Peggy Lee Brennan portrayed the role of Meia in Kinji Fukasaku’s space opera Message from Space (1978) and played it convincingly. She was one of several American actors, including Vic Morrow and Philip Casnoff, to appear in the film, but what hasn’t been known until this time is how that came to be.
Born on Staten Island, New York, Ms. Brennan attend high school at St. Joseph Hill Academy and went on to earn a B.A. at Wagner College and an MFA in acting/directing at New School University. Ms. Brennan also became an Actors Studio member. As an actor, her film and TV credits include a guest appearance on an episode of the long-running TV series M*A*S*H as Radar’s girlfriend (Lt. Linda Nugent), a guest appearance on the hit comedy-drama Eight Is Enough as Laurie, and a starring role in the documentary feature Branson (2009). Ms. Brennan has also performed on Broadway, playing Frenchy in Grease, and has also performed live at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, the Lincoln Center in New York, and Atlantic City. Ms. Brennan answered Brett Homenick’s questions in a 2009 interview about her role in Message from Space.
Brett Homenick: How did you get cast in Message from Space?
Peggy Lee Brennan: Let me start at the audition. At the time, I was playing Frenchy (in Grease) on Broadway when I got the call to audition. My agent sent me up, and I went back three times, and it was quite involved, which was fun for me. I not only read from the script, but I had to do improvisations based on the scenes. It was in NYC (New York City). Actually, this is a memorable story. The last audition, the producer that dealt primarily with the English-speaking actors, Simon Tse, came out and asked me to put on this bikini, and I said no. I said, if you want me, it’s because I can act and not for what I looked like (half naked). He was very polite and laughed at my boldness, and I got the part. I have often thought of that over the years. That was in December 1977.
Coincidentally, Philip Casnoff had done Grease a few years earlier, and I knew of him and had never worked with him. I had heard that he got the other male part, even though I did not audition with him. I was very excited to work with him. When I got the part, I turned it down because I was in a Broadway contract, and I was afraid to go to the producers, and I really wasn’t into science fiction. Do you believe it? I was a young actress, had no film experience, and didn’t realize the importance of doing a major motion picture. Well, because Phil got the part and told my stage manager in Grease, she brought me into her office and said, “I heard you were offered a film.” I said yes, but I cannot get out of my contract. She took me in to our producers, and they said, “We want you to do this job, and when you get back from Japan, then you can make up the time and fulfill your contract.”
BH: Do you remember anything from the preproduction meetings?
PLB: I went to Kyoto, Japan, at the end of January with Philip and Vic Morrow on JAL Airlines, first class, and we were like royalty, and all the people on the plane knew Vic and were taking pictures, etc. After I think 19 hours, we landed to hundreds of people with banners, flowers, fruit baskets, and cheers.
First, we spent a week in Tokyo for press meetings, etc., meeting people, dinners, and being wined and dined. The Japanese actors were still finishing up their commitments, so it was mainly Vic, Phil, myself, and the producers. Actually, I was often the only woman with many men, and I was like a princess, very pampered.
After about a week or two, we ended up at (Toei) Studios where we did the bulk of our filming, as well as some beautiful locations that I don’t even know where they took us. Actually, amazing sand dunes, mountains, and mineral baths.
BH: What were your living arrangements in Japan?
PLB: When we got to Kyoto, we got to choose what kind of hotel we would like, real Japanese, Japanese with a mix of American, and all-American. I decided on the mix, and it was very charming, with a gold fish pond outside my window. I recall Vic choosing the Japanese, and I believe Phil was at my hotel. We worked at (Toei) Studios when we finally got started. However, it took one month before I started filming since we had to wait till the Japanese actors were free of other contracts. I had fittings, dinners, interviews. I bought a bike and rode around Kyoto to the chagrin of my producers who had assigned a personal assistant, June, to be with me at all times. She became my good friend, and I would persuade her to let me go off on my own at times. I would love to know what she is up to. She was fabulous.
BH: What was it like to work with Vic Morrow, the movie star who played General Garuda?
PLB: My first day of filming was very cold, and I had on my short skirt and top and was shivering through my scene. We did the first scene I was in, and it was very long, and I went through the whole thing without stopping and thought it was pretty good rehearsal. When the director yelled, “Take,” I was floored. I said that was only a rehearsal. He said, “Great, you got it.” I was a theater girl, and we did it over and over again till it was so organic. Vic was a Method actor and had done lots of film and said, “Listen, if you are not connecting, then make a mistake or stop because they may use it if you get through the lines.” From then on in my film career, I have done that. I usually like to do a few different variations and choices and lots of takes. Kinji Fukasaku was so pleasant and good-natured and very accommodating.
Although I was not aware at the time, I was a Method actress. Kinji Fukasaku would even put firecrackers in front of my face so I would experience a natural reaction. My agent flipped when I came back to the States when I told him I did all of my own stunts (I was a dancer), and I literally had bruises all over my body — though it was fun, and I would have done it all over again.
