VINCENTENNIAL: Interview with Elizabeth Shepherd, Star of TOMB OF LIGEIA
Interview conducted by Tom Stockman
May 2, 2011
British actress Elizabeth Shepherd is best known for her dual performance as the strong-willed Lady Rowena and the ghostly Lady Ligeia opposite Vincent Price in director Roger Corman’s THE TOMB OF LIGEIA in 1965. Ms Shepherd has enjoyed a long career in movies and in British television since 1959 and her most recent big screen role was as Hillary Swank’s mother-in-law in the 2008 Amelia Earhart bio AMELIA. However, it’s the stage is where she most loves to perform and that’s where we caught up with her for this interview as she was preparing for her role in an upcoming production of the play Pygmalion in Houston. We had invited Ms Shepherd to be a guest of honor at the upcoming Vincentennial, the Vincent Price 100th Birthday Celebration next month here in Price’s hometown of St. Louis, but she had committed to the play and was unable to accept our invitation. She did however film a four-minute testimonial toasting Vincent Price on the centennial of his birth that we will be showing after a 35mm screening of THE TOMB OF LIGEIA on May 21st at The Hi-Pointe Theater. This will be followed by an onstage interview and Q&A with Roger Corman moderated by Tim Lucas, editor of Video Watchdog magazine. Ticket information can be found HERE. We will post Ms Shepherd’s Vincentennial testimonial here at We Are Movie Geeks after the Hi-Pointe screening.
More about Vincentennial at www.vincentennial.com
We Are Movie Geeks: Elizabeth, you were our first choice for someone to invite to speak as a costar of Vincent Price at our upcoming Vincent Price film festival
Elizabeth Shepherd: Well, I feel really honored. Thank you.
WAMG: Of all his female costars you, as Lady Rowena in THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, had the most substantial role in any of Vincent Price’s horror films
ES: I feel I was very fortunate as a young woman to meet Vincent Price and to share the screen with him and we were given a gift with this wonderful screenplay by Robert Towne which gave us these very lively characters to play. And he gave me two roles! The emotional stakes were real and so Vincent and I, both theater actors, were really given something to sink our teeth into.
WAMG: Do you remember the very first time you met Vincent Price. Can you describe that?
ES: What I remember is that when we met, I asked “Vincent, would you like to rehearse?”, and he was so pleased because this wasn’t the first impulse he was used to on these films. But Roger Corman really entrusted those roles to us, to the whole company because the whole cast was really the cream of British character actors. It was a very strong cast.
WAMG: Had you seen the previous Edgar Allan Poe films that Vincent Price and Roger Corman had collaborated on?
ES: No. I was a complete Roger Corman virgin! In England at that time, Hammer Horror was what we knew.
WAMG: Were you a fan of horror films?
ES: Not really. That was a world I had not entered into. But of course I did with THE TOMB OF LIGEIA and with DAMIEN THE OMEN 2 where I got my eyes pecked out. But horror now, I’d say is horrible! Because in those days, the films were character-driven, they were Poe’s ‘tales of mystery and imagination’, and that was what Roger Corman was conjuring up.
WAMG: Had you read the Poe story the film was based on?
ES: Of course, I read it immediately after getting the part. And I must say my first reading of the script was a tremendous shock. To begin with, I was rather dismayed on behalf of Ligeia herself as she in the Poe story was this magnificent woman and in our story she is instead the evil lurking in the background. I spoke about that to Roger Corman and I was rather indignant on Ligeia’s behalf. Of course, Rowena is just one sentence in the story. But he said that he and Robert Towne had discussed at length how to bring this story to the screen. An opium dream would be a little undramatic.
WAMG: Right, Poe’s story has a lot of drug references that were left out of the screenplay.
ES: Oh yes, the original story is an opium dream and you don’t know if she comes to life or not or if it’s all in his imagination. He’s so stuck on her in the original story that he can’t bear to let her go. So in his drugged state he summons her back. They decided that, instead of the opium, they would go with another current interest, that of mesmerism. They made that more of a mesmerization instead of the opium which gave us something to play so it was a very intelligent and creative suggestion.
WAMG: It certainly was. Robert Towne and Roger Corman were old friends and I suspect Corman really trusted Mr. Towne.
ES: Yes, and I understand that Robert Towne really thought there should be a younger actor playing Verden.
WAMG: Yes, well Vincent Price was about 25 years older than you
ES: But nobody but Vincent could have played that and in any case, Vincent Price was a most attractive man! There was no problem for Rowena to fall in love with him. I though he was charming and there was a sexual attraction, no problem at all.
WAMG: And you had many love scenes together. It’s a very romantic film
ES: Yes, like I said, the emotional stakes were real. Obviously Rowena was spirited and willful and a woman to be reckoned with so she was a worthy successor to Ligeia until we got back to the abbey, where he was under her spell. The love story yes, Rowena loved him but he also loved her. It was through Rowena’s love for him that he was able to have the courage and insight to know how to release her.
WAMG: How did you get the role in THE TOMB OF LIGEIA ?
ES: Paul Mayersburg was Roger Corman’s assistant, and it was he that put my name forward. I’m sure my agent did as well, but that was certainly a way in.
WAMG: So you auditioned I assume.
ES: I don’t have a clear memory of how that happened. I must have auditioned and I know I had a screen test.
WAMG: Did Vincent Price give you acting tips?
