing’s for sure: in that role, she was nothing short of amazing.
In this interview with Amanda we’ll talk about her role as Lisa in “Fast Times At Ridgemont High”. We’ll also discuss some of her other film projects including the original “A Nightmare On Elm Street”, a film put together on a shoe string budget that became a cult phenomenon (and one which also launched the career of a then unknown Johnny Depp).
Finally, we’ll find out what Amanda likes to do in her spare time and her plans for the future as well.
goJimmygo (gJg): I just recently watched you for the first time as “Tina Vincent” on CSI. One of the best roles I’ve ever seen you do. You were amazing! Just the look in your eyes and the way you smiled at Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger). That was really intense.
Amanda Wyss (AW): Thank you!
gJg: How do you prepare for a role like that, to play a woman that obsessed?
AW: You know what? I just use my imagination. That’s my technique. I just sort of dive in. Tina Vincent was SO much fun to play because she was so madly in love with that crazy guy (Nate Haskell). It was really fun to do.
gJg: So, how about we begin by first going back to Ridgemont High?
AW: Sure, let’s go!
gJg: You played Lisa, Judge Reinhold’s love interest. How did the audition process go?
AW: I was actually called in for that specific role (as Lisa) and I remember the audition for it was fun and unique. Part of the process for me was having to do an improv with Judge Reinhold. The casting director, Bonnie Timmerman and Amy Heckerling (Director) were both there and it was a lot of fun.
gJg: I’ve heard rumors that Sean Penn was so into the role of Jeff Spicoli that he wanted everyone to call him by that name and even had the name put on his dressing room door. Is there any truth to that?
AW: <Laughs>. Honestly, I don’t remember that but I have heard about that rumor several times myself so it could quite possibly be true. Sean’s super talented and was very into his part. I think a lot of the surfer guys were, actually.
I do recall that there was a long rehearsal process and everyone had a chance to improv and prepare their characters. So I don’t think it was a situation where Sean just walked on to the set and said, “OK. Everyone call me Jeff Spicoli!” It was more of a slow process where everyone just became these fun high-school characters.
gJg: You looked like you were having such a great time on screen. Like when you’re sitting behind Sean in history class when the pizza comes. You had this look on your face like you were ready to just laugh.
AW: It was a very fun film to do with such talented young actors. Every day was really fun.
gJg: How did Ridgemont High compare to you own real-life high school experience?
AW: You know what’s funny? I actually grew up at the beach so I basically did go to school with all of those types of people. It was definitely my era. You know, we were all surfers. To some extent it was a very comical, slightly exaggerated view of the beach town that I grew up in.
gJg: Do you have a favorite scene from the movie?
AW: I don’t really have a favorite scene in particular. I look at it more as a whole. I adore it and certainly loved making it.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
gJg: Was the role of Tina in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” another that you were just called in for?
AW: Actually, we had all read for the role of Nancy (which eventually would go to Heather Langenkamp) and then for the call backs they split us up into groups.
I remember at the time reading with Heather and just thinking that we both really clicked together. I kind of had the feeling that we were going to get those parts. The best part is we’re actually still best friends from that movie. She’s amazing.
gJg: Did you have any idea of how big the franchise would become in the horror genre?
AW: Quite honestly I had no idea. I loved the script and Robert Englund is so brilliant. I think it was because at the time I was young and wasn’t really that savvy or aware of all of the elements that make something last like that.
Obviously though, when it was completed and there was such a big reaction to it and after all of the positive initial reviews I was like, “Oh Wow!” But at the time, I had no idea that it would become this iconic, horror classic. I don’t think any of us did. Well, except for maybe Wes (Craven, Director) but he’s one of the smartest people alive. <laughs>
gJg: It was filmed on a low-budget too wasn’t it?
AW: It really was filmed on a super low-budget. It was a classic example of true indie-style, guerrilla film making. It just happened to have this magical group of people working on it whose combined energy gave audiences the sense of wanting to keep coming back for more. And I think that’s sort of the same thing that happened with “Fast Times” as well.
For whatever reason there’s something that happens sometimes when you mix the right combination of people and energy. No one really knows what it is. It’s just a magical mix that makes the movie stand out and last. Those two movies are good examples of that.
gJg: I worked at a drive-in while in high school and must have watched it dozens of times.
AW: You know, people have told me they’ve seen it a lot. I’ve actually seen it more in the last few years because of the reunions at horror conventions. When I watch it now with my distance from it I see it more as a film and not so much as one that I’m in. It really is a scary movie.
gJg: And you’re the centerpiece of it in a way. You’re actually the first person you see in the movie.
AW: I am. I’m actually also the first person to die in the entire franchise. <laughs>
gJg: How did your death scene work? Was that a rotating room?
