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Always Fearless: An Interview with Karen Allen on Year by the Sea

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By Tom Ue.

Actress and director Karen Allen may be best known for her performance as the fearless heroine Marion Ravenwood in Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), a role that she reprised in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008); but she has a remarkable career on stage, in films, and on television. In her new film, Alexander Janko’s Year by the Sea (2016), she plays Joan Anderson, a writer who embarks on a quest to Cape Cod to reclaim the life that she had prior to her marriage. Year by the Sea has won a number of accolades including the Audience Award for Best Feature, the Grade Prize for Best Screenplay, and the Vision Award for Best Actor (Allen) at the Rhode Island International Film Festival. In what follows, we discuss Allen’s wonderful career, the resonance that she finds in Anderson’s story, and her directorial work in the short film “A Tree a Rock a Cloud” (2016), an adaptation of Carson McCullers’ story.

Congratulations on Year by the Sea! Your career has spanned four decades and there are 59 acting credits to your name on IMDB – what do you consider to be the highlight(s)?

I think I feel that there has been quite a few – it’s hard to choose one. Certainly doing The Glass Menagerie (1987) with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward was a career highlight for me. I had worked with her twice and we had done the play. And then to have the opportunity to take such an extraordinary piece of writing and in the hands of Paul Newman directing it – that was definitely a highpoint.

Certainly working with Steven Spielberg both times was an extraordinary experience. Raiders of the Lost Ark was…I was, for the first time, doing a film of a kind of scope that I had never done before. I had done three films before we started to shoot that. We were in London in these extraordinary sets that were just built from the beautiful imagination of the designer. And things like the Well of the Souls and all of those worlds that were built. That was a pretty amazing experience to have. And then the deserts. Doing that kind of extraordinary location-work was quite interesting for me, stepping into another world. Such a fantastic experience to have the opportunity to play Marion Ravenwood.

Other than that, my very first film, which would have been Animal House (1978). That was a highlight because I have never in my life expected to work in film. I was a theatre actor. I had been trained in the theatre. My greatest ambition was to work in the theatre. So it came as a surprise when someone asked me to do the film and then, when the film was such a success, it launched the possibility of continuing in film. Those are the three that spring up in the moment.

What attracted you to Year by the Sea?

Year 02I loved the story. I loved the woman who was telling the story. I read the script. And I immediately left my apartment and went and found the book. I sat with the book in the same afternoon and I just felt she was very courageous. She was taking a very tough, important look at herself at a certain point in her life where she felt she had reached a tipping point, that she didn’t have a clear sense of where her life was going from that point. She could have made a lot of different choices and instead the choice that she made was to move forward into the unknown and try to discover something about herself and reach out to the world and not necessarily do what might be the cliché thing, which was to leave a husband who doesn’t really seem to connect or be there for her that well.

Instead she just decided to work on herself, to know herself better and to wait and see if there’s something to negotiate. Ultimately her goal is to renegotiate her marriage and get her husband to see her as a full-fledged woman again and not just someone who takes the kids to school and cleans the house and has dinner ready. She has been playing that role in her life. She’s so much more than that. She has so much more inside of herself to discover after that role coming to a natural conclusion.

The film is based on Joan Anderson’s memoirs: did you meet with Anderson and, if so, what kinds of suggestion did she give?

I did. I met her the first time maybe a week or two after the director had asked me to play her. She and I sat down and had a wonderful, four-hour lunch and we talked and talked and talked. I think that we felt a kind of serendipity in our easy relationship with each other. It wasn’t difficult or awkward at all and it was in fact quite illuminating. She was very eager to share her story with me. And I was very eager to receive it. She didn’t want to give me too much information or direct me in any certain way, but she wanted me to get the chance to know her. She was also very much there: she lived in the area where we were shooting so she was also on the set with us. Again she was not an intimidating person in the sense that you feel her physically watching or staring. She was there to enjoy it and she was just as delighted as she could be watching the film come to life.

As in Indiana Jones, you play a remarkably resourceful woman. How did you prepare for these roles?

