It’s been 15 years, but for Nancy Travis, So I Married an Axe Murderer is still a scarring experience… literally, actually. Just out on an air-quote special edition DVD, timed to coincide with the theatrical release of The Love Guru, which includes a code for the download of eight free songs from the movie’s bestselling soundtrack, the 1993 film stars Mike Myers stars as Charlie MacKenzie, a San Francisco poet who meets the girl of his dreams, Harriet Michaels (Travis), when he stops to pick up some haggis for his parents at a butcher shop where Harriet works. Although neurotically commitment-phobic in the past (dumping one girlfriend because she “smelled like vegetable beef soup,” for instance), Charlie thinks that Harriet could be the one. His mother, May (Brenda Fricker), and best friend, cop Tony (Anthony LaPaglia), however, help feed Charlie’s worst instincts when Harriet’s circumstantial connection to a series of slayings makes him begin to wonder if she could be an axe-wielding serial killer. Nevertheless, after those fears are momentarily quelled, Charlie pops the question, leading to a wild honeymoon where all is eventually revealed.
Calling in from Los Angeles, Travis took some time recently to field a couple questions about her experience on the film (a quick clip is available here), and one can read between the lines as they may. The chat is excerpted below.
Brent Simon: You’d done a couple comedies prior to this — was it the Three Men and a Baby films that really opened things up for you?
Nancy Travis: I think even earlier than that, I was kicking around New York a while, and first got a break doing commercials. And then I did Three Men and a Little Lady, Married to the Mob and Eight Men Out all at the same time, and that started to really open things up more. I actually maybe think it was Married to the Mob, in which I played a comedic caricature, that opened things up. But everything led to the next thing — there was no bolt of lightning where everyone suddenly said, “Oh, get her!” You could even go so far as saying the first sitcom I ever did opened up a whole comedic avenue as well. And right before Axe Murderer I was doing The Vanishing, a very intense horror movie, and I literally drove from that location to begin shooting Axe Murderer.
BS: To beautiful San Francisco, which plays an integral part in the movie. Did you shoot all of it there, or were you back in Los Angeles some as well?
NT: All of it was really shot there. We were there three months, and it was fantastic.
BS: Does that make a big difference for an actor, being on location? Or does it depend on the movie?
NT: I don’t know, I think for an actor it’s more interesting and fun. And often, because you’re away from your own home environment, your whole focus is on the film. But I think I’ve seen just as many things shot almost exclusively in studios that are just as good and interesting.
BS: How tricky was it trying to play different tonalities, because your character is seen, through the lens of Mike’s character, as quite different at certain points in the film, but you don’t want to bait those things too obviously.
NT: Yeah, it’s a tricky thing to balance, and often we did various takes of my
reactions to things, just to see how far we could push that limit.
BS: Mike came out of Saturday Night Live, which, despite all the camaraderie, is still an intensively competitive environment, with everyone jostling to get face time, and get their sketches on the air. Was he more relaxed with So I Married an Axe Murderer, or still really driven?
NT: It was his leading man debut. He’d already done [Wayne’s World], so he was already a movie star, and this script came along, and the man who eventually became my husband (Robert Fried) is the producer, and it was hard to get Mike to commit to do the movie because it was a leading man and not a character. And I think to help him feel (long pause) comfortable, he created the role of his father. The studio wanted to cast an actor to play that role, and Mike really wanted to do it. They brought in a make-up artist to do all this prosthetic make-up, and they made him screen test as the father, and that ends up being some of the most memorable and charming scenes in the movie.
BS: I’ve talked with Mike before about his process of testing out his characters in live settings — 30 minutes of scripted material, 30 minutes of improvisation, which obviously isn’t the case here.
NT: This was a movie that shows a side of him that no one ever really saw before — it’s a certain vulnerability that he has in the movie that you don’t really get to see. It was a dangerous place for him to go as an actor, and yet possibly one of the more rewarding.
BS: Was his angst outwardly manifested on set?
NT: First of all, I have a lot of admiration for him. I think he’s incredibly talented, and has an instinct about what is funny and what he does that is funny that a lot of people don’t have. Mike did a rewrite on the script and it was his idea to set it in San Francisco with the whole coffee bar craze. And he did a lot in terms of creating a lot of the characters and plot of the movie. So he had quite a hefty hand in it, and I think with that goes a lot of responsibilty and nervous tension as to how it’s all going to turn out. And I think that was tough for him.
BS: So what’s your verdict on the infamous ghost child from Three Men and a Baby?
You know, I denied it for so long, and came up with excuses for what it
could possibly be. And then someone said, “You should just really look
it, it’s really weird.” So I rented the movie and it looks like a
ghost-child. I mean, every excuse that I gave seemed to fall by the
wayside. Either that, or it’s the greatest marketing ploy in the
history of moviemaking. We shot that in L.A. and in England, and a
little bit that we shot in New York, and the piece that we shot on the
soundstage is the piece that is the ghost-child.
BS: Wrapping up, back to Axe Murderer, so how was working in a butcher shop?
NT: Oh God, believe it or not I went to a butcher shop and did research, quote-unquote, and the one thing the butcher told me was, “Cutting meat, there’s nothing to it — all you have to do is remember not to look up from the knife and the meat, keep your eyes on the knife.” And that was the one thing I took away with me from my training, and sure enough, the first day of shooting I’m cutting the meat and Mike Myers walks into the butcher shop, and as I’m cutting the meat I look up to say my line and cut my finger. So then I was yelling, “Cut, cut!” and literally meaning cut. So we stopped production, they rushed me to the hospital, I got stitches, the whole thing. I still have a little scar.
To view the film’s special edition trailer, click here; to purchase So I Married an Axe Murderer on DVD, meanwhile, click here.