2016, Interview and Leslie Zemeckis lensed by the legendary Douglas Kirkland.
Iliana Such: What does being noble in the 21st Century mean?
Leslie Zemeckis: To me, to be noble is to have dignity. No matter what you do. It's all in the doing. To do right by people, give back (even if it's merely a smile to a stranger), and follow your own path.
Iliana María Such: Is there a childhood memory you can think of that has defined and contributed to the woman you are today?
Leslie Zemeckis: The first time I read a book, it made me cry. I was quite young, a voracious reader (still am), and I remember thinking, how can this have the power to move me to such emotion? The book takes place in Africa, and it is a tragedy about lions. Sadly, I don't recall the name of the book. However, that's when I realized the power of telling stories through acting, directing, or writing them.
Iliana María Such: You are married to the legendary American Filmmaker and Oscar-winning Director Robert Zemeckis, who has directed, written, and produced some of our most beloved films in America, including Forrest Gump, Back to the Future, The Polar Express, Allied, etc. How is he as a person? In what ways do you influence and inspire each other?
Leslie Zemeckis: I married him, so I think he's pretty great. We are supportive of each other's work. We can bounce ideas off each other and freely give our opinions. If one wants to do a project, we always encourage the other to embrace it no matter how difficult.
Photo Courtesy: Getty Images (Robert Zemeckis Decorated At Ministere de la Culture In Paris)
Photo Courtesy: Getty Images (Film Premiere of Allied)
Photo Courtesy: Jennifer Schwab
Iliana María Such: Please tell us about your sustainable home, organic garden, beekeeping, and hybrid/electric cars. What experience led you towards co-creating a sustainable lifestyle with your husband?
Leslie Zemeckis: Our main home in SB has solar panels, a salt-water pool, and a huge potager garden where the kids also work and eat right out of it. We have been and continue to be concerned with the plight of the bees, so we started beekeeping. It's been difficult - also, due to the drought - and we've lost a few, but we continue to try and make an atmosphere where they can thrive. We've switched out many plants (again due to the drought) to save on much-needed water. We have bamboo floors and low-energy bulbs. We try and do as much - and more - than we can. My husband also drives a Tesla.
Iliana María Such: What is the single most inspiring video, book, or exhibition you have seen addressing today's biggest challenges: climate change, food security, poverty reduction, and quality of life for all?
Leslie Zemeckis: One of the most compelling books I've read is Sugar Blues by Gloria Swanson's husband, William Dufty. I read it ages ago. We eat too much sugar, which affects our health and everything. It is a silent killer, especially with obesity and diabetes on the rise.
Iliana María Such: Are you connected to a particular cause? If so, which cause and why?
Leslie Zemeckis: We are connected to many causes. One dear to my heart is Second Harvest, which is in poor economic areas like Tennessee and West Virginia. We support schools that give kids food to take home on weekends, as many cannot eat. Especially now, with the fires that have devastated the areas around Gatlinburg, this is most important. Kids should not have to go without food—a basic.
Iliana María Such: Would you describe yourself as a spiritual person?
Leslie Zemeckis: Yes. I am a spiritual person who believes in karma and a higher power.
Iliana María Such: You seek to restore dignity to characters some might not deem worthy. From a philosophical point of view, can you share a few ideas about beauty, the heart, and the value of all human life?
Leslie Zemeckis: Everyone has a story. Many have been dismissed due to the nature of the work performed or the circumstances under which they were born into. Beauty is within, yet the beauty shown out worldly often has its discrimination. Many burlesque women were dismissed, not only because they stripped for a living (and hardly stripped at that, but in the 30s and 40s, it was considered scandalous) but because of their sumptuous beauty. Beauty can come with brains and dignity. These men (and women in particular) were working, entertaining untold thousands of people, especially during the Great Depression, and I feel strongly that they haven't received their due for the work they did. They made people laugh and forget their troubles for a few hours.
Iliana María Such: How did you become a leading authority on burlesque, and how much research was involved in your projects before the bearing of creative fruit?
Leslie Zemeckis: It takes me years of research and writing (and in the case of my film filming) for my projects to come to fruition. In the case of Behind the Burly Q, I thought about shooting a documentary for a while before I just decided to do it (without ever having done a film before). The stories were so great and were mostly untold. From that point forward, I did more years of research and wrote the follow-up book. The legendary stripper, Lili St. Cyr's sister, who was married to the leading burlesque impresario (the Minsky family), came to me and said I "had" to write Lili's story. I've talked to a dozen of performers who have since passed. I am the only one with their stories; that go as far back as the 30s. If I don't tell their story and try and bring some understanding to how influential burlesque really was (we would not have Saturday Night Live or Carol Burnett without burlesque), these stories will be gone forever. It is interesting history, a different time when people could recreate the person they wanted to be. It gave women, in particular, a chance to change their story - to see something of at least the country, to earn money and take care of themselves, and often to lead a very glamorous life.
Photo Courtesy Leslie Zemeckis
Photo Courtesy Getty Images
Iliana María Such: Is there a memorable story from your premier at the MOMA in New York that stands out and is worth sharing with us?
Leslie Zemeckis: I was overwhelmed by having the film premiere at MOMA and having Sharon Stone, my husband, and Alan Alda host it - it's almost a blur. I've since become a much better public speaker. Though occasionally, I still cry when speaking about these men and women I fell in love with (the performers). The reception for the film was so great, and Showtime picked it up - it was mind-blowing for a first-time filmmaker.
Iliana María Such: Were there any obstacles you had to overcome on a personal level while writing your book, "Goddess of Love Incarnate: The Life of Stripteuse Lili St. Cyr?"
Leslie Zemeckis: No obstacles writing Goddess. I was lucky enough to travel to most places she lived and traveled to (including Italy). Because of Behind the Burly Q, it was easy to get people to talk to me. I love hearing their stories. I love writing and can do it at any time, 10 minutes or 10 hours, with my three kids in the room or quietly at 4 in the morning. I vow never to miss a deadline. And I haven't.
Iliana María Such: In "A Bedroom Fantasy," a 1953 stripping short directed by W. Merle Connell, Lili demonstrates a true art of undressing and femininity. I can understand why Lili St. Cyr would view herself as an artist. In your opinion, how would you differentiate the very fine line existing between art and pornography, which is more prevalent today?
Leslie Zemeckis: I know little to nothing about pornography except to say burlesque and what Lili did, and other artists in the golden age (20s -50s) to the new movement today has nothing to do with pornography. And the association should be wiped out. It is art about costumes, music and dance, and expression.
"Protesting" on the streets of NY when Barnes & Noble went back on their agreement to have burlesque dancers (fully clothed) at my book signing. We sold a lot of books!
At my first book signing in LA - showing that burlesque is humor based. Especially the stripping, the best stripping has humor.
Iliana María Such: Lili was the highest paid striptease in America, yet she was married six times, arrested on indecency charges, attempted suicide multiple times and in her final decades became a recluse. Is beauty found within the darkest tragedies? In your opinion, what does it take to climb out of dark places, where one has hidden from everyone, to emerge a success?
Leslie Zemeckis: Beauty is beautiful. Everyone's life is different. When Lili lost her looks, she believed she had nothing to offer. But that is because of the way she was raised in the time she was raised. She didn't have an inner barometer to tell her she had worth. She didn't have girlfriends or family to tell her the same. I don't believe there is a dark side to beauty as long as a beautiful (or not) person is raised feeling beautiful inside.
lliana María Such: Jill Alexander Essbaum, New York Times bestselling author of Hausfrau, states, "What's most resonant in Leslie Zemeckis's Biography of Lili St. Cyr is how utterly human this Goddess of Love truly was. This is the story of a disciplined artist, a deeply generous woman, a girl who loved and lost (and loved and lost again and again), and a lady committed to living a determined life. This book, like its subject, is seductive and absolutely captivating." Can you share with us an example of Lili's deep generosity?
Leslie Zemeckis: Lili was generous with her art. Though extremely shy and one who didn't mingle with other performers, she would generously share her work and knowledge with others (her sister, for one) and always give money to help someone out. She spent and spent on husbands and boyfriends, taking care of them. She took in stray cats. She was a quietly generous person. Not showy in that regard.
Iliana María Such: What advice can you share with the world on the importance of empowering others to reach their full potential?
Leslie Zemeckis: My burlesque ladies taught me about the generosity of spirit. They seldom judged each other and never themselves. They never disparaged their bodies or others - and there were all shapes and sizes. They all thought they were pretty great. And we need more of those lessons from those women in those times. It's important for women not to knock each other down. Friendships and empowering with a word, or as I do, sharing stories, will help people in their darkest hours. (I hope)
Iliana María Such: Please tell us about Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer? Can you share with us an exclusive detail?
Leslie Zemeckis: Stark, the subject of my next film out next year, "Mabel, Mabel Tiger Trainer," was the world's first female tiger trainer. She is an inspiration. When she was told no woman could train tigers, she got an act together and worked with up to 22 in the steel arena. She sustained numerous horrific injuries from her tigers; there was literally not an ounce of her body that wasn't scared. She kept up at it for 50 years, always with patience and kindness. She loved those cats. I hope I can bring some understanding to all the groups protesting the circus in particular. We will see animal acts go, which will be a tragedy for us. On the day Ringling announced no more elephants, I was interviewing John Ringling (I believe Jr.), and it was a sad, difficult interview. The trainers I have followed in the circus filming love and devote their every waking hour to these cats.
Iliana María Such: What is your greatest hope for the future? What is next for Leslie Zemeckis?
Leslie Zemeckis: My hope for the future is to keep on in a more enlightened, loving world. Next up for me is another book on two burlesque legends from the 30s, and I'm about to shoot a sizzle reel for my next documentary - again on some very misunderstood yet very famous women from their day. It will be a subject matter that is totally off burlesque and circus. Plus, I'll be acting in a film with Steve Carrell this year.
Iliana María Such: How would you like to be remembered?
Leslie Zemeckis: I'd like to be remembered as someone who has fun and does good work.