Thursday, July 22, 2010

Alison Arngrim Talks About Little House and Playing Nellie Olseon

Part two of a four part interview with the Little House on the Prairie star.

Photo by Pop Culture Passionistas

We were big Little House on the Prairie fans growing up. As members of a large, close-knit family, we prided ourselves on being very similar to the Ingalls girls. Amy, the one with the long braids was Half-Pint, and Nancy, the one with the glasses, by default was Blind Mary. But deep down inside we had fantasies of being mean girls, like Nellie Oleson, just for one day.

We recently got a chance to speak to Nellie Olseon (known in real life as Alison Arngrim) about her new memoir, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson And Learned To Love Being Hated. It wasn't until we read the book that we understood why mean girls are mean and why we, as children blessed with a happy childhood, were more suited to live out the Laura and Mary parts.

Unbeknownst to anyone around her, or anyone watching her on TV each week, Alison had suffered years of abuse at the hands of her own brother. We spoke with her recently about how cathartic the role was and how instrumental Little House was to her survival. Here's what she had to say about Nellie Olseon, punk rock safety pins, Carol Burnett, and of course, that damn wig.

PASSIONISTAS: We had a childhood illusion shattered when we found out that was not your own hair. Tell us about the wig.

ALISON: Oh yeah, you were going with the "it's the real hair" idea.

PASSIONISTAS: Totally. We were little. It never occurred to us.

ALISON: Oh, yeah, yeah. But if you go back and watch like "Country Girls" and, God, I think it's still my hair in "Town Party, Country Party." If you watch those you can see my bangs are totally different and you can see that it's kind of flat. And my curls start drooping in the outdoor scenes when it's too hot. And then you go just a season or two and my hair is just perfect it does not move and it seems fluffier than normal human hair.

PASSIONISTAS: You talk about the fact that you had a difficult home life. And you've credited the way the Little House set ran to keeping you on track as an adult where other child stars go astray. So can you elaborate on that a little bit?

ALISON: Well I talk about how if you're a teenager... you need structure. And if you're a teenager from a dysfunctional home, where you've been sexually or physically abused, structure is really, really helpful. And you can't get more structure than the set of Little House on the Prairie. And it was a drag having to go in at 4:30 AM. But you knew where you had to be.

Okay as a teenager, "Gee should I go out and stay out until 4:00 AM and run the streets and go take a bunch of drugs? Oh wait. I have to be up and be there at 4:30 in the morning, don't I? I guess I'm not doing that. Oh maybe I'll go out and get a whole butt load of tattoos. Oh wait I have to be on camera on Tuesday. Probably not gonna fly."

I wanted to dye my hair green. I was a total punk and I wanted to die my hair green and get piercings. But it wouldn't have worked because of my bangs and my hair. I had to keep my hair exactly the same because part of my hair was combed over the wig. And you couldn't show up with a ring in your nose and a safety pin in your cheek. Couldn't do it. So it was weird. God knows what I would look like if not for Little House on the Prairie. I would have done insane things to myself as a teenager, I'm sure.

So there was the structure, which was really helpful. I had these people holding me accountable. And like I said we weren't little trained animals. "Say your line honey. Bark. Bark. Here's a treat." Because we're being held so accountable it brings you up short. You're like, "Oh wait. If maybe they don't notice whether I come home or not at my house, but they sure as hell notice whether I'm at the set." And that really has an effect on people.

And then the fact that all these people were being so nice to me all the time. I was like, "These people actually like me? God!" So it did. It had a massive effect on me.

And then, yes this character of Nellie. Where the screaming, the number of episodes where I scream. I mean just up from the pit of my stomach, top of my lungs. "ARRRRRGGGHHHHH"... I mean the level of screaming. Do you know how good for you that is? Do you know how much lower your blood pressure would be if you could go "ARRRRRGGGHHHHH" every few days? God, we should all do it.

PASSIONISTAS: Do you still do it?

ALISON: I do sometimes. I do try to yell and scream occasionally, get things out. I don't throw things at people though. Now I have to go to the gym to get that out of me.

PASSIONISTAS: How did Nellie help you overcome your issues with abuse, depression, and shyness? And do you think if you had been cast as Laura or Mary if playing that role would have been as cathartic?

ALISON: I don't think playing Laura or Mary would have been cathartic. On the one hand, I would have had the experience of a very different family life. Michael may have been more of a father figure to me than he was, [since] he wasn't playing my dad. And I would have probably spent more time with Karen Grassle, which would have been cool, but it wouldn't have been the same. I would have had to portray the nice girl. And I've always said that if I had to play someone that nice, as sickly nice as Melissa Sue or Melissa Gilbert, I'd be on a tri-state killing spree.

That's why I'm sort of sympathetic to Melissa Sue Anderson. I mean I mock her constantly, but if I had to play Mary Ingalls and be that just sickeningly good all the time, I mean she's such a little narc on her younger sister, too. If I had had to do that, I'd be bananas. I'd be so pissed off. So I don't know. In a way I'm kinda like, "Well I'd be out of my gourd if I had your part. So I don't know how you did it."

