Dee Wallace On Her Most Difficult Role: CUJO 40 Years Later

In conversation with the definitive movie Mom on life, death, healing… and that dog movie.

By Rich Johnson · @richpieces · August 11, 2023, 3:01 PM EDT

(Editor’s note: this interview was conducted prior to the current SAG-AFTRA strike.)

“Cujo was by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life.

There’s a distinct energy to a Dee Wallace performance. Whether confronting a serial killer werewolf, discovering a dying alien in her house, or protecting her child against a rabid dog, we are drawn in by the sheer honesty of whatever she “channels” on screen. It is, therefore, no surprise that off-screen, as an intuitive life coach, she has gone on to help others channel and, ultimately, “heal” through her self-help. Very much the maternal figure in real life, Dee’s wisdom, warmth, and sensitivity immediately hits you. There is a philosophical nature ― which feels inescapable ― as one moment she shares a beautiful story from E.T. before blowing your mind on how every thought and feeling may be influenced by the same electromagnetic impulses of the universe that can change a pattern or perspective of your life… or reinforce it.

Then the conversation grows emotional as she recalls her mother and grandmother ― perspectives, poverty, and personal trauma ― emotions we recognize in her memorable performances, a truth that has helped us believe in fantasies and also protect us from the real monsters that may or may not be hiding in our closets.

Some of us watched Cujo way too young, and it was made all the more terrifying seeing the mom from E.T. in peril. As an adult, the viewing experience shifts and feels like a completely different movie as we now relate to the film on another level. Have you heard this a lot over the years?

So much. Especially when they’ve had kids themselves. That becomes a whole other experience.

It’s a scary movie, but, as with most genre films, is often put in a specific box. It stands head and shoulders above most in the genre because of its characters and the domestic drama.

Oh absolutely. We took so much time to develop the characters and to build the relationship. I’m a huge animal lover ― as everyone was on set ― and our concern was how our viewers would react at the end when I shoot the dog. So, in looking at it, the journey with the dog has to be so relentless that by the end, you forgive us.

There are moments in the car, specifically when you snap and scream.

[On cue] “Okay, I’ll get your daddy!”

[Laughter] Chills. That’s a phenomenal moment… so much emotion and impact.

They came to me the day after, and they said, “Dee, we want you to look at these dailies, it’s so powerful, but we’re afraid people won’t like you if we put it in the movie.” And I watched it, and I said to Dan Blatt ― our beloved producer who I adored ― I said, “Dan, there’s not a parent in the world that has not felt like that.” So, they left it in, and it was probably the most reviewed moment.

It’s Oscar-worthy.

Well, thank you. It’s my favorite movie I’ve done.

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Alas, seen as a “horror” movie, the performance wouldn’t have been so recognized.

Well, I’ve never seen it as a horror movie. It’s a thriller. But I guess, psychologically, it was all connected to those cheaper movies over the years, and it just got pulled into everything and how they viewed the genre.

Moving immediately from Steven Spielberg to Stephen King, where were you in your head going from the phenomenon of E.T. straight into Cujo; that shift of character and intensity?

Well, Dan contacted me and sent me the script. I called him as soon as I’d read it and said, “How much money do I have to pay you to let me do this?” I mean, you can’t ask for a more tour de force part than the mother in Cujo. But boy, did I pay for it. [laughs]

You say there was this concern that no one would have liked her based on a specific moment, but for all her flaws ― the family being torn apart in other ways ― only you could have made her so sympathetic. Not for one minute do you dislike Donna, and that’s down to your performance.

Oh, that’s a lot to say. Thank you. You know, if you’re not pulling for the mother and son, you don’t have the movie. It’s as simple as that.

I know that even Stephen King was glad the child wasn’t killed off in the end, as in his novel. But, regarding the foundations, it was an interesting dynamic he created. He didn’t write such a safe story where a happily married couple ― an already solid unit ― are attacked by a dog in their own home.

