The Flashback Interview: Leah Ayres
My first exposure to my next interview subject came via the 1988 movie Bloodsport. Leah Ayres played Janice Kent, the movie’s female lead. She made an impression on me with her beauty and her talent, and as I delved further into her career, I became impressed not only by her work on-screen, but her work off-screen as well, helping out children and families. I met Leah at Chiller Theatre in October of 2017, and I knew she would make for a fascinating interview subject. We spoke on Tuesday, November 21st, and I hope you all enjoy getting to know her.
Say hello to Leah Ayres!
Leah: Hey, Johnny!
Johnny: Hi, Leah. How are you?
Leah: I’m fine, thanks.
Johnny: First off, thank you for agreeing to do this interview.
Leah: Thank you for inviting me.
Johnny: Alright. I have my questions ready to go. Here we go: What were your pop-cultural likes growing up, like favorite movies and music?
Leah: You know, I thought about that, and I have to say that I had older brothers. Whatever they were listening to, I was listening to. The thing I really loved when I was younger was dancing, so my idols were (laughing) modern dancers like Martha Graham and Eric Hawkins and Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor. Those are probably not mainstream names that people know, but that’s who I was paying attention to when I was younger.
Johnny: Alright. What were your high school days like?
Leah: They were very busy because I graduated from high school in 3 years. I was taking AP classes. I was dancing at least 3 or more days a week after school. I was busy, so that’s really what my high school was like.
Johnny: Alright. Since you were big on dance, and you studied dance in college, how did it feel to make your big screen debut as Nurse Capobianco in Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz”?
Leah: Well, yes. That was my very first movie, and it was quite an experience. I’ll tell you a really great anecdote. I really only had that one scene, but I had to go up to the set and I auditioned for Bob Fosse, along with however many other people they auditioned. I got chosen, and I showed up to work. They took me to costumes, et cetera, and then they took me to the set where Roy Scheider is in a hospital bed. Bob has decided that he looks too healthy, so they call in the make-up people, and they ask me to help the make-up people put body make-up all over him so we can create a rapport and start talking. (Laughing) We’re finally ready to shoot the scene, and we rehearse it, and now this is the first take. Cameras are rolling, the set is silent and we do the scene. When he says he’s going to get an erection, and I get all flustered, they literally shoot off, I don’t know if it was a gun or a firecracker, but somebody shoots something off. You can see I have an actual startled response, but I keep going in the scene until Bob says cut. The minute he says cut, the whole set breaks out into applause, and Bob comes running up to me, saying “I knew you could do it! I knew you could do it! Pay up, everybody!”. All these people from the movie were exchanging money because they had bet on whether I would break the scene or not if they shot something off, because they didn’t tell me about it. That was my very first movie experience (Leah and Johnny laugh). I was very proud of myself.
Johnny: That was definitely a great film. Another gig you had in this time period was appearing in ads for Kenner’s Darci Cover Girl doll. You look like you could’ve done modeling work yourself, so did you do any modeling beyond those commercials?
Leah: (Laughing) No, I had never done any modeling, but I was starting to do a lot of commercials. One day, my agent said, “Leah, they’ve looked at all the models. They want someone who can look like a model, but can talk to the camera for 24 seconds straight”. I got sent in, and I started doing beauty product commercials when they needed somebody who could talk. I had never actually modeled, but when you do commercials, they do your hair and make-up and lighting. I actually did a lot of those commercials for companies like Clairol.
Johnny: Alright. In 1981, you played Michelle in The Burning. What drew you to that project, and what do you think has given it the staying power that allows you and your fellow cast members to make regular convention appearances?
Leah: Well, you have to understand I was a very new, young actress at the time. I got sent on the audition for the movie and I got cast, and it was great. It wasn’t like (laughing) they were sending me the script beforehand. I was never a horror picture fan. I still am not. For me, it was just a gig, but I got the lead in the movie, so I was excited about it. I didn’t really know horror films, and I think that was good, so I had lots to be afraid of (laughing). Well, first of all, I think it was a very special cast, and they really allowed us to bring a lot of personality to our characters, and that drove the story. I think it’s that combination of mystery and the special effects, the horror part of it, that seems to be so well-received in that world. You know, it’s a mystery to me, really. (Laughing) It surprised me when I was at Chiller. I was like, “Wow! This is a whole world that I knew nothing about”.
