The lovely and talented Karen Black has played both leading ladies and character roles: the bigger parts with lots of character and the smaller ones standing out, quite often stealing the show. From Jack Nicholson’s sweet, unsophisticated yet determined girlfriend in “Five Easy Pieces”, to a country singer in Robert Altman’s “Nashville”, to three (or actually, four) juicy parts in “Trilogy of Terror”, she embodies, and epitomizes, the acting craft. And although this interview (transcribed from a phone call) mostly centers on Karen’s films from the sixties and seventies, she’s never stopped working and continues to grace the big and small screen alike.
When did you first know you wanted to be an actress and how did you go about becoming one?
I was probably six or maybe younger so that’s when I decided. How I would do it… I’d try to be in everything in grammar school. They said well, we need someone to play Christopher Columbus. And I said, “I think I can do that”. They said, “No, you’re a girl”. And I said, “No, I could do that”. “Oh no, you’re a girl.”
Then of course as soon as I could I got into acting class; my parents helped me with that. And then the teacher had us helping people where he was directing plays in a carousel theater near town – and I would pick up all the half eaten hot dogs off the grounds, clean the toilets. And I finally got the part of Beer in a play called “George and Margaret”, which she’s thirty, and when, you know, you’re fourteen “you can’t play thirty”, and she was an alcoholic… Oh, no she wasn’t – but she was a really strange character, a deaf mute.
Anyhow, I would go home and start practicing, practicing, practicing. And my boyfriend Charlie and I, at the time – or my friend-boy I should say… We were in the basement of the summer theater and I tried this character Beer, and a sort of scrim lifted between myself and him, as an audience member, and it’s never come back. There’s no scrim between me and any audience. I feel very much in communication with them. And comfortable. Very comfortable with an audience.
But I did a pretty good Beer, I guess, everyone laughed a lot because I wore a lot of… Well I hallowed my cheeks out a lot I think with this brown kind of greasy stuff, and that’s how I started.
What was the next step to continue on the path of becoming a professional actress?
I would just get a little bit of money and live on almost nothing, and just kept going up for parts and I got a role in a Broadway show, playing a fifteen year old in a Broadway show called “The Play Room”. And I was nominated for Best Actress for Drama Circle Critics Award. I was the lead in it…
And then a fellow saw me and wanted me and my leading man in the play to meet a young student who was doing a movie as his thesis. And Peter Kaster and I went to meet him and it was Francis Coppola. And he put us in a little movie called “You’re A Big Boy Now”, which was his first movie. And then I went to L.A. with the movie and with the credits: I had just done the lead in a Broadway play and basically I’d just gotten parts in television shows and, um… I was really good in them by the way.
And then I meet Henry Jaglom, and Henry introduced me to… He knew Dennis, you know… And he knew Jack and… I don’t know, somehow that whole group of people. And Dennis Hopper and I improvised… he was very brilliant… and he put me in “Easy Rider”. And then I auditioned just like any other actor for “Five Easy Pieces” and, there you go.
Besides having a “bad trip”, what else do you feel your character was going through during the New Orleans cemetery sequence?
So, during that scene did you…
Oh, that’s fine.
But you know, I was improvising. I had come off of improvisation and Broadway. Then they didn’t have it in the movie and Henry Jaglom, when he was helping out with the editing, saw it, and put it in – he put in my character’s mumbling and mental flashes.
FIVE EASY PIECES
What was your main motivation for the character “Rayette”?
But I can tell you I got my accent by having someone talk back to me in that accent and I wrote my accent in and I went up to… We were up in, somewhere that starts with a B… The town where Jack worked… I went there and stayed there and watched the women and they have the same accent as if they were from Arkansas – a lot of people comin’ from Arkansas to work there. And they have beehive… All old-fashioned hairdos from the sixties almost and… You know if an actor reads a script often enough you start to understand what it’s like to be that person.
It’d be hard to explain her state of consciousness. She’s very open. She’s very receptive. She does not think. She’s completely not critical. She has no critical mentality. She doesn’t evaluate things that she sees out of her eyes, she just feels them. Or she’s very sensual or sexual and, that’s how she is – in that sense she has a lot of life-force and so-forth and something like that.
