The North Carolina born actress talks about her experience on the set of Capote’s true crime story upon the 55th anniversary of the murders.
by Cerith Mathias
Brenda Currin spent her early childhood in Oxford, North Carolina — “a tobacco growing town about half an hour from Chapel Hill in Durham.” At the age of 15 she went to live with her aunt and uncle in Olathe, Kansas, before going on to major in theatre at Kansas University. While a student there, Currin was cast as Nancy Clutter in the 1967 movie adaptation of Truman Capote’s genre-defining true crime novel In Cold Blood, which chronicles the brutal murder of the Clutter family in their Kansas farmhouse.
“Four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives” Capote wrote of the horrific events of the night of November 14, 1959,, referring not only to the Clutters — father Herb, mother Bonnie, 15-year-old Kenyon and 16-year-old Nancy — but also to the killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, (himself from Olathe), who later died on the gallows.
Clutter family farmhouse in Holcomb, Kansas
This month marks the 55th anniversary of the murders and of Truman Capote’s subsequent first visit (along with friend Harper Lee) to the small town of Holcomb — where he would work on his novel for six years, gaining extraordinary personal access to both the Clutter home and to the killers themselves.
The movie that followed a year after the publication of the book continued in the same vein; it was filmed at the actual Clutter home, the actors surrounded by the family’s possessions. (The 2005 film “Capote” with Philip Seymour Hoffman is a fictional account of Capote’s research for “In Cold Blood.”)
After hearing Brenda Currin take part in a panel discussion during the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival in March, Cerith Mathias caught up with her on the telephone from her home in New York to talk about her experiences of filming “In Cold Blood” and her memories of meeting Capote.
Brenda Currin (left) with Paul Willis, Diane Ladd and Thomas Keith at the 2014 Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. Photo by Ride Hamilton.
CM: Did you start out wanting to be an actress?
BC: I had an accident when I was 16 at a Girl Scout camp — I fell off a cliff. My main interest up until that point had been sports. However, I had a bad stutter, and I went to camp in Swannanoa, North Carolina, and one of the requisites was dramatics and I had this radical discovery that I didn’t stutter when I played another role. I gravitated toward the theater department but I was still stuttering, so I just signed up for props. Eventually I started getting cast in character roles in college and that just became what I did. Kansas University really was a great experience for me — including being cast in the movie “In Cold Blood.”
CM: How did your role in “In Cold Blood” come about?
BC: I wasn’t in the theater department at the time, but I was renting a room from a graduate couple — Steve and Julie Callaghan, who were graduate students in the department. The phone rang at the Callaghan’s, I happened to answer, and the professor from the Theater Department said, “Oh Brenda, I would have forgotten to ask you. I called to tell Steve and Julia that these Hollywood people are coming tomorrow. It’s the director of ‘In Cold Blood.’ They’ve been trying to cast and haven’t found anyone, so why don’t you come down.”
CM: Were you familiar with Truman Capote’s novel at that time?
BC: Yes, I read the book before I knew anything about the movie. The Callaghans lived in a Victorian house, my bedroom was at the top of the stairs, and I read In Cold Blood while I was in that house. I had such a vivid sensation of being in my bed at the top of the stairs and hearing those footsteps coming up the stairs. I really had trouble sleeping. I just kept imagining what it must have been like to be Nancy.
Brenda Currin as Nancy in “In Cold Blood”
CM: How did you prepare for the role?
BC: Well, I certainly read the book again and then began thinking of all the things in Nancy’s daily life and just what it was like for her. I found my normality as a kid her age by going to school, by being involved in activities, like swimming and what have you, and I know that she had friends, and I think was popular — she had a boyfriend. The movie set was the house — the actual Clutter house — and Nancy’s room was that classic girl’s room of a twin bed, a dresser and memorabilia, a teddy bear. In the set dressing for the movie, they had a picture of me on Babe, which was Nancy’s beloved horse, which I also rode. It just was that very touching transitional kind of bedroom, transitional from being a child to being 16.
CM: In an essay Truman Capote wrote about the filming of “In Cold Blood,” titled “Ghosts in the Sunlight,” he talks of his desire to make the movie as authentic as possible, saying “… reality and art are intertwined.” How emotional was it to film at the actual Clutter home, surrounded by their possessions?
BC: Very emotional. It is such an intense story. I can’t even imagine how much further we as a society can push violence in terms of movies and TV, and yet that was not the sensibility of ‘In Cold Blood.’ But the movie has the intensity of almost unbearable violence. It was filmed in black and white, it was in a way a very old-fashioned movie. Conrad Hall, the cinematographer, shot the murder scenes over an entire week, with the windows blacked out and all by the light of a flashlight. It was extraordinary and to be in that house, in the dark, for a solid week. It was harrowing and very claustrophobic and just airless.
