Aileen Quinn was at a commercial audition in Los Angeles recently when the casting director approached her and said, “Okay, so Annie, you’re in the room next.” Quinn playfully called him out on it with a chiding “You did not just say that.” The man didn’t immediately realize his error, but then made a face, like, “Oops, I slipped.” It’s an honest mistake that Quinn has become accustomed to, since for a generation of moviegoers, Quinn is Annie, the adorable red-headed orphan from the 1982 movie that co-starred Albert Finney and Carol Burnett. With the film receiving a 30th anniversary Blu-ray today and a Broadway revival in the works this month, another generation of fans is due to fall in love with the show’s feisty heroine and classic music.
Quinn was only nine years old when she landed the coveted role, beating approximately 8,000 other young girls to star in director John Huston’s screen adaptation. She had been the “swing orphan” in the Broadway hit, responsible for knowing all the orphans’ roles and substituting when necessary, but when Huston introduced her on the Today show in 1981, she became the star. The film went on to become the year’s 10th biggest hit, and Quinn was contracted to make several sequels — which never came to fruition.
If there was silver lining to being under contract for a follow-up that never happened, Quinn was allowed to experience a more conventional adolescence, and she nearly left the business after graduating from Drew University with the goal of using her foreign language expertise to become a United Nations interpreter. But just before that song-and-dance door could close, she got bit by the performance bug again, winning a role in the national Broadway tour of Fiddler on the Roof in 1994. Since then, she’s made herself a career in the theater, become Professor Quinn to aspiring young actors, and after recently moving to Los Angeles, reconnected to her Annie past in a unusual way.
Aileen (pronounced A-leen, not I-leen) checked in with Entertainment Weekly to talk about the legacy of Annie and how she couldn’t be happier to see it come back to life.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Thirty years later, I’m guessing people still come up to you with a wrinkled brow because of Annie.
AILEEN QUINN: That kind of blows my mind that it’s been 30 years, but I still get the whole, “You seem familiar… Did you date my brother? Did we go to high school [together]? What do I know you from?” They always say, “You have one of those familiar faces.” If they’re a little closer to guessing, I’ll give them a little hint. Sometimes I tell them, sometimes I don’t.
In some ways, it must have been a blessing to be on only nine when you made the movie; because if I was asked to carry a movie opposite Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, Bernadette Peters, and Tim Curry, I’m sure I’d choke on my lines.
I was so young that I had no idea who these famous people were. To me Carol Burnett was the lady from the RIF commercial, Reading is Fundamental. And Albert I had no idea who he was; he was just this cool British guy. John Huston? No clue. He was just like a grandfather to me. I had no clue, thank goodness. I just did my thing that I had been doing since the Broadway show and doing commercials. I didn’t realize the stakes, so to speak.
Was acting in a movie the same as working on the stage?
It took me years to actually get comfortable on the stage. I prefer the intimacy of screen; it comes easier to me. In theater, you have to be louder and bigger — that was harder for many years in my teens. But now I’ve conquered that. I eat up the stage. I love it.
One of your stage roles that is impossible to ignore is that you played Lily, Bernadette Peters’ character, in a recent Annie production in Colorado.
It was so much fun, but it did feel strange because I had to be mean to Annie. And I had to be a little hoochie-mama, but it was so much fun. It was almost surreal watching “Together at Last” before I had to go on for one of my scenes.
Music has been a huge part of your life since you were a kid, but you’ve recently channeled that in a different form. You’re now in a rockabilly band?
About five years ago, I saw a special on VH1 about the women of rockabilly and I was so impressed. What a cool style. It was rock and roll, with a little bit of blues and country in there. Then when I came to L.A., I met up with some musicians and it was just meant to be. We formed this five-person group and it just seemed to fit. We’ve been working together for about a year.
And your band’s name is… The Leapin’ Lizards?
We had to go there. That was actually my band’s idea. It’s a fun rockabilly name and there’s the tie-in with the lizards and us being out west. I just said, “We gotta do it.” So, yes, we are the Leapin’ Lizards. I’m picking a lot of the songs, I’m writing songs now. So it’s a more creative process, and I love being able to express myself more. We take a lot of obscure old 1950s songs and give them a modern spin. Mostly we play local but we’re hoping to tour in the summer of 2013.
I saw a recent video interview with you, and you appeared to have reddish hair, which is perfect for Annie, but if I recall, not your natural color.
I’ve gone more red since I came to California because it seems to suit the climate. I’m actually a brunette, but I’ve lightened up in California. The band was part of it too. In rockabilly, it’s either jet-black hair or something red. And truly when I decided to go more red, people actually laughed. My friends were like, “It actually suits you perfectly; you are a sassy redhead.”
Weird red-related question: Do you have a closet full of red dresses or a closet with absolutely no red dresses?
[Laughs] A closet of absolutely no red dresses. I never thought about it why I don’t like red dresses — that’s kind of funny. I like blues and greens and purples, but no, I do not have a red dress. I like red tops but as far as the Annie dress, mom has two of them somewhere stored away, safely guarded.
Are you still teaching drama at Monmouth University [the New Jersey college whose historic administration building served as Oliver Warbucks' mansion]?
I’m still an adjunct professor there in the arts. I’m actually on very extended leave. I have another sub this spring for my Acting for TV course. It’s one of those things where I can’t choose between the coasts.
How did that particular Annie connection come back in to your life?
Sometimes in life, things just fall in to my lap. I’m very blessed that way. A couple years before I started teaching, I went there for a big fund-raiser to help them raise money for education. So I went back for the first time and actually got very emotional. It’s that staircase that does it. After I gave my speech they had me go up the stairs and I sang “Tomorrow. That was so surreal. I was walking down that staircase again, and even though they had tables set up for the gala, I couldn’t help but think, “Oh my god, that’s where I karate chopped and that’s where I was on his shoulders.” I actually was flashing back, and that got our wheels spinning: this is an obvious match. There were some conversations afterwards and they asked if I would be interested in teaching, and I said I would actually love that. Next thing I knew, I was teaching a theater course for non-majors, and then I was doing the Acting for TV class the year after that. It’s wonderful. I really like teaching there, and there’s some really good raw talent. I’ve had some great people in my classes, people who could really do it as a living. It would be cool to go back. I’ll have to figure out a way to be bi-coastal. I’m working on it.
I’m guessing being in L.A., though, is essential for your career right now. What are you hoping to do?
I will always be a New York girl at heart, but I am really liking the L.A. lifestyle. I’m here for now, because I’m looking at that whole sitcom market and one-hour dramas. I’m auditioning. Doesn’t even matter if it’s some small little part. It’s the one thing I haven’t really done. I’ve been on TV — specials and guest appearances — but I haven’t taken a character and built it like they do, week to week, in a series. I would love to do that as my next acting challenge. And my band mates are all here. I haven’t made my choice yet, but I’m liking the lifestyle.
I’m sure you know this, but there’s a Broadway revival of Annie opening up this week.
I think it’s awesome, because it really is a classic tale and it’s nice to have something for kids. Now that I’m an aunt and a godmother, I’m already looking forward to taking them once or twice when I come home for Christmas. Perfect timing, because I’ll be home then.
A few months ago they announced the young lady who will be playing the star, and all the publicity reminded me of when you were first introduced. Any advice for her?
She should just savor it because my first favorite memories was going to school during the day and doing the Broadway show at night as one of the Orphans. That excitement of being on a Broadway stage and hearing the audience and having the great sets and everything, she should just savor it. I don’t think she has anything to be nervous about if she got the part. Just enjoy the moment because it’s such a wonderful moment in her life.