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Annie Revisited: An Interview with Aileen Quinn

by Rich Rosell

I suppose it might be big news for the morbidly curious if the little girl who played the title role in the 1982 John Huston-directed musical, Annie, grew up and turned into a foul-mouthed wild child. That, I'm glad to report, is not the case here. When dOc recently had the chance to sit down with Annie's Aileen Quinn, to discuss movies, theater and of course DVDs, it was difficult to imagine anyone that could ever be more pleasant, friendly, or just plain nice to talk to. She even went above and beyond the call of duty and graciously fielded a question or two from a young fan, dOc's own 12-year-old junior correspondent, Samantha Rosell.

Quinn seems to have certainly risen well above the child star pitfalls that have tripped so many others, and if you can find someone out there who is nicer I will gladly eat my hat.

dOc: Of course we all know you from starring at age 10 in Annie, but you did some theater work before that, didn't you?

Aileen Quinn: I did, and I was actually in the Broadway version of Annie as one of the orphans. So I did Broadway before I did the movie.

dOc: Did you do a lot of community theater before that?

AQ: A lot. I started off in regional theater, and commercials as well. I was simultaneously doing some regional theater, then the commercials came in, some national spots?Northern Bathroom Tissue, Jell-O, all that stuff?and then the Broadway show came right as the commercials were starting. Then I started auditioning for the movie Annie as I was doing the Broadway show. So, between the ages of 7 and 10, it kind of moved pretty fast, actually.

dOc: You also had a small speaking part in Paternity (1981) right around that same time, correct?

AQ: I sure did. That was the movie I did two days of shooting on while I was doing the Broadway play. It was like thirty seconds for a one-liner.

dOc: I can't recall the specifics of Paternity exactly, but I know it starred Burt Reynolds. Was your scene with him?

AQ: Yes. It's when he's in the park and he's thinking about the whole family thing, and we're looking at these birds that are mating on our school trip. We're talking something about the mother bird, and how somehow she get's a break because she's not actually the mom in this bird's species, and she gets to go away. One girl says "I call it smart" and I get to say "I call it lucky." That's it, one line: "I call it lucky." Ironically, to stay warm in the cold in Central Park in between shooting, Burt Reynolds picked a song to sing to us, and with us being two little girls, he started singing Tomorrow. And then I did the movie Annie eight months later.

dOc: Maybe Burt Reynolds has special powers?

AQ: Yes, and the other girl (Mara Hobel) went on to do the lead in Mommie Dearest (1981). So the two girls he personally picked out for speaking lines both went on to each star in a film.

dOc: He had the golden touch, apparently.

AQ: I think he does.

dOc: By the time the movie role as Annie came about, you were how old?

AQ: I was 10 1/2 when it came out, and 11 when I did the tour around the world to promote it.

dOc: You were whittled down from some obscenely large number of girls for the role.

AQ: Yes, like over 8,000 girls.

dOc: How did that feel? As a 10-year-old girl, that had to be kind of overwhelming, to say the least.

AQ: I was actually 9 at the time. Overwhelming is exactly the word. I don't think I really realized what that meant, and it was extremely overwhelming. I really didn't expect to get the part?of course I hoped?but I didn't really think it was going to happen. There was shock on my face.

dOc: How long did it take for that realization to sink in? I mean, at that age did you have any idea at all? Annie was a really big production with a lot of name talent.

AQ: I don't think I realized what a big deal it was when they told me, but it didn't take long for it to actually sink in that I did get the part, because the next morning I was on all the talk shows right away at 7am. It didn't take long to believe the person that told me, that he wasn't just pulling my leg, that I really did have the part. As far as the size and magnitude of the movie, and the fact that I would be travelling afterwards, I don't think that sunk in until my teen years.

dOc: It must be something, to just look back on the cast and realize that you worked with the likes of Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, and Tim Curry, let alone [Annie director] John Huston. You're 9 years old, and working with John Huston (Key Largo, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Misfits), certainly one of the classic American directors.

AQ: I realize now how lucky I was, and that I couldn't have worked with a better cast on my first main role in a film. That was quite an amazing group.

dOc: John Huston is not necessarily known for making musicals.

AQ: I know, that's what everyone always says.

dOc: When I think of him, I picture a big, curmudgeonly, crusty guy, and I can't picture him directing a bunch of singing orphans.

AQ: What's interesting about that, from day one when I met him, I had a special connection with him. I don't know what it is, but I have a couple of theories. But when I met him we really connected, even in my auditions. I right away looked at him as this warm, grandfather figure, though I know he's known as?how did you put it?

dOc: Curmudgeonly? He just looks that way.