CM: What are your memories of filming and of your fellow cast members?
BC: I think originally they had been thinking of casting stars like Paul Newman as one of the killers and that was wisely rejected, so there was a certain anonymity that led to the documentary feel of the movie. We were all together in this Garden City Motel, a very nuts and bolts place, and kind of formed that family unit that showbiz people do when they’re working on something, especially something like this. All except for the two guys who were playing the killers.
Scott Wilson and Robert Blake (who in 2005 was tried and acquitted of the murder of his second wife Bonny Bakley but was later found liable for her death in a civil trial) made a particular point of not staying in the same place with the rest of us and of not even making eye contact. So when it came time to film the scene in Nancy’s bedroom, the room was so small that they had to take out the bed in order to get the camera in. As the camera was about to roll, Robert Blake, who had never said one word to me, started hurling these invectives at me. I’d never heard that kind of language. What came out of him was unbelievable, it was an absolute body blow, and I broke down and started to cry.
Just then, Richard Brooks said “Action!” and Robert, in the most gentle voice imaginable said, “Do you like horses?” It completely turned me upside down and all around, this duality that I had just experienced. Afterwards I was a mess. I remember I went and sat in the mother’s room just to get myself together and he came in and sat down next to me and said, “You’re a nice actress.” And from that point on we became really close, and that extended into the following year around the release of the film. He came to New York to do press and would call me up, and I remember we took a walk to Central Park together, and I remember him to be very self-dramatic and he said he was mainly conveying the burden of having immersed himself in that role. I remember him saying “There but for the grace of God go I.” That walk in Central Park was the last time I saw him.
Truman Capote (right) with actors Robert Blake (Perry Smith) and Scott Wilson (Dick Hickock) on the set of “In Cold Blood”
CM: Was Truman Capote a familiar face on set? Did he take an active role during filming?
BC: There was one week that was designated as press week and all the major magazines were there: Life Magazine, Time Magazine, Newsweek, and Capote was there. I don’t remember seeing him on the Clutter set that week, but I do remember hearing a buzz that Richard Brooks (the director) asked him to leave. I’m not sure if he ordered him off the set, but it was just too much of a distraction. So it was a surprise when I heard that Capote wanted to meet me and Paul Hough, who played my brother Kenyon. Paul and I went down to his room; we were on the second floor of the hotel, he was on the first, and he was propped up on pillows on the bed. He had come down with the flu and was honking his nose into this bath towel. He was extremely vulnerable and extremely open. Paul and I sat at the foot of the bed and I just remember this incredible ease.
I do believe he just had a gift for making people feel that way, and I just wanted to stay forever. He was very revealing of just how emotional this trip was for him, as they all had been, but he said this would be the last. I don’t know if what he told us was the truth, but he said he had gotten on a plane on the night that he’d read in the New York Times about the murders, and he’d gone immediately to the house and just started walking around; he said he walked from room to room and tried to imagine what had happened there. He wove a tale for me and Paul that day, and I was absolutely spellbound. I didn’t feel like I was in the presence of a performer, I just felt like I was in the presence of this man, this person and how personal he was with us. So I have deep affection for him.
CM: Did you stay in touch after filming?
BC: Well, the girl who played my best friend in the movie, Mary Linda Rapelye, we went to New York and we got an apartment together, and we received a note from Truman Capote saying “I’ve seen a rough cut of the movie and I think you girls would be very proud and I hope you’ll do me the honor of letting me take you both to lunch at the Plaza.” So we did indeed take him up on that invitation. Looking back, I just thought all of life was going to be this way! I didn’t even feel it was that remarkable at the time. I thought ‘Oh isn’t this swell’ and that things like that would be happening forever.
CM: The movie has been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being culturally and historically significant. Why do you think it has struck such a chord?
BC: The construction of the book itself is very filmic in terms of crosscutting between the family and the killers. It’s masterful storytelling, and that just simply remains. It’s documenting in a way that’s true and important and also there’s an artistry that makes this live on as a book and a film.
Brenda Currin returns to the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival March 25-29, 2015, in a star turn as Violet Venable, the manipulative matriarch in Tennessee Williams’ masterful play “Suddenly Last Summer” presented in partnership with Southern Rep and directed by Aimee Hayes.
Cerith Mathias is a political television producer for the BBC in South Wales, but her true passion is traveling and literature. “I have held a keen interest in the South since childhood, which I believe stems from reading authors such as Harper Lee and Mark Twain,” she says. She’s written articles on Zelda Fitzgerald for literary magazines and published work in New Zealand, Italy and the UK. She’s currently working on a travel guide based on her travels in the South.