The Showgirl Superior: An Interview with Rena Riffel

By Michael Varrati

When it comes to celebrating the majesty that is Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, I think that we here at Midnight Mass HQ have more than proven ourselves. My boss lady, Peaches Christ, has been mounting lavish spectacles worshipping the film for over a decade, and I personally consider the movie to be woven into the very fabric of my cult film identity. Search back in my articles and interviews far enough, and it’s a motion picture that invariably comes up.

Why?

Because it’s fierce as fuck.

Showgirls is an over-the-top cult spectacle. It demands to be seen. It begs to be worshipped.

It’s the perfect midnight movie.

…and, as such, we love it dearly.

Due to our undying devotion, we also have an intense love for those involved in making Showgirls the cult spectacle it has become. One such individual, Rena Riffel, who played Penny/Hope in Showgirls, has become a dear friend of the Midnight Mass family and has carried the torch for Verhoeven’s masterpiece since its release in 1995. Even when many of her fellow cast mates shied away from discussing the movie, Riffel held the banner high, knowing that she had been involved in something unique and special.

Over the years, Riffel watched as the movie slowly morphed into an iconic bit of cult cinema, and took note of the film’s rabid fan base. With such devoted admirers, she began to wonder if they would be willing to return to the theater for a little more.

…and so began the long, strange journey of Showgirls 2: Penny’s From Heaven.

Ignoring detractors and critical cynicism, Riffel took on the enormous burden of crafting a sequel to Verhoeven’s masterpiece. Not only was she to return to her role of Penny, but she also assumed the multiple mantles of editor, writer, and director. Undaunted, Riffel put together an ace ensemble of returning cast members and new favorites, and joined with them poured passion into a project that she admits was “a labor of love.”

Now, Showgirls 2: Penny’s From Heaven is done, and save for a smattering of screenings, remains largely unseen. As the film is poised to be released to eager audiences and longtime Showgirls fans, it remains unknown as to whether it will match the momentum of its notorious predecessor. However, in talking to Rena Riffel, one thing is certain: It was a movie that was made with conviction as a love letter to all the fans who have supported her and Showgirls all these years.

As her movie gets ready to be delivered into the glittery hands of the people, I took a moment to ring up my favorite Penny Pal (get it?) and chat a bit about this most ambitious endeavor.

Rena shared with me the thrills and fears of crafting a sequel to an infamous film, gave me insight on what Penny has been up to all these years, and dropped some hints on what may be coming up in the fabulous future.

From dancing divas to David Lynch, we covered it all.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Rena Riffel, actor, filmmaker, and Showgirl Superior.

Since its release in 1995, Showgirls has made a long, strange journey from a critically reviled movie to a cult classic. As someone who was involved in the film from the beginning, what’s it been like to watch that progression?

It’s been amazing. Well, you know, where it is now is amazing. At first, of course, we were all disappointed that the critics didn’t like the film. We had a feeling that people would start liking the movie, and that it just needed to find an audience. I couldn’t understand how people couldn’t like this awesome movie, but it needed that time to find itself a home.

Could you, for those who may not know, describe how you came to be cast in the original movie?

I had a leading role in a movie called Art Deco Detective, directed by an Australian filmmaker, Philippe Mora, who had made Communion and several of The Howling sequels. When that came out, the casting director for Showgirls had seen it, and they called me to audition for the part of Cristal Connors, because the character I played in the Art Deco Detective was very similar to her. I kept getting called back for Cristal, I did dance auditions too, and then everything was put on hold. So, many months went by, and then they finally called me and said they wanted me to audition for a different role: Penny. They said I was too young to play Cristal.

Well, I suppose that’s a compliment!

That’s so show business!  You’re too young, too old, too blonde, whatever. –laughs-

Did you ever suspect making Showgirls that you’d still be talking about it sixteen years later?

No! I can’t even believe it’s been sixteen years! That’s so long, but the movie for me just doesn’t go away. It keeps getting bigger and stronger. It’s a force in my life.

…and now here we are talking about the sequel! With this film, you not only reprise your role but you also assume the titles of writer, editor, and director. What made you want to return to Penny after all this time? Furthermore, what made you decide to spearhead this whole thing yourself?

I felt like I had to continue the story of my character. There was just more to be told. Also, I wanted to make the movie for the fans. Showgirls fans have been so wonderful to me, I thought and hoped that they would enjoy it, and that was my big motivation. It was a “thank you” to the fans, so I hope they like the movie.

I originally had the idea for a sequel back in 1995 when we were doing ADR for the original film and Paul Verhoeven mentioned to me that he wanted to do a movie that was all about Penny. Naturally, I was excited, and I remember I called my agent and told him, “They’re going to do a movie all about me!”

