Bet you didn’t know Adrienne Barbeau played Rizzo in the original 1972 Broadway production of “Grease” — a performance that earned her a Tony nomination. Maybe you know her from “Maude,” the “All in the Family” spinoff starring Bea Arthur. But more likely, you know Barbeau from her roles in such cult film classics as “The Fog,” directed by her then-husband John Carpenter, “Escape From New York,” “Creepshow,” and “Swamp Thing.” Saturday, Barbeau’s work in those films will be honored at the Coolidge Corner Theatre as part of its After Midnite film series, and Barbeau will be here. We called her in LA to talk to her.
Q. You’ve done many things in your career, but people think of you in the context of these films. Was that something you set out to do?
A. No. It happened quite by accident. I was not familiar with the genre when I started doing them. I’m not a fan of the genre. I stay away from horror films as an audience member. But I did “The Fog,” which was my first feature. That was 1979. I’d started working on the stage in 1965. I’d been on Broadway, first “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Grease.” That led to me being seen by Norman Lear for “Maude.” But “Maude” went off the air, and if you’d do a TV series, you could not be seen by the powers that be for a film back then. They just felt like nobody is going to pay to go to the theater to watch someone they can see for free every Tuesday night.
Q. Did you want to continue on TV or make movies?
A. I never had a plan. I’ve been all over the map. I wanted to support myself as an actor. I thought: Wouldn’t that be fantastic to earn a living doing what I loved to do? When I got the Tony nomination for “Grease,” I started thinking maybe it’s time to explore other mediums, but it wasn’t, “Oh my God, I want to be a movie star.”
Q. Then you met John Carpenter.
A. I did a TV movie with John and we fell in love. He said, “I’d like to write a role for you in my next movie,” and that was “The Fog.” That was at the height of the women’s movement. We were battling the Equal Rights Amendment and he handed me this ghost story. I though, gosh, this isn’t “China Syndrome.” It wasn’t socially significant, but it was a wonderful character, and who knew it would the one that carried me through for the rest of my life?
Q. Why do you suppose that is?
A. What I hear from fans — on a weekly basis — is that it scares them to death to watch it, and some of them watch it once a week, or every time the fog comes in. He just made a great film.
Q. It turned you into what used to be called a sex symbol. Did that bother you?
A. To me, a sex symbol was Raquel Welch. Truly, if you look at my body of work, except for “Cannonball Run,” I never had a love scene until I did “Swamp Thing,” and that was with a monster. That was just something that was put on me because of the way I was built. That wasn’t anything in my head. But if it enabled me to compete for a role, then why not.
Q. Did you get the roles you wanted or did you get the roles you were offered?
A. That’s a good question. I guess I got the roles I was offered. When they sent me the script for “Creepshow,” I thought it was too bloody and too gross, and there was no way I could do it. I didn’t know who George Romero was. But John [Carpenter] said to me, “Are you kidding? You can’t turn down the opportunity to work with such an incredible director.” I just kind of went along my merry way. Sometimes I took roles because I needed to pay the bills.
Q. Can we talk for a minute about all of the sexual harassment allegations. People who pay even casual attention to Hollywood suspected that the power dynamic was out of whack and this was a big problem.
A. It’s about time. I do look back and think: Wow, I was fortunate. I did have experiences, but they weren’t in my field. Years and years ago, I went to interview for a job with (cartoonist) Al Capp — you know, “Li’l Abner” — and there was an experience that I fortunately got out of, and that was the end of that. I wasn’t taking that job. I did hear stories about Brett Ratner, but I didn’t know any of this.
Q. Do you think things will change now?
A. Oh yes, I do think so. I don’t know about the people in Alabama, who don’t seem to care, but yes, I think it’ll change.