AQ: He was really very, very warm, so much so that after the filming of the movie he liked me and my family so much that he invited us to his private cove in Mexico for two weeks. So that was probably a major influence on where my Spanish major came from later in college, being 11 years old and going to Puerto Vallarta and hanging out. To me, he [Huston] was really like a close friend. The fact that he was really not known for musicals, and that he was probably more of an actor's director, was good. I've always focused on the acting first, though I can sing and dance, but acting has always been the most important to me, the character. I guess even though I was a kid, and he certainly spoke above my head, I did kind of relate to him on a lot of levels, even though I was very young.

dOc: In terms of the production of the movie, you had to wear the Annie wig. Was it pleasant? Unpleasant?

AQ: For a child, the adjective I always used was "itchy." I remember I had to have a special comb to itch it, and I would mess the style up if I itched with my hand, so I had to have a special comb. I just remember it being very itchy, that was the word. Hot and itchy under the lights.

dOc: It's 1982, Annie comes out, you're 10 years old, you're on television shows, you're in magazines, you're Annie. Were you looking to make more films after that? Were you considering jumping into a film career, or did your family not want you to go in that direction?

AQ: I was actually under contract to make several more Annie movies, but that never happened. I was offered sit-coms and other films, but had to turn them down.

dOc: What happened to the sequels?

AQ: I met with directors, and they threw out scripts, and they threw out some directors I met personally, but it just didn't work out. I think they were going to do sort of like they did with Superman, and make three sequels. For whatever reason it didn't happen, and in some ways it was a blessing in disguise. I was going to continue with a film career, but it is probably best that I didn't because I did have very normal teenage years, and I'm very happy that I got a college education, and Annie certainly helped pay for that.

dOc: And if you take a look at the Superman sequels, it is probably for the best that they didn't make any more. The quality of sequels generally seems to go down with each subsequent film.

AQ: I think that's what they were trying not to do, and when they couldn't get scripts that were up to the quality of the first one, they said "never mind." So, I was contractually obligated at the time, but it all worked in the end, because I had a wonderful upbringing, I had a great time in college, I have other careers I was interested in, or maybe will be down the line, so it was all good.

dOc: When you were in college, you took part in an exchange program. What was that like?

AQ: I was in South America for six months. It was wonderful, it really opened my eyes.

dOc: So this was the kind of program where you go and live with another family?

AQ: Yes, and speaking Spanish only. It wasn't one of those where they spoke English, as well. It was all Spanish, even my classes. That was the joke, because I've always been a very good student?my mom's a school teacher so it's in my blood to be a good student?but I got slightly better grades in South America than I did back in my college classes in the United States. I did better thinking in Spanish than I did in English.

dOc: Did anyone know who you were down there? Had Annie drifted into South America?

AQ: It had, and I had actually promoted it in Venezuela when I was doing the promotional tour. When I went there as a college student, I went there as myself?a college student?so no one knew. My exchange family that I was staying with found out later, and they made a big fuss, but I didn't tell them at first. I didn't want them to know. I wanted to blend in.

dOc: In recent years, you've been doing a lot of theater work.

AQ: A lot of theater work, yes. I just closed a show two weeks ago, so again, a lot of theater work, I've been on a roll for the past six or seven years. I finished playing Annette in Saturday Night Fever, which was my favorite job that I did, a year ago, on the first national tour. Recently, this holiday, I did a show called Funny, You Don't Look Like a Grandmother, and that just closed two weeks ago.

dOc: How does your theater work compare with doing a film production like Annie?

AQ: You know, I'm glad you asked that. It's funny, because I can sing and dance, I tend to get theater work much more easily. But I'm actually better at film; it's a lot easier for me to do film. Filming to me is more like breathing. Theater is a little bit more work, but I do it well. Of course there's the instant gratification of theater, you do your song or you do your solo, and if you do a good job?applause. But I kind of like the intimacy of film, and I look at the camera as my best friend. Some people say they do theater because when they get on camera it kind of freaks them out, but I don't mind it all. I would like to do more film in the future, I very much would.

dOc: At the same time the film version was being made, in the early 1980s, Andrea McArdle was the Broadway Annie. Was there ever any kind of professional rivalry between you two?

AQ: There really wasn't, that's what's so funny. Actually we're sort of friends. First of all, we're both from Philly, so we're like ex-Philly girls from way back. Anybody that's born in Philly has this bond, so right there we're Eagles, Flyers fans, so we have a bond. Second of all, I have run into her when I was doing Fever, and she was doing Beauty and The Beast, and we ran into each other at a cast party. It's very amicable. If anything, we have a bond because we both experienced Annie.

dOc: Are you still in touch with any of your fellow cast members from Annie?

