I recently had the opportunity to speak with actor Debra Christofferson, a super talented performer who has done work in films including Wild Wild West, Mouse Hunt, Anjelina Jolie’s The Changeling, White Oleander, My Favorite Martian, and more. She also has television appearance in shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Ally Mcbeal, American Horror Story, Crime Story, The X Files, NYPD Blue, CSI, Weeds, Bones, The Mentalist, NCIS, Southland and a legendary arc in HBO’s Carnivale as Lila. She was an absolute pleasure to speak with. Enjoy!
Nate: Since I don’t see much about your background or training on imdb, would you care to speak about that? Did you come from an artistic background, how did you know you wanted to pursue acting, where did you train etc?
Debra: I honestly don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be an actor. There’s a video of me at about a year and a half old where I come tearing around a corner and look up at my dad, who is holding the camera. I glance down at the floor like I’m looking for my mark, adjust my position, then look back up at the camera and smile like, “Okay, I’m ready for my close up!” It’s pretty funny, and kind of prescient. I was always dressing up as a kid, making up scenarios and entertaining myself, or anyone who would listen. We didn’t have a theatre department in school, but I sang solos and did plays at church, and also performed for years, as did many townspeople, as an extra in the Black Hills Passion Play, a three hour pageant about the last week of Christ’s life. The professional actors in the production were always very kind and encouraging, and made a lasting impression on me.
I attended college on a vocal scholarship, and double majored in music and theatre. I moved to Minneapolis after graduation, and took acting classes and did several plays before moving to Los Angeles to pursue tv and film.
I’ve studied with several acting coaches over the years, but the biggest influence in my process has really been studying metaphysics. The basic idea of being in present moment at all times keeps one honest as a character, and influences the choices I make as an actor.
Nate: Upon first entering the industry and auditioning, where did you expect to go, character wise? Did you have any certain genre or character style you wanted to explore? Did you get to go down the avenues you hoped for? Did it surprise you the characters you did end up portraying?
Debra: Oh, I was so very naive! Training in theatre gave me no preparation whatsoever for working in the television and film industry. I had no idea of how to put together a resume, no clue what it was like to be on a set, no concept of the enormity of it all. I started doing student films to get some footage of myself on camera, so I had something to show prospective agents; I did some extra work to find out what it was like to be on the set of a big production; and I continued to do theatre to keep myself feeling productive. Ultimately, I got an agent, joined the unions, started getting auditions, and was on my way. Very, very slowly, but on my way, nevertheless.
As for a genre, I’ve said in previous interviews how influential the movie “Star Wars” was to me. I had always thought I’d end up in New York and on Broadway, but after seeing “Star Wars,” I just wanted to make magic like that. And now that JJ Abrams is restarting the franchise, I guess there’s still hope! A new hope. LOL!
Besides making scifi movie magic, I wanted to have a variety show like Carol Burnett. I love the idea of being part of a fabulously talented ensemble, playing a myriad of characters, singing and dancing, having wonderful guest stars, etc. That genre has been out of style for awhile, but one never knows when it might make a resurgence!
I am extremely pleased, and I guess somewhat surprised, at some of the characters I’ve been privileged to play. I’ve run the gamet from a normal blue collar worker (“T.J. Hooker,” among others) to a demon (“Good vs. Evil”), to a sexy bearded lady (“Carnivale”). I’ve worked with some of the nicest and most talented people in the Industry, and have had amazing opportunities.
Nate: What would be your dream role in film? Existing or an imaginary, yet to be written character.
Debra: As a kid I wanted to play Scarlett O’Hara. Or maybe it was to just be Vivian Leigh playing Scarlett O’Hara. Dream role – are you listening, JJ Abrams? I want to be a recurring character in “Star Wars!”
Nate: Carnivale- Lila makes such a huge impression on the show, and is somewhat underestimated by others, she’s kind of a cunning, wily girl. Did you enjoy working on that, and playing her? Are you a fan of the show as a whole? It’s such a tragedy it got cancelled so early.. Did you ever have any idea where it might have gone post season 2?
Debra: I adored playing Lila! The 1930’s is my favorite time period for music, architecture, clothing, etc., and it was wonderful being able to inhabit that world. I thought the show was amazing – stunning production values, beautifully shot, brilliantly written and performed. It was before its time, and it broke my heart when we were cancelled after only two seasons. Dan Knauf, the creator of “Carnivale,” had the entire series planned out, so there was lots more to see and experience. I recall that the third season was set a few years after season two, and involved Samson gathering the carnies back together as they had all gone their separate ways.
Nate: Mousehunt- pure, delightful physical comedy. The auction scene is like the peak of the tumultuous, chaotic events throughout the film. There was a lot going on, a lot of actors present, and a wonderful screwball comic vibe. How was your experience filming that sequence?
Debra: I made life-long friends on that shoot. We started out near Yosemite, shooting the flooding sequence. The first week there were several minor mishaps on the dangerously muddy terrain, but we all made it through and production held a “whew!” party for us at a local bowling alley. And I fractured my wrist bowling. Yeah, slipped in very slippery bowling shoes and fell throwing a ball down the alley. I had to be flown back to L.A. to get it set, and then we managed to cover the cast adequately for it not to show in the mud and water sequences. It worked out kind of miraculously, and by the time the auction scene was shot, my wrist had healed.
I remember having a blast shooting that sequence. It took several days, and between the mice and the fire, we were kept on our toes. And when you’re working with really fun, talented friends, it’s a joy!
The hardest thing to shoot was a scene involving the main actors floating and swimming through the floodwater. Production built a huge water tank on the Universal backlot near the “Psycho” house, and we were drilled on safety measures with the divers who were under water with air tanks if we needed them. Camilla Soeberg, who played my sister, and I got into the water and tried to dive under to get to the proper depth for the camera, but we kept floating to the top. Our wigs had been built on styrofoam bases, which wouldn’t let us stay under the water. It was hilarious, but an expensive mistake. Ultimately, the whole scene ended up on the cutting room floor.
Nate: Wild Wild West- The scene with you and Will Smith. One of the funniest bits. Were you two given lots of room for playing and improvisation, or was it mostly to script? Did you have fun with that project?
Debra: I loved working on “Wild Wild West.” I had originally read for the role of the bartender early in the movie when Kevin Kline was dressed in drag. They cast someone else, but liked me enough at the audition to still want me in the film, so asked me to dance with Will. That evolved into a couple of other scenes as well. My first day on set involved the dance. We rehearsed it twice and the timing just wasn’t working. I knew musically how to fix it, but was hesitant to say anything to this rapper guy, because I figured he knew rhythm, and I didn’t want to overstep. But when the third try didn’t work, I spoke up. Will nodded and said to Barry Sonnenfeld, the director, “Debra has an idea I think might work.” We tried it and it worked perfectly. After that, I was “in.” I was invited to sit with Barry, Will and the other leads in “video village,” which was surrounded by Will’s bodyguards (there were hundreds of extras on the set), and I kept getting more bits to do. One of my fondest memories is of when the set was cleared for rehearsal and I found myself alone with Barry, Will, Kevin Kline, Ted Levine, and one of my all-time favorites, Kenneth Branaugh. We spent a good 15 minutes working on a scene, and I suggested a line about being “back in the saddle” which ended up in the film. The best part of all, however, was every morning when I got to sit next to Ken in the make-up trailer and chat. It was heaven!
Nate: You made an appearance in the video game L.A. Noire. How was your experience with recording in a sound studio? I ask because in my work I absolutely love doing VO stuff, it’s such a rush, and so wildly different from on camera acting. Did you find this as well?
Debra: When I first moved to L.A. I did a lot of voiceover work for cartoons and dubbed several foreign films. L.A. Noire was a unique experience however, unlike anything I’d done before. The dressing up in the neoprine suit with little ping pong balls all over, working in a black box with yellow gridlines and imagining everything, sitting in a round white room being photographed by hundreds of cameras – crazy! The motion capture included the vocal performance, so there wasn’t separate voiceover work for that. However, when I went in to have my face photographed from a gazillion angles, they asked me to do a bunch of additional lines as various characters, so I got to use different voices and accents to play as many parts as possible.
Nate: Do you haven my upcoming projects, film or otherwise, that you are excited for and would like to speak about?
Debra: Yes, I do. I’m thrilled to be working on an exciting new project, but can’t talk about it! It seems to be de rigueur anymore that one is required to sign a non-disclosure agreement so nothing leaks out about high-profile projects. Thanks, Internet! LOL!
I can say that the powers that be and the lead actors on this particular project were at ComiCon last summer promoting it and that it will be out sometime in early 2016. So maybe check back with me next year!
Nate: I look forward to this mystery project! Keep up the awesome work Debra and thanks for chatting!