Jennifer Salt: Salt of the Earth

Jennifer Salt is an actress who appeared in a handful of cult movies during the sixties and seventies, most of which are still considered classics. Let’s take a look at three of the most popular films, and the importance of her character in each…

In Midnight Cowboy she plays “Crazy Annie”, the girlfriend whom Texan “Joe Buck” (played by Jon Voight) recollects on the way to becoming a gigolo in New York. Although Jennifer only appears in flashbacks (and one dream sequence) her scenes are scattered throughout. Along with providing the backdrop of a despairing, troubled past for Joe, Jennifer’s beautifully haunting voice whispering “You’re the only one, Joe”, and “You’re the best, Joe”, can also sum up what he hopes rich New York women will think (and pay for). In promoting himself as a dependable gigolo he even describes to his pal/manager “Ratso Rizzo” (played by Dustin Hoffman) how “Crazy Annie” was so in love with him they had to take her away.

As with Midnight Cowboy Jennifer’s role in Woody Allen’s Play it Again, Sam (directed by Herbert Ross), although relatively small, is quite important. After his wife leaves him, Woody’s character gets turned down by a string of beautiful women, which then leads to his “doomed” affair with married Diane Keaton. Jennifer plays “ Sharon Lake ”, the first of several blind-dates (and some attempted “pick-ups”) who rejects him. Sharon dealing with Woody’s frantic nervousness sets the stage for the entire first half of the movie (which I consider the funniest). And of all the rejections, (in my opinion) Sharon’s is the biggest let-down. They might have really hit it off if he wasn’t being so… Woody.

In Brain DePalma’s Sisters , although the film centers on – and is named after – the surgically-separated Siamese twins played by Margot Kidder, it’s Jennifer’s hardnosed reporter/journalist “Grace Collier” who, in my opinion, is the true lead. If this were a “noir” film, “Grace” (aided by Charles Durning in a few scenes) would be the “snoop” who must (along with the audience) fit together pieces of a strange, mysterious puzzle. “Grace” is very ahead of her time, being that she’s a tough, independent woman. No one, not even the police chief, can stop her from investigating the truth behind a murder she alone had witnessed. (Jennifer’s real life mom Mary Davenport plays her mother in the film.)

Jennifer Salt also appeared in the very offbeat Brewster McCloud (directed by Robert Altman); two early Brian De Palma films: Hi Mom (starring a young Robert DeNiro) and The Wedding Party; The Revolutionary (again with Jon Voight); and the Emmy winning TV movie Gargoyles (one of my personal favorites). She portrayed “Eunice Tate” on the hit TV series Soap; and made guest appearances on Family Ties, Magnum P.I. and Empty Nest.

But Jennifer’s show-business story doesn’t end there. No longer acting, she’s been a television scriptwriter since the nineties. Her most current project is the hit series Nip/Tuck, in which she serves as a writer and co-producer.

There are few women in Hollywood (or men for that matter) who have had a two-tier career; one: as an actress portraying characters created by someone else; and two: as a writer creating characters for other actors to play.

In the following interview I’ll briefly touch upon each of the “lives” of Jennifer Salt: the actress and the writer. The interview serves not only as a well-overdue glimpse into the background of an outstanding, beautiful, underrated actress, but as inspiration to any would-be and/or up-and-coming scriptwriters as well.

JENNIFER SALT INTERVIEW

Being the child of a blacklisted scriptwriter, Waldo Salt, whose movie credits range from the thirties to the late-seventies, did you, growing up, have doubts going into a career in Hollywood? Or is being an actress something you always wanted to do?

It was actually kind of odd growing up as the daughter of a man who was (at least at the time) a highly established screenwriter. As a young child I thought his actual work seemed boring, I wasn't interested. Of course I loved him very much, but how many kids take a great deal of interest in what kind of work their parents do? I met so many people in the film industry that everything just sort of happened.

As far as the blacklisting is concerned, I didn't even understand it back then. I saw it as some kind of strange science fiction event like an episode of The Twilight Zone. I never thought much about how it might affect me or my personal acting career. And much of those events where my father was concerned were kept from me. I think my parents were simply trying to protect me. By the time I understood it more I had already been acting for at least a decade.

Did your father want you to be in the “business”?

He always encouraged me to do anything I wanted to do with a full hearted passion. He never tried to weigh in on my choice to become an actor in any negative context. In fact he helped me every step of the way. And often his direct involvement in some projects resulted in some of the characters I was fortunate enough to get a chance to play, even if they were rather small parts.

Do you – as a former actress who has read many scripts and translated them into a character – feel that it helps your scriptwriting having the background of an actor?

Yes I think it does, but that isn't to say that a good writer who has no acting experience would have less of an advantage. In fact I think being a good novelist or screen writer can give you insights into acting. Writing takes a strong imagination, and often it takes time to cultivate that depth of imagination. For me writing is easier than acting because I can create characters and situations any way I can dream them up, but as an actor you have to try and interpret a character someone else has created. It's much more difficult. If I could I would write characters and then play the ones I write, I could make them the way I thought they would fit me best, then I would have a stronger grasp on who this character is and thereby playing the character would be much more interesting because I created the character in the first place.

