As part of our big celebration of the 30th anniversary of Prince’s Purple Rain, I got a chance to sit down for a rare interview with Prince’s co-star in the film, Apollonia Kotero. Apollonia was back in town for the first time since filming Purple Rain to perform at Revolution drummer Bobby Z’s annual Benefit 2 Celebrate Life, and she kindly set aside some time between rehearsals for the show to look back on her memories of entering Prince’s world and working with him on Purple Rain.
A few of these anecdotes appear in the audio documentary that I produced with MPR News host Tom Weber, but there were so many gems in this interview that didn’t make it into the special that I just had to share the whole thing. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our half-hour-long chat at Winterland Studios out in New Hope, Minnesota.
Local Current: Take me back to before Purple Rain. What did you know about Minneapolis, and what did you know about Prince?
Apollonia Kotero: I knew of Minneapolis because of Bob Dylan. Huge Bob fan. Then of course I remember buying my cassette tapes of Prince, and listening to everything from “Little Red Corvette” to “1999.”
How did this all come to be? What was your first interaction with the Prince camp?
I auditioned. I was the very last person they saw. There was a girl walking out of the casting office, it was Nina Peebles, and I remember she had this terrified look on her face and she said, “You! It’s you! You’re the one.” And I didn’t say anything. I remember I just stared at her and then she left, and I thought, “What are they doing in there?”
Why do you think she said that?
I don’t know, but she looked really scared. It was really odd. But I thought alright, I’m an actor, no one’s going to throw me off. So I auditioned, met the managers, Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli, and I had a singing tape and my acting tape, my reel, and photos, 8×10. And we had a mini interview.
Do you remember anything they asked you about?
They asked me to take my shoes off, and I thought, well, ok, so are they into nice feet? [laughs] They just wanted to see my size, so I could match up. In filmmaking, in my case, leading actors are always way taller, and they have you stand on a little apple box. They just wanted to see my size.
How tall are you compared to Prince?
I believe we’re exactly eye-to-eye, bare feet. We did that once, took our shoes off, just eye-to-eye.
Do you remember the first time you met Prince?
Yes. He was funny. When I auditioned, as soon as I got home my agents says “They’re going to fly you to Minneapolis to meet Prince.” And I was like, “Cool, that sounds great!” And I came in. I was at the Holiday Inn. And then [Prince’s bodyguard] Chick came over to the door and escorted me into a purple limo. And I got in and it smelled really sweet—my first thought was, wow, the car is purple and it smells like purple in here. And he just said “Hi,” and I said “Hi, very nice to meet you.” And we really didn’t say much to each other, he was quiet, and we just drove throughout the countryside.
I just remember—I’m from the city, LA—I just rolled down the window and I stuck my head out, and I just started to point. “Look, there’s cows! Those are real cows!” And my whole body was hanging out of the limo—my rear end, I was wearing these white pants, and a purple sweatshirt like Flashdance, and Candie’s shoes—and I was just fixated that we were in the country, and there were cows there. I said, “It’s so green, and the sky is so blue. It’s so beautiful here. You’re so lucky to live here.”
From there we went to get something to eat—I remember he had spaghetti, and drank tea. I was really excited, and when I get excited I talk real fast. And he just did a lot of listening and nodding. I didn’t really realize he was interviewing me at the time, you know. So they drop me back off at the hotel and then Chick walks me to my room and he says, “Ok, we’ll pick you up later, we’re going to go to First Avenue.” And I was like, “What’s that?” I thought it was the 1st Avenue, a famous street. But it was First Avenue the club. So I said, ok, I’ll be ready. I wore black spandex pants, black Candie’s shoes and this gold lame metal top. We went out, and we danced, and it was great. I had a great time; it felt natural. I felt like I had already met him before. There was something that still to this day I don’t understand. I don’t really believe in past lives or anything, but I felt really comfortable with him.
Do you remember what was happening at First Ave that night?
I believe it was a DJ, because we just went on the dance floor and we danced. It was kind of like Moses and the parting of the sea, everybody just kind of moved away and we danced. It was really fun. So we ended the night and he dropped me back off, and I said, “It was really great meeting you, and I really enjoy your music, and thank you for the opportunity to meet you.” And I had completely forgotten that I had read for the film and all that; auditioned. So I go back to my room and a few minutes later someone knocks on my door and it’s Chick. And he says, “He really likes you. So be cool.” And I was like, “Well I really like him, and he’s cool!” And that was it. I was on a plane the next day, and then as soon as I got home back to LA my agent called and said “You’ve been cast as his leading lady.” And I just started crying. And then I called everyone I knew and started talking real fast.
How long did you have between finding out you’d been cast and returning to make the film?
