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by Chris Poggiali, Temple of Schlock
[This interview first appeared in SHOCK CINEMA #14 - Spring 1999]
Best known for her pneumatic appearances in Russ Meyer gems like FASTER PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! (1965), MOTORPSYCHO! (1965) and GOOD MORNING... AND GOODBYE! (1967), Haji is a beloved icon of the sexploitation genre. In addition to Russ' releases, Haji's celluloid career has taken her from the infamous ILSA, HAREM KEEPER OF THE OIL SHEIKS (1976) to John Cassavetes-directed arthouse fare -- and she was kind enough to discuss her life and past work.
SHOCK CINEMA: Let's start with your background. You were born in Canada?
Haji: I've always claimed that I'm just a visitor from another place, here to restore energy to my body. My mother was from another galaxy. She brought me here, and we settled in Quebec, but I've been here many times before that. My uncle was a great artist in Canada. His name was William Downes, and many of his works are there in museums. I stayed in Canada for a while, but my mother moved around a lot. I lived in Washington D.C., and then New York City. When we moved to New York, I became a very unhappy child because I missed the trees. I was never really a city girl. I spent a lot of my time living in the woods. I had a fear of people, so I found a lot of comfort in nature. I'm amazed at the beauty of this planet, but I am so very disappointed in most people who call themselves human beings. If you see an apple tree, you know you're going to get apples and not oranges, right? But people -- they tell you one thing and they do another.
SC: At what point did you realize you wanted to become an actress?
Haji: I had never even thought about being an actress! It never entered my mind! My sister bought all the movie magazines, so I knew about Rock Hudson and Lana Turner because of her. Rock Hudson was a good-looking man, but I always liked... [laughs] Jack Palance! All the girls would go, "Ooooh, he scares me!" I don't know, there was something about him. To me, he was handsome. Looking back now, I guess it was because he looked like the animals I loved in the woods! [laughs]
SC: How did you meet up with Russ Meyer?
Haji: I got pregnant when I was very young, and I came to California with my daughter, Cerlette, who is now a beautiful young woman. She was Kelsey Grammer's live-in for seven years. I had a very nice time with her and Kelsey during those years we spent together, even though it didn't end too happily between them. Anyway, I was working as a dancer in a nightclub, and a gentleman who knew Russ Meyer came in and saw me dancing one night. He went back to Russ and said, "You gotta see this woman! She's your type of woman!" So Russ came in with George Costello, who became one of my favorite men in my life. He was Russ' right-hand man at the time. So they saw me, and they asked me to come in for a reading. I was very young at the time -- I was underage, in fact. I had lied about my age to get the dancing job. So I went to the audition, and it was for MOTORPSYCHO! Russ gave me the script to take home, and when I came back, he liked my reading. He said, "You got the part," but as I was leaving, he called me back. I remember thinking, "Oh my God, he's changed his mind!" But no, he said, "We liked your reading so much that we want you to read for the starring role." I said, "Whaaaat?!" So I read again, he liked it, and I got to play the lead in MOTORPSYCHO!
SC: That must've been an eye-opening experience for you.
Haji: Oh, it was! Russ worked with a five-man crew, and he took us all into the desert with snakes, lizards, and all kinds of danger. He thought if you were a guy, you could live in a tent out in the desert, but the ladies he treated better. We lived in a trailer. When you shoot in the desert, you come back with dirt in your eyelashes and hair. Our shower was a big barrel with a cork in it, set up on four sticks. You pulled the cork out, got wet, stuck the cork back in, soaped up, pulled the cork back out, rinsed off, and that was it! I never complained. Why would I? I always roughed it like that. It was easier for me than most people, and that's why Russ loved me. I already had the ability to get the job done. Then he hired me to work behind the scenes. I did make-up, wardrobe work, and some still photography. So when I got a job at MGM on a Tony Curtis movie, DON'T MAKE WAVES (1967), I looked around and said to myself, "Look at all these people to do one film! How did Russ do it?" Whether you like his films or not, you have to give him credit for their excellent quality. The directing, the editing, the photography -- the man was a genius with a camera, and he got that way because he carried one through a war with just a few men helping him. He taught me how to be a soldier -- and the women on the big studio films just sat there and went to sleep! I would come home covered with bruises, and these women would spend all day going from room to room, being fed, getting their hair done, their make-up put on. It was hard working with Russ, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
SC: Do you remember anything about Alex Rocco, your costar in MOTORPSYCHO!?
