Interview Date: 03/11/2011
Run Date: 03/15/2011
Karen Allen is an actress who’s never been afraid to jump between genres, as evidenced by her roles in such classic films as “Animal House,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Starman,” and “Scrooged.” After becoming a mother in 1990, Allen put her acting career on the back burner, taking fewer and smaller roles in order to spend more time raising her son, but now that the lad has hit the magic age of 18, she’s starting to get back in the swing of things again. Most notably, she reprised the role of Marion Ravenwood in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” but she also found herself playing the mother of a teenage son (what a stretch!) in the small but still outstanding “White Irish Drinkers,” wherein she reunites – albeit without sharing any actual screen time – with her former “Animal House” boyfriend Peter Riegert. Bullz-Eye had a chance to talk with Allen about her work in “White Irish Drinkers,” but we also discovered how she had a semi-reunion with another of her past big-screen love interests (Jeff Bridges) in the HBO film “A Dog Year,” and we also gauged her enthusiasm on another Indiana Jones adventure.
Bullz-Eye: Well, I talked to Peter Riegert yesterday, so I’m glad to be able to talk with you today as well.
Karen Allen: Oh, great!
BE: So they sent me a copy of “White Irish Drinkers,” since it’s not actually being screened here in Virginia, and I really enjoyed it.
KA: Oh, good! I’m so glad!
BE: It’s a small film, but it’s a really nice period piece. What made you decide to take the part? I presume they approached you…?
KA: Yeah, they sent the script to my agent, and my agent sent it to me, and I read it and thought that the writing was just gorgeous. And I knew that Stephen Lang and Peter Riegert had already signed on, and they’re both old friends and people I love working with. And then I had a conversation with John Gray on the telephone after I had read the script, and I really liked our conversation a lot about the film and about the role. So that was really the three things that captured my interest.
BE: You said that you were old friends with Stephen Lang. Had you worked with him before?
KA: No, we’d never worked together. There were a couple of times where we were meant to do plays together, and in both cases something came up where one of us ended up doing the play and the other didn’t, or something like that. But we had known each other. We just never had worked together.
BE: Well, you guys had a great chemistry together, with him being rather threatening and you trying to hold your own while, at the same time, being somewhat intimidated by him.
KA: I don’t know that she’s intimidated by him. But he’s definitely a challenge.
BE: Maybe not intimidated, but she seems to know when to fight a battle and when not.
BE: You’re playing a mother in this. Do you remember the moment when, whether you wanted to or not, you found yourself making the transition into “mother” roles?
(Writer’s note: What I was really trying to ask about was the transition from being the lead in a film to being the mother of the lead, but in addition to asking it poorly, I didn’t realize that I’d asked it poorly. It’s no wonder that she seemed mystified by why I’d use the word “horrifying” to describe the experience.)
KA: Oh, gosh, it was a long time ago. It was certainly before I had a child of my own! I didn’t have my son until I was 37, and I think I had at that point… (Hesitates) You know, I think I probably started playing the mother of young children or infants somewhere in my early ‘30s or mid-30s. I’d have to really think about when it was exactly. I think I had a son in “Shoot the Moon,” which I made when I was maybe 31 or something like that.
BE: Was there a horrifying moment, though, when you realized that you were starting to get those sorts of roles?
KA: Well, I mean, it’s such a part of life. I don’t think it was a horrifying moment. I have a lot of friends who started having their children when they were in their early or mid-20s, so, no, I never saw it as, like, a negative. It seems to me, as a woman, it’s something you’re dying to make a part of your life, and I think as an actor it just makes you more interesting. When you’re playing a role of someone who is a mother and everything else that she also is, it’s always much, much more interesting a character, I think.
BE: “White Irish Drinkers” is a period piece. Not that this one is that far back in the past, but when you do period pieces, is it hard for you to capture that moment in time, as it were?
KA: No, I really love it! I love doing period pieces, and this period…you know, what was interesting for me about this period is that, during this period, I was the age of my character’s children in this film. My two sons are 18 and, say, 20 or 21 years old. During the early ‘70s, I was living in Manhattan, I was a student, and I was just their age. I think I was 17 or 18 during that time. So I was really playing someone of my mother’s generation, which was really interesting because, you know, I’m very familiar with that territory. I mean, I knew my mom, obviously, and I knew a lot of other women in her world, so I felt like I had a direct connection to that whole frame of mind, which is someone who pretty much grew up during the Depression and had, you know, a whole different attitude toward marriage and a whole different attitude about raising children. Certainly a very different attitude than mine! (Laughs) I’m a modern parent!
BE: I know that you and Peter didn’t actually have any scenes together, but did you guys get to reconnect at all during the course of filming?
KA: Yeah, well, we got to see each other a few times. I mean, it was a very, very quick shoot, and I think I only ran into him maybe once or twice, although I’m seeing him a lot in the aftermath here, as we’re promoting the film. And, you know, we’re both East Coasters, so we have a lot of interconnecting things in our lives, so rarely a year goes by that I don’t see him in some capacity.
BE: I was telling him that I went back and re-watched “Animal House” the other night, and it was weird to think that you’re in this new film together that takes place within a few years of when you were actually making “Animal House” together.
KA: I guess that’s true, yeah!
BE: What do you recall about the experience of filming “Animal House”? Because, like Peter, it was your first film as well, correct?
