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Interview: Daphne Zuniga talks 'Spaceballs' and Carrie Fisher 30 years later

Daphne Zuniga, seen here in Spaceballs, will visit St. Petersburg for the Sunscreen Film Festival and a screening for the movie's 30th anniversary.
Published Apr. 25, 2017

Funny, after 30 years, Daphne Zuniga still doesn't look Druish.

Mel Brooks first noted the lack of resemblance in Spaceballs, putting a pun in John Candy's mouth about Zuniga's Princess Vespa, daughter of Roland, king of the Druids.

Any resemblance between Vespa and a certain scrappy princess in a galaxy far, far away isn't coincidental, but since 1987 it's funny. Brooks' madcap spoof of Star Wars, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, still has the Schwartz going for it.

"Any actor who can be in something that has such longevity, that's rare," Zuniga, 54, said by phone from Los Angeles.

No surprise that Spaceballs remains a highlight of Zuniga's career, after being an '80s movie sweetheart, a resident of Melrose Place in the '90s then One Tree Hill the next decade.

She's also making indies like Those Left Behind, a drama of grief after suicide showing this weekend at the Sunscreen Film Festival in St. Petersburg. She'll join a Q&A session after the 4 p.m. screening at Sundial 20.

Zuniga's visit also includes Friday's free outdoor screening of Spaceballs at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. She'll introduce the 8 p.m. celebration of the comedy's anniversary, then lead a Q&A inside the museum for festival passholders only.

It's tough for Zuniga to believe Spaceballs is that old. "I don't have much in my life that marks years going by," she said. "Living in L.A., we don't have (changing) weather and I don't have children... (Spaceballs) feels like it was just yesterday."

Brooks was pointed in the then-starlet's direction by Rob Reiner, who directed Zuniga's breakout performance in The Sure Thing.

"Rob told Mel he just worked with a girl he should look at," she said. "I went in to read with Mel and he, you know, he really dug me. He put his hands on my face saying: 'Oh, you're just my perfect princess. Such a thing!' I was like, wow, really? I always wanted to be a princess."

Zuniga joined a set working at Dark Helmet's ludicrous speed with Brooks constantly searching for another gag, often batting around ideas with co-stars and SCTV alums Candy and Rick Moranis.

"They would come up with new stuff right before your eyes, riffing and building on it," Zuniga said. "Before you know it, they'd have prop masters creating something to add this new joke to a scene… just being plugged into that kind of brilliance and joy, it just spread."

Years later Zuniga met Vespa's inspiration, the late Carrie Fisher, who was memorialized at Orlando's Star Wars Celebration a day before our conversation. Fisher was performing her Wishful Drinking one-woman show. Despite having friends in common, they'd never hung out. Zuniga was taken backstage,then taken aback by Fisher's greeting.

"She just said: 'Hey. You're me,' " Zuniga said. "That was the first thing she said to me. I said, 'I am.' I don't remember if we hugged or something. I just felt like finally we got that taken care of."

Did Zuniga feel nervous about facing Fisher after skewering the role of her lifetime?

"It wasn't so much that I was nervous about how I'd portrayed (the role)," Zuniga said. "I was in the hands of Mel Brooks. As long as he was happy, that's who I was serving. I feel like he took care of, in his way, an ode to Carrie Fisher's character.

"I was more nervous knowing she was really brilliant... meeting her, the person."

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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