Haji: He was wonderful. Such a gentleman, and a good friend later. He gave me my first greyhound from the tracks. That was in 1965, and I've been rescuing greyhounds and placing them in homes ever since. One of my goals before I leave this planet is to outlaw greyhound racing. Those who join my fan club should know that this is part of my work -- and I need soldiers from all over the world to help me out.
SC: Is there anything to say about FASTER PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! that hasn't been said already?
Haji: Well, I really liked working with Tura Satana and Lori Williams. Lori looks absolutely beautiful today. We still stay in touch. I just spoke with Tura last week, and if anyone wants to hire us, we're going to do some routines together. We've had some offers already, but we're trying to figure out a routine. I went to stunt school, and I used to do stunt shows, so we're thinking about doing a routine in which we show how to throw a man around without hurting him.
SC: My favorite Russ Meyer movie is GOOD MORNING... AND GOODBYE!
Haji: That's my favorite, too! That's another one where I did all my own costuming. I got up hours ahead of time to put those costumes together. I would just go out with a big bag and collect rose petals! I was late one morning for breakfast, and Russ -- he would sit at the head of the table -- he said, "Where were you?!" I shook the bag and said, "I was in the woods cutting down my costume!" I'd tape rose petals in my hair, on my breasts, and between my legs, and that would be my costume. I glued dead bugs on my cheeks and put green sticks and moss in my hair. I had one costume with pearls that I used to wear onstage, and later I wore it in BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970). I wanted a scene where I'm up in a tree watching the people, and a tarantula crawls across my arm. I told Russ, "You have to get me a tarantula, a mountain lion, a big snake..." but he said no. After he finished editing the picture, Russ called me up and took me out to dinner. He apologized and said, "You were right. We should've done the shot with the animals." That's where Russ and I got into our little fights on the set. He would only look at breasts. I looked at other things.
SC: I love your costume in SUPERVIXENS (1975).
Haji: We lost communication on that one. Russ said, "We're gonna be shooting in a nightclub." At that point, a lot of young people were wearing stones on their faces. Gluing stones everywhere. It took me hours to glue those stones all over me, and when I showed up, it was this little cheap roadhouse! It's like putting an emerald on a fake gold necklace! I said to Russ, "Why didn't you tell me it was going to be this kind of place? Look at me!" But we went with the scene anyway. It was pretty, but I was just a little out of place. [laughs] There I was, serving beer with stones all over me!
SC: It would've worked better in THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (1976). What was it like working with John Cassavetes on that film?
Haji: He was very much like Russ Meyer in that they both worked with a small crew, and they had their actors do a lot of ad-libbing. They'd hire you to do one thing, and then it would turn out completely different. They were going by instinct. I know for a fact that John loved my work. I was the only one he took to see the dailies. It was strictly business, nothing hanky panky. He never came on to me. He was a gentleman, and so was Russ. Russ never made you feel like you had to put out in order to get a part. Unfortunately, I encountered a lot of that when I went on auditions. That's why I never really went anywhere with my film work. I would go to casting sessions and get propositioned all the time -- but that's the way men are. I could dig out my diary and embarrass a lot of famous men, but I won't, because they can't help themselves. Mother Nature made them that way. I'm not Paula Jones. I don't like what these pathetic women are doing to men these days. They're creating pussy-whipped men, and it pisses me off.
SC: Was there a lot more footage of you that didn't make it into the final cut of THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE?
Haji: Yes, he shot so much film of me because he liked the stuff I was doing. He just kept the film rolling. When I went to the dailies, I was so happy with my work. He could've released a whole other film of just those seven beautiful girls. Everybody I know who saw that film said, "How come there wasn't more about the girls? We wanted more of the girls!" If he had left more scenes of us in there, we would've gotten a lot more work from it. His son [Nick Cassavetes] is a director now, and I'd love it if he gave me that film and all the outtakes so I could reedit it. I guarantee you I could make it one hell of a film. Better than it turned out, certainly.
SC: I've never seen BANG BANG, THE MAFIA GANG (1971). What was that about?
