May 15, 2019 Interview – Karen Allen
A trained stage performer, Karen Allen has always taken a great deal of pride in the art of acting. Attracted to the creative side of life at a young age, she would dabble in various fields, and soon found her calling as an actress on her way to success in Hollywood as a star in films such as 1978’s National Lampoon’s Animal House and 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Going on to a long list of other memorable roles through the years, including co-starring alongside Jeff Bridges in 1984’s Starman, and leading next to Bill Murray in 1988’s Scrooged, Allen has certainly left her mark on cinema. Still passionate about acting, she has been drawn to the indie film world, and most recently starred in Colewell, a compelling project currently on the film festival circuit. Proud of her past and present work, Allen graciously sat down to chat about her experiences in film, the talent amidst indie film, plus much more.
Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in entertainment professionally for over four decades. After studying acting you would go on to do theater, movies, and television. First, tell us, what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
Karen Allen – I had gone in a lot of directions. I started out wanting to be a designer in the textile and clothing world when I was young because it was always something that interested me – probably the textile aspect of it more than anything else. I then traveled all over the world when I was just in my early twenties. When I came back, I was searching for what was my path in life. I started writing, and it was one of the things I received positive reinforcement from when I was school.
I was a pretty avid reader growing up into my adulthood. I was very inspired by people who were writing at the time in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I started writing short stories, poems, and I started getting things published. I thought I was actually moving on a certain track. Then I was taken to see Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish theater laboratory by a friend. I didn’t know him that well, but he was a director of a theater company and, in truth, I didn’t even know what that was; I didn’t know what a director of a theater company did.
He took me to see this company and, unbeknownst to me, they were probably the most celebrated theater company in the world at that time in the early ’70s. I went in knowing absolutely nothing about them or what I was going to see. I walked in one person and walked out a slightly different person; I was really changed by what I saw. It really had to do with the extraordinary profoundness of these actors. It was 6 Polish actors who spoke in Polish; I didn’t understand a single word, but what they were doing, and the story they were telling, transcended language. It left a huge imprint on me.
I asked them, “Do you train actors?” They told me, “Yes, we have a program where we train actors,” and suddenly, I would say within 2 weeks, I was a part of it. Really everything I had ever loved and been inspired by all came together for me to decide to pursue that. I stayed with them for 3 years before I moved to New York City with the singular interest of working in the theater and trying to make a living working in the theater.
Then, I was very fortunate in a sense with film. I was a huge film lover, but film was another world to me. I loved watching great directors and actors work in film, but I had never met anybody who had ever been involved in a film in my life. It seemed like a world away from any world I would ever be a part of at that particular time in my life.
Cryptic Rock – That is a very interesting to hear how it all came about. We know you obviously did get involved in film and starred in many memorable roles over the years. How would you compare working in theater opposed to film?
Karen Allen – They’re both fantastic mediums, but they are very different in many ways and require different skills. I feel like acting in the theater is more of an actors’ medium in a sense. You come into it working with your fellow actors in rehearsal, you rehearse 8 hours a day, and once the play is up on the stage, you’re with an audience that is right there in the same room with you. You are creating this story or an illusion of a story taking place on the stage. It’s such a moment-to-moment creative job; no one is going to say cut or action. (Laughs) It’s not unlike performing musically: there is something about that live moment-to-moment; that feeling of this moment is never going to happen again.
People sometimes ask me, “How do you do the same play 8 times a week?” It’s very hard to explain, but yes, you say the same lines and you’re in the same play working with the same actors, but when you sing a song, you never sing it the same way twice. You are always very influenced by that moment, that day, and what’s going on in your world in that moment; it’s always changing and always different.
I think, in film, you do a lot of preparation for it completely in isolation. You are at home or a hotel room with a script, and you are working on it knowing you are coming to the set the next day with x-number of scenes that you are going to do. Very rarely do you even have an opportunity to rehearse with your fellow actors. In fact, there are times because of people’s schedules, you don’t even meet the actor you’re going to do the scene with until that morning or something.
It’s quicker and you don’t only have one opportunity. You are doing 5 or 10 takes, or you are doing the piece from different angles. You might go through a scene 20 times before it’s over; you play it a lot of different ways. It’s really more of a director’s medium, because he or she is taking all of that material and putting it together to create the story. While I really enjoy doing both film and theater, they are very different experiences.
Then when I finally see the film, it’s a year later. (Laughs) Sometimes I will see it with an audience and I will have that experience, but I’m usually sitting in the audience and watching it from a distance. All of that is a different experience than working in the theater.
Cryptic Rock – It sounds like they are very different, but both have their positive aspects to them. You started doing feature films in the late ’70s with 1978’s Animal House. Then from there you did other roles and, in 1981, there was Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was a huge hit. What was it like to be a part of such a massive film like that?