KA: It was my first film, yes. And, basically, I recall having an awful lot of fun with everybody. I mean, it was the first film for most of us, so we were just sort of learning what to do as actors. Most of us came out of the theater, so we were not inexperienced as actors, but we were certainly inexperienced in terms of working on a film set. Fortunately, we had John Landis, who, again, was not very experienced, but he had had some experience. He had done a couple of very independent films. So, you know, it was a very seat-of-the-pants experience, and we had a lot of fun together, and who knew that it would turn out to be such a classic comedic film? But I think we were very lucky to have that as our first film.
BE: Did you enjoy the opportunity to step back into Marion Ravenswood’s shoes for “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”?
KA: Oh, yeah! Incredibly! It’s just such a wonderful character that they created initially in the first film, and to bring her back into the story however many years later, it was delightful. And then to create a new story, to have her marrying Indiana Jones and have that forever bond between the characters…? It was more than I ever imagined would happen. I really had no idea that they were going to do that, so I was quite delighted.
BE: I know they like to threaten yet another “Indiana Jones” film? If it comes to pass, would you be in for that?
KA: Yeah, I think there’s going to be another film, and I don’t know what the story’s going to be or where their focus is going to be, but I would imagine…I would be hopeful that my character would be in the story! Now that they’ve married us, I would think it would be hard for them to move forward in time, at least. They’ve done these films and they’ve gone all over the place time-wise. You know, the second and the third films went backward in time. So who knows what they’ll decide to do? But of course I’d love to do another one. It’s too much fun to work with Harrison (Ford) and Steven (Spielberg) and George Lucas. I mean, where’s the downside there? (Laughs)
BE: What would you say is your favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
KA: Gosh. By “love,” do you mean attention?
BE: Yes. Maybe the distribution wasn’t what it should’ve been, or the box office wasn’t there…
KA: Well, you know, one of my favorites, just because it’s such a brilliant piece of writing and I got to work with some of my favorite actors on the planet…I did a version of “The Glass Menagerie” that Paul Newman directed and Joanne Woodward played Amanda, and I played Laura, and John Malkovich played Tom. I had done the play a couple of times with Joanne Woodward in two theaters – Long Wharf, and up at Williamstown – and to have the chance to do that, ‘cause it’s really one of Tennessee Williams’ greatest plays, I suppose that was one of my favorite experiences. And, unfortunately, it didn’t really get very good distribution, because the company that was to distribute it was going down the tubes as the film was being finished. It was in competition at the Cannes film festival, and it had certain moments of glory, but it didn’t ever really get seen. So I suppose that would be the one that would pop into my mind.
BE: I’m a big fan of “Starman,” and I noticed that you and Jeff Bridges had a semi-reunion recently when you contributed your voice to “A Dog Year.”
KA: (Laughs) I did!
BE: How did that come about?
KA: He actually asked his producers. He wanted to have a real voice (on the other end of the phone). Sometimes the way that they’ll do something like that is that they’ll just have whoever’s the continuity person on the film just read the lines while the actor’s on the phone or whatever, and he asked his director and producers if he could have a real wife in the piece, even though it was somebody we would never meet. It was just a voice on the phone. And they said, “Okay,” and then he said, “I want Karen Allen!” So they called me and asked me if I would do it, and I said, “Sure!” (Laughs) So when the date came that they were shooting that, he calls me from a phone, and they set it up so that we did it on the phone one day at my house in Massachusetts. And it was fun! And I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve actually had friends of mine who’ve called me up and said, “Is that your voice in ‘A Dog Year’?” (Laughs)
BE: By the way, I went back and re-watched “Starman” the other night. Still one of my favorite films of yours.
KA: Oh, I loved that movie. Jeff was just a lovely person to work with. I had a blast with him.
BE: Lastly, until recently, you really hadn’t been working a great deal. How much of that has been by design, and how much has been by circumstance? Because I know you’ve also got a business on the side (Karen Allen Fiber Arts) that keeps you busy.
KA: Well, you know, I came to a certain moment in my career where…I was raising my son on my own and, really, to work in film always means traveling, and it always involves long periods of time away. When my son was little, it wasn’t a big issue if I had to pull him out of three months of first grade or something, but as he got older, it really became a big issue. I had to figure out what my priorities were, and I really felt that to raise my son was my main priority. If there were projects that worked well around that, then I’d do them, and if they didn’t work well around them, then I wasn’t going to be able to do them. It created kind of a limited environment to do films. It left summer vacations and things like that. So I created my design company and opened a store, really, to give myself something fascinating to do while my son went through junior high school and high school. It’s really cruel and unusual punishment to pull a child out of seventh grade in the last three or four months of school in order to do…what? Sit in a hotel room with a nanny or a babysitter or something? There’s nothing for them to do on location. It’s deadly boring, and you’re working 16 hours a day, six days a week. It’s not the kind of life I wanted to create for him…or for myself, for that matter. So I really took a break from it, and in order to stay connected to my work as an actor, I became a professor at Bard College at Simons Rock, and taught there and directed there, and I got much, much more involved as a director there – in fact, I‘m getting ready to direct a play, I’m casting it now – so I went away from it one respect, and I went into it in another respect. (Laughs)
BE: Well, in addition to “White Irish Drinkers,” you did “November Christmas” for television, so I’m glad to see that you’re still keeping your eyes open for work.
KA: Yeah, I’ve actually started to get offered films again! (Laughs) “November Christmas” was great. I had a lot of fun doing that. Sam Elliott and John Corbett were just delightful to work with.
BE: Well, I hope to see you in more projects soon.KA: Thanks a lot!