Johnny: I’ll be returning to the matter of Chiller later, but first, and you don’t have to answer this question if you don’t want: The Burning was one of the first projects produced by Miramax, headed by the notorious Weinstein brothers…
Leah: Yeah. I have a horror story. Harvey took me out to dinner one night. He said, “I’m the producer. We should go out to dinner one night”. It was funny, because we were in North Tonawanda, New York, and there was literally nothing to do. We were all staying at the one hotel in town, which was where Harvey was when he was in town. We went out to dinner, and then afterwards, he literally tried to push himself into my room, and I was able to not let him do that. I was shocked, and more angry than anything else. It wasn’t like he had any kind of power at that point (laughing). He was trying to get this low-budget movie made. In that regard, he apologized to me the next day, right away, and so I didn’t pursue anything. He was on his good behavior after that, because at that point he certainly wouldn’t want me to leave the set and go complain to anybody, because he’d lose money. He was scary and inappropriate all the way back then. I’m sure he was probably that way his whole life, and I’m glad it’s all coming out now.
Johnny: Yeah, I definitely think he’s a sleaze. When I was in my teens and 20s and reading Entertainment Weekly, I would read about him harassing filmmakers by editing their works against their will or harassing them on their deathbeds, in the case of Sydney Pollack and The Reader, but I had no idea that he was being that much of a lout towards women.
Leah: Yeah. He was more than a bully.
Johnny: Well, let’s move from that to a lighter note. You played Cass Dayton in the Aaron Spelling pilot Velvet. I saw that once and enjoyed it, thinking it had a fun concept. What’s your favorite memory of that project, and if it had gone to series, would you have stayed on?
Leah: I would’ve definitely stayed on if it had gone to series, and you know what I got out of that project? Sheree Wilson, who is still, to this day, my best friend. We’ve been at the births of each other’s children. We’ve just had a lifetime relationship. That’s what I got out of that project.
Johnny: Always fantastic to develop a friendship. In 1987, you played Jill Schrader in 1st And 10, one of HBO’s earliest TV successes. What did you like about working on that show?
Leah: It was fun to be this sort of silver-spoon high power executive, and it was interesting. For the part, I needed to sort of do something to myself, right? I went and I got these long acrylic nails, which I had never had before. That just put me in that character. Having those nails somehow put me into that mindset, and I had fun with it. It was fun to be the powerful woman in the middle of all those guys. It was fun.
Johnny: Alright. Also in 1987, you starred opposite one of my previous interview subjects, Shari Shattuck, in the drama Hot Child In The City. An underrated example of the neon-noir genre that was popular in the 80s, what do you think it is about California that’s made it such a popular location for film thrillers over the decades?
Leah: Well, it’s easy to shoot because of the weather. You can shoot outside most of the time. I think that’s one of the reasons, and also, Hollywood, right? Where people can try and make it in entertainment and arts. Yeah.
Johnny: Okay. We now come to how I first became familiar with you, which was through your role as Janice Kent in 1988’s Bloodsport. As I’ve asked several other Cannon Films veterans, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus had a mixed reputation in Hollywood in the 80s. Some liked working with them while others didn’t. What was your experience like with them?
Leah: It was difficult. They were really trying to economize, let’s put it that way. Here’s an example. I got there, and we’re in Hong Kong. I am the female lead of the movie. Jean-Claude has a whole trailer with a bathroom and a kitchen. I showed up on set, I had a scene, and I was like, “Where do I go?”. They literally did not have a dressing room or any place for me to go. I mean, there’s a lot of waiting when you shoot a movie, and I was like, “What? It’s in my contract that I have a dressing room. I am not just going to be sitting around here with all the extras”, a lot of whom they literally just go off the street and hired them to be extras in a movie. They’d give them a free meal, but they weren’t paying these people. I’m just like, “nope”, so I said, “you guys, I need a dressing room”. The next day I show up, they still don’t have anything for me, so I said, “Okay, I’m leaving”. They said, “No”. I said, “I need a dressing room. I need a place to go. I need a place to change my clothes. I need a place to rest”. Literally the next day, I show up and they have a VW Camper that they’ve taken all the seats out of, and put curtains around the windows. Well, it had the driver’s seat in there, but anyway, that was my dressing room. It worked fine for me. That’s the kind of thing. You had to fight for a freakin’ dressing room (laughing). I mean, come on, people.
