[Interview] Lee Waddell Talks Playing Ghostface in ‘Scream’, Wes Craven, and More

When Lee Waddell became the first person to be filmed behind the soon-to-be iconic Ghostface mask in Wes Craven’s original 1996 masterpiece Scream, he had no idea he would still be talking about the role more than a quarter-century later, as it was just another gig at the time, one of many in a career that has put him in dozens of unforgettable movies, from John Carpenter’s Christine and Tim Burton’s Batman Returns to Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Marvel’s Blade, all of which are covered in our recent conversation with Lee on his life in film, the legacy of that particular masked character, and much more.

After first meeting Craven on 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, Lee would continue to work with the legendary director on almost all of his films through 1997’s Scream 2, in which he once again donned the Ghostface mask to terrorize Sidney Prescott and her roommate, but it’s the unforgettable opening scene of the first Scream in 1996, in which Drew Barrymore’s character Casey Beckett meets her gruesome end, that Waddell is asked to talk about most.

Waddell recalls the original direction that Wes Craven gave him on how to play the character of Ghostface in that first scene, which was actually the first sequence shot for the movie, as being more ghost-like than later portrayals in the sequels would become. “Way back,” he told us, “I was there with Wes. Tony (Cecere, stunt coordinator) was there. I was like, ‘Wes, tell me about this character,’ because I have wardrobe on, I have the mask on, and we’re getting ready to start shooting. And he goes, ‘He moves like a phantom. Very swift with how he moves, and he moves with authority.’

“So I was like, ‘Alright, I can do that.’ So you see how I darted in and out, almost like a specter, I think it was. So that’s how I played the character. It was direct, aggressive, with authority. That’s how I brought life to the character, and so that’s what I based everything past that on.

“Obviously as an actor/stunt guy, you’ve got to give the director what they’re looking for, but I think by the time some of the other sequels came around, Ghostface was an absolutely bumbling idiot. He tripped on his own shoelaces. I didn’t like that, because I really felt like that was so far off from what Wes and I had portrayed and talked about. 

“I liked how they played (Ghostface) in (Scream) VI. It got edgy, and it got some command authority back. I liked how the character moved. 

“I don’t want to take ownership if it, but as the originator of that character with Wes, I liked what I saw in this last version, because that was more in mind of what the original concept looks. So I appreciated that. And if the stars lined up, and I got a phone call from production, I’d love to come back.” 

On shooting that iconic opening scene, in which he had to kill Drew Barrymore, Lee remembers, “When we shot the actual scene when I stabbed Drew, I think we shot it once. You’ve had a mask on, you know how difficult is is to see in. When you’re just playing around, there’s this tunnel vision. So now put on the robe, put on the mask, try not to slip on the wet grass, try not to get your feet caught up in the robe, try to hit your mark, stab Drew and stab her in the right spot. It was not easy.

“We did it. It looks great, but it’s not an easy thing to do. You have zero visibility. You’re working with an actress, so you’re definitely not going to hurt that. I wouldn’t have hurt Drew just to save the shot. It just felt right. I stabbed her and hit the right spot, and it looked good. It worked out great. 

“I couldn’t understand at the time, until I saw it in dailies about the next day, about Wes wanting the way I moved sometimes, because in his mind he already had it shot, edited, and ready to go. So when I came after Drew, that’s why he had me moving in certain ways, because he slowed it down, right. If you’re the viewer, everything’s in real time, and then right when I go to chase her, over crank the camera, everything slows down and just agonizes the viewer, because you know he’s going to catch her. Well you don’t know that, but you know there’s a closing distance. It’s like a gazelle getting chased by a cheetah. It’s not going to end well. So he was a real master of that.

Despite brutality of the final moments in the scene, Waddell tells us that Barrymore did have a stunt double. “I choked her, stabbed her, then drug her across the lawn, and she was totally game the whole time,” he said, “and I’m dragging her around on this wet grass. We were both cold and miserable by the time the night was done, but it was great.”

After working with numerous Hollywood legends over the past 40 years, Lee said the only time he has ever been truly starstruck was working with Henry Winkler, aka The Fonz from Happy Days, whose high school principal character also met his end in a memorable encounter with Ghostface in Scream. “This is The Fonz, man” he said. “I mean I grew up on this guy. Probably the only time out of my career that I got fanboyed out.

“We’re filming the scene, and we’re sitting there, and I’m like, ‘Man, I’m going to kill The Fonz.’ We had to do it like three times. I didn’t want to hurt him, right? You know if it was a stunt guy in there, we’d put a pad on and we could get it on a little bit harder, bring some hard energy into it, but I’m like, ‘Ah, man, this is Henry Winkler. This is The Fonz.’ And I geeked out. I admit it too. That’s one of the few times in my career, the only time that I dorked out like that.  

“But he is such a cool guy and such a pro, he made me learn a lot about acting at that point as far as getting energy up, so it was a great tool that he gave to me. It was a really great exchange. I hope to meet him again one of these days. I haven’t seen him since we shot that, so I’m hoping to catch him at a con or something, and remind him of that scene.”

Of course we also talked about celebrating Halloween, and Ghostface’s ascent to one of the most popular costumes of all time, as well as various stories from throughout his career, including his first time on set as an extra on John Carpenter’s Christine and working with the late Ted White on Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, plus Lee’s own thoughts on later performances of Ghostface, and much more in our relaxed and wide-ranging discussion.

You can watch our full exclusive video interview with Lee Waddell below, premiering at 10:31 a.m. EST on Friday, May 12.

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Matt Artz

Founded Halloween Daily News in 2012 and the Halloween International Film Festival in 2016. Professional writer/journalist/photographer since 2000.