In Dialogue with Kathryn Leigh Scott - A Pages Exclusive
Alumna Kathryn Leigh Scott (‘64) has forged a remarkable career in the past six decades. From writing several novels to working in theatre scenes in Paris and London and starring in large tent-pole productions, her work is recognizable to a wide audience. Last month, Scott sat down with The Academy Pages regarding her work on the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows and its lasting legacy and cultural impact.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
At what point did you realize Dark Shadows was such a phenomenal success?
There was a time during the show when I had a few days off, and my boyfriend at the time, Ben Martin, who later became my husband and was a photographer for Time, had an assignment in Rome. I told Joel Crothers, who was playing my boyfriend on the show that I would be taking a flight to Rome this evening. After we finished the show for the day, I went home and packed my suitcase, and the doorbell rang…there was Joel with a ticket on the same flight. We went off to the airport together, and when we boarded, the stewardesses just couldn’t get over it! They thought, “Are Maggie and Joe running off together?” Everybody had their eyes on Joe and me because of Dark Shadows. I knew then that it wasn’t just national; it was international, and people were really involved in our story.
Another time, I went to Africa, East Africa, with Ben. He was doing another story for Time. We were in a Land Rover at about four o’clock in the morning, out in the Serengeti, and there was this lion feeding on a wildebeest. Another Land Rover pulled up quietly next to us. All of a sudden, I heard this little girl’s voice saying, “Mommy, that’s Maggie over there!” I just thought to myself, this is incredible. We have this huge audience, and I’m this young actress working on her first show, and I get recognized. It was a stunning realization.
What are some of your fondest memories of working on the show?
[A pause.] We were almost canceled. We were essentially a gothic romance…with the eccentric family on the hill. After 13 weeks, the show just wasn’t taking off. Dan Curtis, the show creator, went to the head of ABC with an idea; he brought in a vampire that changed everything. I was there the very first day when Barnabas Collins appeared, and the actor, Jonathan Frid…I just knew he’d work. He was a wonderful Shakespearean actor who came in on the first day with the character fully formed. The cape, the hair, the voice, everything. He brought this immense dignity, but also humanity, to a vampire. That was when the show really took off.
And for a young actor, this was a great opportunity. I had recently graduated from The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. We were doing costume dramas–Ibsen, Strindberg, Sheridan, Chekhov–what could be better than playing four roles in four different time periods? What could be a better first job than doing costume drama? That was extraordinary…I was a very lucky girl.
Playing opposite Academy alums was a common occurrence on Dark Shadows. What was that experience like for you? Is there a shared work ethic or mentality?
As you know, The Academy is the oldest acting school in the English-speaking world. Our faculty is amazing, and we learn everything from fencing to makeup to movement and mime. That kind of training, I’m wondering if it didn’t play into the fact that so many alumni got jobs on Dark Shadows. Alexandra Moltke became Victoria Winters, Kate Jackson had a role. John Karlen, too…he was one of the most capable actors I’ve ever worked with. I really think the kind of training we had made it possible. For young actors to be capable of doing that kind of costume drama is truly remarkable.
With the many storylines the series had, do you have a favorite?
Dan Curtis was very clever. Our show was as much an anthology as it was a daytime soap. We borrowed from the best literature. Victoria Winters arrives on the train, working as a governess for the eccentric family on the hill…that’s all Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Picture of Dorian Gray. But, I think one of the most successful storylines took place in the 1700s that came from the island of Martinique. We introduced wonderful things with it: voodoo, a love triangle. The plotlines were simply wonderful in the show. I don’t think the kids or housewives watching necessarily knew the “classic story” we were telling, but they certainly responded well to our dynamic storytelling.
The 2012 Tim Burton film saw a lot of returning cast members. What was this experience like for you to return to the franchise in such a big project?
At one point, I turned to Lara [Parker] and David [Selby] on our set in Pinewood and said, “You realize this would pay for three months of Dark Shadows?” [Laughs.] The budget was just extraordinary. Whenever we had a tea break…that company would pay for another week of Dark Shadows! [Laughs.] It was wonderful to see Collinsport with boats bobbing in the water and a whole town around it…things we only talked about but never saw. It might not have been the best iteration of Dark Shadows, but a young actor learns quickly that you’ve got to play it straight. When something is “campy,” it’s only funny if you’re playing it straight…I’m sorry to say that’s not what happened with the Tim Burton production. Although how magical it was to work with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. The 2014 series Penny Dreadful with Timothy Dalton and Eva Green…was more Dark Shadows than the 2012 film by Tim Burton.
Back when we did those 1,225 episodes for the series, we did it almost live. Doorknobs came off in your hand, closed doors would bounce open again, and the walls would shake, windows would fall down…despite that, you were really pulled in. By the way, that’s another thing Jonathan Frid did; he created a vampire that you could welcome into your living room. It’s scary, but there’s also a humanity and vulnerability to the character he created. You see him five times a week with a show, but with a movie, you go maybe once or twice?
To finish it off, I was really delighted that Tim Burton invited us to join him 50 years later, I thought it was quite wonderful. I appreciated the gesture that we were able to join him. I wish the film honored the expectations of people who grew up loving the show.
Tell me about those fans of Dark Shadows. The franchise had such a devoted fanbase and loved costumes and conventions…have you ever attended one of these?
I’ve always thought that the fans of Dark Shadows were a cut above the rest–and keep in mind, I’ve done Star Trek…I’d say they’re pretty good too! I’m going to a Halloween event at Lyndhurst, where we filmed some Dark Shadows, for a fundraiser…I know I’ll be seeing a lot of Barnabas capes and Josette ringlets. But that’s just part of it. When you’re there, you start talking to some of the fans and discover what they’ve done with their lives. They really are a cut above the rest. They’ve been fans for 50 years and love the literature and world that’s been created with Dark Shadows.
You played four separate characters during the run of the show: Maggie Evans, Josette du Pres, Lady Kitty Hampshire, and Rachel Drummond…Do you have a favorite?
I would have to say, Maggie Evans. When I was 16 years old, I was with the school newspaper in Robbinsdale, Minnesota. Carl Sandburg came to town, and I interviewed him…I’d read a lot of his poetry beforehand and wrote a piece on him that won a state journalism award. When I started playing Maggie Evans, I thought back to one of my favorite Sandburg poems: “...the first numbers formed under her wishing child fingers…” To me, that was Maggie Evans: an outsider, somebody whose mother had died, whose father was an alcoholic and itinerant painter, somebody who was running that house from the age of six or seven years old. Standing in that diner looking down the tracks, wondering what was out there…that was the essence of that character. I identified so strongly with that part of her.
This is obviously a franchise that means so much to you…Is there any chance we might see another Dark Shadows film or series?
There is a future for Dark Shadows. It’s tricky right now; we’ve been on strike, and everything is ground to a halt. There is a script, a production company, and people are attached to it. It needs a “yes” to go into production. So it could happen. Perhaps this is the year of Dark Shadows. That would be wonderful. I can’t think of something better to cap a 60-year career than a return to Dark Shadows…that would be really satisfying. There is a chance Dark Shadows will come back…and it won’t be your grandfather’s Dark Shadows. It’ll be something new, with some fan-favorite elements and the same essence we created 57 years ago. What a wonderful way to bring back Maggie Evans.
More information on Kathryn Leigh Scott can be found on her website.