What shy people and depressed people and abused people have big, big, big, big, problems with is anger. As I said it in the book and I'm so glad it got in, is depression is defined as anger turned inward and learned helplessness. They'll actually tell you that in psychology classes and things. And that's what happens. These people who are depressed and even suicidal are really quite angry. And they don't have a focus for it. And they're afraid to be angry at the person they're really angry at, like the person who hurt them.

And abuse survivors, well when you're sexually abused by someone in your own family, you're terribly conflicted because if you were raped by a stranger everyone would be on the same page. We all hate this guy. But when it's your family member, everyone saying, "Oh no. He's a great guy and you should love him." Why? So you're put in this horrible bind, but you're not supposed to be mad at this person who did this to you. And that will make you nuts.

And shy people are afraid people won't like them so it's all about being terrified. What if I'm angry? What if people see me mad? And here I was playing someone who's mad all the time. And didn't care who saw her. And here I was ranting and raving and screaming. And here I was doing every awful thing that I would never do in real life. And it was incredible. And the sky did not open and the earth did not swallow me. And it was like, "Hmmm, maybe it's OK. And I can vent this."

The other thing, too, is talk about acting out imitating the oppressor. I talk about that scene with poor Willie, when I clap my hand over his mouth and threaten him. Nellie did all these diabolical things and I torture that poor stuttering girl. I was suddenly the bully. Suddenly I was the aggressor. I had been the victim of all of this kind of stuff, all of this hideous treatment. And now I was standing there going, "Bwahhhahhhhaaa." And doing this and it was really twisted, but psychologically it did really good things for me.

PASSIONISTAS: Switching gears a bit, you said you started doing stand-up in high school. How did that come about?

ALISON: My dad was managing all these comedians, including a marvelous group called The Village Idiots with Peter Jurasik, Janice Fischer who wrote Lost Boys, all these people became very famous and I would go to see comedians. And it was during that time period literally you were supposed to do something on top of [acting]... hence the horrible Kristie McNichol/Jimmie McNichol album. People were saying, "You should sing." And they said this to people who could not sing. And many people from '70s series put out heinous albums as a result and I said, "I'm not doing that." I remember they got out the sheet music. I was actually supposed to sing at one point. And I was like, "I'm not doing this. This will suck just so horribly. This will be a brutality upon my fans."

But I wanted to do something. And I was seeing all these comics and that looked like something. When I was really little I would watch The Carol Burnett Show and when Carol Burnett would do that thing where she would take questions from the audience, I remember thinking, "I want that job." I want the job where I stand there with a microphone and answer questions. And I now have this huge Q&A portion in my act, and I do these book signings. I basically... I got the job.

PASSIONISTAS: What's next for you career wise?

ALISON: I'm sort of still catching up now that the [book] is a success. I'm always sending emails to my agent saying, "Oh my God. Holy crap. I can't believe it." And everyone's going, "Well we all kind of knew this would happen. Where have you been?" I'm reading my Amazon reviews going, "Who wrote this? Do I know these people?" I'm floored.

I guess recovering from this. I'm on tour until October. I will be in Walnut Grove, Minnesota next weekend... the 24th. I'm going to be in Walnut Grove, Minnesota for Laura Ingalls Wilder Days and I'm going to be signing at the Mall of America on the Monday, the 26th. And then I'm going to Saint Louis Public Library. And then I come home. And then I have two weekends, the first two weekends in August, I'm playing Las Vegas. And there's a book signing in Atlanta, go to P-Town, and then its like Boston, Chicago, France again, and I forget.

But if you got to my Facebook Fan Page, the Fan Page with the book cover. It's called events... We're trying to get everything up there as it happens. So it will be on Facebook, on Twitter, and on the events section of my Fan Page.

I'm the only author I know whose book comes out and then I go on tour through October. Then I'm thinking of taking November and December off, have a holiday, and visit my husband's family for Christmas. And the other is I'm being threatened with having to start the second book.

PASSIONISTAS: Oh good. There will be a second book?

ALISON. Oh there has to be. Everyone says, "Where's the second book?" Miss Beadle, Charlotte Stewart, said. "I finished your book and I got mad. I wanted to keep going. When's the second book?"

PASSIONISTAS: Do you know what it will be about?

ALISON: I don't know. Just the other night I was talking to [my husband] Bob and I said, "I'm thinking of calling it Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: The Gory Details." Just the stuff I couldn't fit in the first one alone is like an entire volume. So there are plans for a second book. I don't know when or how or what the heck I'll call it. Then of course I need to write a whole book about what happened with AIDS, a whole book about stand-up comedy, and an entire book about Protect, and a whole book about France, so I should be busy.

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For other celebrity author interviews check out:
Alison Arngrim Discusses Confessions of Prairie Bitch
Bryan Batt Says She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother

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