ES: Not so much really, it’s that he was so present and it was wonderful to play with him and his own state of being was contagious. He was so present and in character, it was wonderful to respond to and that doesn’t always happen,
WAMG: Did you ever work with Vincent Price again?
ES: No, I didn’t, though we did exchange some correspondence. And Roger too. Both men were very gracious. We know that Vincent was such a talented man in so many aspects.
WAMG: Did you eventually catch up with all of the earlier Poe films that those two made?
ES: Oh yes of course, once my curiosity was piqued. I watched them all and of course THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH had just come out before ours so I recognized the chandeliers and the props from the Corman repertory.
WAMG: When you saw the other Poe films, were you surprised how meaty your role had been compared to the other female characters in those films?
ES: Yes, there’s something very different about THE TOMB OF LIGEIA. It was a real drama.
WAMG: Right, and much of the first half takes place in the bright outdoors, which was unheard of for a Price-Poe film. They all took places in dank castles and mansions.
ES: Absolutely! It was an epic film. Five whole weeks on a Corman production? That was like APOCALYPSE NOW for him!
WAMG: What was it like working for Corman? I don’t think he gets enough credit as an actor’s director. He’s mostly know for exploitation.
ES: What was so good about him was that he entrusted the roles to us and kept out of the way. He set up the scenes very precisely. I remember, if you recall, the next morning I go and visit Verden and surprise him and he grabs hold of me, and there’s a beautiful shot through that lattice. That had to be so carefully lined up. As far as his visuals are concerned, Roger was meticulous so that he would help our work in the storytelling, by the way he would show sympathy for the actors and present the scenes in the best way. His choices of camera angles always favored the actors which was really nice. Now it’s all montage and special effects and too much editing.
WAMG: What can you say about that cat?
ES: Oh, the best cat was the amateur cat on location, which we borrowed from a woman in the village. When the cat was on Ligeia’s tombstone, it glared at me. Oh, that cat was an actor! The cat that had the glasses tied his nose hated those glasses. When I was in the coffin and Verden swiped the cat away, the cat ran off and was never seen again.
WAMG: He’d had enough of show business I guess. Did you keep any souvenirs from the set of THE TOMB OF LIGEIA ?
ES: No, not really. I was such a gypsy and at that stage in my life, I had not emigrated and was moving around all over the place. Someone since has procured for me a script because my own original script had somehow got lost so I now have one. I must say, I’m very proud of the movie THE TOMB OF LIGEIA. I hadn’t seen it for many years and my son was at the the Thacher School in Ojai, California, and one of his teachers taught a film course and put THE TOMB OF LIGEIA on the list to show. I happened to be in England at the time so I flew over and Edmund was to be the projectionist and I thought well, if I’m there, they can’t be rude about it. And everyone was thrilled with the film
WAMG: THE TOMB OF LIGEIA has aged beautifully and I have to confess when I was a youngster growing up on those films, THE TOMB OF LIGEIA was my least favorite because of its lack of overt horror elements and it was such a romance. As a little boy, I wanted more blood and scares but as I’ve grown, and the film has grown, I think it’s about the best in the series.
ES: Yes, people say that and I believe it’s true and it is rather different and was a wonderful way to end the series, on such a high note. And Roger Corman is tremendously underestimated as a man of the cinema. I was so glad that he got that award (the honorary Oscar) last year. At last, and not just for his own work but for the way he’s mentored so many directors and actors and he’s pioneered bringing foreign films to the American public. He’s quite the giant.
WAMG: Like I like to say, he discovered everyone! THE TOMB OF LIGEIA was also Vincent Price’s favorite of his Corman collaborations.
ES: Yes, and when he was interviewed by David Del Valle, I was very thrilled to have such praise from Vincent. That meant a lot because I admired him so much.
WAMG: If Vincent Price were here right now, how would you toast him on his 100th birthday?
ES: Oh, of course with the very best champagne.
WAMG: Tell me about what you’re doing currently in Houston.
ES: I’m in a production of Pygmalion at the Alley Theater, one of the few theaters left that has somewhat of a permanent company so it has a tremendously wonderful reputation. It’s a very beautiful theater to work in and a very serious regional theater. I play Mrs. Higgins which is a so much better role in the real play than in the movie version.
WAMG: Have you played Eliza Dolittle before?
ES: I played Eliza Dolittle at the Shore Festival in Canada. So here I go from Eliza to Mrs. Higgins, so you know in my career I have gone from Ophelia to Gertrude, from Juliet to Lady Capulet, it’s good!
WAMG: When does this play start
ES: On May 20th. If we’d still been in rehearsal I’d have come to St. Louis, but we’ll be on stage. I’m very pleased to have remained a working actress.
WAMG: Have you ever been to St. Louis?
ES: No, I would like to come
WAMG: Well, if you can make it out this summer, the Vincent Price exhibit is up at a local art gallery with all types of artifacts from Vincent Price’s childhood, and theater programs and such, and of course movie memorabilia including two lobby cards from THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, one of which you’re featured in prominently. That will be up until August.
ES: That sounds lovely and I do congratulate you on doing this and so many people I have discovered, by going to these horror movie conventions, love Vincent Price and quite rightly too because he also loved people.
WAMG: Well good luck with your play and thanks for talking with me this morning.
ES: Well thank you Tom, and best of luck with your event.
If any reader is lucky enough to be in Houston, Texas between May 20th and June 12th, you can see Elizabeth Shepherd on stage. Details about the play can be found HERE