New York’s Scream Queen

Although Debbie Rochon has appeared in over 70 movies, she walks the streets of Manhattan without being recognized. That may be because she’s been topless in nearly half of those movies. But if the average New York movie buff has never heard her name, if the couple gripping double lattes at the Angelika is not familiar with her oeuvre, that does not mean she isn’t famous. Indeed, she is a very, very big deal in the world of horror and exploitation films. You’ve never seen Scrotal Vengeance or Gladiator Eroticus: The Lesbian Warriors ? You missed Sandy Hook Lingerie Party Massacre ? And somehow you never got around to Anal Paprika 3 , with its tag line “Wickedness Hides in the Butts of the Young”? Well, what are you waiting for?

Unlike a lot of 33-year-old New Yorkers, Ms. Rochon has no regrets about her career. It’s allowed her to find herself. Especially now that she no longer has to play the victim. Literally.

“The beauty of being in my 30′s is that you can play the psycho; you can play the bad guy, the villain,” she said over lunch recently in Manhattan. “That’s what I’m playing now, and I’m having so much fun. I believe I know what’s going on there: a lot of rage, unexpressed rage. Think about it-it’s great. Where else would you be accepted for being your insane, rageful self and be applauded for it?”

Ms. Rochon was wearing a turtleneck sweater and dark blue slacks that hid her shapely figure. She’s 5-foot-5 and has dark hair with blond streaks. She’s single and lives in a small, $1,100-a-month one-bedroom apartment in the East 30′s with a roommate who is a secretary at a large corporation. To prepare for my interview I watched American Nightmare , in which Ms. Rochon plays a serial killer who comes across a group of college kids at a Friends -like coffee shop and decides to torture and kill them. “You fucking bitch, you think you’re better than me?” she screams as she stabs away. Ms. Rochon said it’s her best work to date, and I had to agree.

Joe Bob Briggs, who reviews cult movies for United Press International, is a big fan.

“What she has going for her are, first of all, those lips!” said Mr. Briggs. “Those eyes! She’s really quite a good actress with range. A vulnerability even when she’s in psycho mode. And, of course, in her line of work it’s a prerequisite that you fill out a bra. Another thing I like about Debbie is, she never became a snob. Most scream queens do three or four movies and then make a big public announcement that they’re no longer doing nudity or exploitation films and are pursuing a career in higher-class pictures. And then we never hear from them again.”

Maitland McDonagh, an exploitation-movie scholar and TV Guide Online’s senior movie editor, is not a fan. “She can’t act at all, and I find her 100 percent charisma-free,” Ms. McDonagh said. “Having said that, I realize her primary appeal is not to me. Her primary appeal is to horny 12- year-old boys of all ages.”

Not so, according to Lloyd Kaufman, the film director who co-founded Troma Entertainment-the Disney of exploitation film studios- about 30 years ago. Actors who appeared early in their careers in Troma movies include Samuel Jackson ( Def by Temptation , 1990), Robert De Niro ( The Wedding Party , 1969) and Kevin Costner ( Sizzle Beach USA , 1986).

“Debbie is a goddess of truly independent cinema,” said Mr. Kaufman, adding that directors like Roberto Rossellini, Jean Renoir, Andy Warhol and Samuel Fuller would have loved to work with her. “She is a major Troma star. If you look at her performance in Terror Firmer and Citizen Toxie , it’s quite apparent she has a deeper feeling for the material and in the fullness of time will grow to the point of, I think, Julia Roberts. Debbie has chosen to stay in the truly independent world. Had she gone to Los Angeles, no question she’d be doing much better films than Julia Roberts or Parker Posey.”

The most Ms. Rochon has ever earned as an actress was about $2,000 for three days’ work on Fox TV’s New York Undercover . For American Nightmare , she was paid $1,200 for 18 days of work. Last fall, she made nine movies in two months, but it’s been slower in 2002. She was audited by the I.R.S. a few years ago.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do when I’m older,” she said. “Who knows? I look at the women in the horror-cult profession, we really are a new breed-we didn’t marry, didn’t have children. What do we end up doing? How do we retire? What does one do ? It really is a dead end in a lot of ways. You have to constantly be moving forward, trying to get to another level.”

She said she’d like to do a big Hollywood movie, for the money.

“I can do the psycho better than any of them,” she said. “Give me Jennifer Love Hewitt. Please . I am destined to be the actress to play the psycho. I know it. I feel it. I feel energized when I think about it. I would be very hard-pressed to be in a movie where I’m a normal wife and just sit around and talk. It’s not like I couldn’t do it. I find it easier at my wits’ end. I need my characters to be very, very extreme in order for me to relate to them.

“You know all the feelings that we’re taught to get rid of-’don’t feel that way,’ ‘don’t get mad,’ ‘sit on it,’ ‘shut up,’ all these things?” she said. “Imagine going to that really rage-filled place, from originally childhood but it feeds every day, on the subway, on the street, the smells . Like tap into that part of you, and just stay there and stay there. You gotta let it out.”

That night, I was unable to sleep facing away from the bedroom door.

The next day, she told me about her childhood.

She grew up in a rural area outside Vancouver, Canada. Her father was a mechanic and a drunk with a terrible temper. Her mother had polio and couldn’t walk. (Both parents died in 1997.) When she was 9, Debbie was pumping gas and earning a few pennies by ripping the feathers off turkeys after their throats had been slit. She wore ripped-up clothes to school. One day when she was 11, a social worker showed up at the house, and soon Debbie was placed in her first foster home.