When you write scripts, do you, in your head while writing, act out the scenes for certain characters, or all of them? (I ask this because most people who aren’t actors will not act out the characters in their scripts, but will instead imagine the characters as a movie they’re watching since they don’t have the acting ability).

I think the method has changed a bit over the years. I often find myself watching episodes of Nip/Tuck and observing the different scenarios involving each of the characters. Usually not the episodes I have scripted myself, but that someone else wrote. It gives me a chance to play with events or situations someone else has created for a character and come up with my own ideas to hopefully top that. It's fun to fiddle around with it. It was tougher at the onset of the series to come up with inventive ideas than it is now.

Did you ever think you’d end up writing, as in: did you turn to writing when the acting jobs lessened, or has it always been something you’ve been interested in?

As I got older I really began to appreciate the work my father did when he was in his prime. I would watch the films he wrote the screenplays for, read the notations and changes he made in his scripts, etc. It became very interesting. I began to think a great deal about it. I realized that the process of writing is what it is all about. If you have a terrible script even the best director can't save the project. Writing is so inspiring. For me it isn't unlike a sculptor creating a work of art, or a painter creating anything he can imagine on a canvas.

Which profession has “fulfilled” you the most: acting or writing?

Writing… It's truly exciting work. I really do find it much more rewarding than I ever found acting to be.

Although Woody Allen didn’t direct Play It Again, Sam, was there a feeling in the air that it was his film, or was he simply treated as an actor (part of the ensemble) like everyone else?

Well one thing you have to understand is that I wasn't around for 90% of the shooting for that film. I think I worked directly on the project for less than two weeks. I considered Woody Allen to be an extremely wonderful man. He was always thinking, and contemplating ideas. He had a serious, focused commitment to what he was doing, but he was also at times very easy to work with. Maybe it is a different story when he directs, but my experience – however limited it might have been – was wonderful!

Which director: Herbert Ross, John Schlesinger, Brian DePalma, or Robert Altman, gave you – an as actor – the most freedom to improvise (or maybe there’s another director I left out)?

Without a doubt, Brian DePalma. Back in the late 60's and early 70's there was much more freedom in filmmaking. Brian was always experimenting with new ideas and wanted equal input from everyone. He was willing to hear and try nearly anything you could think of that might help. But I also worked on more than one film with him, so we trusted each other very much and over time we created a formula that worked between us. There was chemistry there by the time production began on Sisters. John [Schlesinger] was also equally open to ideas and he was focused on getting naturalness out of the performances of his actors. But during the duration of the shooting of Midnight Cowboy John was also battling some personal issues that often hampered the flow of the film's progress. Some of the best directors I have ever had the chance to work with were those in television. Many of them are now making theatrical films. There was at least back then much more room for improvisation in television than there is now.

I don’t think there is better chemistry between any two actors than of you and Charles Durning in Sisters… How was he to work with?

Charles was truly fun to work with. He was such a funny guy. How he got anything done is a miracle to me. We worked a great deal together in Sisters and other projects, and I still think he and I had a great time during those days. We actually became good friends after that. I had many great experiences with other actors I have worked with. Bud Cort [from Brewster McCloud] especially… He was a certified lunatic back then as far as I was concerned.

Do you get in touch with any fellow actors from your acting days?

Yes, a few of them. Jon Voight is someone I am still in contact with. He is truly a wonderful man. One of the best people I have ever known. He has a heart of gold. I sometimes still see Brian DePalma, and several friends from Soap. Two of them live near me.

What do you make of the very ending of Sisters, which might be the strangest scene ever (Charles Durning on the telephone pole)? Do you have any thoughts on what the heck this ending means?

I remember when I saw the film for the first time thinking "WTH kind of rip-off ending is this anyway?" I don't understand it either. If you find out, let me know :)

Which film role (of course, this doesn’t include TV’s Soap) are you “reminded” of the most… As in, which film role do people talk to you about the most?

Well if Eunice can't be included then it would have to be “Grace Collier” [from Sisters], for obvious reasons. I really enjoyed playing “Grace”. She was tough as nails. She was a great deal more fun to play than some of these ditsy girlfriend roles I got stuck with. Once in awhile Annie [from Midnight Cowboy] gets mentioned though.

Which film – the way it turned out in the final cut – is your personal favorite?

Well if you mean which of the films that I was in is my favorite then it would be Play it again Sam. But the movie I enjoyed being a part of the most was Sisters. I do feel honored that I was involved in Midnight Cowboy though.

Which film do you think turned out the best, quality wise (meaning it doesn’t have to be your favorite, but that you think is the best film)?

Midnight Cowboy.

Which of your performances in films do you like the best?

I loved playing “Judy Bishop” [in Brian De Palma’s Hi Mom!]. Of course who wouldn't want to work with Bobby De Niro? Naturally back then he was pretty much an unknown, but I still can't believe I shared the screen at one time with him. Of course I still say “Grace Collier” [Sisters] is up there at the top of my short list as well.

Did your father, having gone through what he went through in the fifties, ever give you advice on how to weather Hollywood’s unpredictable “climates” when and if they occur?

