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Riff Randell forever: P.J. Soles on ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’

Courtesy of New World Productions
P.J. Soles as Riff Randell in "Rock 'n' Roll High School." She'll do a Q&A with fans at the Parkway on Saturday.

Someday soon, P.J. Soles will start writing a memoir tentatively titled “The ‘Totally’ Girl,” based on her life as the actress most of the world knows as the teenager who brought “totally” into the American lexicon by saying it throughout the entirety of the original “Halloween.” 

The John Carpenter horror classic celebrates its 35th birthday this fall and when it does, Soles will hit the movie convention circuit hard, talking with her fans about her days starring in such enduring late-night cable TV staples as “Carrie,” “Stripes,” and “Private Benjamin.” 

“I really like meeting the fans because tattooed/pierced people and horror movies are a strange combination, but they’re the sweetest, nicest, most shy people: ‘It’s OK, you can take your picture with me’,” said Soles from her home in Los Angeles last week. “And they just look at me with what amounts to love and adoration, which is amazing. They’ve seen the movie a thousand times, and they see me on TV all the time, so I love hearing their stories about how they got into horror movies. I love it all. Who would not love that?”

While Soles’ may be one of Hollywood’s reigning shock queens, punk rock fans know her intimately as Riff Randell, the pre-riot grrl heroine of “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” the Roger Corman-produced Ramones cartoon that Soles will introduce at a question-and-answer session with fans at the Parkway Theater in Minneapolis Saturday night.  A preview:

MinnPost: In Riff Randell, you quintessentially captured that experience of being a teenager and loving a band. What were you like as a teenager, and how did that translate to the film?

P.J. Soles: It’s funny, because that was not me in high school. I was the editor of the school paper, wrote editorials, straight A student, student council, all that. My best friend was sort of the fun girl who smoked and had sort of an adult boyfriend and would invite me over to her house for sleepovers. I was very responsible, which is why it was so fun to play Riff.  From watching movies, and from admiring the girls that I never dared to be, I projected everything I could, from all the girls I wished I was in high school and all the movies I had seen, from “To Sir With Love” and Annette Funicello beach movies, and I just said, “This girl’s gonna rock.”

MP: The film was shot in 1978, the Ramones started in 1975. Were you a fan?

ramones photo
Courtesy of New World Productions
Soles with the Ramones

PJS: I had never heard of the Ramones. As I left the final audition, [director] Alan Arkush handed me a cassette of the Ramones and said, “Listen to this when you get home tonight.” I was married to Dennis Quaid at the time and I put it in the cassette player and cranked it up, and I was a big fan of The Eagles and Jackson Browne and J.D. Souther and Linda Ronstadt and here came this noise and I just went around the house screaming, going, ‘Oh my God. I have to be their number one fan? What is this? What is this?’ Dennis kind of liked it right away, but I don’t remember understanding it or really knowing what it was. It blows my mind today to think of that moment because I really couldn’t hear anything about it that I liked, and yet today I love them and I love their songs.

MP: How were they to work with?

PJS: It was definitely fun on the set, but we had a very tight 21-day shooting schedule. Right away we had to rip out a couple of pages of (dialogue) scenes with the Ramones, because it’s not like they went home and studied their lines and [were interested in] being prepared. They were sort of fish out of water. But a lot of what is in the movie is endearing, and they make the movie.

They were very quiet, obviously. We had to start at six in the morning; everyone had to be there at the same time because you never knew when we’d finish with something and go on to the next. So we were all called to the set at the same time and they were basically always sitting on the floor, they never really wanted to sit on the couch. We had to drag ‘em through the lunch line because they weren’t really interested in eating; they were actually in shock because they were on the set of a Roger Corman movie, because especially Johnny grew up loving these B movies and being a collector later on, and he found it quite amazing.

Until we got to the concert scene, we thought they were half dead, like, “Can you wake up?” I mean, you had to joke around them and go, “C’mon, c’mon, let’s do this.” They were just so adorable. Day one of shooting was the scene in the bedroom where Joey sings to me: ‘Hi, P.J., these are the Ramones.’ OK, Joey, you’re gonna crawl over P.J. and sing this song and you’re gonna end up in the bathroom in your underwear.

It was crazy. He was spitting in my mouth as he was singing to me, because I have my mouth open in adoration, looking at him with big loving eyes and he was spitting in my mouth. I went home that night and rinsed with mouthwash.

MP: Riff Randell was a fan and rocker for sure, but also something of a feminist/artist. She was a songwriter trying to get her song to the Ramones. (Soles has come full circle and currently writes songs with the California-based country band Cheap Rodeo.) Are you proud of her and her legacy?

PJS: I absolutely embrace it, because that was not me in high school. And the other thing was it was a fine line because she was a songwriter and I didn’t want her to be lusting after one of the band members, I wanted her main thing to be wanting to get her song to the Ramones, which gave her more cred.

The Ramones had this energy, and I wanted Riff Randell to have that energy. It was a plan, and it worked. To have people name their kids Riff after the character, to say “I was Riff for Halloween,” or “I saved my high school and thought of Riff,” and even guys telling me they wish they could meet a girl like me, it’s just amazing to think that it was the script, and I was able to come up with a look that was cute and funky and fun and matched the music of the Ramones. It’s been nothing but incredible, and if anything, to be tied in with the Ramones, who are credited with starting a whole music movement of punk rock, it’s mind-blowing.

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