I remember seeing the movie Showgirls on the big screen in 1996 shortly before I went in the Army. As my friend and I left the theater after the film let out, I said that I wished Rena Riffel would have had more screen time. He said if she did, she would have stolen the show. I couldn’t have agreed more. So, a few weeks ago when my good friend Carlo Rodriguez over at Underdogs.com mentioned that he was personal friends with Rena and asked if I’d be interested in interviewing her, I immediately said “hell yes!” and asked him to put in a good word for me. He did, and here she is to start out this site’s 2012 with a bang.
Even though she’s been appearing in movies since 1988, Rena will probably always be best known for her role as the sweet and slightly naive stripper Penny/Hope in the now camp classic film Showgirls. What many don’t know is that she was originally up for the part of the seasoned diva Cristal Conners (played by Gina Gershon) but the producers felt she was better suited for the role of the younger and seemingly-innocent small-town girl working in a Las Vegas strip club for the first time. If you’re a fan of the film, you know the brief but unforgettable Cheetah Club dance scene with Rena and Elizabeth Berkeley. It was one scene where I’m sure, Rena would have stolen the show if it would have been longer.
Rena recently reprised her role as Penny in Showgirls 2: Penny’s from Heaven. Despite that, when I was writing the questions I wanted to ask Rena, I didn’t want my list to be dominated by Showgirls-related questions, thinking she might be tired of always being asked about that film when she’s done so much more during her career. Namely, appearing in David Lynch’s 2001 neo-noir psychological thriller Mulholland Dr., starring as Detective LaRue in the 2008 horror/thriller Dark Reel, and writing, directing, and starring in the lead roles of the cult films Trasherella (2009) and Trasherella Ultra Vixen (2011). However, despite her extensive resume, Rena was just as happy answering my Showgirls-related questions as she was answering my non-Showgirls-related ones.
CHRIS CHARLES: It’s great to have you here, Rena. I have our mutual friend Carlo Rodriguez to thank for being instrumental in this.
RENA RIFFEL: Thank you so much, Chris! Carlo is the best and has been very supportive of my acting and filmmaking career. Trasharella Ultra Vixen was honored at Carlo’s film festival which honors women in film; Aphrodite Cinefest International! My film had a ton of nominations and won Best Make-Up, Most Experimental Film, and Most Erotic Film. I look forward to collaborating with Carlo and getting Trasharella Ultra Vixen up on his new distribution website, Underdogs.com.
CHRIS: Yes, Carlo’s definitely a great guy to have in your corner. So, you were born a raised in California and an are an experienced equestrian, having competed in rodeo events when you were quite young. Do you still ride horses these days?
RENA: No, I haven’t been riding in many years. But, I do have a dream of having a horse again.
CHRIS: What are some of your other hobbies and interests?
RENA: I love wine tasting and drinking wine, dance class, working out, and having our big dog, Broadway. But my main interest is filmmaking and everything that goes with it. Editing, writing the script, envisioning the film, etc.
CHRIS: Even though you’ve been appearing in films steadily since 1988, I assume you’re best known for your role as Penny/Hope in Showgirls and I further assume you’re always asked questions about the character and the film. So, we’ll go ahead and get to them now if you don’t mind.
RENA: I never get tired of answering questions about Showgirls, it is such a controversial film that there are always more questions to answer.
CHRIS: I understand you were originally up for the role of Cristal Conners, but it was felt you were too young to play the part of and aging showgirl. Your character Penny, was the sweet and naive stripper and you played her to the T. If you would have gotten the part of the calculating diva Cristal, do you think you could have played her as well as you did Penny?
RENA: Yes. The character of Cristal was written very clearly. I have played a few calculating diva’s in my career. I prefer these types of roles actually, they are a lot of fun.
CHRIS: I assume you had to do some research to play the role of Penny?
RENA: Yes, I did.
CHRIS: Were you ever considered for the part of Nomi?