I kept waiting and waiting, and then the movie came out, and the critics were so mean, and all plans for a Penny movie were put to a halt. But, I kept thinking about it, and I kept talking to people about it, and no one was really getting on top of this idea to make it happen. So I hit a point, because I felt like I was getting older, that I said, “I’m just going to make it myself!”

…and I did!

How has Penny changed since we last saw her? Was it difficult to return to the role after all this time, or did you feel like the gap gave you the opportunity to start anew?

I reveal more about her. Originally, she was kind of the naïve, good girl, but in this film we learn that she’s more of a bad girl. We get to see who she really is as a person.

When we spoke previously, you had mentioned that this film retains the campy spirit of the original, but has a serious side. Can you expand on that?

The vibe of this movie is that of a dark, erotic thriller. But, mostly it’s a dark satire. It also, of course, pays homage to Showgirls, and is as dark as the original film. However, at the screenings I had, the audiences seemed to be laughing, perhaps more than I expected them to laugh. So, I think that magic that Showgirls had, and continues to have, is still there.

You say that this is a satire and homage. Taking that into account, there will be detractors that say Showgirls doesn’t need a sequel.  However, early reviews for the film have been outstanding, and the praise it’s getting is certainly in direct contrast to the critical response the original got when it was released. Based on the aforementioned audiences you have had a chance to observe, what’s the response to Showgirls 2 been like firsthand?

I was nervous, because you never know how an audience is going to respond. As filmmaker, you spend a lot of time with the material, sometimes years, and you really hope that the response is going to be good. I wasn’t sure if they’d laugh at the intentionally campy parts, or if they would just sit there. I had hardly shown the film to anyone before the premiere, I think only three people had seen it, so I honestly had no idea what to expect. But right off the bat, people just started laughing, and they continued to laugh throughout the whole two hour and twenty-four minute film. So, it was great. I was in shock, actually.

It’s also just been really great to see the sheer amount of interest that people have in the movie. I think they’re curious to see if a sequel works. When we did the screening at the Sunset 5 out here in L.A., it was a sold out audience. However, when I peeked into the theater, I saw that people who couldn’t get a seat were literally sitting in the aisles. So, I guess that means it was a “more than sold out” show!

I didn’t know what was going to happen, I just hoped they would receive it in the way it was intended. It’s a totally cult-y, kind of dark, but not over-the-top film. I wanted it to be a little campy and controversial, and I think it achieves all of that. So many people love Showgirls, and the shows that Peaches has done honoring the movie have been a big part of that, and I wanted it to be for them.

Of course, there is also still that contingent of people who hate Showgirls simply for being Showgirls, and the whole stigma attached to the original film. In that way, there are people who already hate my movie without having even seen it, or even the original for that matter. But, what’re you going to do?

Well, as the kids say, “Haters is gonna hate.”

It’s so true! People can be so ignorant about things. I’ve seen negative reviews for my movie where it was clear that they took something someone had written about the original Showgirls sixteen years ago, something some critic said, and are trying to apply it to the new film. It’s that hater mentality. But it’s clear they didn’t see the movie, and I didn’t make it for them.

There’s a sequence in Showgirls 2 where the characters get lost on Mulholland Drive. Was that a deliberate nod to your role in the David Lynch film of the same name? Or just a bit of Los Angeles scenery?

No, that was totally a nod to my Mulholland Drive character. I brought that into the writing of this as well, and in a way, I felt like I was going more into the Mulholland Drive world than the Showgirls world at times. I mean, the Showgirls stuff is definitely there, but I just get so lost in this maze. So, when I put the Mulholland Drive sign in there, it was my way of saying that I was going back into that world too.

Well, since we’re on the subject, as a devotee of David Lynch, I have to ask: What was your experience like working with him on Mulholland Drive?

Oh, it was so great. I would love to work with him again. He took a very artistic approach to the work. I just felt good being around him and so happy. He’s very into details. For example, he was obsessed with making sure my character’s bruises were in the right spot. He came into the make-up trailer and would tell the make-up artists, “No, no, this bruise needs to be here, it needs to be darker!” He also wanted my hair to be greasier, I remember. He said, “She looks too good, you need to make her look like shit.”

Oh! I don’t smoke, but at the time I had started smoking for some reason, and I knew that my character was going to smoke because she was bumming a cigarette. I told David, “You know, I haven’t smoked in a long time, because I wanted to feel that need and desperation for my character,” and he said, “That’s interesting, how long has it been since you had a cigarette?” So, I told him it had been four days, and he was like, “WHAT?! That’s ridiculous! I could never have done that!” Because, you know, David Lynch chain smokes at every second. It’s not just an addiction, it’s part of his persona.

