Leslie Zemeckis, author, actor, award-winning documentarian and philanthropist is passionate about telling the fascinating stories about women who have led amazing lives but have not been properly documented by entertainment history. Some of these women include burlesque performers and circus and sideshow superstars, a.k.a. freaks. These ground-breaking entertainers are essential people to be remembered, especially during Women’s History Month. Her latest film, Mabel, Mabel Tiger Trainer screening in the film festival circuit.
What a great way to spend International Women’s Day with a special screening with a Q & A Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills on March 8, which happens to be International Women’s Day!
Leslie Zemeckis is a California native. She seamlessly goes between acting, writing, producing, directing and managing other aspects of her busy life. She is the author of Goddess of Love Incarnate: The Life of Stripteuse Lili St. Cyr and the book Behind the Burly Q which she directed, and co-produced with her husband, Robert Zemeckis, acclaimed director of Forrest Gump, the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and more, produced the critically acclaimed documentary film of the same name.
Behind the Burly Q told the incredible story of the history of burlesque. It aired on Showtime and Sky in the United Kingdom.
She co-authored the mockumentary Staar: She’d Rather be a Mistress starring Carrie Fisher, Jeffrey Tambor and Fabio.
Her newest film, Mabel, Mabel Tiger Trainer tells the incredible story of Mabel Stark, the world’s first female tiger trainer. It was recently acquired by Cinema Libre Studio and it can be seen at the Laemmle Music Hall on March 8. Tickets can be purchased here.
Mabel, Mabel Tiger Trainer will make its way through the festival circuit and will be released domestically on DVD and streaming platforms beginning April 10.
Leslie Zemeckis spoke with Michelle Tompkins for TheCelebrityCafe.com about her career, why she is interested in burlesque performers, what makes Mabel, Mabel Tiger Trainer so special, what are her hopes for her films, the charities that are close to her heart, what she likes to do for fun and more.
Michelle Tompkins: So let’s start with the beginning. Leslie, where are you from?
Leslie Zemeckis: I’m from California. Southern California.
Michelle Tompkins: And is that where you live now?
Leslie Zemeckis: Yeah. I do.
Michelle Tompkins: And I think it’s Santa Barbara area, is that right?
Leslie Zemeckis: Yeah.
Michelle Tompkins: Oh, beautiful.
Leslie Zemeckis: Yes, it is [laughter].
Michelle Tompkins: Were you always interested in movies?
Leslie Zemeckis: Yeah. Always. Movies and books.
Michelle Tompkins: Do you still act?
Leslie Zemeckis: I do. I have a film coming out in November, and I’m about to shoot a couple low-budget ones.
Michelle Tompkins: Oh, nice. What’s the name of the movie coming out in November?
Leslie Zemeckis: Well, it’s my husband’s next movie with Steve Carell. They don’t have a name yet.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, you lived in Chicago for a while. Do you still get back there often?
Leslie Zemeckis: Yeah. We do. We have a place there. My husband’s from there so we got there quite often.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, you have a “Words of Wisdom” event taking place I believe today. What is that?
Leslie Zemeckis: It’s just about persevering. This is for Thrive Global and kind of doing your own thing and not waiting for an opportunity but making your own opportunity which I believe in very much. My third documentary is about to come out. And it’s just something I was passionate about. I went ahead and did it. I couldn’t get funding for it, and it is doing great and winning a bunch of festivals.
Michelle Tompkins: Congratulations. Now, what is Staar: She’d Rather be a Mistress?
Leslie Zemeckis: She is a character that I created. A one-woman show that I perform about once a year.
Michelle Tompkins: And Carrie Fisher starred in it once. Is that correct?
Leslie Zemeckis: Yeah. We shot a mockumentary with her and Fabio and Jeffrey Tambor. It’s funny [laughter].
How did Leslie Zemeckis get interested in burlesque?
Michelle Tompkins: That’s quite a group. Now, how did you get interested in burlesque?
Leslie Zemeckis: I kind of just fell into it. It was because of my Staar show. I didn’t really know what it was so I looked it up, and then I happened to stumble across these women and nobody had really asked them their story and how they had gotten into it. So that really started it. I just felt I got to make a song about this. And then, of course, the book and the next book and then into the circus world which had burlesque dancing.
Michelle Tompkins: If you were to meet Gypsy Rose Lee, what would you ask her?
Leslie Zemeckis: If her mother was really a murderer which I think she was [laughter].
Michelle Tompkins: I do too. Her sister ended up doing okay. She actually ended up working in Hollywood.
Leslie Zemeckis: Yeah. Yeah. So she thrived. Well, they both did actually.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, who’s a historical figure whom you’d really like to meet?
Leslie Zemeckis: I would have liked to have met Mabel Stark. That’s one thing about doing these documentaries. Once somebody’s gone, you don’t get that. You get a perspective. But I really would have liked to have met her. I’m not sure if she would have liked to participate, you know? She was very tough, very independent, but it’s just curious to me that somebody decides to train tigers all of a sudden.
Michelle Tompkins: Well, tell me a little bit about Mabel, Mabel Tiger Trainer.
Leslie Zemeckis: Well, she was a woman; the first female tiger trainer and everybody told her, “No, you can’t do it. Women can’t do it.” She wasn’t born into the circus, and she just said, ‘Well, I’m going to prove you wrong,’ and got an act of 21 cats that she worked with her whole life and really gently and humanely. She had many maulings. Her body was covered head to toe, scarred by the cats who she just adored, devoted her life to.
Michelle Tompkins: How did you first hear of her?
