In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the films of actress Jill Schoelen were readily available in the horror section of any self-respecting video store: The Stepfather, Cutting Class, Popcorn, and When A Stranger Calls Back, to name the highlights. However, as VHS waned and DVD began to make its ascent, most of these flicks were issued only as bare-bones discs, if at all, and went out of print fairly soon thereafter.
Happily, in the last few years, fans have seen deluxe Blu-ray editions with restored prints and tons of extras make their way to the marketplace. Synapse kicked everything off in 2017 when they released a two-disc steelbook of Popcorn, followed later that year by a standard Blu-ray. Then came last year’s Cutting Class release from Vinegar Syndrome (with five different slipcovers!) and, at year’s end, the Blu-ray premiere of When A Stranger Calls Back, the 1993 Showtime sequel to the Tom Walton classic, courtesy of the UK’s Second Sight.
It’s been exciting to see Jill Schoelen’s work return to the home video market, along with some attendant convention appearances. We wanted to hear what the actress herself thinks of all of this, so we reached out and were happy to speak to her right before the holidays. We talk about all of these films, the incredibly open and honest interview she gives on the Cutting Class blu, and more.
Cinepunx: It seems as though, for the longest time, the movies for which you’re best known haven’t really been available. What’s it like for people to be able to see your films again?
Jill Schoelen: I love that. I’m always trying to come from this state of grace and this attitude of thanks. I don’t always achieve it in life, but I’m very, very grateful. I mean, it’s kind of odd, because back in the ’80s and early ’90s, when I was working, I was popular and in the kind of movies I made, I was the starring character; like in Popcorn and such. It was a big deal, but you’re right — because they weren’t a huge blockbuster or like a Halloween 6 or a Friday the 13th 12, they just didn’t get those switched over to Blu-ray.
So, the fact that they stayed alive, not having all the new technology like other films did on their behest, it’s really quite complimentary. I loved it, and it’s really the fans that have kept those movies alive, and I’m very, very grateful, because it’s because of them that those movies are out there. It’s not because of the filmmakers — not this round three, it isn’t — it’s because the fans have kept them alive.
Speaking of fans, you’ve recently started doing conventions.
A little bit. I actually did my first convention back in 2011, but I only did like, three, that one year, and then I didn’t do any for six years. [laughs] I’ve done just a couple, again, but I have not done very many.
Looking at your Facebook page, it seems like you’ve met some of your genre peers, like Linnea Quigley.
Some of them I knew, but yeah, some of them I didn’t know. I loved [Linnea]. She’s a doll. What a sweetheart!
I interviewed Fred Walton a few weeks ago about When A Stranger Calls and When A Stranger Calls Back, and he mentioned that he’d just happened into horror and thriller films. Was that the case with you, or did you have an interest in those sorts of films?
I had no interest in it. I was not a fan of the genre. Strangely, though — you can’t make this stuff up — the one scary movie that I loved was When A Stranger Calls. I was, in my own way, a teenager and watching that, there was a sense of reality about that film and I just loved it. The movie doesn’t have a strong second half, like it does the first half, but isn’t that coincidental?
I mostly did not do genre films. My very first film was a film called D.C. Cab, and then I did a little teenage beach-y film called Hot Moves, I did That Was Then, This Is Now, I did a rock ‘n’ roll movie called Thunder Alley; those were my first films. I don’t think my first of the genre films was until The Stepfather and strangely, the script did not read like a genre script. It read like a mystery, a crime thing.
I was much more attracted to that and as an actress — me, Jill, as a human being and then tying that to an actress — I resonated much, much more with that than the whole scream queen kind of thing where girls get killed off by these bad people and creatures. And, because they were more thriller-based than in that way, the girls that I played in both Stepfather and When A Stranger Calls Back, they were characters. They were relateable girls, I think, in their vulnerability. If it happened to them, it could happen to you, the situation that they found themselves in, rather than something fantastical that’s in those other genre films, where people come back from the dead and stuff.
You’ve also gotten to do a few things where your singing was a part of your skillset: Babes In Toyland, Phantom of the Opera, an episode of The Heights.
