Twenty-four years since “The Craft” hit theaters and became a sleeper hit, Nancy Downs is back in Zoe Lister-Jones’ “The Craft: Legacy.”
Yes, that’s Fairuza Balk briefly reprising her role as Downs, a high school outcast turned witch who was binded against using her powers and institutionalized by the end of the 1996 film. In the Blumhouse follow-up, which debuted on VOD just before Halloween, it is revealed that Downs gave birth to a daughter, Lily (played by Cailee Spaeny), while committed — and allowed her psychiatrist to adopt the baby.
It’s an especially notable cameo because Balk hasn’t been seen on screen much in recent years. While she was very active in the late ’90s and early 2000s, with credits including “American History X,” “The Waterboy” and “Almost Famous,” Balk largely turned her attention to other creative outlets in the last decade. Outside of an arc on Showtime’s “Ray Donovan” in 2015, she’s only appeared in a handful of indie films during the time.
Now that audiences have had a chance to discover her surprise return, The Times caught up with Balk to discuss the legacy of “The Craft,” being typecast and why she felt she needed to step back from Hollywood.
How were you approached for a follow-up to “The Craft,” and what made you want to sign on?
I met with Zoe a couple of years ago and she pitched me an idea [where] she wanted to take the premise but [inject] a lot of messages that she really wanted to get across to the public. And one of those messages was women backing women instead of women attacking women because there’s been so much of that in film, way more than is needed. Her ideas were very pro-woman and women’s empowerment and taking power back. And that’s something that I really believe in and wanted to help her with.
Would you ever want to revisit Nancy again in a future sequel or iteration of the story?
It would really depend on the script and how they approach the character.
But it’s not out of the question.
No, no, no. Not out of the question. But it’s got to be good. [laughs]
What are your thoughts on the legacy of the original movie? How has it impacted your life and career?
It’s surprising. At the time when we made this, I really had no idea it would land so hugely and it would be so influential to people. To my mind, it had no gravitas. But that’s what’s cool about art … it affects everybody differently.
I’ve had meetings with fans and letters and emails where [they tell me] Nancy really affected them deeply in their lives. Some fans refer to her as their spirit animal. Like they try to picture themselves as her when they’re dealing with difficult parts of their life because they see her as this incredibly strong force of nature. [It’s] very interesting because when I played her, the director’s intention was that she really be truly psychotic. [laughs] But it’s wonderful. It’s great to hear years later that something that you were a part of had a really positive effect on folks. That’s what we all hope art will do.
So how do you feel the new movie compares to the original?
I have not seen it. That is the god’s honest truth, so I can’t comment.
Do you plan to?
Any reason why?
I stopped watching my work a while ago. But then again, from what I’m told, I’m just [in] the last scene.
How do you think teen movies, culture and representation has changed since the ‘90s?
Oh, well everything’s changed since the ’90s. The world is a very different place and to a large extent, I think, much tougher for teenage people. When we were teenagers, cellphones were very new, and bullying and social pressure was bad enough without that. And nowadays kids use social media in horrible ways because kids can be really cruel. They don’t yet understand the idea of comeuppance or karmic reprisal. And I think that puts a great deal more pressure and makes life a lot harder in terms of finding who you are and dealing with those aspects of growing up.
But that said, at the same time, I think that the digital era for certain individuals has been incredibly helpful. For example, kids that realize that they’re gay young. In our era, they all pretty much had to hide it just to get through high school without getting beaten up every day. And now they are finding other kids online that are helping them to stand strong and own who they are and be proud of who they are. I think that’s amazing and for that, I am truly grateful. So the digital era is by far not entirely negative. In terms of how teenage life is depicted, I think people are trying to change with the times.
When was the last time you watched the original “The Craft” and how does it hold up after all these years?
Honestly I haven’t seen it in ages and ages. But evidently people still love it. I mean it’s become a go-to film, definitely for Halloween, and I found out there’s some people that get together and watch it every weekend. I don’t even know how you could do that but they do … It’s a feel-good film, I think, for a lot of people. It’s just fun, like comfort food.
What have you noticed about how new audiences have reacted to it?
