Denise Nickerson just may be the world’s most famous fruit. As Violet Beauregarde, the gum-chewing, blueberry-becoming child in the beloved film classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Denise found her way into our hearts (and simultaneously became a film legend). Celebrity Parents spoke exclusively with Denise about Willy Wonka, her amazing relationship with her son, Josh, and why turning blue when you’re 13 is not good for your social life.
Denise, I have to say, I cannot believe I am sitting here with you. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is my most favorite movie of all time.[laughs] When people first meet me and find out I played Violet, there are two reactions. The first reaction is that they break out in a big smile. Or, they say, “No way!” And I’m like, “Truly? I have a far bigger imagination than to be a fruit in a kids’ movie!”
How did you become involved in the film?
I was probably one of the more seasoned child actors on the film. I was very busy in NYC, doing plays and shows at night. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was truly just another job for me. The good thing was that I was going to be working with kids my own age. And then we got to go to Bavaria, Germany. I got to eat escargot for the first time. Over there, we all connected. It was like brothers and sisters.
Yes, he was like the bratty little brother! [laughs]
One thing that I’ve always loved about the film is that you couldn’t tell where it was filmed, or even really what time period it’s from.
The director, Mel Stuart, wanted it to be like that. There were no landmarks, and of course, our outfits were generic. It could have been 1970, or it could have been now.
Apart from the sometimes gross things you did, like picking your nose on camera and the gum chewing, let’s talk about turning into a blueberry.
I was beyond uncomfortable. For the first part of the scene, I was in a rubber suit and I had a hose up my derriere, and they pumped me up. And the next scene where the Oompa Loompas roll me out, I was in this enormous styrofoam ball with a cut-out of my body in the middle. They put me in, and I fell over. So that I wouldn’t fall over, they put a huge cinder block at my feet, so all day long I’m standing on that. They assigned some man to roll me every five minutes from one side to the other, and that’s how I spent my lunch time.
That must have been so frustrating.
When you watch the scene where the Oompa Loompas are singing around me and I’m so annoyed, there’s no acting involved. After 9 hours, I was totally frustrated. And the Oompa Loompas didn’t have drivers’ licenses – they could not get me through the steel doors! [laughs] I kept banging my head, and the very last take was when they got me through the doors. That was my last scene, and then I flew back to NY.
Let’s talk about what happened to you post-filming.
I wasn’t in school a lot because either I was doing Broadway or I was filming the show Dark Shadows, where I played Amy Jennings. I was in school one day, and the kids started laughing at me. My friend said to me, “You’re blue!” I didn’t believe it, so I ran downstairs to the bathroom, and I am totally blue! My face, neck, ears and hands are all blue. And I’m 13 years old. I’m freaking out! I scrub and it goes away. An hour later, I’m blue again. This happened for 72 hours. I thought that I was permanently damaged! [laughs]
What was causing the blue to come out?
They had used food dye in the makeup, so it was constantly being expelled by my skin. Every hour, I’d be blue. The worst part was that the kids hadn’t read the book, and the film hadn’t come out yet, so they just thought I was truly very, very odd. At that time, everyone was dating…
And you don’t want to be known as the blue girl.
No! [laughs] Then the movie came out, and they understood. So between me picking my nose and being blue in the film, my dating life was not good. [laughs]
Now, when Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory first came out, it was not a commercial success.
No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t a show-stopper. When we were filming it, I thought that this was the end of my career. When Gene Wilder broke out into song, “There’s no way of knowing…” I thought, “This man is a maniac! No one is going to come see this film.”
But 40 years later, it is considered one of the greatest films of all time.
Kids who watched the film as a child are now passing it on to their kids, like you are. Kids get the film on one level, and parents get it on another level. I meet so many parents who say that they quote the movie sometimes. Our movie had such a simple message: Good things happen to good kids, and bag things happen to bad kids. It’s timeless.
Tell me about the scene where the five kids see The Chocolate Room for the first time.
It was completely unscripted. What you saw were our real reactions. And that’s exactly what Mel Stuart wanted. We were looking at this enormous room with a boat and a chocolate waterfall. Standing there at the top of the stairs was just incredible. Even though you are right there with us, emotionally, as a viewer, you’ll never be able to see what I saw. It was an amazing moment.
So often child actors have problems adjusting to life after the cameras stop rolling. I think it’s great that all five of you are professionals with great careers.
I’m a financial analyst for an aerospace company. It’s a good job, but my best job is being a parent to my son, Josh.
Josh has been helping us throughout the shoot. He’s a really nice guy.
This is my greatest accomplishment. Not being the famous fruit. My single greatest accomplishment in life is that I raised this beauty here. In today’s society, I managed to raise, on my own, a decent, smart, good man. That’s our responsibility as parents. I was a single mom; Josh’s dad was not around and my family had passed away. It was truly him and me. And it still is.
Between the film career and your life today, you have the best of both worlds.
How lucky am I? I get to meet fans all the time and work and do what I love. People ask if I miss acting. I say that I do it everyday; I’m just not getting paid for it. I entertain; I enjoy making people laugh. So what am I missing? Nothing. I will never stop. I’m having a great time, working, entertaining, and being with my son; what more could I ever ask for?