Barbara Hershey talks about her role in Black Swan and the potential pitfalls of a remake of her classic posession film The Entity .
Barbara Hershey, who starred in the shocking early 80s possession film The Entity (originally written by Frank de Felitta and based on a true story) is returning to psychological horror in the dark fantasy Black Swan as Erica, the disturbed and disturbing mother of ballet dancer Nina (played by Natalie Portman). At first Erica’s mothering seems loving, albeit a bit smothering, but it’s soon clear as the first half of the film moves on that she’s filled with resentment, jealously, rage, and is determined to protect Nina at all costs, no matter how much it may permanently harm her daughter.
While Nina vies the role of The Swan Princess in Swan Lake in the story, the characters in the film itself are modeled after characters in Swan Lake. Nina and Lily (played by Mila Kunis) are the White and Black Swans, respectively, while their ballet instructor is the prince. Erica, in a unique and inspired story twist, is the incarnation of the evil sorcerer Eric, who traps the Princess in the body of a white swan so that no one else can have her. Erica doesn’t seem like a sorceress; but she attempts to keep Nina a child forever, trapped in a world of childish dreams and preventing her from blossoming into the woman she should be. In protecting her from the dark forces around her, Erica herself has become a dark force.
“There are some people who say, ‘She’s the mother from hell,’”, agrees Barbara Hershey, “and I say, ‘no, she’s a mother IN hell. She adores her daughter and is very protective of her and is very worried about her. At the same time, she is jealous of her and she is controlling of her and she is mentally unstable herself, it is interesting because how can a mentally unstable person take care of a mentally unstable person? You know, a normal person would go get help for her daughter. But it doesn’t even occur to her. She’s in her own insular world. I also think Erica serves as a warning of what Nina could become if she doesn’t follow her dream, as dangerous as that is.”
Barbara Hershey’s Erica is possibly the most tragic figure in Black Swan; she must stand by and watch her daughter disintegrate, and is powerless to help her. She must contend with the fact that the disintegration is her own fault.
“The movie is from Nina’s point of view, so at the same time, she becomes more and more demonic, but in reality she’s petrified for her daughter and trying her best to protect her.”
In the last act of the film, as Nina dances onstage in Swan Lake, there is a terrifying knowing look exchanged between mother and daughter.
“It’s everything – it’s the whole film, really,” explains Hershey. “She’s proud, she’s horrified, she knows. She knows what this is, what’s going on. She’s the one person who really perceives what’s going on. She knows.”
Hershey grew up in California and ended up snagging a role on the TV series Gidget before she was out of her teens. She led a tumultuous, crazy, 60’s-infused lifestyle (she even changed her name to 'Barbara Seagull' for a few years before realizing how ridiculous that was and changing it back) before starring in cult classics like 1972’s Boxcar Bertha. I asked her if her own crazy, bewildering youth in the limelight gave her any insight into Nina, and therefore, into Erica.
“I think since the whole movie deals with mirrors and reflections and perceptions, yes. Erica is an older version of Nina. She is me.” Hershey even plucked her eyebrows just like Portman’s so they’d look subtly more alike.
“I had no trouble relating to Nina and her quest for perfection. But the challenges, what we do to ourselves, the balance between doing the best you can and whatever goal you set for yourself to inhabit it supremely, and the danger of it becoming a destructive obsession – that’s something that anyone in the arts has had to deal with.”
Barbara, as 'Erica', glaring coldly over her daughter's shoulder in the mirror in just one of the gorgeously shot and tense scenes between mother and daughter (Natalie Portman) in 'Black Swan'.
While Black Swan doesn’t focus on it, there are elements of eating disorders in the world of ballet running rampant. And there are eating disorders, self-harm, and body-image dysfunctions running rampant in the real world in Hollywood and the modeling industry. The industry Hershey has been a part of since her teen years.
“This movie is a warning of what NOT to do,” jokes Hershey, but then she gets more serious. “Hopefully, because it is so extreme, I guess it is a warning, in a way, of what that seeking of perfection, which is true in this anorexic world, and the extreme damage it does.”
Amid rumors of a remake of The Entity, the classic Sidney J. Furie 1982 film about possible paranormal events and the resulting physical torture of a young single mother, is a film for which Hershey will long be remembered. Women watch it and it resonates with them on so many levels; rape and abuse, verbal and physical partner violence. If a remake of the movie does happen, Hershey hopes that “they base it in normal lives. That they try to keep the characters people we can relate to. So many poor films are bogged down in effects and things jumping out at you than character, and I think that’s a mistake.”
Hershey is strongly adamant that what made The Entity such a great movie in the first place is that the audience is never sure whether Carla Moran (Hershey’s character) is actually being sexually molested by demonic forces, or if she’s psychologically imbalanced and is causing the psychic forces herself.
“That’s an interesting thing; that she is so powerfully ill that she can raise marks on herself. I would guide the film more in that direction, I think that’s much more interesting. She is taken from a real case. The questions are more interesting than any convenient answers. That’s what’s fascinating.”
Watch Barbara in the trailer to 'The Entity':
Hershey recently starred in James Wan’s new horror film about paranormal phenomenon, Insidious, which has yet to be released theatrically in the United States. (Wan was the director of the original Saw film). Hershey loves that Insidious also focuses on characters and their psychology.
“Basing it on real character s- this movie does that too. It has such strong actors like Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson. The film is based in the reality of people. Again, that’s a lot like what The Exorcist did, where we get into the people and then we go somewhere.”
Hollywood loves saying “There aren’t any good roles for women over 40.” Is that true?
“You can’t say there aren’t any,” she smiles. “I just had one!” But she admits, “they are definitely rarer. The few that there are are often grabbed up by the same people over and over. The implication is that they’re not interested in women over 40, which is not a good thing, and not healthy, because it means a whole portion of the audience isn’t represented, and people get more interesting, not less, as they get older. “
When exploring WHY film is less interested in actresses who show some wrinkles and some gray hair, Hershey explains it as women “Being put in the trash can sexually – but that’s changing too, slowly. The thing that’s interesting is that that idea doesn’t reflect reality. I know, and I am sure you do too, so many women over 40 who are vital and funny, and the thing is that you relax more as you get older. I have more fun than I used to have. There are a lot of wonderful things about getting older, as long as you’re healthy and curious and alive, it’s a great thing. And film should reflect it.”