William March’s novel The Bad Seed was published in 1954 and adapted for the stage later that year. The book was nominated for a National Book Award in 1955 and in 1956 Mervyn LeRoy directed a film version that earned four Academy Award nominations, including one for Patty McCormack for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. At ten years old, McCormack was, and still is, the youngest actress ever to be nominated in that category.
The film holds up, in large part because of McCormack’s scene stealing performance as Rhoda Penmark. She’s terrifying. A ten-year-old girl who stops at nothing to get what she wants. LeRoy smartly directs the movie to cast doubt, putting his audience into the same position as Rhoda’s mother, Christine Penmark (Grace Kelly). She’s forced to decide whether or not her daughter is a killer, and what to do if she is.
Since then, McCormack has had a long, successful career, appearing in The Sopranos, The Master, Cold Case, Hart of Dixie, Scandal, Criminal Minds, and Supernatural. She’s come full circle, taking the role of a psychiatrist treating a psychopathic pre-teen named Emma (McKenna Grace) in Rob Lowe’s 2018 adaptation of The Bad Seed, set to air on Lifetime on September 9th 2018.
Wicked Horror caught up with Patty McCormack as she drove her grandson to basketball practice.
Wicked Horror: The original film, The Bad Seed, has a shocking ending. Were you allowed to watch it when it was released?
Patty McCormack: You know, that’s a funny memory I have. I was actually stopped from going in the theater. We went to see it. The memory is old because I was only 10, but I remember not being allowed to go into the theater. That was a very diligent person working the counter.
I believe I was working in Mexico, doing an Orson Welles’s Don Quixote. Anyway, it was called La Mala Semilla in Spanish. And that was kind of thrilling. I didn’t know it was our movie because I didn’t speak Spanish.
WH: When did you actually get to see it? Was the first time in Mexico?
Patty McCormack: No. That’s so hard because through the years I don’t remember the initial viewing of the whole film. I really don’t. I’ve seen it so many times in so many different forms since then that one blends into the other. Some of it was cut a little bit, some of it had all the things that were in it originally. I’m not really remembering the first time. Probably a screening at Warner Brothers I would imagine.
The big difference is that I was finally able to articulate is that I wasn’t playing the result. I was playing the person who was just trying to get what she wanted. I didn’t pass a judgment about it.
WH: Did you know how intense of a movie you were filming as you were filming it?
Patty McCormack: I did know because I knew the reaction of people having seen the play, too. I was quite aware that it was intense. But I also had a wonderful time playing Rhoda. I had done it for a while by then.
I was older too. When I first began, when I auditioned to the play I was eight and a half and it was on Broadway with Nancy Kelly and the director was Reginald Denham, who’s an English director. As time went on—I had my tenth birthday during the Broadway run of The Bad Seed—I was maturing and understanding more.
The big difference is that I was finally able to articulate is that I wasn’t playing the result. I was playing the person who was just trying to get what she wanted. I didn’t pass a judgment about it. That’s the best way to do anything. Not to have an opinion as you’re doing it.
WH: How did people react to you, because you were still a cute kid but you were playing a sociopath on the screen and on the stage?
Patty McCormack: There were mixed reactions. A lot of times coming out of the theater people said things like, “Did you ever want to kill anybody?” I thought that was kind of ridiculous and I was young. Some people said dumb things. Other people said really nice things. They believed the role I guess.
WH: It sounds like you played it pretty well if people were asking you those questions.
Patty McCormack: Pretty convincing. [Laughs]. It was worrisome, really. But I did have a wonderful time.
WH: How did it feel to return to The Bad Seed in this year’s remake?
Patty McCormack: I loved the notion of it being present time. And I love the notion of it being a character that wasn’t in the original. The fact that she was a psychiatrist that Rob Lowe seeks out as the dad. He’s the Dad in the story, the way Nancy Kelly was the Mom in the original, so it’s kind of their story together. He is worried and finds a psychiatrist to have her looked at. For me, that was great fun. The actors who played all those roles earlier on in the original were so good at what they did. Each person was so excellent it would’ve been difficult, without hearing them in my head, to do something that they’d done. It would’ve been hard for me. It was good that it was a totally different part.
WH: So you feel like it gave you freedom to have this new character?
Patty McCormack: Yes. It was really nice.
WH: What was it like working with McKenna Grace? Did you give her any tips?
PM: McKenna Grace has got to be the best kid actress around. She is truly the real deal. She is so good. I’ve seen her do other things too, so no, I wouldn’t dare to have said anything because she was totally capable of creating her own Emma—Emma is Rhoda. I’m telling you, I wouldn’t have dared say anything because there was nothing I could say.
WH: What was Rob Lowe like as a director?
Patty McCormack: He was great because he’s an actor. He was very helpful. I took the things he said to heart. He was right on. He was wonderful. He’s a wonderful director. And of course, he comes from being a young person who acted. He has the appreciation of being an actor and knows what you’re walking through and the eye of a good director.
WH: What excites you in a role? What do you look for when you’re reading scripts?
Patty McCormack: I would say it depends on what part of life I’m in. Sometimes certain things ring your bell and other times you think, “Oh gosh, I’ve done that before.” But I did have a wonderful time doing something called House of Deadly Secrets. The part is a bizarre, freewheeling, crazy woman. I did it last year and it was the most fun I had in a long time. It depends. What I look for is something I can bring something to, or something that gives me a feeling that I should be doing it. You know that kind of instinct. But it changes. It doesn’t mean I want to be all kindly Grandmas or crazy people. Each event is at a time and you can have a different reaction to it depending on lots of things.
WH: Do you feel like you are offered roles outside of “kindly Grandma or crazy person?”
Patty McCormack: [Laughs]. Those are the extremes for an older person, but no. You can be all be things in between. A homeless person, a married person—you know what I mean.
It’s been fun. Just when you think it’s calming down or slowing down, for it to kick back in in a way is really fun. I’m having a good old time.
WH: What’s on the horizon for you? What else are you doing that excited you?
Patty McCormack: Actually, what’s coming up is not something I can talk about—I know that sounds ridiculous but it’s not solid—but I have to say for some odd reason, at this late date there’s more work swirling than there has been in a long time. And I love that. I’m so happy about that. It’s been fun. Just when you think it’s calming down or slowing down, for it to kick back in in a way is really fun. I’m having a good old time.