Leslie Zemeckis: Through research in Burlesque because she started when she was young. Her background was such a mystery. She always lied and said she was an orphan and she had all these marriages. We’re not even sure how many, but she, as a young woman, joined a carnival and was dancing in a cooch show. So in my research of Burlesque and my second film is about the sideshow acts, so it’s all of this world.
GIVEAWAY is coming for my tickets to my film MABEL MABRL TIGER TRAINER – Mabel doubled for Mae West (swipe right) amongst many other actors in the 30s and 40s – she actually looks like a young Jessica Lange. Oscar winner Melissa Leo narrates my film . March 8 in Beverly Hills – giveaway coming in the next few days – you’ll have to follow me and like the giveaway take / stay tuned #movies #1930s #1940s #mabeltigermovie
Michelle Tompkins: How many awards has the film won so far?
Leslie Zemeckis: We just got two this week and I think we had three or four before that for both Best Director and Best Documentary.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, what are your hopes for all of your documentaries?
Leslie Zemeckis: That a lot of eyes get on them and people have a different understanding of maybe a genre that’s very misunderstood, from the strippers to sideshow freaks to an animal trainer. You know, to really get into their point of view, see what it was really like.
Michelle Tompkins: What is Goddess about?
Leslie Zemeckis: It’s about one of the world’s most famous Burlesque strippers, Lili St. Cyr, who was the first stripper to strip in a nightclub. She was the first stripper in Las Vegas. She’s just a fascinating, complex character.
Michelle Tompkins: Well, she was a beauty.
Leslie Zemeckis: Amazingly beautiful. Marilyn Monroe patterned herself after Lili. She would go to her shows. I know it because I can see the difference. She would copy her gesture. She was interested in her makeup and look.
Michelle Tompkins: How did Lili die?
Leslie Zemeckis: Old age, ultimately.
Michelle Tompkins: Really?
Leslie Zemeckis: Yeah. Not a very happy ending. She was a recluse but she lived before that a hell of a life.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, was Mabel killed by her tigers or did something else take her?
Leslie Zemeckis: Well, I really can’t tell you that. I really can’t tell you that.
Michelle Tompkins: Well, where can people see that movie?
Leslie Zemeckis: We’re premiering March 8, in Los Angeles. It’s a music hall. We’re having our first screening there and then it’s going on to Chicago and New York, and then April 10 is the DVD release and streaming, so it will be everywhere. Yeah, and the website’s www.mabeltigermovie.com, and that will have all the information as it comes out.
Michelle Tompkins: What makes Mabel special as a movie?
Leslie Zemeckis: I think her age and the fact that she is a woman. She works these tigers for 50 years and she’s kind of a cult figure in the circus world and there’s a lot or there was—there won’t be after they see my film—a lot of mystery about her life. And she let nothing stand in her way of what she wants to do. I mean and she really came from nothing and she came from abuse and she came from poverty so she had no support. She made it on her own.
Michelle Tompkins: Who do you think would benefit from seeing the film?
Leslie Zemeckis: All woman young and old. And men too. I think it’s an inspiring story.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, we all have different constituencies. Family, friends, critics, fans, and when we work hard, we want to be appreciated for our work. How do you think people have reacted to your work?
Leslie Zemeckis: It has been really, really, surprisingly wonderful. I mean, I had no idea that everything would be so well received on such a big level.
Michelle Tompkins: Do you think you’ve been treated fairly because of your husband?
Leslie Zemeckis: Yeah, very. I don’t think he’s a factor.
A bit more about Leslie
Michelle Tompkins: What are some documentaries that you love?
Leslie Zemeckis: I just saw a wonderful one at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and there’s one called The Push which is incredible and I hope it gets a release. It’s about an athlete who has a spinal cord injury snowboarding. And how he perseveres and it’s just wonderful filmmaking.
Michelle Tompkins: Well, when not working what do you like to do for fun?
Leslie Zemeckis: I do a lot of physical things. I take aero class and workout. I like to read and travel but I’m generally working [laughter] in one thing or another. I’ve got another book coming out in November or making films or playing with my kids.
Michelle Tompkins: What is your next book about?
Leslie Zemeckis: It’s about two very, very famous showgirls, former showgirls, 1930s. They were at the World’s Fair.
Michelle Tompkins: Who are some people whom you’d love to do a film on?
Leslie Zemeckis: I’d like to do one on Carmen Miranda. I would. She’s kind of interesting. There’s a few other people brewing around in my head. We’ll see what comes up next.
Michelle Tompkins: I read that you have a home in Italy. Do you get there often?
Leslie Zemeckis: All summer long.
Michelle Tompkins: What do you like to do when you’re there?
Leslie Zemeckis: Oh, I read and I write and just relax at a pool. And that’s really family time and friend time.
Michelle Tompkins: Is there anything you’d like to add about your family?
Leslie Zemeckis: Just they’re great. They’re my base. They’re my everything.
Slide back Saturday – Tokyo. Red carpet. Wind blown. #tokyo #redcarpet #premier #japan @yagieriko #zemeckis #showgirl #writer #actor #director #smile #weekend #mood #heels #stiletto #fashion #paparrazzi #camera #burlesque dress #1920s from @virginiabateslondon #london #vintage #1920sfashion #bookclub
Michelle Tompkins: Now how do you like people to connect with you?
Michelle Tompkins: Now is there any charity work or charities that you’d like to talk about?
Leslie Zemeckis: We’re huge supporters of Oceana, which is an amazing, amazing charity and I have the other charities on my website. Right now we’re kind of focusing on our community which was hit really hard in Montecito helping everybody there.
Michelle Tompkins: What’s next for you?
Leslie Zemeckis: My book coming out so I have to concentrate on that.
Image of Leslie Zemekis by Jason Fryemar