Haji: That was my favorite of the films I did. I was supposed to be Sophia Loren. I played Sophie, an Italian movie star who comes to America because some mobsters kidnapped her father. If Woody Allen had directed it and played the leading man, it would've been a superb film. It was a cheap film, and the director [Art Lieberman] had never made a film before in his life. When I broke down the script, I found out I had something like six different parts in flashback that I had to play, from different parts of the world and different eras. I went to the wardrobe department, and they were yawning and saying, "Yeah, well, we got this and that." I wasn't happy with what I saw, so I said, "Never mind, I'm gonna do my own clothes." They never could've made my character as strong as she was, not with what they had. I really had to bring a lot to it. And then the title was changed to UP YOUR ALLEY and it was sold as a sex film.
SC: I remember when it came out in 1979 as THE MELON AFFAIR, and I think it was also called SEX OR BUST at one point.
Haji: Lowlife men who have no taste -- they get hold of a film like that and they don't know what to do with it. These are the men who have their brains in their penises. That film went from one lowlife man to another, instead of going to someone with a little class and taste. It's a cute, funny little film.
SC: Unlike ILSA, HAREM KEEPER OF THE OIL SHEIKS...
Haji: I will limit myself as far as doing certain things, and some of the stuff they did in that film was a little too funky for me. I liked my part, but I don't think I did a very good job with it. Some days your batteries aren't as strong as other days. The director [Don Edmonds] let me do a little directing, though. Remember when Ilsa comes through the door with the greyhounds? Those are mine. I talked [Edmonds] into it. I said, "It'll look great. They look like big cats." He was like, "I don't know," he didn't quite trust me, but eventually he let me do that one little shot. That was more exciting for me than anything else in the film.
SC: I really like the musical numbers in THE AMOROUS ADVENTURES OF DON QUIXOTE AND SANCHO PANZA (1976). Some of those songs are hilarious.
Haji: I saw the film once when it first came out, and I was disgusted with it. When I got on the set, it was totally different from the way they had described it. They showed me one script, and started filming another one. It turned out to be a really sleazy, horrible film. What I liked about it was my costume. [laughs] I played a gypsy. And I did my own stunts. I ran up behind a donkey and jumped up on top of it in two takes. That guy who was on the donkey with me? That little screaming brat? [Hy Pike, who played Sancho Panza] In one scene, they told him to pull my shirt down and grab my breasts. Well, you should've seen what a wild gypsy I turned into after those cameras went off! Y'know how I got back at him? I jumped on the donkey while he was sitting on it. The donkey raised up and started freaking out, and the guy was screaming, "Help! Help!" and he fell off. He was in tears. I said, "That'll teach you not to grab my breasts!"
SC: I'm surprised Larry Buchanan didn't hire you as the costume designer on HUGHES AND HARLOW: ANGELS IN HELL (1978).
Haji: He was the director? I don't remember him. I never even saw it. I worked so hard on my costume, make-up, and hair for that movie, so I'm dying to see what I did. I had a very small part, and George Costello got me that part. George would see how hard I worked behind the camera, and what I would do for the character. I give him the same credit. He was so professional. He'd run through fire to make a scene work.
SC: You also had a small part in DEMONOID, MESSENGER OF DEATH (1981).
Haji: Yes, and it was great working with my dear friend Stuart Whitman on that. I go to his ranch often and visit him. Now, Stuart Whitman is a man's man! He's a real cowboy -- such a man, but so polite and well-mannered. He's a womanizer, but what's wrong with that? [laughs] That's part of being a man! When you look at all the flowers in the garden, how can you possibly say that one is more beautiful than another? And that's how men look at women -- they want 'em all! Don't change my men, you pathetic women!
SC: You mentioned your fan club, but what else have you been up to lately?
Haji: I just became a grandmother! My beautiful granddaughter is 15 months old. Her daddy is an actor, Jeremy Roberts, who's been on XENA and HERCULES. I'm lucky that I have such a beautiful daughter, and she's very lucky to have Jeremy, who is one of the greatest fathers on the planet. I stay busy, of course. I run my fan club, Haji's World, which has a website now. I go bicycling, kayaking, body surfing in Malibu, rollerskating once in a while. I've gotten older, but my mind hasn't told me that yet! [laughs] Being from another galaxy, I'm two-hundred-and-something years old, but I act like a 20 year-old!
© 1999 by Chris Poggiali.