AW: It was based on an old Fred Astaire movie. The room was built on this large sound stage and was positioned on a rotisserie type contraption. Everything in the room was either nailed down, glued down or taped down. It was made that way so nothing would move and as it turns around it appears as though I’m going up the wall and on to the ceiling.
gJg: Visually, it was very effective!
AM: I actually got vertigo from doing that scene. Everything was nailed down so perfectly that I had no visual cues that I was still on the floor. It was a great experience but it was pretty intense.
gJg: One of the scariest scenes I remember from the movie is when you’re running from him in the alley. He’s behind you and then all of a sudden you run right into him.
AW: That scene was actually filmed out in Venice around three o’clock in the morning. I remember it was freezing and the beach mist was starting to come in. It was pretty creepy. Not so much because we were out there filming a horror movie that’s filmed broken up in parts but just that the overall sense of it was creepy.
gJg: What was it like working with Robert (Englund)?
AW: I absolutely loved working with Robert. He’s so imaginative and so hilarious. He’s also the best story-teller I’ve ever met.
gJg: Were there any funny stories that you remember while filming it?
AW: For me it wasn’t so much funny as much as it was gross. Every single day that I went to the set there was always something gross that I had to do.
It was always something like: Stand in a body bag…Lay in a body bag…Be covered in blood…Be covered in worms…Stand with eels. <laughs>
There was this one scene from the alley that was cut out where I had to pick up a trash can lid and underneath were a bunch of worms and they had to crawl all over my arms. The whole thing reminded me of those wilderness outward bound adventures to see what you’re made of. <laughs>
gJg: What did you think of the remake?
AW: You know, I haven’t seen it. I’ve heard mixed reviews about but haven’t seen it myself.
gJg: What was it like working with Johnny Depp in his first movie?
AW: Johnny was so sweet. We were all so young and had so much fun. I didn’t work with him all that much but he was exactly how you’d picture him to be. Really creative and interesting.
gJg: I read where one of the movies you’re most proud of is “Powwow Highway“ Tell me a little about that film.
AW: That’s one of my favorite movies. It was a cool group of people and is actually based on a true story. It was a powerful Native American piece and I got to play that crazy Texan.
gJg: What was it like filming in all of those locations?:
AW: The locations were beautiful. We filmed in Montana, Wyoming and Santa Fe, New Mexico. We also filmed it between November and March and I remember FREEZING while we were on location. You know, it’s snowing and 18 degrees and you’re standing outside trying to pretend you’re not cold. <laughs>
gJg: What was it like for you personally as an actress when it won at Sundance?
AW: I’m so proud of that movie. It actually won when it wasn’t really the “scene” for actors to go to festivals and support their projects. For it to win a Jury award at Sundance is sort of a badge of honor for me.
gJg: Let’s talk a little about one of your newest films, “The Graves“. What was it like revisiting the horror realm and filming that movie?
AW: That movie was a really fun film too. I got to play Darlene the waitress.
The Ronalds brothers (Brian and Dean) produced it and are both in the movie as well and Brian Pulido directed it. Brian is an amazing artist and graphic novelist.
We filmed it in this spooky old mining town in Arizona. It was a real fun group of people to work with. It was also fun for me to revisit the horror genre again as an adult.
gJg: Have you ever thought about directing or producing?
AW: I would like to move to the other side of the camera. I’ve actually been shadowing a few people so I’m looking forward to the opportunity of directing.
gJg: What do you like to do when you’re not acting?
AW: I love Yoga and I love to read. I read everything. I also like to go to movies and visit museums.
gJg: What’s your favorite book?
AW: My favorite is “A Prayer for Owen Meany“. I love that book.
gJg: What projects do you have coming up?
AW: I actually have two web series projects we’re about to start work on. One is horror themed and the other is more of a light-hearted comedy. We’re producing them together. I’m going to be in the light-hearted comedy and make some appearances in the horror one as well.
gJg: They sound interesting!
AW: I’m very excited about them. They’re really well written and have really good directors attached to them.
There’s also another project I’m involved with where someone is using my likeness for a graphic novel. It’s about vampires which I absolutely LOVE. They’re my favorite part of the horror genre.
gJg: Are there any people you’d like to work with or projects you’d like to be a part of in the future?
AW: I’d like to be in a Steven Spielberg project someday because he just has such an epic imagination. Then there’s Joss Whedon (love his projects), George Clooney (both as director and actor), Helen Mirren, Debra Winger… the list goes on!
I would love to be a part of shows like “Walking Dead”, “Fringe”, “American Horror” and “Game Of Thrones”.
And I really adore the independent film world. The cool, interesting creative projects that are done under the radar. There are so many great young filmmakers out there I’d like to work with. People like Adam Green for example.
I’d also like to work with Sean Penn again. He is just amazing and always has a lot of interesting projects.
gJg: You’re amazing too. I’m so glad I got the chance to speak with you!
AW: Thanks! It was my pleasure.
Article first published as Beyond Elm Street:: A Conversation with Actress Amanda Wyss on Technorati.