Johnny: Since some have questioned the veracity of the stories of Frank Dux, played in the movie by Jean-Claude Van Damme, was there any talk given to making it more of a fantasy and giving the character of Janice Kent a fighting role in the movie?
Leah: I have no idea because I wasn’t a part of the writing of the script. I was just cast and hired after the script was written, so whatever ideas they had about it, I have no idea.
Johnny: Alright. You took over for Maureen McCormick as Marcia Brady in the ill-fated 1990 series The Bradys. As I’m sure you had seen the show growing up, what was it like to step into McCormick’s shoes for the role?
Leah: Well, that is an incorrect assumption. I had not seen the show growing up.
Johnny: I’m sorry.
Leah: I’m one of the few people in the world who did not see the show growing up because I was not a really big television watcher as a kid. (Laughing) We had one little black-and-white TV down in the basement, and we weren’t watching TV. It wasn’t on. It was a special occasion to watch TV, so I had just never watched it. For me, it was just another role. I got that it was an iconic thing for everyone else, but I think that one of the reasons that I got the role was I didn’t have anything in the way of just doing the role, or interpreting it as I would. I wasn’t trying to be somebody else doing the role. I think the show was really about the kids, and when the show became about grown-ups with kids, but it was still about the grown-ups and not their kids, it wasn’t what the show had been about. The show had been about the interaction of those kids. It seems to me, even though I didn’t really watch it, that was the reason it didn’t really fly.
Johnny: Okay. Although you would go on to have several more TV credits in the 90s, your final film role to date was that of Sandy in Robert Altman’s The Player. A cameo-loaded deconstruction of then-modern-day film-making, how did you adapt to Altman’s style of film-making?
Leah: I had met Bob through some friends. That was one of the reasons that I got cast. He basically invited me to do it because he wanted my energy. That’s the kind of guy he was, and then when we shot that whole 8 minute one-shot segment, we rehearsed it for a whole day, and then we shot it for another day. Before we filmed it, on the day we were breaking it down and rehearsing, etc., he made it our job, as actors, to create office relationships with each other. He didn’t give that to us, but he gave us questions, and he gave us time to develop that with each other. You feel that whole sort of life in the background because we had determined our roles, our relationships, our conflicts…We had a lot of fun just doing that and improvising so you felt that life. He was always like that. All the people that I ever heard that worked with him…He wanted actors to bring that, and he gave you the time and support to have a very rich sort of backstory, and personal life, and relationship life. I think that that’s what shows onscreen. That’s why everybody loves his movies so much.
Johnny: Considering how much of an anomaly it was in 1992, do you think a movie like The Player could be made in 2017?
Leah: Yes, because I think that any movie getting made is miraculous, and it’s always a combination of who’s attached and what the material is. It’s always this sort of unique coming together of so many different variables.It’s always, “How come some movies get made and others don’t?”. I’ve seen a lot of scripts where I’m like, “Oh my god, this was such a great movie, but this other one was awful. Who put money into that movie and why?”. (Laughing) There’s so many factors.
Johnny: Okay. What directors and/or writers would entice you back into acting, or are you retired from acting for good?
Leah: I don’t have any plans to act, but if someone that I knew wanted me to do something, or even that I didn’t know, but wanted me to do a certain part, and I loved the role, I would of course do it. I’m not pursuing it anymore, but if somebody invited me to, I probably would want to.
Johnny: Okay. You started working in the field of child development by helping to create Imaginazium in the late 90s. Did becoming a mother inspire you towards helping children, or did the idea come about in a different way?
Leah: The idea came about before my son. I had gotten to a place where, and this happened to me as a dancer, too, I felt, I’m just being somebody else’s dancer, and I’m not making that much money. I got into acting as a way to make money, and I really enjoyed it, but I had those skills (laughing). Singing, dancing and acting were the things I knew how to do, but I just got to a place in my life where I was now just somebody else’s actor. I go to an audition, and I either do or don’t get the job, and I was somebody else’s project. I got to a place where it didn’t satisfy the part of me that wanted to make a contribution to the world, and really grow something over time that I felt contributed to the future I wanted to see in the world. It’s funny. I’d never worked with children, but I was always drawn to that, and then I had this idea about creating these, basically, audio stories for kids. There’s a window when they’re young where they should really be creating their own images in their head. It’s an important developmental task that has a window, between the ages of 4 to 6, and if kids aren’t doing that, and are being given all the imagery instead of just creating that through their own imaginations, it’s like those muscles don’t ever strengthen the way they should. I had a great time because it was produced like you would an entertainment project. Even though it was audio and all voice-over, I had actors and a script, and we had a great time. I really thought that I would be making more of them, but because we didn’t have any big names, or I didn’t have a licensed character, the big companies weren’t really interested in investing money because the investment in marketing would be so big. That was a great lesson for me, because that was the one that led me to realize, “I want to do more of this, but I have to know what I’m doing”, so I went back to graduate school. It was after I went back to graduate school that my husband and I started a family.