He gave me advice, but it really wasn't thought out with that experience in mind. As my acting career was beginning, the movie industry in America was in the toilet. New directors like Brian and Marty Scorsese were developing a new and refreshing environment for film making that basically broke all the rules. So the harshness that existed and executives that ran everything for decades prior to that were no longer making the rules. And people like Marty, Brian, Dennis Hopper, and others were making the rules, and making a great deal of money in the process. They re-invented Hollywood and made it more "User friendly". So during my introduction into the film industry, things were changing, so none of these "Climates" existed at the time.

How long did it take to shoot all your scenes for Midnight Cowboy?

Honestly I can't remember exactly. But it was less than three weeks I think at one time, and then another week several weeks later. Something like that.

Where did they shoot those exterior scenes for Midnight Cowboy?

Depends on which exterior scenes you are referring to. If you mean the locations that were exterior that involved me, well I think I will play a bitch and leave you in the dark. Mean, aren't I? :D

About how many takes did you do for the voice over work for Midnight Cowboy, including “You’re the only one, Joe” (which, along with the Ruth White’s voice-over, is so ghostly and incredible and really makes the film)?

Hard to remember, but I would say it was at least 15 or more.

Having read James Leo Herlihy’s novel Midnight Cowboy (personally I like your father’s script better) in which “Crazy Annie” has a much bigger part – were there more scenes filmed for “Crazy Annie” and the Texas bullies (including actor Randall Carver) than ended up in the final cut?

Yes there was. In fact if the best of it were included, the film would have been 3 hours long. But most of it revolved around Joe and Annie's relationship. But I can understand why it was cut. It would have ruined the flow of the movie.

I am a huge fan of Gargoyles; in fact I just bought a DVD for eighty dollars (yes I am reminding you of this!). Was it hard to keep a straight face in the scene where the lead Gargoyle (played by Bernie Casey) was “feeling you up” while the other monsters were ransacking “your father’s” station wagon?

$80 is nutz. LOL! Don't feel bad though, I don't even have a copy of it :)
So I got felt up? Is that what he was doing? Naughty, naughty monster!!!

The pre-date scene in Play it Again, Sam (you meeting everyone at Woody’s apartment), to me, is probably one of the funniest scenes in any Woody Allen film – or in any film, ever made. Did you ever break up at his antics and/or lines during the shooting of that scene; or any other scene?

Well I was so nervous and petrified for the first few days I had to try and make myself laugh because I didn't want to offend anyone. It in fact was Woody’s antics that helped loosen the mood up a great deal for me. But Woody's method of comedy wasn't exactly naturalistic back then. It was more like "How do I play this nervous character convincingly? What if I make a nervous gesture and the LP comes flying out of the jacket? Yea let's try that and see if it is funny or not." So it wasn't like Robin Williams doing stand-up. The ideas were well thought out in advance, then rehearsed until it looked funny enough. But yes at times it was hard to keep a straight face. Had it been done spontaneously I probably would have been rolling.

In Play it Again, Sam, was Gangbang (your indie film that “Really isn’t sexual at all”) homage to Midnight Cowboy? Was it improvised or was it in the script?

That was actually my idea. There was another title in the script that wasn't as shocking so I just blurted out "Why don't we change the title to 'Gang bang'? I have no idea where that came from but everyone loved it, so they put it in the script.

Was Redford’s character “Waldo Pepper” from The Great Waldo Pepper homage to your father?

Oh you see the connection, Waldo Salt/Waldo Pepper. As you might imagine this question has come up before a few times. I never personally asked anyone about the subject. Although my father nor anyone else ever said one way or the other around me, I know he had friendships with both George Roy Hill and Bill Goldman, so I think it may be possible that the title could have been arrived at that way. I always thought Waldo Pepper was a real person from history. I never took the time to look that up to see if I might be right. So I have no idea if it was some sort of honorary gesture to my father, but it's a nice thought anyway.

The strength and independence of your character in Sisters was very ahead of its time being that she is a strong and confident woman in a so-called “man’s world” (especially at that time when a strong woman was categorized as “feminist”)… Who did you draw on, or, what woman or women in your life inspired you when preparing for this role?

The character development for “Grace Collier” came partially from myself and partially from Margot and Brian. Basically Brian was trying to get more confidence and determination built into my interpretation of Grace. Brian once said "Try being a total bitch here and see if that works". Well it worked I guess. But no it wasn't based on anyone I knew of. I figured I could pull off being a bitch if I wanted to. I once told Brian "Try holding off till I'm having my period then I'll be as big of a bitch as you want me to be. It will be easy" :D

Great! Thank you so much for this interview, Jennifer, you’re the best!

James M. Tate

Thank you James for such wonderful thoughts and words. I am touched that what little I did during my acting days is so well remembered by at least a few people. Best Wishes to you and I hope you have a bright, creative, and rewarding future in the film industry-

Jennifer Salt


Interview by: James M. Tate

LINKS:
ANOTHER FAN'S JS SITE
CLASSIC SALT ON DVD
'NIP/TUCK' ON DVD
'SOAP' ON DVD

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