Hiroyuki (Sanada) sprained his ankle. On the last day of filming, Sonny Chiba broke his leg when the iron gate fell on it. It didn’t surprise me when Vic died (on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1982) because he was the type that would do anything for his craft. I primarily worked with Vic, Phil, Hiroyuki, “Sue” Etsuko (Shihomi), Sonny Chiba, Urocco (Makoto Sato), and Beba the Robot (Isamu Shimizu), who was a sweetie. Actually, that is the way I addressed each person. Some with character names and others personally.
Sonny Chiba was the most charming, lovely star I had ever met. He had that “it” quality they talk about. Hiroyuki was sweet and somewhat shy, but I always felt very comfortable right from the beginning with Phil, Vic, and Hiroyuki, and even Mr. Fukasaku.
The main challenge we had was the script. We sometimes would get a new scene that day, and because of the language difference it was difficult. Vic would not always approve of the new version, so they would have to come up with another one, and there were times when it got a little sticky. Vic was an utmost professional and had worked with the best and expected that in every aspect.
BH: What else do you remember about Kinji Fukasaku? For instance, how would he typically direct the actors in scenes?
PLB: I know if Vic was here, he probably would have voiced some of his issues, but I had it pretty easy being a newcomer, very young, and a female. Kinji worked more externally vs. inner to outer, and that (working externally) was more typical at the time of the Japanese style. I believe at the time Vic was a member of the Actors Studio, and I am now, and that was always our tendency. I had never done a film before, though I had been doing theater for years, and everything was exciting for me even when challenging.
Sometimes Kinji would give me a line reading (that most Method actors hate), but he was very kind to me, and as I said he would even rig things up for me so I was not just imagining but experiencing. Actually, I don’t think anyone else had that. He was actually very pleased to do things like that for me. Of course, I would have loved more rehearsal (time) and to have been more familiar with the script and (have) more character development. Shakespeare vs. science fiction? It is what it is, as my mom would say.
BH: Please describe what a typical day of shooting was like.
PLB: A typical day of shooting was on the set about 6 a.m. and finish about 8 or 9 (p.m.), then dinner and interviews. It was hard to get one’s beauty rest, but it was very special to be treated so royally, which I was by everyone.
BH: What other stories from the set could you share with us?
PLB: This is my most memorable story. The day I had to fly, I had to stand on a structure that was probably 30 feet high and dive to the ground and trust about 100 techies to pull me. I was rigged not to touch the ground and die. I had on an iron harness under my costume, and they promised me one take. Well, 12 hours later, at 3:00 a.m., I still had on my iron harness. I had never gone to the bathroom, and I finished my last take to the applause of the entire cast and crew. Mr. Fukasaku gave me the next day off.
I had welts all over my hips from the belt. I ordered Lobster Thermidor, stayed in bed joyfully, and was grateful to have handled, without any fits of hysteria, what I was experiencing within. I certainly did not want to tarnish the reputation of American actors as divas. I was the type who got up on the high diving board as a kid and, two hours later, I was still up there deciding if I was going to jump or back down. So that was a day I faced my fear of “flying.”
Another very funny situation took place when we had to run through a field as minor explosions were erupting all around us. After a few days, Mr. Fukasaku took us into the screening area and played it back. Everyone went hysterical because I literally screamed from beginning to end. Of course, they cut most of my screams, but we had a good laugh together.
Now let me share about our dear Vic Morrow. When we would go into any restaurant, and people would start giggling because they had recognized Vic, he would go over and join them and ended up often paying for the whole group. That was the way he was. Very gregarious and loved people. He was a very dedicated actor and genuinely loved people, and I was very privileged to have worked with him.
BH: What did you think of the film once you saw it?
PLB: I still to this day have trouble watching myself in anything. My husband, Geoffrey Hastings Haberer, daughter, Heleena Haberer, and I are starring in a film that is opening at the L.A. Film Festival this June titled Branson, and I am already trying to figure out a way I can be in the lobby while the premiere is taking place. I have never gone in to watch dailies, though many actors like to. I just try to do all I can do with the skills and inspiration I have, work moment to moment with the other actors, and pray to God it works.
I try not to judge the work or even read reviews because usually some love it, and others may not. Acting is very subjective, so I just do the work and give 100 percent of myself every time. I treat a major movie the same as I treat a stage production with an audience of 20 people. After all these years, I try to enjoy the process and trust the product is going to be there.
Actually, I would love to work in Japan again with Hiroyuki and the others who are still in the business. My daughter, Heleena, who is eight years old and adopted from Nepal, is very beautiful and sometimes mistaken for Japanese. It would be fun to be back there sometime for the right project. One small regret I have is turning down the Japanese sitcom offered to me after the movie. It was about a detective and his American wife. It could have been fun, but it’s not over yet. There is still so much to explore and experience. You have to follow your passion.
Thank you for the opportunity to share my experiences.