RENA: No, but I think I was more suited for Nomi than for Cristal, but probably because I didn’t have many credits at that time they didn’t consider me, they needed a “star name.” I think Elizabeth Berkley was cast perfectly for the role.
CHRIS:Showgirls was originally panned by most critics and it was widely believed that it didn’t do very well at the box office. However even if that were true, it made up for it in video sales and rentals. It’s now considered a camp or even cult classic by many, even though it wasn’t intended to be. When did you first become aware you were part of a such a classic movie and what are your feelings about it today?
RENA: When I was cast in the grand finale of Married With Children, I found out from the writers on the that show that people were doing midnight movies and loving the camp value of Showgirls. That was around 1998. I love that it is still being celebrated as a cult film. Showgirls was actually a success at the box office. Showgirls only opened in 1/3 of the theatres, in a limited release, because of the NC-17 rating, and it still took 3rd place highest grossing film at the box office the opening weekend making 8.5 million domestically. So, that means every theatre that it played in was a packed house. If the censorship would have aloud the film to be played in all the theatres, it might have been #1 at the box office. But, now it has made over a 100 million and is one of MGM’s top ten highest grossing films in history, so I don’t know why people like to say it was a bomb, because it wasn’t a bomb at all.
RENA: Yes, I am friends and in touch with many of the cast members. Some I have seen periodically over the years and last year there was a Showgirls reunion hosted by Playboy. It was such an intense movie making experience, that is our bond.
CHRIS: I understand you wanted to be a dancer ever since you saw Flashdance, which was co-written by Showgirls writer, Joe Eszterhas. Did you know he was one of the writers of Flashdance when you
auditioned for Showgirls?
RENA: No, actually I was so clueless that when I went on the audition for Showgirls, my agent didn’t tell me that the director was my favorite director of all time, Paul Verhoeven. I went in and saw him there, and thought, Oh my god, is that who I think it is? Then, later, during the filming of Showgirls, I was watching Flashdance during my lunch time and realized that Joe Eszterhas was also a writer on my favorite movie, Flashdance, always brings tears of joy, seeing her accomplish her dancing goals and I remember I was teary eyed just thinking of how I, being a small town girl, got to be in a movie written by Joe Eszterhas. I realized then that this is a dream come true.
CHRIS: Was director Paul Verhoeven was a real stickler for sticking to the script (like I’ve heard he is)?
RENA: Yes. It was a 3 million dollar script.
CHRIS: I understand you and Elizabeth Berkley rehearsed your duet Cheetah Club dance scene, clothed. Was there ever an “undress” rehearsal before shooting?
RENA: We didn’t have a fully nude rehearsal, only when we were on set filming did that part happen.
CHRIS: Was there any awkwardness when it came time for that?
RENA: Elizabeth was wonderful in that scene, I was happy I had a friend to do this with me. She was very uninhibited at that point of the filming, so she made me feel more comfortable with the nudity aspect, but we were both thinking more about the dancing and choreography than anything else.
CHRIS:Showgirls 2: Penny’s from Heaven has recently been released. I’ve just seen the trailer, but I can see and tell from the title, that it focuses on Penny, 16 years after Nomi left Las Vegas, Cristal retired on her “real nice settlement” and so on. Was a sequel your idea, either in whole or part, or were you approached about it?
RENA: The idea of a movie about “Penny” was mentioned casually to me by Paul (Verhoeven). I think he was just kind of joking and being sweet, but I took it seriously, of course (laughs). So, years later, I took it upon myself to complete it.
CHRIS: You also have credits that include writer and composer, and I don’t mean just for Showgirls. Tell me about your musical background.
RENA: I have written and recorded about a hundred songs and had a record deal at one point with Polygram/Mercury. Ed Eckstein signed me. I have been fortunate to work with the top producers and writers in the world, and got to travel to New York and Miami, recording with these greats of the music industry. I am still very passionate about my music and I plan to continue my music career.
CHRIS: Would you say you’ve worked behind the camera as much as you have in front of it?