Then adding that the car doesn’t work at a remote farm out in the sticks grounds it all the more and increases the tension to a rabid fever pitch. This is why Mr. King is such a good writer; he has a real knack for taking the simplistic ― the mundane, the daily routine ― and ramping up the drama. That drama happens to all of us. I mean, we hear awful stories of people being attacked or raped and they say, “I was just going to the store [chokes up]… it was just a regular day. And now my life is changed.” I think people really relate to that.

In terms of horror, what do you feel Cujo taps into that other films in the genre fail at?

Well, it taps into something primal and psychological. For instance, when we’re growing up, you can call the thing that’s in the back of our closet a monster. We can call our own thoughts monsters. We all have them. We all deal with them. But it’s how we choose to deal with them. Whether it’s a horror, a thriller, the monster attacking a mother and her son, or simply the protection and love between a parent and her child, it’s all about your perspective.

For me, when I read the script, I knew Donna [snaps fingers] like that. I knew she had to be strong and vulnerable and scared and courageous all at the same time. What I began to realize, in reflection, was that my mother was all those things. I had a father ― he was a severe alcoholic ― so I had him, and then I didn’t have him, and, therefore, my mother had no choice but to be strong for all of us.

It’s always so sad to hear about the tragedies you have faced, especially with those patriarchal figures. Some would say bad luck.

I don’t look at it that way.

That highlights how you seem to have always taken it with such positivity and how integral that has become to your work as a life coach.

I believe we all have that choice. You can be a victim for the rest of your life, or you can go, “Okay, this is the fact of what’s happened to me. What do I do with me now?”

That must have come from your mother, that way of thinking and, ultimately, coping with trauma.

Yeah… my mother and my grandmother were both very strong matriarchal figures. My mom was a wonderful actress herself in community theater but she was also a saint. She would go to work at seven in the morning, come home at seven at night, fix dinner, and make sure we all went to church on Sunday. While she attended theater, she would take me with her, and I would watch her perform. It was there she would barter her secretarial services to secure my elocution lessons, so I would also learn readings and then go out and perform them. How she did all that, I do not know… and… [Tears up]… sorry. When I talk about my mom she… I just thank her every day because I really love who I am and she gave that to me.

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It’s incredible you would share that. Being so in tune with your emotions not only makes sense of your emotional performances but also how you have dealt with life and death, in turn, helping to heal others.

Well, I love my healing work. It’s a huge part of who I am, and I feel like I can teach it so well because I’ve been through it all.

It’s incredible, on top of the wealth of screen work. Nearly 300 credits! You’ve never stopped.

You know… I love everything I do, so I don’t look at it as going to work.

It’s not something you do. It’s something you are.

Yeah… yeah, that’s a good way of saying it. And again, it’s all channeling. I don’t write down anything in my acting. I don’t do any of the “Where am I going to? Where am I coming from? What’s my agenda?” I either get it, or I don’t. If I don’t get it, I don’t take the part. That doesn’t happen very often, only in those roles I can’t find the heart in.

What have you taken away from Cujo that still resonates today in your acting?

Be truthful. If I’m not truthful in the moment, I feel like I have bugs crawling all over me. It’s interesting, they will hire me for my emotional talent, and then they’re afraid to be too emotional. For example, I was doing a part on TV recently, and they came in and asked that of me. I could do it, but they didn’t understand my response: “Look, when there are moments when people are in danger, and you don’t know what’s going to happen and you don’t have all the facts, you keep it together. You keep it together so that you can help; so that you can understand, so that you can put the pieces together… and then, when you know everything’s okay, that’s when the emotions come.”

They went with it, but it was difficult. Now, especially in TV, directors take direction from producers. It’s a whole different world I came up in. As Joanne Woodward said to me one time: “Sweetheart, when the game changes, you play the new game.” But anyway, they were very pleased about how it came out, and everybody was happy. It’s so different from when working with Steven, Joe, or Lewis ― even Blake Edwards ― where you collaborated and built on those instinctual moments.