AQ: Recently, a few years ago, I was supposed to sit down with Albert (Finney) in a pub and have a drink, which would have been hilarious. When I was finally in England doing a Shakespeare program, I believe he was filming Erin Brockovich, so we just missed each other. He actually advised me on that Shakespeare program that I was going to, and we write letters. Carol [Burnett] I've seen a couple of times. I went to support her, about nine or ten years ago, in Moon Over Buffalo. I stopped backstage and we had a long chat afterwards in her dressing room, and she showed me around the set. She came to see me in Peter Pan, because she knew the director, and she stopped back and caught me just out of the shower, and congratulated me. We see each other from time to time.

dOc: Since this interview is for a site that deals with DVDs, I usually like to find out, when I talk with someone, if they're big DVD buffs. Are you a big fan of the format? Do you watch a lot of movies?

AQ: That's hilarious, because the truth of the matter is until I made the Annie DVD in August 2003, I was probably planning on getting a DVD player like a year from now. I didn't even have a DVD player, I was still using VHS. So that tells you a lot.

dOc: So now you're ready to jump into the new technology?

AQ: Yes. I did get a DVD player as a Christmas present. The quality is amazing and all of the extras, and since I've seen how well My Hollywood Adventure on Annie turned out, I will become a DVD fanatic. But it is a very recent thing. I was meant to film that extra this past summer so that I would get hip to the technology, so my own DVD saved me from getting lost in the shuffle of the VHS crowd.

dOc: I do have one favor I'd like to ask from you...

AQ: Oh, boy...

dOc: Don't worry I'm not going to ask you to sing anything.

AQ: Oh good, that's the question I get asked the most. I always think "please, don't ask me to do that."

dOc: My daughter is 12 years old, and she was in a local production of Annie, as one of the orphans, and she has a supporting role in an upcoming independent film...

AQ: Good for her!

dOc: ...and she wanted to know if she could ask you one question?

AQ: She sure could!

Samantha: Yes. I have a question. If you could give advice to anyone starting an acting career, what would it be?

AQ: A couple of things. First of all I would say that it's really going to be hard work, especially if you keep at it like I am as an adult. So you have to really love it, or you shouldn't do it, like when it gets boring or you don't like it anymore, you shouldn't do it. That's number one. Number two is that it does take a lot of work. The best thing that I always did was to keep up with all of my training, like with the acting, the dancing, and the singing. Keep up your lessons from time to time, and just really love what you're doing and keep being disciplined with your lessons. That's what I would say, because it keeps me going. But it sounds like you're on the right track, and you love it, right?

Samantha: Yes!

AQ: Well, that's the most important thing, it is. What's the name of the movie you're working on?

Samantha: It's called Timeserver, directed by Robert Alaniz.

AQ: Timeserver, eh? Well I'll have to keep my eye out for that. Maybe I'll be in a movie with you someday!

Samantha: That would be fun.

AQ: With our age difference I'd probably have to play your mother or something, but that's ok. Do you look like me? Do you look Irish?

Samantha: Not really.

AQ: Well, maybe we can't be in the same family, but maybe we'll still be in a movie together someday. You never know.

Samantha: Maybe you could be the Kind Neighbor.

AQ: There you go, see you're already thinking like an actress?the Kind Neighbor. That sounds good.

Samantha: Thanks.

dOc: When was the last time you watched Annie? Are you tired of it?

AQ: No, it's one of those things where I don't even really think about it. I've been so busy, travelling on the road with these shows, I've been on Broadway for a couple of months with Peter Pan, and I've been so busy that it is not something I think about on a daily basis. However, if it is on for the holidays or something like that, on television, of course I will peek over and go "oh, my gosh, there's that Easy Street number" or "I remember when they filmed that and had to do this, this, and this." I'll reminisce, but I won't sit down and watch it because I'm just too busy.

dOc: On the new anniversary edition of Annie, I like the way the extras were all geared toward younger viewers. The piece where you talk about your experience on the film, when was that shot?

AQ: That was just shot in the end of August [2003].

dOc: I really like the way the extras are structured on the DVD towards kids. Some people were griping about the content. But when I watched it, I thought the presentation of the extras was perfect, especially considering the target audience. I don't think Annie was made for 50-year-old guys to sit around and digest all the fine points; it seemed to be made to appeal largely to young girls, for the most part.

AQ: Thank you for saying that, because the person I was just speaking with, who shall remain nameless, he wanted more. He wanted a whole commentary, and I didn't even know you could do that. I really like the way it was done?there's the interaction for the aspiring actress, like your daughter, there's the sing-a-long, there's the education and history part, and I really was telling my story. I co-wrote that piece (My Hollywood Adventure) with them, and that was really my experience, and I enjoy telling my experience. So I'm so glad to hear you say that, because I thought maybe it was just me because I was not previously "digitally obsessed."