One thing that was really neat was seeing three generations of fans. There was a mom and she had a daughter and then she had a daughter and they were all dressed up as Nancy. That’s a trip. And one of the things I am most proud of in regards to this character is that she is done as a drag character. [laughs] That is one of the crowning achievements of my life. That I made a character so camp and so out there that she is beloved alongside other crazy characters that are depicted in drag shows. Because I grew up going to those shows. I loved drag performances and a few different times people have sent me videos of drag performances of Nancy and that makes me endlessly happy.
In the ’80s you also starred in “Return to Oz,” another cult favorite. How do the two fan bases compare?
Well, “Return to Oz” was a children’s movie and “The Craft” was more a preteen and teen movie. And [with] “Return to Oz,” it’s very interesting because at the time that the film was released, all the press said, “Oh it’s much too scary and there’s no singing and dancing, it’s like a surrealist piece.” And at the time, I was terribly hurt by that and I assumed that nobody saw it. But in fact, it was the opposite. Millions of people loved that film and still love that film and are obsessed with that film.
For me, there were movies that I watched all the time over and over as a kid — I loved “The Dark Crystal,” “Legend,” “The Last Unicorn,” “The NeverEnding Story,” “The Goonies.” And it makes me really happy to know that I was in a film that other people love as I loved my movies.
What made you step back from acting and what are you up to now?
Well acting, hopefully, I’ll be able to do for the rest of my life. That was the goal, but in my late 20s I stepped away from doing a lot of press because people just kept taking my words and rearranging them the wrong way and just depicting me as this crazy bad girl and it just really got old. They weren’t really listening to what I was actually saying, they just collected sound bites from other interviews that had misquoted me. So I just felt like “OK, I can’t win.”
Also, Hollywood is a very strange bubble, a very strange world, and some of the things — as the general public is starting to find out — some of the elements of that game are things I just couldn’t do. I’m just not wired that way or brought up that way. I had to step back for my own well-being and sense of self-preservation. Because I’ve given everything to my career, it came before everything for most of my life. And at a certain point, you have to remember that there is life outside of “Get the job, do the job.” There are other elements.
I started looking into and spending more time on other art forms that I really enjoy and I’m far happier for it. I don’t think I so much stepped away from acting as I became more selective. I love to do the actual work but the rest of it is not suited to everybody, let’s put it that way.
What other art forms have you been most involved in?
I paint and I write and I do music and mixed media. And I have been spending a lot of time since COVID with my father because his health has not been good. He is a multi-talented artist, he does a million different things. And one of the things I’ve always wanted to learn from him is silversmithing and goldsmithing. So I’ve been up there in the mountains learning how to work with metal — we’re getting into blacksmithing and it’s amazing. It’s its own entire universe of complexity and interest and it’s been a wonderful thing to get to spend so much time with him.
Because my business is basically… the machine has been switched off and put away. So I’m not being constantly called back to meet with someone or to do this or do that. I can just be there and spend time with him, and nothing is more important than family for me. You only have the time that you have and it’s very precious. So I’ve been really grateful for that and also grateful to have a focus because this time has just been so incredibly tough. And having something to keep you very busy and excited about is a blessing.
Oct. 27, 2020
What kind of film projects do you want to be a part of in the future? Would you want to do more horror?
I’m a fan of horror but I’m not like a superfan, it just kind of worked out that way. I’d love to find something that really inspires me and a type of role that’s different from what I’ve played before. That’s another thing. I think a lot of people began to think of me as the go-to person for the really heavy parts because I went for those, and from what I’m told I did them well. So people kept coming to me for the same kind of roles. And once you’ve played a certain kind of role and you’ve given it everything you’ve got, you know you’re not going to come back at it and do the same kind of role better. The idea of revisiting the same thing is kind of a moot point.
I’ve always looked at my career from the perspective of “When I look back on this, what will I think? Will this project be something that I’m glad that I did? Is it going to say anything?” And that’s ultimately what you want to have dictating your choices. But of course, and a lot of people don’t realize this, but when you first read a script, that script may not be what ends up on the screen at all. And you don’t really have any control over that. Because once you say “OK yes, I want to be involved,” they can still rearrange everything, they can do anything they want.
You have to be OK with yourself and the work that you do enough to just release what you’ve done into the world and let that be OK. And that’s not easy. But you do learn to do it eventually.