RENA: No, I have worked more in front of the camera but, now I am starting to work more behind the camera or actually, I am doing both in front and behind at the same time.
CHRIS: What career path do you think you would have taken if you didn’t go into show biz?
RENA: I don’t know.
CHRIS: I’ve read where you’ve stated that you really don’t want to be a big star and that you’re just happy to have made some films that fans enjoy and know you from, but do you often get recognized and approached by fans when you go out in public?
RENA: Yes, I always get recognized.
CHRIS: Besides Penny, who are some of your favorite characters that you’ve played?
RENA: I love all the characters I have played. There are so many, I can’t list them all. None of the characters I have played are anything like the real me. I mean, if you haven’t actually seen all the roles I have played, just look at some of their names (laughs). They are all definitely fictional femme fatales.
CHRIS: What would you say have been your most challenging roles, either mentally or physically?
RENA: I have starred in five movies in Czech Republic. These roles are really intense, but I love that they are challenging both mentally and physically.
CHRIS: IMBd bios often include some trivia about the person. What is something you can tell me about yourself that I wouldn’t be able to find out otherwise ….trivial or not?
RENA: No one knows about my famous ex-boyfriends. If they did, they could have turned me into a tabloid sensation (laughs).
CHRIS:(Sure wishing she’d drop some names but moving on and hoping she might later) I see. What are you working on as we speak?
RENA: I am still in the Showgirls 2: Penny’s From Heaven post production world and focusing on the distribution and screenings of it. But, I am also preparing for my next film I make as Director/Writer/Star. I am working on a sequel to “Showgirls 2: PFH”, I have a wicked Marie Antoinette script, and another script I am polishing right now that is more like a Hitchcock type of thriller. I also have some acting roles coming up.
CHRIS: I hate it when I’m asked this kind of question, but I’ll ask you and hope you don’t feel the same: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
RENA: Still making movies, having success, and wine tasting with Francis Ford Coppola at his winery in Napa (California).
CHRIS: As that’s not too far from where I live. Maybe I’ll see you up there sometime. Well, this has been a real pleasure and honor, Rena. Not to mention a feather in my cap for landing an interview with you. In closing, what would you like to say to your fans who’ll be reading this? RENA: Thank you to my fans, thank you for all your support over the years and thank you for being my audience… as Madonna once said, “I am nothing without you,” and I am nothing without you, all of you wonderful people out there in the dark. (Author’s Note: Said while doing her Norma Desmond impersonation for me.) Also, please visit the Showgirls 2 movie website for updates, memorabilia, and merchandise ….and please sign up as a site member so I can keep in touch with you!
Still from Mulholland Dr. Rena said in another interview that director David Lynch was very into details, such as supervising while she was being made up to make sure her character (Laney) didn’t look “too good” and her bruises were just in the right places.
Gracing the October 2007 cover of Easyriders magazine
At the November 2007 premiere of Dark Reel
As Druscilla, on the set of Caligula’s Spawn (2009)
As Vampirella for CelebrityCosplay.com. Also see there for Rena
as other characters as well, such as Red Sonja.
Promo poster for Showgirls 2: Penny’s From Heaven
Rena’s first scene in Showgirls; getting introduced to the other girls at the Cheetah Club.
Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Chris flirted with the music business there and in Nashville before joining the U.S. Army and serving in South Korea. He remained in Asia for several years afterwards, teaching English, traveling, and covering the regional entertainment scenes. Currently in a mindset between Seoul and San Francisco, besides Idol Features, you can also catch his writings in the print edition of the monthly magazine, Effective.
Jessica Cameron didn’t decide to become an actress until after she began her career in fashion design. After taking some acting classes, she gave up her position at a design company to pursue her passion for acting.
With an acting career that spans four decades, and includes films, TV shows, and theater, actress Helene Udy could definitely be considered an actresses’ actress who has earned praise and respect from her peers.
In this second half of my interview with Dawna Lee Heising, we delve much further into her acting credits, both past and upcoming. After returning to acting a few years ago, Dawna has built up some notable credits.