Karen Allen – I think initially you don’t necessarily have any idea that it’s going to be so successful or people will respond to it the way they do. That was true with Animal House, as well. The studio, Universal, did not have a lot of enthusiasm for the film. There was one young executive who got behind it, but with everybody else, it was very, “Ugh, we’ll make this.”
Certainly with Raiders of the Lost Ark, because of the people involved in it – Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Philip Kaufman, and Larry Kasdan – who had such really interesting careers, although they were still quite young in their careers at the time, we all knew there was a certain anticipation of what this film would be like. I remember thinking when I read the script, “Raiders of the Lost Ark? What a terrible title. Certainly they’ll change that.” (Laughs) It turned out to be a great title, I suppose.
It’s quite shocking in a way to be in a film that gets that much attention. In a way it really does shift the axis of your life for a little while. There is suddenly this feeling that you’re a part of something much larger than yourself. The experience of making it was great. I had done, I think, 3 feature films at that point, all of which to some extent were smaller films, and much more shot on location.
I had never done a film like Raiders of the Lost Ark. We were in London at Elstree Studios with these extraordinary artists building these sets. I had never really seen anything like that. I had never done a film that had that kind of scope. I was away for around 4 1/2 months. We were in the Sahara Desert in Tunisia and were shooting at this beautiful film studio, which sadly doesn’t exist anymore. If you think of old-fashioned Hollywood and the kind of films I grew up watching, it was closer to that experience than any of the other films I had done up until that point. As mentioned, the other films were pretty much shot on the street, they weren’t fantasy worlds that were being created. Even Animal House was a period piece, but we were on the streets of Eugene, Oregon shooting that film.
Cryptic Rock – Again, vastly different, but equally fun experiences. You have played a diverse mix of roles throughout the years, and in a lot your early roles you play a romantic lead – in Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1984’s Starman, and also 1988’s Scrooged. Very endearing characters, what is it like playing those type of roles?
Karen Allen – I think certainly going back to the late ’70s into the ’80s, a lot of times those were the roles most available for women to play. I think things have shifted and changed quite a bit since then. I was at times offered quite a few of those sort of romantic leads that I turned down, because I didn’t really like the direction they moved in.
I looked for the kind of romantic leading role where the characters themselves had some sort of real identifying characteristics that were not just in response to their male counterparts. Those are the roles that seemed to attract me the most. There were ones where I felt the women were so secondary as characters to the male roles. Often, they were very much defined by their relationship to the men. Those didn’t seem as interesting to me, so I tried to stay away from them as much as I could.
There weren’t a lot of films at that time that had strong female characters singularly in the film. You were often cast opposite someone wonderful. I had fantastic times working with people like Bill Murray and Jeff Bridges, so I’m not complaining in any way. (Laughs) They were fantastic experiences!
Cryptic Rock – The characters where you do play a female lead, you portray a strong character. Your character, in many ways, directly influences the male counterparts.
Karen Allen – Yeah! The very first script for a film I ever read was for Animal House. I read through it and I loved Katie. One of the first things you see her do is storm out of the frat house and give her boyfriend the finger. I just thought, “You go girl!” (Laughs)
Katie was that character in Animal House who was like the voice of reason; she was going to find her own voice amidst all this crazy fraternity brother madness. Having never been a part of fraternities and sororities, having that world being completely foreign to me, I don’t know if I would have identified with the film when I read it had it not been for Katie being the character she was. I understood her point-of-view.
Cryptic Rock – Exactly! In the years since you still remain quite active acting. You have a film coming up for release called Colewell. What can you tell us about it?
Karen Allen – It premiered on the 13th of April and had a second screening on the 16th at the San Francisco Film Festival. It’s a beautiful film. It’s a little indie film that we shot in about a month in Pennsylvania. It’s the work of a wonderful young director named Tom Quinn who sought me out and got the script to me. We sat down and talked; he showed me a feature he made for something around $10,000. He was nominated for a Gotham Award for the film, it is called The New Year Parade (2008). He sent it to me, I looked at it, and loved it. I loved even more that he made it for $10,000! He is also a film professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He’s just a terrific guy and a wonderful writer.
Colewell is a beautiful film about about the federal government, who has taken to erasing towns. It doesn’t get a lot of press and people don’t talk about it. There are towns that, say, have a population of around 1,000 with a population that is in decline. There are a lot of these small towns in the United States where there are mostly elderly; places where young people have grown up, gone off, and are not coming back. The federal government has been going into these towns, taking their zip code, taking their post office, and erasing them off maps. Now these towns don’t exist anymore and get incorporated into larger towns.