The cast of Showgirls 2: Penny’s From Heaven is comprised of several actors who were in the original, as well as new appearances from a few cult favorites. What was the casting process like for this film?

I basically did all the casting myself, though some of the actors certainly helped bring people to my attention. The whole thing really started with Peter Stickles (Shortbus, George: A Zombie Intervention), because he was the first person I cast…and from there, I just started looking at people who were right for the parts. Mostly, I cast friends of mine. I’d ask, and they said, “Yes!” Though, some people didn’t say “yes.” –laughs-

I’m sure a cast comprised of friends made the shoot far easier.

Oh yes. Everyone was such a trooper and a good sport. It was a low-budget affair, but everyone who came out was so passionate about the project. These were amazing people who were trying to help me out, and ultimately we really did some great work.

You’re certainly no stranger to the world of cult cinema. In addition to turns in Showgirls and Mulholland Drive, you’ve appeared in Striptease, one of the Candyman films, and had an awesome guest spot on Julie Brown’s Strip Mall…

You saw that?

I did! I love that show!

Oh good! I love that part. It was so much fun…I played Pussy Magnifico, a 28 year old, washed-up porn star.

Well, at 28, that’s practically retired.

Right? That’s like 102 in porn years!

…well, if all this cheeky greatness wasn’t enough, you’ve written and directed your own contribution to the cult canon in the form of Trasharella, which is you directed prior to Showgirls 2. Tell me about the Trasharella character.

Trasharella came to L.A. from Kansas to be a movie star. But when she goes on her audition, she encounters a Hollywood vampire. Basically, any starlet who looks like they are going to do well attracts this vampire’s attention, causing him to stalk them and drive them to insanity. So Trasharella becomes this super vixen whose aim is to fight off this vampire and save the starlets.

Interestingly enough, when I made Trasharella, I had to recut it to make it more commercial. My original edit of the film was far more Andy Warhol-esque. I had made it this really edgy, out there movie, and I really thought my friends were going to love that weird style. But, it was too much for them! –laughs- No one understood the movie when I first made it, but now, for some reason, people are really coming around and liking the Trasharella story.

…and it’s a character you plan on returning to, correct?

I haven’t started working on the movie yet, but it’s going to be called Trasharella in Space, and it’s going to be an avant-garde, crazy, sexy musical…thing. –laughs-

Since you thought you had to dial back the avant-garde, Warhol-style of the original film, is Trasharella in Space going to allow you the opportunity to cut loose in that vein? Especially now that you know the audience is more receptive to that surreal, artistic vibe?

I’m not sure. I will have to see what I’m inspired to do, because I usually go from moment to moment. This is especially necessary in the world of low-budget filmmaking. True, I’ll plan and I’ll have my vision, but once I get there, things happen, and I have to observe what is going on. There’s only so much you can control. So, I’d like to say I know what it’s going to be, but I can’t just yet. Low-budget filmmaking is certainly an adventure, and there are some things you just can’t help. My technique is to embrace it, rather than fight it, and just recognize that it’s meant to be.

Well, it’s clear that you put a lot of passion into what you do. The early critical praise of Showgirls 2 has really latched on to the heart and “can do” spirit that you put into making the film, and test audiences have been very receptive. Now, I understand that an even wider audience may get to see the film in the form of the DVD. What details can you give about the DVD release?

I’m hoping, and I think, that it will be available by Christmas!

Wow! That’s really fast!

It will be available on Amazon. I want to have it out there for the holidays and have it available for the fans, as well as everyone who has been supportive of my Showgirls 2 adventure. I want it to be out there for them, so that if they want to give it as a gift or a stocking stuffer, you know…they can! The film will get a bigger distribution, both theatrically and DVD, in 2012. But, really, I can’t wait any longer to get it to the true fans. I just feel bad, because so many people have been so supportive, and by releasing it through Amazon for the holidays, that’s my way of getting it to them faster and saying, “thank you.”

You always seem to have so many projects in the works, and with a DVD coming out and the potential for a new Trasharella movie, I have to ask: What’s next? What can fans of Rena Riffel expect to see in the near future?

I have so many things I want to do. Of course I want to work on Trasharella in Space, but that one is a little more on the backburner. For me, I’m starting a new movie that is going to be a sequel to Showgirls 2: Penny’s From Heaven and continue the storyline a little bit more. I went through so many different drafts of Showgirls 2, and had written so much material, that I feel there’s more to explore with the characters.

Are you revealing that Showgirls is about to become…a trilogy?

Some stories must be told!

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