I think it maybe was just a couple of days. It was fast. It was like, pack your bags and go. And from California, I had California clothes. I went to this big Dayton’s store and bought my winter clothes when I arrived here. This was in September 1983.
Tell me about the rehearsals, and what kind of work was involved before the filming.
He had this really tiny little studio, and I remember the first time I went in there I sat down, he had a stage, and he had various instruments, so I remember I sat front row and he hopped on stage and he played every instrument. I got up and I clapped—I tried to be really cool about it, like oh, I’ve seen all of that before. And at that moment I thought, wow, this is really intimidating, because he played everything really beautifully, but I knew it was a magic moment.
Was this in the warehouse that he had rented out in St. Louis Park?
I believe that’s the warehouse that I went to, that Prince took me to and played all the instruments. There were rehearsals there, dance rehearsals with the girls, and a choreographer, and fittings, it was like a little MGM studio back in the day. Everything was being done there, whether it was make-up tests, hair tests, trying different styles.
What did you think about the plot of the movie?
I remember reading and crying, and there was a lot of things that were missing, but I was able to piece it together in my imagination. I just thought it was something really personal and heartfelt, and I wanted to be a part of it.
And the filming went through the winter?
Yes, absolutely. It was super cold. Very, very cold. I wasn’t accustomed to that type of weather. We had mini heaters on our feet and our hands. One late afternoon I went for a walk, it was my day off, and I wanted to go walk in the snow away from the hotel. And I got caught in a mini blizzard! It started to snow, and it was nighttime already, and I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t panic, but I started to pray. Because I couldn’t see where I was anymore, and I thought I could be on the street and get hit by a car or something, you know? So I finally saw the green letters of the Holiday Inn, and I made it back, and I was terrified, by the time I got back. I remember my hair was wet from the snow, and I guess I was crying, so I had icicles on my eyelashes, and the people in the lobby were like, “Are you ok?” And I was like, “No, I got lost!” It was scary. I mean, that’s a stupid thing someone from LA would do. But yeah, it was crazy cold.
I want to ask you about one of the most famous scenes in the movie, which comes to mind because I’ve heard you describe how cold you were: the Lake Minnetonka scene.
That was crazy. I remember reading it on paper, and as an actor you look and you say, ok, what is my motivation? And I thought, well, my motivation is, I’m going to show him. This is what I can do. And I’m fearless, and I’m going to take off my clothes and jump in. So when it happened, it snowed that night, and we had a stunt man, Al Jones, who was in the water in a wet suit, and he says, there’s mud, so you’re not going to be able to get out, so when you jump in I’m going to grab your foot and push you out. And I said, ok. And then Al Magnoli, the director, went out and walked it first, and he tossed a pebble and goes, “I want you to jump right there.” So that was my mark, right? The missing pebble that sank to the bottom. So we did it.
The first take that you see that was printed, that was the first take that came out in the movie. I jumped in, and I kicked Al, I panicked. It was freezing—I actually broke a little sheet of ice. And I forgot the dialog. So everything was kind of backwards. He fed me the lines, and then the dialog. I just remember thinking, “Wow, this is really cold.” So we did it three more times, and then, I’ve told this before, when people look at the scene they think it’s irony and it’s funny and they laugh, but after I did it for the fourth time they put me in a little tent, and they said ok that’s it, cut, we’re wrapped. And when I was in there the nurse was in there and she started to check my temperature. All I remember is everything started to fade to black, and she said “She’s going into hypothermia, we have to call the ambulance.” And I just thought to myself, oh no, god, I don’t want to die now! I want to finish this movie. And I could hear, just in the distance, her voice, she was panicking, and I just started to fade out.
And I thought ok, I don’t know what’s going on here. I’m a fighter, I’m strong, I can do this. And then Prince came in, because I remember feeling his warmth, he held me, and he says, “Please don’t die. Please don’t die, Apollonia.” And his voice kind of cracked. And I don’t know, it took a while, but I remember just like in the movies, you kind of fast forward, and then I started to see images, and it was him, and I just remember, once I was able to talk, I just said, “No, I’m not going anywhere! I have to shoot more, we’ve got to get more in the can, man! I’m not going anywhere, we’ve got to shoot some more!” And he kind of chuckled. So that’s the backstory to it, you know, because people don’t really know this.
That’s an amazing mental image: Prince cradling you in his arms and bringing you back to life.
He did! He did. He saved me, with his warmth and his love and compassion.
Did you know you were going to have to strip down before all of this started?
