It’s a movie as eerie as “The Twilight Zone” and charming as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
“The Vast of Night,” a micro-budget film that premiered on Amazon this year and made the Slamdance Film Festival, marries notes of 1950s sci-fi camp with deceptively deep storytelling and intriguing characters. One of them is played by Dallas-based actress Gail Cronauer.
Cronauer moved to Dallas in 1979 to teach acting at Southern Methodist University and began acting with the bygone Stage One. She has appeared on nearly every stage in the Dallas area, and in 1987, she started getting roles in TV and film.
“I thought I’d have a career in science or medicine.”
She played Ma Newton in the 1998 movie “The Newton Boys,” and she appeared in five episodes of the Dallas-filmed “Walker: Texas Ranger,” to name two of her many credits.
“The Vast of Night” is set in a small New Mexico town in the 1950s, but it was filmed in Whitney, Texas, in 2016. Oklahoma-based filmmaker Andrew Patterson, whose day job is producing TV commercials for clients including the Oklahoma City Thunder, financed the entire budget, which was less than $1 million. About $20,000 of that was spent to remove the three-point line in the basketball gym where the film opens. The film also uses vintage telephone switchboard, radio and recording equipment.
Cronauer plays an old woman who claims to have answers about a mysterious occurrence in town. She’s wearing a bad wig, and the glow of a TV lights her face. Her performance centers on a perfectly creepy monologue.
Cronauer recently retired from Collin County Community College, and she’s continuing to pursue her acting career.
Are you from Dallas?
No, I was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in New Jersey and slowly worked my way west to college, to grad school, to a series of jobs in Wisconsin and St. Louis and Illinois and finally wound up at SMU. My husband, who has since passed away, was in the graduate theatre program at SMU.
Did you always want to be an actor?
No. I sang, so I did musicals in high school. I was a good student, so I thought I’d have a career in science or medicine. I wanted to be a diplomat. It just didn’t work out.
How did you become an actor?
I got to college, and now we’re into Vietnam. I worked on a play, “Viet Rock,” by Megan Terry. And it was a play that was very critical of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. That play is what galvanized it. I became increasingly involved in theater, and I was also dancing at the time. That was the path I continued to follow because it combined my interest in people and politics, and I guess, art also. So all those things came together to push me in that direction. There is a whole generation of actors who have done that play. It was an extraordinary experience.
Have you watched “The Vast of Night”?
Oh, yes. It premiered at Slamdance in January 2019, and I didn’t go. You never know what your appearance is going to be in the final cut of a film. I once went to a screening of a film that I was in, and when it got to my scene, the film ended. Sometimes that happens. But I finally went to the Overlook festival in New Orleans and saw the film last year.
What did you think?
I thought that it was spectacular. Each time that I watch it, I’m more impressed by the changes in rhythm in the film and some of the amazing shots. The performances. I’m so impressed by the filmmaking. Andrew and his creative team really took the time to get it right. I have tremendous respect for their commitment and tenacity.
What have you been up to lately?
I’ve been updating my website. My friend is a casting director in L.A. He said, “You need to get your materials together because there are going to be inquiries after this,” so I’m doing that. We’ll see what’s next. I cleaned out my office that had 24 years of stuff, which was very strange. I have a garden. My boyfriend and I put a fountain in. I’ve been spending a lot of time educating myself. Yale’s open university has courses about African American history, and I’m doing that.
You’re now retired from Collin County College and a member of its hall of fame. What did you enjoy about teaching?
I always found that my teaching informed my performance work, and my performance work informed my teaching. Most of my students have no intention of pursuing acting. I stay in touch with some of my students. One works as an ER nurse in New York, another is a helicopter EMT. And they were amazing students. A few have gone on to be very successful in the entertainment field.
Interview edited for clairty and brevity.