Yup, yup, yup. I don’t remember how old I was when I started “singing” singing. Probably around six or seven. By the time I was about nine — definitely by fourth grade — I had taught myself how to read music and how to play an instrument. I taught myself how to play guitar. That’s what I did, and how I got into the industry.
My first venture into the industry was doing singing/dancing commercials; mainly the singing part. I was just an okay dancer. That’s how I started, and then I abandoned the music to a large degree, except I did do a musical in Los Angeles for five years that was written for me, but I just never had the opportunity to put my attention toward it.
Right now, in today’s modern world, as an artist — as a job — you’re kind of allowed to delve everywhere. You can go even into the clothing business, and still be an actor and a singer, but back then, it was very much, “You’re a television actress.” “You’re a film actress.” “You’re a singer.” They didn’t really like the crossover thing the way it is now, and the way it was initially in the film industry in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. But, back in the ’80s and early ’90s, it was really very singular: “You do this or you do that.”
But I did enjoy, though it wasn’t real singing in Babes In Toyland, and I know that a lot of people think that, because I’m a singer, I sang in Phantom of the Opera, but the truth is that the entire musical score was already done before I was even cast. It was totally done. They never thought that they could find an actress who could sing, so I came into it later long after the music was done, and I lip-synced to the girl that did the opera singing.
I was amazed at the candor you displayed in your interview on the Cutting Class Blu-ray. It was a refreshingly honest look back at that time in your career.
Oh, you have a big smile on my face, because you are the first person I’ve talked to since I’ve done that interview. I almost didn’t do the interview for the reason that you said; I didn’t want to say that. I didn’t want to disparage anyone. It wasn’t a good experience, but they’re asking me to do an interview, and they told me I could be honest, and when they said I could be honest, I agreed.
The way you phrased it — not saying that you regret making the film, but knowing what you know now, you probably wouldn’t — I think that’s a very honest and open statement, but also very cognizant of where you were then vs. where you are now.
I don’t know how much of the interview they left in, but I wasn’t brutal in a mean way. I was brutal with my honesty about it. How I felt about the experience of the picture. I didn’t find it to be a great experience, shooting. You know: bad script, bad direction, bad acting. [laughs] But I did it.
I think anyone working the creative arts has done work over the course of their career where they look back on it and think, “Maybe not now, but at least I learned from that experience.”
Yeah, but then you look at that film, and you had someone like Martin Mull in it, and when he says that line, I don’t know who’s worse, him or me, when we have those awful lines to say: “You’re not cutting class again, are you?” It’s not a pretty line, but it’s not his fault. How do you make that sound good? You have Roddy McDowell and all of these people in the film and I don’t think anyone was exactly stellar.
You had been working on a short film called Moonchaser. What’s happening with that project?
That’s an interesting project, and I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen with that. We were about to shoot it, when the writer of the film said, “You know, I really like this as a feature,” and we decided to wait on that script and it’s being developed into a feature. So, my very first directing job, put on hold.
What things are you working on, in the interim?
Right now, we’re working on the script for Howard Lake, and because I’m directing it, I have a lot of say in the direction of the script, so we’re trying to get a finalized script and I’m shooting a little short film. I’ve been asked to do these features, and I’ve never done it before, so I have no idea if I’ll be good at it.
I do understand the camera. I do understand actors. I do understand storytelling. Knowing all those elements is very different than the process of doing it. Somebody can be a very naturally and organically talented, gifted musician, but if they don’t practice, they’re never going to reach their potential. They’re going to look like a beginner.
So, it’s all about the practice, so I think I’m just going to do some low-key short films and make sure I know what I’m doing. I’m a little self-deprecating in that way. Don’t tell the people who hired me for Howard Lake that I’m going to do that. I’m kidding, but I feel like I want to practice, so i’d like to shoot one or two or three short things to get my feet wet in that medium.
You can find out more regarding Jill Schoelen’s current and upcoming projects at her Facebook page.
For a really great deep dive into her past work, check out this 2012 write-up at Jerry Saravia on Cinema, which covers a lot of what we didn’t get to here.
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