With Indiana Jones, it’s interesting because I was a very young actor and I was learning how to prepare for films. I don’t think that I had so much a method in place at that time. I am a little bit more clear in the way in which I work now but at the time, having coming from the theatre, there’s a very specific way that you prepare: you have four to five solid weeks of rehearsal with the director and the other actors and the material. In film, I learned right away that it’s all shot out of continuity and you shoot a scene and never come back to it. So there’s a kind of preparation that is very much a learned experience.

I think when we did Raiders I just fell in love with the character. I was given the scene in the bar where Indy comes in and wants the medallion I was given. I punched Indy in the face. I was given that scene which I auditioned with a number of times. We did some screen tests and some regular auditions. My connection with the character really came from knowing that scene quite well and having done it with several people I auditioned with as potential Indys. I feel like my preparation came from knowing the character in that scene. And then when I finally got the script everything kind of emanated from the knowledge of that being the central aspect of this woman: she was living in this bar on her own; her father had died; she had stayed there; she was making a living by drinking people under the table. She had been very much in love and was hurt as a young woman by this man whom she hadn’t seen in ten years. I thought that was a lot of lovely information with which to form a character. I just sort of worked on her from there. A lot of it was seat-of-the-pants when you are a young actor. You are learning as you go and trying to be as spontaneous and as in the moment as you can be – and hope that that works. And you have a director by your side who hopefully pushes you in the right direction – allows you to experiment and to find your way.

How did that differ for Year by the Sea?

Year by the Sea required a lot of preparation on my part. I knew Alexander Janko was a first-time director and I have worked with quite a few first-time directors in the years I’ve done film. With first-time directors, you know that their focus is going to be, by necessity, on a lot of things: they are on their own learning curves, doing things that they have never done before. And so I think he very much wanted to choose very seasoned actors for the roles. He said he went out of his way to choose actors who also work on the stage and have a very strong work ethic because I think he instinctively know that he really needed to rely on us to know our job as much as he could.

Because I am in so much of the film and she’s in the process of changing so much in the year, I really took all of the things that happened to her in the course of the year and I separated them into segments of growth, turning points, and little events that happened that bring her to the part of herself that was opening up. I pulled a lot of adjectives from Joan’s book that she uses about herself: she felt stuck, she was very sad, she felt very alone, she felt very lost. I just pulled a lot of those adjectives and I tried to find, both in terms of how she was dressing and how she was holding her body; the idea is to take her to where she is at the end of the story. There were little transitional points along the way, so I graphed that all out.

I felt that it would help very much both with my internal journey as her and with her physically. At what point did she stop wearing makeup? At what point did she stop trying to fix her hair? Did she just let it go wild? At what point did she start wearing clothes that make her feel a little more relaxed and free? I think when we first meet her she was in these terrible hair-curlers and at her son’s wedding her hair was pulled back into this tight, twist. She has this tight little dress on and she looks at herself in the mirror and she sees a deep unhappiness behind the façade. She knows innately that that’s more real than the smile and who she’s pretending to be. And I think it’s a journey. That was my preparation there.

How does the journey develop? Who is she at each stage of this? When we were shooting the film, often because of locations, I had to, in the course of a day, touch all seven parts of that journey. In the morning, we would start doing something at the end of the film. An hour later, I’d be playing her at the very beginning of the journey. After lunch, we would be playing her somewhere in the middle. So I had to get very clear, as did the hair and makeup and costume departments and our director. We had to be very clear where is she now. She’s moving towards her authentic self and in the process she’s shedding layers of things she had taken on but aren’t necessarily who she is.

What is strikingly different about Year by the Sea is that it’s not about a woman rejecting her previous life – or even criticizing it – but finding a new one and changing directions. Furthermore, it’s also not about a woman looking or finding a new man, but a purpose to her life. Can you comment on this?

