By Jane Wollman Rusoff
City & Shore Magazine
Karen Allen has made more than 40 feature films, beginning with her role as a sexy co-ed in Animal House through her latest turn as a 50-something empty-nester on a quest for self-discovery in A Year by the Sea.
Best known for playing Katy in Animal House and feisty Marion Ravenwood, opposite Harrison Ford, in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Allen, 66, will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award on Nov. 18 from the 32nd Annual Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.
Allen is also making her film directing debut with a short film to be screened at the festival based on Carson McCullers’ affecting story, A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.
The film, screened earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, is about the passing of wisdom from an older man (Jeffrey DeMunn – Billions, The Walking Dead) to a young boy (Jackson Smith), who meet by chance at a roadside café in 1947. Allen, who also wrote the screenplay and co-produced, shot the film in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, where she lives.
She is the mother of a son, Nicholas, 27 – a chef – with her ex-husband, actor Kale Browne.
A multi-talented Illinois native, who grew up mostly in Washington, D.C., Allen will star next in Colewell, about a small town that’s been erased off the map.
City & Shore: Why did you choose A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud to direct?
Karen Allen: It’s one of the most beautiful short stories I had ever read. As a first-time film director, I felt the story should be something I really knew and loved, and that was reasonably simple with just a few locations and speaking roles. It seemed to fit all that very well.
C&S: Did you always want to be a film director?
KA: I never wanted to be a film director! I directed theater early in my career and then chose between that and acting. I came to film directing very reluctantly. A friend who produced a play I’d directed encouraged me.
C&S: Did you audition many other boys besides Jackson Smith? At the time you filmed, he was 12.
KA: About 300 young boys sent in pictures and résumés. We met with around 60 and chose about 10 to screen-test. I had a feeling when I met Jackson that he could be really extraordinary. He had a quality I thought we needed. He’d never acted before. The camera loves him.
C&S: What was it like growing up with a dad who was a special agent in the FBI?
KA: He joined the FBI the year I was born, and they transferred him from one city to another. It was intriguing, perhaps. But he wasn’t allowed to talk about what he did, and often we couldn’t know where he went for a week; even my mother didn’t know. So it was minimally involving in that it was all very, kind of, smoke-and-mirrors. Even in his later years, it was like pulling teeth to get him to talk about what he did.
C&S: You’re receiving the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Have you spent much time in South Florida over the years?
KA: Mostly I’ve vacationed in Miami and the Keys. I live up north in Massachusetts. It gets really cold there. By March, you’re saying, ‘Get me out of here to someplace warm!’
C&S: Describe Katy, your popular character in Animal House.
KA: She’s the voice of reason. Katy didn’t go to the toga party because she thinks that’s all very juvenile. She’d been caught having an affair with her professor, played by Donald Sutherland. At the start of one scene, I pull my T-shirt down over my naked derrière. Donald volunteered to show his naked butt since I was asked to show mine and had resistance to the idea. That’s how the scene of his reaching up to the cabinet came to be.
C&S: How did you get cast as Katy?
KA: I was studying acting at the Lee Strasberg [Theatre & Film] Institute in New York. One day I saw a card on the bulletin board: ‘Feature film casting college-age actors and actresses. Send picture and résumé.’ I did and got called to come in. One of the casting directors said, ‘I know you’re not [in the] Union and don’t have an agent, but I want you to meet [director] John Landis because you’re my girl.’ I looked the way she thought Katy would look – kind of no-nonsense.
C&S: Now tell me about Marion Ravenwood, whom you played in Raiders of the Lost Ark and lndiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
KA: She’s a very resourceful woman living in Nepal who’s making a living by drinking men under the table. She’s had to live very much in a man’s world and has figured out a way to survive. When I first read the script, I thought, ‘Wow, I haven’t read an introduction to a character this interesting ever.’ She’s what you’d call a tough broad.
C&S: You don’t seem like a tough broad in real life.
KA: I’ve never been interested in playing characters that are much like me. The real interest in acting is stepping into the shoes of a different person. I’d like to believe we all have a tough broad in us and also a person who’s sensitive and fragile. As an actor, it’s exciting to access the parts of oneself that aren’t on the surface.
C&S: Did you have love scenes with Harrison Ford in the two Indiana Jones films?
KA: There was a scene where I gingerly kiss him on the shoulder and the forehead after he’s been badly beaten up. I’m trying to administer to his wounds. Then we kiss on the lips, and he falls asleep mid-kiss.
C&S: How was the experience of working with Steven Spielberg twice?
KA: You had to do movements and scenes in which you were constantly aware of where the camera was and how it was moving. I’d never done a film that required that. It needed a level of technical awareness that hadn’t been demanded of me. It was a real learning-by-the-seat-of-my-pantsexperience. But Steven understood. And I had Harrison as a partner. He’d made films with Steven before and was adept at his approach.
C&S: What about working with Bill Murray in the comedy Scrooge, a take-off on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? You played Claire, the woman that Scrooge was in love with.
KA: Bill is one of the all-time funniest people I’ve ever met. Since there was no audience, we did a lot more improvisatory stuff than you normally do in films to keep [the comedy] as fresh and alive as possible.
C&S: It must be gratifying to watch A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud because you’ve now recreated that short story as a film.
KA: There’s a parallel because — not unlike the story, where the older man shares something with the boy that means so much to him — Carson McCullers’ [tale] had such an effect on me, and now I get to share it. That’s really thrilling.
KA: You have such a great smile. Did you wear braces as a kid?
KA: Never. My father gave me a nice set of straight teeth – which I’ve given my son!