Johnny: Okay. You’ve also worked on yoga programs for kids. Do you think yoga might be an easier way for kids to get into shape than phys ed classes in school?
Leah: I don’t think it’s an either/or, but I know that yoga has the component of intentional movement and intentional awareness of self that is an important skill to develop for social and emotional learning, and self-regulation, and empathy and resilience. What I see is that yoga is not only beneficial for physical development. It’s super-beneficial for mental and emotional development.
Johnny: Alright. You’re also co-head of the counselling service 3 Hearts Family Constellations. When I hear the word constellations, I find myself thinking of outer space. What’s the origin of your service’s name, and how does it reflect its’ mission?
Leah: Well, the website, which will explain more, is 3HeartsFC, which is 3 Hearts Family Constellations. Family Constellations is the name of a therapeutic work developed by a man named Bert Hellinger. I think he got started in the 40s, but it’s all about helping people, and working with people with current issues by tracking and looking at where they’re unconsciously identified and entangled with incomplete drama from their family system. The study of epigenetics is now proving why this trauma, and these certain dynamics and mental illnesses and emotional issues, carry across the generations. Trauma really has an impact on the epigenes, which are the genes that wrap around the DNA and turn certain things on and off. They’re like the software, and regular DNA genes are like the hardware. It’s really fulfilling to be able to help people who have had chronic issues or relationship patterns, all kinds of negative issues and health problems, etc. in their lives really see a bigger picture and viscerally shift into a new way of seeing. It’s a therapeutic work. If anybody wants to know more about that work, I recommend a book published earlier this year by our teacher/trainer, a man named Mark Wolynn, called It Didn’t Start With You. If you want to learn more about epigenetics, systemic health and therapies, and the work of Bert Hellinger, which is also called Family Constellation work, that’s a good book to get.
Johnny: Alright. To move back to the entertainment industry, we met at Chiller Theatre in October 2017. I alluded to this in my question about The Burning, but what’s been the most rewarding part about attending conventions like Chiller Theatre?
Leah: Well, that was the first time I had ever done anything like that. It was an amazing experience. I was amazed by the number of people and the amount of stuff…The costumes, the fans, the action. It was kind of amazing, because it’s a subculture, and if you’re not in it, you don’t even know it exists. I was like, “Oh my God, this is amazing!”. It was a fantastic introduction to a whole new world.
Johnny: Definitely, and of course, it was rather interesting that all three of the actresses who replaced the original Brady Girls were at the convention. There was you, there was Geri Reischl, who took over the role of Jan on The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, and then there was Jennifer Runyon, who took over the role of Cindy in A Very Brady Christmas. It would’ve been really cool if they’d gotten all three of you in a photo op.
Leah: Some people tried, but we weren’t (laughing) geographically close together, so it didn’t work.
Johnny: Oh, well. There’s always another time. Now I come to my final question, which I end most of my interviews with, and it’s this: If you could go back to your youth with the knowledge that you have now, would you do anything differently?
Leah: I’d start a little earlier and have more kids (laughing). I’m really happy with how my life has turned out, but I know that if I wanted to stay in the entertainment world that had been really important to me, I would’ve started earlier on that trajectory of really getting in there and developing projects, having my own production company, picking and choosing more specifically what I did and with whom, rather than, “Oh, okay, send me out on an audition”. That would be the thing that I would’ve done differently.
Johnny: Alright. Well, that does it for my questions. I again thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to speak to me. You were great to speak to, and I hope you have a good evening.
Leah: Great. Thank you, too. It was nice talking to you.
Johnny: It was nice talking to you. See you later.
I would again like to thank Leah Ayres for taking the time to speak to me. Stay tuned because soon you’ll be seeing Flashback Interviews with actress Kelli Maroney, who, like Leah Ayres, was also a guest at Chiller Theatre in October of 2017, and voice actress and voice-over director Mickie McGowan.
Thanks as always for your support, and I’ll see you soon.