It was quite a privilege to talk to Karen Allen recently about her new film, Year by the Sea and about her craft, in general. The veteran actress from films such as Animal House, Starman and Raiders of the Lost Ark hasn’t stopped working since 1978 and not only finds the energy to still play the lead role in films today, but she has the skill, the appetite, devotion and love for cinema enough to, recently, direct her own short film and take it around on the festival circuit. Between gigs of acting and directing, Allen is known to be found in the theatre, another interest of hers. She has always been a passionate soul and seemed almost ethereal. She found yoga to be the perfect outlet to express her vitality, even teaching it in her younger days. I had to ask her how she stays positive in today’s world.
KA: It’s very challenging. I think my greater resource is in nature. I just unplug myself from my laptop and my phone and my television or whatever is screaming disturbing things at me and I spend some time in nature. You know, I think it was Thomas Merton or some great, wise spiritual person who said, ‘It’s impossible to be narcotic or negative in the presence of a tree.’ And that’s really very much true. If you are really focusing on living things in nature… all the truths I’ve ever learned in my entire life have come from nature. They haven’t come from books or television sets or from news reports… they all come from observing nature and being in nature and… I just think that those are the important things and everything else is much more transitory and much less… valuable in a certain way. It’s all right there in front of us, it’s a matter of whether we want to plug into it or not. I have a place in the countryside and I spend a lot of time there. A lot of Joan’s feelings came from being right there; being plugged into the tides and the seals and…my experience is different in that I’m in the country in the mountains so it’s a different environment but it’s very much the same kind of soothing experiences… healing experience.
Feeling very much in love with nature myself, I couldn’t help but ask if she has ever been to Sedona, here in Arizona; a mystical area surrounded by beautiful red rock, well known for its arts and new age community and for stargazing, as well. She replied by telling me no, which surprised me, to be honest.
KA: I’ve never been there. I have heard fantastic things about Sedona but haven’t been there. I’ve heard tell it’s extraordinary!
S: You must put it on your list of things to do. Do you still teach yoga?
KA: I built a yoga school in 1995 but stopped teaching in early 2000. The schools still around but I don’t have anything to do with it anymore.
S: Are you at all metaphysical?
KA: I’m a student of Buddhism and have been since I was about sixteen or seventeen years old. I have practiced yoga since I was probably seventeen or eighteen years old and I still practice… I just don’t teach it anymore.
As the conversation went on, I found myself to be immensely impressed with her spirit and self-awareness. She’s incredibly easy to talk to, warm and sincere. We could have talked for hours. I was having a hard time not wanting to just sit and chat about music, poetry, life, the universe!
SO, back to the movie I went. Year by the Sea. The character she plays in the film, Joan, is very similar to Allen herself. The story is about an older woman with grown children who leaves her marriage to do some soul-searching, which is very frightening notion and very brave of her to do. I let her know that what I found especially engaging about the film was what I found so enjoyable about Joan. I guess this actually goes, ultimately, to the actress who brought her to life. She was so perfect for this part because watching her instinctually bring the role to life, you know she must be drawing from personal experience. She made this journey look so effortless, which it never would be. She made it seem almost tranquil. The very thought would scare most people away from doing it but it didn’t scare Joan and, in fact, it didn’t scare Karen Allen.
S: Did you relate to the character?
KA: Very much. Very, very much. I related a lot to Joan when I read the book and when I read the script. I felt it was a universal story. Whether it’s men or women, we all go through these same kinds of transitions, particularly the ones that she’s going through where, her kids have grown up and gone away from home and she’s trying to figure, you know, where and how to go forward in her life. Yeah, I felt very connected to her and her story.
S: You made it look so easy to face your fears!
KA: Well, thanks! I have certainly been through this myself. Joan and I don’t have the exact same story, no two people do, there are little differences here and there along the way but, yeah, it is facing a kind of fear! You know, when you, kind of, stare into a void and you have to, I guess, start over… I think it’s daunting.
S: I can’t even imagine. There are several things about this movie that I, myself, would be too afraid to contemplate doing, but here you are, doing them and I know that’s why I liked watching you. You could do them and so well. You were great in this role. The way Joan didn’t change her mind for her husband, didn’t turn around because someone’s feelings might be hurt. She did it for herself.
KA: And she definitely makes some new acquaintances along the way… and friends. She and Joan Erickson became friends and were for the rest of their lives. She was very close to Joan Erickson until she passed away, so, you know, there were connections that were newly formed and very profound in her life, as well.
S: I’m curious, being directed by a composer, was his style in handling the story or the actors more sensitive than with others you’ve worked with?
KA: He is a very intelligent, sensitive human being, Alexander Janko. Just a lovely person. I think there was a difference. I’d say he was one of the more collaborative directors I’ve ever worked with in terms of being very, very interested in the actors being a part of trying to make the script as good as it could possibly be. He had also written the script and I think because it was also a new experience for him… you know, the man who played my husband, Michael Cristofer, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and it was probably a little intimidating for him to have an actor who has won a Pulitzer Prize for his writing! He’s there looking at your first screenplay attempt. (She Laughs) But… I think the way in which he was unique and fascinating to work with is his desire really to collaborate with us. Often, particularly directors who write their own scripts, they have a lot of attachment to what they had written and he did not.
S: Speaking of directing, you just directed a short film called A Tree a Rock a Cloud. How was that experience?
KA: Oh, it was wonderful! I just came last night from a festival in Washington State where I showed it up there so I’ve been taking it around to a lot of film festivals.
S: You should bring it to Arizona.
KA: We missed the deadline for Sedona! There are so many festivals in this country! We’ve submitted to about fifty and I think we’re in about twenty right now. We finished the film in late November of 2016 and have submitted to a lot of the Academy eligible festivals. That’s our first approach at it. We’re hoping to be done with festivals this year. It gets exhausting and way too expensive to stay on the circuit for too long. I think I just went to my thirteenth! I was on the circuit with Year by the Sea last year with and have been doing it all year this year with my film and I tell ya… I have never been more exhausted in my entire life! (She laughs.) Traveling, traveling, traveling! I can’t do much more of this! My gears are stripped!
S: Gonna ask. Which, of all the films you’ve worked on, was your favorite?
KA: I never know how to answer this question. I’ll give you a few. Glass Menagerie was a favorite. Paul Newman directed it and he was such a joy to work with. Joanne Woodward played my mother and she was one of the most inspirational actresses, as you could imagine, to work with. It’s a truly great piece of writing. I had done the play twice for months and months so I knew the material ahead of time which is rare in film. That was one of my favorite experiences.
Raiders of the Lost Ark became such a, kind of, inspiration to young women and I’ve heard over the years how strong an effect my character had on young women who saw the film and were inspired to think in a slightly different way about themselves and their lives because of the character which, I certainly didn’t see coming when I read the script. I just thought she was interesting and fun.
And Starman holds a special place in my heart because I love Jeff Bridges so much. I thought that was such as sweet, tender, lovely film and I love the whole idea that we sent all of this information about ourselves as human beings up into space and that someone actually sees it and comes to earth in response… I think it’s such a beautiful concept. I’d say, off the top of my head, those three stand out.
There are certainly others. Year by the Sea was a wonderful experience; to play Joan, to play somebody who’s writing from their heart about their life and to be them… that’s pretty special.
Well, it has always been a wonderful experience watching her in her films so if you get a chance, check them all out. HERE’S my review of her latest and if you want more information on her short film, check out the website. Try and talk her into making more films! I did… hopefully it worked.