Yes. That was part of the deal, you know: topless. I mean, I come from a family where we’re top-heavy women, and I’m very modest, so I was shy. And I remember the director says, “Don’t worry, when you’re walking towards camera, I’m cropping above.” And I said, “Ok, I’m trusting you with my life.” And he did that. You see me walking towards him, and then I make my turn and jump in. And if you look at the jump I actually, my arms went up to my chest area and I kind of braced them, braced myself, and jumped in. So I knew. But you never know until you do something like that, whether you’re racing a car in a film or jumping. It made an impact!
And that wasn’t Lake Minnetonka…
I thought it was Lake Minnetonka. I thought yes, this is my motivation, and this is Lake Minnetonka. But I don’t know where it was. All I know is that it snowed that night, and it was a cold lake in Minnesota.
Did you know, during the filming, that it would become so iconic?
I’ve said this before, and it’s always so special—we were watching the dailies. And I remember watching his performances on stage, and I got chicken skin. And then you know, he drove me back to the hotel and he dropped me off, and he walked me to my room. And I remember I sat on the bed and he sat on this little couch. And I said, “You’re going to win the Oscar, but not as an actor,” I said, “for your music.” And he kind of pretended that he slid off and he jumped on his feet and said, “You think so?” I said, “Yes. Remember when I’m telling you this, because you’re going to win.” And then, you know, fast forward and we’re walking the red carpet at the Oscars, and he won. I just remember thinking, yeah, I knew this was going to happen. There were so many deja vus—when I first met him, during the production, the Oscar. That’s why I said I felt like I had been there already. And I’ve not experienced that before or since. And I was like, wow, is this just one big deja vu? Maybe I’m dreaming. Maybe this is all just a dream and a fantasy, and I’m going to wake up on some planet, another dimension of earth. It was just, I don’t know, something odd.
What is that about him, that he has that effect? There’s almost an otherworldly quality.
He is truly a musical genius. You know, he dreams music. And he would tell me that he would wake up and write it down or sing it into a tape. His lyrics, you know, the music itself, how he composes tunes, the way he plays the instruments—and I thought he did a terrific job as an actor, to really expose himself that way emotionally. The scene where his father and mother are fighting, and he goes to the bed and he’s crying, I was on set behind a mock wall. I remember there was blinds and I was watching, peeking. I had to cry really quietly because I was so affected by his performance with his mother, and what was happening, in terms of what we were reading on paper was now actually happening. I just think that’s what people feel. His musical honesty, his genius as a complete entertainer.
Obviously you were in the scenes that were acted, but were you hanging out for the performances?
I remember there was one time, it was again my day off, and somebody came for me and says, “Prince wants you on set because he needs to sing.” And this is when he does the song “Purple Rain.” And I said, “Ok.” So I had my pajamas on, I didn’t have any make-up on, I brushed my teeth and put on a big coat, and I was on top, where the light system is, and the board. So if you look at the movie, a couple times he glances up, his eyes go up, and he’s singing to me. And I got tears, I was watching him. I was lit up in a way that he could see me, but it wasn’t like a spotlight, you know.
And it’s weird because just the other day, I saw on social media a still from that, and his eyes are looking up, and I saw that and I go, wow, he was looking at me, singing to me, and I could see it in the eyes in that photo. And I was like, [gasp]. It was overwhelming. I thought, wow, that was magic.
There’s a lot of special moments in this movie. I think that’s why, to this day, it’s part of American folklore, it’s iconic, up there with A Hard Day’s Night, Citizen Kane—I remember when the LA Times compared us to those two. We were having lunch, and I said, do you understand what that means? Those are classics! So yes it’s a classic, Purple Rain. Magical moments, performances that were just flawless. Morris Day stealing the movie from us with his humor; the Time. The sadness, the tragedy, the music, the dancing—I mean, you look at the group in its entirety, and I’m quoting Wendy, she says, “Aw, just a bunch of Latins, a few Jews and some blacks,” you know? And when you think about the mixture of our culture, we were just a family. There was no color. Everybody was just part of that family. Jerome said it the other day: He was driving the bus and we were all lucky to be on it. And that’s why I think it’s just so magical. The elements all came together, and the finished product was outstanding. I mean, I haven’t seen it myself in years, you know, it’s just tough to watch.
Why do you say that?
The memories. Beautiful. [cries]
How has your relationship with Prince progressed over the years?
We’ve had our differences, as most families to do. We’ve had our moments of laughter. I spoke to him a few days ago and I started crying. I was like, “I love you so much! I miss you so much! I love you!” And then, I’ve never said this to him, I said, “You know, I can’t believe this time has passed.” I said, “I want to thank you for picking me. I’ve never thanked you.” I said, “Thank you for picking me.” And we both got choked up on the phone, and we told each other how much we love each other. It was really great. We’re friends forever. We’re a family.