Well, just look at the results. The proof is in the pudding.

Of course, but there’s also a school of thought where filmmakers try it all ways, and it’s not as gratifying for me because I feel like my performance is just multiple-choice.

Where it’s built in the editing, and something is lost.

A character’s emotions and the throughline builds through the whole thing, so if that becomes disjointed, it can work from a technical point of view really well, but you can never get the experience you get like you get when you watch Cujo. You can’t capture that experience by doing it from your head. You just can’t. I mean, there’s no way I could have broken down scenes and decided stuff. I’m working with a six-year-old kid and a dog! When they work, they print it. Every scene you see in Cujo, we probably did up to twenty times… and I always had to be on. Now, that being said, those dogs were impeccably trained by Karl Miller. And Danny Pintauro was like working with another adult, he was an amazing child actor.

You must be incredibly proud to have seen the child actors you have worked with grow and find their own paths over the years.

I felt like I was a very good mother [laughs].

I bet! Looking at the genre, how do you feel horror heals?

It’s interesting if you Google “the positive effects of horror films,” you will be shocked at what it does for your brain and what it does for your nervous system. It’s by no mistake that all Disney films have a scary character. Children want to learn how to deal with their fears in a very safe place with mommy and daddy. I remember when I would watch The Little Mermaid with my daughter, she would go, “Mommy. Lady-get-big part!” referring to Ursula growing into the leviathan at the end.

We’re doing the same thing when we go to see horror films. We’re shouting out for that and, maybe without realizing it, we’re going, “Okay, I have the safety of knowing this isn’t real right now, but how do I deal with this?” It’s the kind of thing I love to do in my workshops when I’m teaching. We can say they’re horror or sci-fi but holy hell, we’re often living in what was thought of as fantasy worlds, especially with what is going on with AI right now.

At 40 years old, what do you feel the legacy of Cujo is as a movie?

That’s a good question. I would have to say ― and I know it may sound weird ― but for me, love. The whole film is about how love transcended all the evil, all the danger, and all the fear the Trenton family goes through. Some say it’s an “animal attack movie,” whereas I see it as a “relationship movie” between a son and his mother. The animal is the catalyst for creating how far that love can go. I believe that’s the film’s true legacy.

Your late husband, Christopher Stone, was also great. Your onscreen relationship is a role reversal to the one in The Howling, playing a more possessive character. I’m sure having him there on set as much as possible must have been the best support during such a demanding performance, both mentally and physically. You needed him there, surely?

Oh, absolutely. Not that I ever used Christopher as my mouthpiece. We never did that on set. If we had an issue, we dealt with them ourselves. But just having him there, having his love was great. And Christopher was a very funny guy, so he brought a lot of humor to the set, which was needed. It was hysterical trying to do the love scene. I mean, love scenes are hard enough, you know, but when you’re doing them with your real-life husband, it’s sort of like your mother sitting on the end of the bed watching you [laughs]. So he says to me, “Don’t worry, honey, I’ll take care of you.” That was Chris, and everybody loved him. He just brought a lot of balance to the set for me and at our house when I arrived home.

It’s interesting how the story has these alpha threats, and he played it so well. The adultery is a major part of the story that adults may relate to more, a situation that makes these characters more flawed, more vulnerable, and, ultimately, more human.

We’ve all got fractures. We’ve all got limitations. We’ve all got things we wish we had done better or differently. Looking at the movies as “positive translations” reminds us of this. Again, it comes back to “perspective,” and cinema is a place where we are presented with different perspectives. A good film will ask you to think and expand your perspective. Some films want you to feel love, and that’s a perspective. Horror movies want you to be scared, and that’s a perspective. And the experience of watching Cujo reinforces all of that.

Dee can currently be seen in Fatal Attraction on Paramount+. You can learn more about her healing and self-help