It’s one of the things that moved me the most about her story. I think the cliché, both in life and in movies, is often that marriage breaks up, particularly during the mid-life crisis – whether it’s the man finding a younger woman or the woman finding a younger man or the man finding just a different woman or the woman finding a different man – that it’s easier to just leave your past behind and start another life with another person in another direction. And perhaps sometimes it is. I don’t know. I am not the judge of that. I think what I loved about Joan’s book is that that wasn’t what she wanted to do: she didn’t want to leave her marriage. She wanted to work with her husband to renegotiate her marriage and she wanted to do it from a place where she knew more clearly who she was. I think that that’s a very inspiring alternative to put out there into the story and it’s what she did: she is still with her husband now, twenty-five years later. He left Kansas and moved to the Cape to be with her and they have a wonderful relationship. I’m certain that this isn’t the only film to ever put out a story with that as a possibility but it’s a possibility that moves me: people can grow and change and see each other anew in life. To take thirty years of marriage and just abandon it because people have lost a sense of connection, I love the fantasy or the reality that it’s retrievable.

What’s next for you?

I have a film that I directed. I directed my first. It’s a short film and it’s based on Carson McCullers’ short story “A Tree a Rock a Cloud.” We took it to its first film festival in Manchester in England in March and it won Best International Short Film; and my producers and myself have been on the road with it since. We have been to twelve other festivals. This is Carson McCullers’ 100th year – she was born in 1917 – and we received invitations. I took it to Rome about six weeks ago and showed it. They were doing a celebration of her work and all the great McCullers scholars from all over the world came – unbeknownst to me. I have always been a Carson McCullers fan since I was very young I have known the story for a very long time. But unbeknownst to me, she is revered in countries all over the world. She has been translated into many languages. We have been invited to take the film to China because they are doing a celebration of her life and she is very revered in India and Japan, so that has been another journey: we took it to Columbus, Georgia where she was born on her actual birthday in February and showed it to 1,200 people were there and who went to Columbus State University to celebrate her as their native daughter. So that has been very satisfying and we are continuing on to the end of this year, taking it to festivals. We have won a number of prizes, which is very encouraging because there are a lot of short films out there. You come to a festival with 400 other short films and it’s been quite an interesting road.

I have a few other films that I am interested in directing. We will see how they go forward. I am about to shoot a film as an actor.

What can you tell us about the next Indiana Jones film?

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

I wish that I could tell you something! It’s shrouded in mystery, really. I know that they are announcing it as being released in 2020. Other than that, I don’t know anything. I imagine that they are working on the script and I would love to be a part of it. But there’s no way of my knowing that yet. They’ll tell me whether I am [in it] or not, I am sure, at some point when they are getting ready to cast and when they have a script. I just read recently that Shia is not going to be in it. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what happened to our son. We are childless!

There were indications that he was to go back to school in Crystal Skulls.

Yes, that’s true. That’s right. I’m trying to get him back to school. I guess he has gone back to school.

What was it like to work with Harrison Ford?

The first time that we were together on Raiders we didn’t know each other. Me coming from the theatre, and Harrison coming from the film world, it took us a while to find a way to work together. I loved to rehearse because I was from a rehearsal world but Harrison not so much. And it’s true that actors who work in film tend to do other preparation in their hotel rooms and they come to the set ready to work. And as actors in the theatre, it’s not that we don’t do preparation in our rooms, apartments, and such, we have eight hours of just rehearsing in the day. The first time, it took us a little time to find our rhythm, to find each other, but I had an awfully good time working with him. The characters are so, in a sense, resistant to each other – that was one of those great relationships where they are just kind of driving each other crazy.

It was so great to go back and do the second one because there was an ease of knowing each other already, an ease of knowing the characters. It has been 25 years, I think; I felt that I understood that relationship between the two characters. I had seen the film so many times because there have been so many things over the years where people invite me to come and speak about the film, so I end up watching it on the large screen. I think both of us brought that understanding to the film. The first time, we were building it. It’s like we were constructing it out of nothing. The second time, we had a starting point, like the seed had been planted and there has been somewhere to take it. I think to have the opportunity to do that in a series of films is a rare thing. I had never done a sequel to a film. It was a joyful experience for me.

Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.

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