Bob Rafelson said, “I think you’re too smart to play this part.” And I said, “Well when you say action I’ll just stop thinking”.
Did you write songs specifically for your character “Connie White” or were they already your own songs you had the character sing?
So he said “I’m doing a picture in the fall where everybody has to write their own Country/Western music.” And he said to come back and sing. And I said, “I’ll sing now.” And he said he could have a pianist or guitarist come tomorrow. And I said, “No, I’ll sing it now”.
I got up in front of the fireplace and I sang: [Singing] “Well I’d like to go to Memphis but I don’t know the way – And I’d love to tell you how I feel but I don’t know what to say.” And he said, “You got the part… Welcome aboard”. So that’s how I got that part. And then that was a lot of fun and we would look at photographs of some of those country singers and I would sort of make a “look”, you know? It was a big blonde longhaired look we picked.
TRILOGY OF TERROR
In the story “Julie”, which is my favorite story of all of them… I watched it a bunch of times without getting tired of it… Do you give off any subtle clues or hints to the twist that happens at the conclusion for someone who’s watching it the second time… That you’re not supposed to catch the first time around?
Yeah, the teacher from the first story.
I just watched it the other day.
I saw it as a kid, but recently re-watched it.
Well, for one thing, I’ve been brushing up on my Karen Black because I’ve been hoping for an interview.
Yeah, and I watched it again, and I really like the first story… I know it’s mostly known for the third story. But my question is do you give any subtle, hidden clues to the ending?
I think that it’s very good to wear your past when you’re acting and wear what has already occurred.
Go back to “Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean”… I was certainly wearing my past. I walked in the door with my past on my shoulders. But in this particular drama it’s a little simpler – it’s an entertainment piece.
In the third, and most popular tale, “Amelia”, about the killer Zuni Fetish doll, when you’re running around screaming (and eventually fighting back)… And there’s nothing really there, on the set… What’s in your mind?
When I did “The Play Room”, the one I did on Broadway… and I think I talked to you about that… Joseph Anthony was talking to the actors, he said, “You know you are afraid of what will happen”, he said, “Fear is”, in his opinion, “Fear is the easiest thing for an actor to create. Just create fear and feel fear.”
So you just create fear within yourself and you feel fear. Just like, you know, when you watch an actor and they’re crying, they’re really sad – they’re truly sad… they have created it. Life hasn’t created it but the effect is really so similar.
THE DAY OF THE LOCUST
Playing an actress in a different era, the thirties, were there any particular mannerisms or characteristics or physical traits to make her different than yourself (at the time): an actress in the seventies?
Uh… I, uh… [And for some strange reason all I can think to say at this point is…] I guess that covers it.
I can tell you – in all honesty – while I did listen to some of the “Trilogy of Terror” commentary, which I shouldn’t have… I never, ever read anything about this.
Oh [Relieved, this being a particular question I was proud of]… Cool.
There’s a scene where I’m “Dancing on a Dime” with Donald Sutherland and the truth is, when we rehearsed it… How we rehearsed the scenes is we would rehearse them… Improvise them in rehearsal time before shooting and someone was standing around with a little recording device in one hand and holding out the microphone in the other, stretching his arms towards the actors as they were improvising. And we were dancing on a dime in improvisation… We were dancing in a little circle kind of crying…
So I said, “Waldo”… I love Waldo. I loved Waldo probably as much as I’d ever loved anybody – I just loved Waldo. And I said, “Waldo, you got us yelling at each other, don’t you remember?” “You know I don’t remember.” And he threw the script nicely… Gently threw the script on my sofa in my room and he said, “Write it.”
And then eventually I wrote a script called “Deep Purple” and Waldo loved my writing so much he made sure it got into the Sundance Screenwriting Lab. It’s in Utah and it’s Robert Redford’s screenwriting class and I’m very proud of that but I haven’t got it produced yet – because I’m not a producer. But anyhow… So, then we did it correctly: we were dancing in a little circle on a dime – and it’s a beautiful scene.
Now also I’ve noticed that women of that era, when they would pose they would, instead of putting their hands on their waists with their fingers in front and their thumbs behind the waist they would stand with their thumb in front of their waist and their fingers behind their waist – you had a certain way of standing and moving and we put… I put that into the characterization so it’s a good question and we did work on that a lot.
