In the video game Lego Indiana Jones, you play through shortened versions of the first three films in the franchise. Most of the playable characters have a unique special ability. If you need someone good at fighting, Indiana has his whip. If you need to crack some kind of code, Indiana’s dad has a book he can use. And if you need to break glass (which does come up a couple of times), Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott can shriek so loud the glass will literally shatter. That’s right – the one playable female character from Temple of Doom does nothing but yell!
This is obviously not the fate Kate Capshaw had in mind when she first read the Temple of Doom script, a Raiders of the Lost Ark prequel which tells us about that one time Indy went to India in search of a mystical stone but ended seeing a man’s still-beating heart literally ripped from his chest. A Texas-born, University of Missouri graduate with a master’s degree in learning disabilities, Capshaw was relatively new to acting in 1983. After graduating, she spent two unhappy years working as a teacher and gave birth to her daughter Jessica. She switched careers and found work as a model, climbing the ladder from TV commercials to soap operas (like Edge of Night) to feature films (debuting in 1982’s comedy A Little Sex).
Capshaw landed the Temple of Doom audition thanks to either random circumstance or ingenious networking, i.e., her agent happened to be jogging partners with the film’s casting director. She competed against more than 1,000 other actresses for the part, and the screen test process didn’t exactly prepare her for the action which would be involved in the film, as she recently told Empire, “At that time, I didn’t ‘do’ sequels. And I didn’t ‘do’ action adventure. For my screen test – with Steven, not Harrison – it was a scene between Willie and Indy where she’s really hungry. It’s difficult to find audition scenes when there’s so much action. You can’t just go in and yell.” The yelling would come later, and boy howdy would there be lots of it.
The popular story is Capshaw and a then-unknown Sharon Stone were among the three finalists for the role, but Spielberg told Empire, “I went to see Harrison and said, ‘I have 19 girls on tape but I’m only going to show you one.’ I put Kate’s tape in and he immediately said, ‘That’s the one!'”
Landing the role of the love interest in an Indiana Jones movie was a dream come true for Capshaw. As she explained in an interview at the time:
“I was living in Hollywood, and one night, my boyfriend and his friend wanted to take my girlfriend and me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. I told them that they should go and we would do something together while they were in the theater, but he was very persistent. I went, very petulant and sulky, and stayed that way for about two minutes after the movie started. When I came out, if there had been anyone doing interviews, I would have been a great advertisement for going to see that movie!”
But the part Capshaw was about to play was very different than Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood in Raiders. That character is first seen running her own bar in Nepal, more than holding her own as a woman in a man’s world. Willie, on the other hand, is introduced to us singing and dancing through a Busby Berkeley-inspired musical number. Marion was clearly tough-as-nails, a perfect match for Indy, whereas Willie, well, she sure whined a lot. Plus, she was named after Spielberg’s pet Cocker Spaniel (then again, Indy is named after a dog as well).
The difference between the two leading ladies was intentional. As Spielberg said at the time, “The danger in making a sequel is that you can never satisfy everyone. If you give people the same movie with different scenes, they say ‘Why weren’t you more original?’ But if you give them the same character in another fantastic adventure, but with a different tone, you risk disappointing the other half of the audience who just wanted a carbon copy of the first film with a different girl and a different bad guy. So you win and you lose both ways.”
More than just preferring to do something opposite of Raiders, though, Lucas and Spielberg were working through their own issues with women since the former was going through a divorce and the latter had just broken up with his girlfriend of three years, as I discuss in more detail elsewhere on the site.
Filming officially kicked off in Sri Lanka on April 18, 1983. Along with Jonathan Ke Quan who played Short Round, Capshaw was the new kid in the class since virtually the entire crew and production team behind Raiders returned for Temple of Doom. As Capshaw later recalled, “There I was very far away from any place I had ever known, with people who all knew each other and seemed to really know what they were doing. I really felt they were checking me out that I was on approval and had to prove myself to them. After the second week, Frank Marshall and Steven took me aside and explained everything, made sure I felt like one of the gang. They’re really just very wonderful people.”
Steven was so wonderful that when an accident during the mine-car sequence left Capshaw with a black eye, the sensitive director made sure when she arrived on set the next day every single crew member had already gone through the make-up department and been made to look like they had their own black eye to match her’s.
Spielberg and Capshaw married in 1991, had three kids and adopted two others. Having distanced himself from Temple of Doom considerably since its release, Spielberg often jokes in the films Indiana always gets the girl, but in real life he’s the one who got the girl, seemingly living happily ever after.
Still, it’s not like they made things easy on Capshaw back during the production of Temple. At times, the movie feels like Spielberg and company were almost making a game out of “What horrible thing can we do Willie now?” That’s not quite what Capshaw expected, claiming before the start of shooting Willie would be a truly dynamic character to bring to the screen:
“Willie has led this pampered life and feels that’s what’s due her – to be cared for and looked after. She meets Indiana Jones, a person unlike anyone she has ever been involved with, and ends up going off with him. In the course of all their adventures, all of her earlier life is stripped away from her, and Willie must fall back on her own resources. She discovers that she is a very strong woman, a gutsy lady.”
However, between starting as a” pampered singer” and ending as a “gusty lady” Willie had to be repeatedly humiliated and generally assaulted by mother nature. Unlike Raiders, Temple of Doom wanted to give us a supporting character who was completely out of her element:
Capshaw was usually just as scared as her character was supposed to be. When they filmed the scene with the snake she broke out into a cold sweat. The mere sight of the snake undulating made her feel like she was going to die. When they tried to place the snake on her shoulder as a dry run for the scene, she completely freaked out, leading Spielberg to deadpan, “That’s all right. Ok, if you’re not going to do this, there’s no way you’re not going to do the bugs!” That’s because Willie, Indy and Short Round get stuck in a chamber infested with a million crawling insects. Capshaw went through mental exercises every day to withstand the fact that she had to be covered with genuinely live insects:
“The worst part was having large bugs placed strategically on me where you can literally feel all their legs sort of grip you. The special animal trainer would start at my waist and my arms and work up my shoulders and then he would start placing them in my hair. And I would always be afraid that they would start crawling into inside my hair and I had just keep breathing and I closed my eyes and everybody would be quiet on the set. It was as good as working with bugs could have been.”
It’s almost like Willie is being punished throughout the middle section of the film for all of her complaining in the first half. She’s so useless during the opening chase scene that after she immediately drops Indiana’s gun out the window she refuses to apologize and instead scolds Indy, “I burnt my fingers, and I cracked a nail!” She takes to screaming so often Indy cracks to an agreeing Short Round, “The trouble with her is the noise.” Willard Huyck, who co-wrote the script with his wife Gloria Katz, told Grantland, “They definitely wanted a ditzy kind of Jean Harlow character. We took a lot of heat for her screaming all the time, but they wanted her to scream constantly.”
In fact, some of that screaming may not have been in Huyck and Katz’s actual script. Spielberg stopped shooting multiple times and wrote news lines of his own on the spot, receiving dialogue polishes over the phone from friend John Milius. Reportedly, his primary alteration was to drift Willie further away from the script and more into a constant source of comedy.
To be fair, there are still some signs of the version of Willie who was supposed to turn into a strong, gusty woman: she throws rocks at the guy fighting Indy during the rock-crushing sequence. She even punches out a guy who then ricochets and takes out two of his own buddies in the mine car chase sequence. But it’s easy to miss all of that since she never really stops screaming.
Capshaw recalls that any efforts on her part to find more depth for the character were rebuffed, “Harrison was constantly reminding me that I was a gal in a B-movie and that I didn’t need to put notes in the margin. ‘Faster and funnier’ was all the direction we got.”
Yet when the film came out everyone was blindsided by the negative reviews, most of which took issue with the film’s dark content. Many also objected to Capshaw’s performance, which caught her completely off guard, recently telling Empire, “The thing that surprised me the most was that the critics, women critics in particular, were very critical of Willie Scott, as if we were making a political statement and I was doing nothing for my sisters. I found it odd that it was an action-adventure film and we were meant to be doing message work.” Of course, elsewhere Capshaw has conceded Willie’s “not much more than a dumb screaming blonde.”
The film’s associate producer, Kathleen Kennedy, somewhat hilariously told Empire, “You really think I’m going to enter a discussion about Willie as a female role model when Willie is now Steven’s wife? You don’t wanna go there.”
So, Spielberg got the girl, and now we can use her to break glass in Lego Indiana Jones.
Sources: TheRaider.net, Steven Spielberg: A Biography, YouTube’s Defense of Short Round and Willie, Empire‘s Oral History of Temple of Doom