“That really sucked,” she said. “I would sleep in someone’s basement on a moldy mattress. A lot of people do that for the money, just like some people have more babies for money. It was really terrible. I said, ‘You know what, I’m happier living on the street.’”

She ran away to Vancouver and hung with a gang that broke into houses. “Bad things would always happen,” she said. “The side of humanity and men-if I may say so, without insulting you-was just so low and so bad that I can’t look back at it and say that it was fun. Everything was just tinged with such sadness .”

She slept under bridges, in abandoned cars, in doorways of nightclubs. Drag queens were her role models. Once she found a gay-hustler pal of hers stabbed to death; another time she found a drag queen overdosed on Valium. She spent two months in a juvenile-detention center for breaking and entering.

Her movie career began in 1980, when she was just 13 but looked 17. There was an open casting call in Vancouver for the punk rock movie Ladies and Gentleman: The Fabulous Stains! , starring Laura Dern and Diane Lane. She got a part with one line (“We don’t put out!”), but the movie was never widely released. An assistant director told her she was good, which sparked something. On the set, she met ex–Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook. They eventually dated.

But things didn’t get much better. She got into drugs and was raped in a parking lot. One night a pimp stabbed her in the arm, right breast and back because she was trying to convince some prostitutes to switch careers.

She pulled up the sleeve of her sweater to reveal a long scar. “I had a whole bunch of skin grafts,” she said.

She left the hospital before being discharged.

“I lost so much blood that I could not stand up for a month without fainting,” she said. “I was really open and impressionable when I first got to Vancouver. By the time I got out of there, I was just deadened; you couldn’t get to me emotionally as a human being if you tried. There would just be no way in-zero.”

She quit drugs and stealing after a judge threatened to put her away for a long time. In 1985 she took $3,000 she’d saved busing restaurant tables and selling clothes in a mall and moved to New York. She found a room on the Upper West Side and took acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Institute. One teacher said she had too much going on in her head. “And I said, ‘Well, I agree with you on that end, but I think that once I do get in touch with all this stuff, I’m going to have so much to express. The desire and joy of a lifetime all bottled up-I’m going to have passion,’” she said.

She got some roles Off Off Broadway and in 1992 made her first of seven movies for Troma. To pay the bills, she worked as a waitress on Bleecker Street. One night, she said, she served Warren Beatty herbal tea, and he stayed past closing time. But she did not tell him she was an actress.

“I was fresh off the streets. I was taught you just don’t give away the power,” she said. “For me to say, ‘Yes, I’m an actress,’ hands over the power completely to this person. And then how are you going to say no if he says, ‘Come and read for a movie’? And it’s probably stupidity on my part, but that’s what I did.”

She said he came in three nights a week for a month, and sometimes asked if she wanted to come back to his hotel for a bath. She said no.

“He just had this essence of on the move ,” she said. “I don’t want to say ‘sleaze,’ because it wasn’t exactly sleaze. It just kind of oozed-he oozed a man who’s been with way too many women.”

She said that one night he came in with his girlfriend, actress Isabelle Adjani, who told her that “Warren really thinks you have something special” and suggested the three of them go back to his hotel. She declined.

“I gotta tell you, she was beautiful,” Ms. Rochon said. “I was more interested in her for real. She was so stunning-have you seen her in person? Oh boy, boy, boy. The epitome of beautiful, French, sensual.”

Ms. Rochon ended up talking about the Beatty encounter on The Howard Stern Show , and it appeared in the New York Post.

She continued to make movie after movie,

including In The Hood , which co-starred Fred (Rerun) Berry from the 1970′s TV series What’s Happening? ; Head Cheerleader, Dead Cheerleader (“Two-four-six-eight, who do we decapitate?”); and 1994′s Abducted 2: The Reunion , which co-starred Jan Michael-Vincent and Dan ( Grizzly Adams ) Haggerty. It was about three Swiss boarding-school girls who get kidnapped by a madman who wears a goat’s head and is looking for a wife. “It wasn’t very good,” she said. “That didn’t stop me! I’ve made many not-very-good movies.”

Without her roles in movies, she said, she’d be in trouble. “Seriously, they saved my life. I don’t know if I would be dead,” she said. “But it gave me something. That’s probably why, against all odds, I just continue to do it. It’s not like I’m getting amazing recognition or lots of bucks. If I didn’t end up in a small town like my sisters did, I would probably be, at best, working as a teller in a bank and married with a couple of kids, and probably very unhappy.”

She said that last summer during the filming of American Nightmare in Fort Worth, Tex., she stayed in character the whole time. “I went to a really bad place in my head, in my emotions, and I stayed there. I would sit in my hotel room and I would be really deranged. I would call people in New York and be like I’m really freaking out. But I stayed there.”

She spooked the other actors. “There were these Polaroids on the set, and I stole one from each of the characters in the movie so I could have them, look at them and hate them,” she said.

Ms. Rochon said her next movie, Bog People, is as good as American Nightmare . She also has several more about to come out: Blood of My Blood and Death Island .

She’d like to win a Golden Chainsaw Award, the Oscar of the horror-movie business. Stephen King, Vincent Price and Anthony Hopkins have won the award.

“I would love to walk home and walk into the living room and on the mantle see a Golden Chainsaw,” she said. “That, to me, is heaven. That’s it, the ultimate.

“The only dreams that I have are roles that I want to do,” she said. “I want to do American Nightmare 2 . I’ve had some people say things about my performance that literally have made me cry. I want to bring this insane crazy woman back to be more violent than ever. That’s my fantasy. I got a lot of things to settle, can’t you see that?”