Often in towns like that, the post office is kind of a social and spiritual center for the town; it is a place where everyone meets and catches up with each other. Some of these towns have been around for hundreds of years, and now, suddenly, in theory, do not exist anymore. Tom made a film about this happening in a town where I play the postmaster, who has been such for 35 years. It’s not just about the town losing its identity, it’s really about my character not only losing her job, but losing her identity in the sense because she has been at the center of the town through the post office. I read the script and fell in love with it. I felt it was really a beautifully realized piece of writing.
Cryptic Rock – It sounds like a very compelling story. Hopefully it will get the exposure it needs and snowball from there toward broader distribution.
Karen Allen – That’s the hope. It seems like in the last 10 years, most of the roles that come my way that I’ve been extremely enthusiastic about have been small, indie films. I love the people I’m working with. Then they go into the very challenging realm of trying to get distribution. Some of these films have won awards at Tribeca and Toronto, and had very promising starts.
It’s very expensive to get an indie film out into the world. In any given year, there are hundreds, possibly even thousands, of indie films made. Depends on the year, it’s a quirk of fate as to which ones end up getting a lot of attention. I’m on juries at a lot of film festivals quite a bit and I see some of the most extraordinary indie films that I never hear of again. There’s really no great explanation why ones get seen and others don’t. I just try and choose things I enjoy working on and let the universe do what it does. You can’t really control it.
Cryptic Rock – There are a lot of wonderful indie films in a lot of different genres out there.
Karen Allen – Fortunately we have a lot of platforms now where indie films can have a longer life. There are even just strictly indie platforms online where you can just stream indie films, which is fantastic. To release a film into theaters these days is wildly expensive, so it’s a great thing that we have these streaming platforms.
Cryptic Rock – Yes, it is a great outlet for films, as well as music, that may otherwise get lost in the shuffle. Here is a big question: what are some of your favorite films?
Karen Allen – There are so many that it’s hard to answer a question like that. I’m often drawn to indie films that don’t get a lot of attention. In 2018, I had a great love for a film called All Is True, which is Kenneth Branagh’s film about Shakespeare returning home after the Globe Theatre in London burned to the ground. Shakespeare had not been attentive to his family for many years because he was having a great career, so he tried to reconnect with them, and the movie is about this period of time in his life. It’s such a beautifully realized film and very touching. I also loved the film Stan & Ollie (2018) about Stan Laurel and Ollie Hardy. I don’t know why it didn’t get more attention, but it got very little and I thought it was just a beautiful film.
Going back, I grew up loving the Hollywood classic films. Anything with Katherine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, or Jimmy Stewart. Those are the films I grew up on and continued to fall in love with. One of my all-time favorite films is called Two for the Road (1967) with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney. It’s not a film a lot of people know, but it’s just an exquisite film.
I’m in the Academy and I vote and nominate, but often the films I really fall in love with don’t get the attention I feel they deserve. One of them being The End of the Tour, which I thought was the most beautiful film about David Foster Wallace in 2015. In 2017, it was Phantom Thread, which I thought was an extraordinary film with Daniel Day-Lewis. I have a favorite film with Ryan Gosling called Lars and the Real Girl (2007), which got very little attention. It was such a beautifully written and directed film.
When I first started working in theater the films I loved were mostly European. I hadn’t really been exposed to them as a kid growing up, and suddenly in Washington D.C., I lived just a few blocks away from a theater called the Inner Circle, Outer Circle, and Circle. You could go and, I think for a dollar, you could see two classic foreign films. Often, if I had a day I could do it, I would go in and bring my lunch to watch many of these films.
I’m also a huge Documentary fan. In fact, I would say I often prefer to watch Documentaries. (Laughs) My favorites from 2018 were Free Solo and RBG about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I could go on and on! (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – It really is wonderful to hear how passionate you are about film. Did you happen to see ReMastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke?
Karen Allen – I saw it. I eat up the Documentaries on Netflix, and they have a lot of good ones. Sam Cooke’s story is tragic. I’m a huge Sam Cooke fan, in fact, I’m a huge music fan in general. Music, I would have to say, is possibly the great love of my life. I feel like music is the language that we all share. It transcends everything. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your experience in the world is, great music touches everyone.
Cryptic Rock – Yes, there is a song for every moment in your life. You can relate your entire life to music.
Karen Allen – If I had the talent, which I came to the conclusion I did not, I would have been a musician instead of an actor. I tried playing many instruments at different points in my life. I loved singing and sang with my sisters growing up. I wanted to be Bonnie Raitt or Joni Mitchell. I wanted that level of talent, and I just didn’t quite think I could do it. I wanted to be a great songwriter. Sometimes it just is a gift, it’s just something you are almost born with.