THE GREAT GATSBY
Almost the same thing as before, relating to playing a character from another time, this one from a classic novel…
I think what was interesting about that character in that movie is, you know, the Mia Farrow character and Lois Chiles character are women filled with ennui… [Spells word] E-N-N-U-I. They’re tired of life with a kind of high-class social weariness to them. But my character wanted what she wanted very badly. She was motivated. She had a goal. She had a thrust. She had life-force. She wanted to be rich and she wanted to be upper-class and she wanted with all her heart, you know, so, other people in the movie it could be said she may have been… she may have had more aliveness than the rest.
She really had a goal. She really had something she would give her life for.
FAMILY PLOT (ALFRED HITCHCOCK)
How was it working with Alfred Hitchcock and what was he like?
He had a blue party. All the food was blue and all the people had their place-cards all around a big round table and he sat really far away to watch, because nobody at the table… Nobody at the party had their name on the place card. And they would go on to find their name; find that it wasn’t there. And they would go around again. And he would watch that… He was very playful. He just loved all that.
But in his work, you know, it’s a little bit like Quentin Tarantino’s work. I met Quentin the other week and I told him that he was like Hitchcock in that he keeps people on the edge of their seat – you don’t know what’s going to happen next. He’s playful. It’s a fabulous characteristic for a director to have.
Anyhow, so, we used to bring limericks to each other. I used to tell him limericks and he would try to catch me on my vocabulary; say a word that I wouldn’t understand. [Imitating Hitchcock] “You are being very…” [Big word in purposely hard-to-understand Hitchcock accent…] “Oh,” I said, “You mean keenly perceptive?” “Yes”. He was always trying to trip me up. I got him a dictionary… He always liked dictionaries. I got him a big red, golden dictionary… Goodbye present. He was a very warm-hearted guy. Very warm, very alive. And very shrewd. It had to be right. He wasn’t gonna put up with anything that wasn’t up to snuff.
At the same time, he would sit and talk to me, and I’d say, “Where did you get the suit?” and he sat looking and looking for the tailor inside the suit. And the A.D. – the assistant director – would come up to him and say, “Mr. Hitchcock, we’re waiting for you”. And he’d say [imitating voice), “Aw, but I’m waiting for you.”
It was like that. It was a very interesting combination.
I just downloaded this movie on iTunes and really like it… Any memories of the opening sequence with the big explosion?
You don’t remember “Killer Fish”?
And I can remember that the coffee was unlike any coffee I have ever tasted – the only coffee to drink is in Brazil, in my opinion. I’ve never drank it since I’ve come home. And nothing can compare with it.
And I knew, um, ah… I forgot her name. Do you? There’s a beautiful girl… They had a beautiful girl…
Let’s see, there’s… Berenson and…
We lived sort of in the bush. I had a house, and my maid, my Chinese maid, was living with me. And they would have all these people living in the house; it was some habit they had. I was so shocked. I would get up and walk in the kitchen and someone would be sitting, sewing-up something of something of mine or, raking the sand in front of my house and there were all these people – I guess I was supposed to pay them. Nobody asked me; they’d just turn up.
And then nobody had anything to read. We were out in the bush and finally somebody would have a magazine, like a Vogue and then we would stand in line to get the Vogue. We’d all be hysterical to get a Vogue magazine to read. And we ran out of books. And there were no bookstores…
But it was nice.
Interview by James M. Tate, 3-20-2010
CLOSING WORDS (by JMT): This was my first telephone interview and I want to thank Karen Black for taking time out of her afternoon to speak to me. Having seen Robert Altman’s “Nashville” over a dozen times, hearing Karen singing “Memphis” on the phone was something I’ll never forget. I learned a whole lot from the experience (like wait between pauses and never say “main motivation”) and I hope to continue this style in the future: wherein the interviewees can tell their stories and afterward I transcribe everything and then, with my web designer, make the same kind of topnotch pages that have filled this site for over two years and counting.
And I also want to thank author and friend Laura Wagner. For without Laura there would have been no Karen Black interview at all.
Karen Black Official Site www.karenblack.com
Laura Wagner's (related) sites are: