It’s time again to tip our hat to Pam Grier, who’s 67 today (born May 26, 1949), by reposting Steve Ryfle’s interview. Here the incomparable star of Foxy Brown and Jackie Brown talks about black Hollywood, working with director Jack Hill, blaxploitation, Stanislavski, Tarantino, and being an underemployed icon, among many topics. This first appeared in Bright Lights in August 2010.
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“Yes, I’ve been there, and I can draw on that.”
Pam Grier never asked to be America’s first modern female asskicker. She never even wanted to be an actress. As legend has it, 40 years ago Grier was a fresh-faced kid from Colorado trying to scrape by in Los Angeles, a shy tomboy in Levi’s and hiking boots, whose Hollywood dream was to work on a film crew behind the camera, not in front. Plucked from anonymity and crowned queen of the 1970s grindhouse, whatever Grier lacked in acting chops she compensated for with sheer physical and sexual prowess. While the Gloria Steinems were fighting for equal rights in the halls of Congress, this unlikely superwoman championed female liberation on screen by literally castrating the white male action hero power structure.
Grier made her debut (playing “Grear”) in producer Roger Corman and director Jack Hill’s totally over-the-top, made-in-the-Philippines, women-in-prison extravaganza The Big Doll House (1971), a film that gleefully celebrates catfights, food fights, lesbianism, nudity, torture, and other drive-in indulgences. In this, the earliest phase of her film career, Grier alternated between starring turns in a series of repetitive female penitentiary shockers ( Women in Cages, The Big Bird Cage, and Black Mama, White Mama — in which she was shackled to Margaret Markov in a distaff reworking of The Defiant Ones) and smaller yet equally exploitative roles in the emerging blaxploitation genre (in the Gene Corman-produced Hit Man, for instance, Grier plays a wayward porn star who meets her fate when Bernie Casey feeds her to the lions).
Grier’s legacy as a transformative female figure in cinema is tied to two films, both again directed and scripted Hill, a master of stylized hyperviolence and low-budget raggedness. Coffy (1973) begins with Grier blowing a drug dealer’s head off with a shotgun at point-blank range; and Foxy Brown (1974) ends when she lops off a villain’s genitals and delivers them in a jar to the female heavy (Katherine Loder). These two characters (which originally were one and the same, but American International dropped the connection before Foxy Brown — originally titled Burn, Coffy, Burn — began shooting) were among the most sexually, physically and intellectually independent women ever to grace the big screen. There were other, less memorable films over the next few years, titles such as Friday Foster (1975), Bucktown (1975) and the hated “slavesploitation” classic Drum (1976), sequel to the equally unsavory Mandingo.
By the late 1970s, Grier’s stint as a star was effectively over, but she worked steadily for the next 30 years, first immersing herself in theater productions while gaining a reputation as a solid and versatile character player in numerous film and TV efforts. When blaxploitation aficionado Quentin Tarantino cast Grier as the eponymous Jackie Brown (1997), it was apparent that her acting had come a long way from her days of catfights and castrations; for once she played a fully fleshed-out character with real dialogue and real relationships, and her performance was at times subtle, and didn’t rely on violence or nudity or one-liners to make an impact. Most recently Grier was a regular on Showtime’s lesbian-themed drama The L Word from 2004 to 2009.
Of late, Pam Grier has been promoting her new memoir Foxy: My Life in Three Acts (Springboard Press), which focuses on her family and personal relationships, from growing up as a military brat in Colorado and abroad, to her relationships with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Freddie Prinze and Richard Pryor (among others), to losing friends and family to cancer, and finally to her own devastating battle with the disease, which she survived more than 20 years ago. There are a few good anecdotes from her film career — such as an episode on a runaway horse galloping through Cinecitta Studios during the making of The Arena (1974) and her personal friendship with Federico Fellini — but, unfortunately, fans of her movies will have to hope Grier writes a second book devoting more detail to her cinematic exploits. Grier spoke to us recently by phone from her ranch in Colorado.
STEVE RYFLE: You couldn’t have realized it, but from the beginning of your career you were crossing racial, sexual, and physical boundaries for women in film.
PAM GRIER: When Roger Corman was looking for women to do his biker and nurse movies, he looked for women who were rebels, outsiders, who could hold their own. They hadn’t used a woman of color yet, but Roger being a filmmaker with a foothold in European culture, where women had a bit more equality and freedom in society, he brought that element to his movie making.
The stars were aligned. I had just come out from Colorado to L.A. to be a student, but there was no way I could afford college, so I was working several jobs, and one of them was at the office of a theatrical agent who had seen me at a modeling contest in Colorado and had told me, “You should come out. There’s a new emergence of black Hollywood. You’re a little rough around the edges, but you could be perfect if we polish you up a little.” They said I “had it,” and I think the “had it” was the courage. Being a military brat, I loved airplanes and aerodynamics and thought maybe I could be a pilot if my female bones could withstand the G-force. I understood war and international politics real early. Being rural, being urban, and seeing how to survive situations — all of that aligned up when Roger said, “How about if we rewrite this white character? Let’s make her black.” She had to be able to fight and know how to do things.
I just had my rural, military mentality. I had not an urban look but a special look; I looked different. And when they talked to me, I wasn’t linear. I had a broader scope of the world. They asked me, “Can you read?” And I said, “What, the newspaper?” They said, “No, a script.” I had never seen a script before. Maybe that was an indication that I was different.
But you weren’t a total neophyte. You had a small walk-on in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970).
Only because I was a guest of one of the actresses in it, Marsha McBroom. I just came there to see what was going on, and they said, “You! Come here! Put on something and be in this scene!” They needed extras, and that’s how I got in. I wasn’t there to act.
In your earliest films, your dramatic chops were raw, yet you had a strong screen presence. When did you start to get serious about acting?
It happened when I did that Roger Corman film and I was reading my book by Constantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares. I was reading about all these people who have the title of “actor” — who are they, what do they do, why are they there, and how do they perform? And as I read the book I was transformed. I realized that this is what these people do. They may have three jobs a year and then they’re out of work, but their passion to recreate this art, this history, theater — it was magical. And as I prepared for my role, I prepared as if it was a theater piece. Stanislavski said there’s no such thing as a small role. All roles are important, and here are the things you have to do. So I did that. I went through the process of studying the script and the words, my character, where she’s from, what’s going on. And I just took it to another level, which I think stood out. I remember one of the actresses said to me, “Come on Pam, we’ll take you with us,” and I said, “No, I have to go back to my room and study my script.” And she said, “Oh girl, it’s a B-movie, you don’t need to learn your lines until tomorrow morning, right before we shoot.” I said, “That’s not what Stanislavski said.” I took it that seriously because I had no idea if I would ever do a second movie.
That was your initial training? Reading Stanislavski?
Well, that was the seed, with the book and the performance and people telling me I made the performance stand out — “whatever that ‘it’ is, she has it.” After that I started to take classes and workshops and working with a coach. But I didn’t want to keep doing the same thing. The acting world was so huge. Would I get the Cicely Tyson roles? Will I get ethnic roles? Will I get James Bond roles? I didn’t think about that because I really didn’t have a break. It just kept snowballing into another film and another film until Coffy. And that’s when I said, “They must think I’m somewhat decent if they’re banking on me for Coffy.”
There was something that happened to me. It was a transformation. I said, “I can be good at this, but I don’t know if films with a female lead will continue.” There seemed to be more competition and people wanting me to do the same thing over and over again, but I wanted to explore. I wanted to do the work that Streisand would do, I wanted to do the work that Clint Eastwood would do, but I said, “I don’t know if that’s going to happen.” But I didn’t put a negative on it. I just knew that at some point this would probably end because I don’t want to be redundant.
I thought about what I wanted to do in terms of film. There are great historical figures of women of color in our history. I tried to pitch the story of Josephine Baker more times than the fingers on your hand. Mary Fields, the first black stagecoach driver for the mail route in Montana — she was in the same period of Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, all of those. But I just couldn’t seem to get what I thought would be good projects. So I thought it’s probably going to end here; now I can go back to school. Next thing came Foxy Brown, and after I did that, and I had that string of successes, I said, “I want to do the work.” I went to New York and I went to the Negro Ensemble theater company. Denzel Washington was in A Soldier’s Play by Charles Fuller, and the late Larry Riley, so many people I saw on the boards. And people come up to me and said, “Pam, you like theater?” And I said, “Yes! Stanislavski! What you’re doing is Stanislavski!” I was blown away; I saw every play that was going on. I was mesmerized. Roger Robinson [an actor then working with the NEC] said, “Pam, you need to do theater. You need to hit the boards. That’s where your real acting comes in, not that Hollywood stuff.” Oh my God. I was worried about the preparation. You can’t drop a word, a line. You’re up in front of the audience. You have the three walls. It made my heart race. So I did my first play, Fool for Love. We were onstage for 90 minutes straight with no intermission, and that’s when I knew I was the actress, the actor. In Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune I was nude onstage, wrapped in a sheet. I did the work. My preparation wasn’t in film. When I did those (plays) — there was Telltale Hearts, The Piano Lesson — each run was five, six, seven months. It was four years of just theater.
Instead of transitioning from theater to film, you did the opposite. You paid your dues, so to speak, after you had already made it.
Exactly, and yet when I hit the boards and started doing theater I began to understand and respect and revere the work. When I was doing Telltale Hearts, I was living off the Rutgers campus and I was in a snowstorm jogging to the theater. And I’d get there, wet, with my backpack, and everyone would look at me: “Didn’t you take a cab?” No, I ran through the campus. “Why?” Because I like to run. So it was getting out that, “Here’s Pam Grier doing a $400-a-week play, a comedy, because she loves it.”
After I did my first play, I knew I’m hooked. I will find the work. It will come to me because they will see me and say, “I like her tone. She fits. Let’s give it to her.” And that’s what’s been happening. (Later on) Quentin Tarantino said, “I’m so glad you did the plays because Jackie Brown is very complex. There’s four storylines, and we’re shooting out of sequence. It’s going to get very confusing, and you have to be very focused and disciplined.” I could not have done Jackie Brown in the first four years of my acting career. No way. If I hadn’t done theater, there’s no way I could have been prepared.
Coffy, Foxy Brown and their ilk were exploitative, but arguably also progressive. As a heroine enacting revenge fantasies, your influence on modern films like Kill Bill is now obvious, yet in the early ‘ 70s these movies were labeled as racist blaxploitation by black activist groups. There was a political backlash.
The only political backlash was that white producers were making films about black life. Well, then why don’t the black producers get together and produce them? There were very few. So maybe they felt disenfranchised. But I would go to them and say, “What can we do? How can we leverage?” They didn’t have the projects; they didn’t really know what to do. And so I said, “I’m trying to build enough leverage and find an audience.” With these exploitation films, they were about the worst life in the community, good versus evil — these were just regular things that go on. I said, “We can’t solve our community problems until we show them. And if we show them and you get embarrassed enough, maybe you’ll change and do something about it.” And that’s when they’d sit there and look at me. I said, “Stop having communities eat their own, and maybe we can write about great things. I’m trying to get the Dorothy Dandridge story done, but I can’t get it done. We don’t have the studios. If you want to build black studios where we can make films about black life, build them.”
Hollywood’s version of black life is still mostly rooted in stereotyped characters and white savior movies like The Blind Side. Forty years later there are still few black studio movies.
It is a business, and mainstream movies are made for the audience that supports the business. That’s all it is. Theater is theater; they’re two totally different dynamics. When it comes to filmmaking, you have to understand it’s a business. They don’t have to put black people in the movies.
Jack Hill, who directed the best films of your early career, is now a certified cult legend and an inspiration to Tarantino and others.
He’s wonderful. He was the main person who made the decision to cast me, the decision that would give me a 35-year career. He was the one who had a vision, and he was the director that I could sit and talk with about every aspect of filmmaking. We’d sit and talk film for hours. He’s a film maven; he eats, drinks, and sleeps it. He could make films until he drops. And he was the person, I think, who was the most influential and gave me the opportunity — the question was if I knew how to take it, take advantage of it, run with it, and become something. I didn’t have to ever work [as an actress] again after I did my first film. I could have just gone on to college and became a cinematographer. I just thought there were some things you just don’t go up against.
Blaxploitation films were criticized not just because white money financed them, but also because white directors were usually hired over African American filmmakers. Did Jack Hill get any flak or resentment from the black cast members?
Not really, because he told the actors, “Be yourself. What do you see in your community? Bring what you know.” Jack Hill hadn’t been in the black community; he wasn’t writing from what he had seen; he asked the actors to bring it to the table. So maybe all the other black actors who were in those films should also take a part of that responsibility and say, “We did blaxploitation because this was something that was close to our hearts, that we knew about, and that was going to frighten people, make them angry.” Because it was real.
On that note, There’s a horrific scene in Coffy wherein a black man (Robert Doqui) is tied to a car bumper and dragged to his death. It’s still shocking today (even if it’s clearly a dummy being dragged) for its similarity to real-life crimes like the murder of James Byrd, Jr.
There was such crime going on when I was growing up, even in Denver. Drugs, heroin, women, liquor, stuff that you didn’t talk about or you’d find yourself ditched in a field, wrapped up in a carpet. Actually, as we were making it, even though we thought it was very realistic, it was lightweight. It didn’t come close to the real gangsta shit that went on. It would scare people. There was another side to the world that middle-class people weren’t privy to and didn’t know about. I knew a lot of people who carried guns. That was constant. Maybe not in West Hollywood or Beverly Hills, but I knew a lot of people back home who would take you out if you looked at ’em wrong.
We’re not a homogeneous, homogenized, generic, linear society. You go from demographic to demographic, from different classes and different communities . . . to this day, there are places in America that are like the wild, wild west. You better not get out of your car!
Jack Hill has said that certain details — like Coffy hiding razor blades in her wig and using them as a weapon in a catfight — were your ideas, things that came from your life.
Yes, there were quite a few things that came from real life. I had even more, but people would’ve said, “She’s really crazy.” I didn’t want to scare people off, but yes, I would bring ideas. Jack didn’t live in the black community. [The script] he wrote was an idea, a premise, and then he would say to the actors, “Bring your life to it.” Jack asked the actors to bring what you know, bring your feeling. And if it’s wrong, we’ll make it right.
You write about your friendship with the late Tamara Dobson, star of Cleopatra Jones (1973). As the only two major black action heroines at the time, many people assumed you two were rivals, so it’s interesting to learn how close you were.
She and I were trying to do a buddy movie, and the press was trying to pit us against one another. . . . When I first met her, she showed up with this luggage with her initials all over it. She had this fancy designer luggage that was gorgeous — this was back when people could have lots of bags, and travel with her whole house with them — and I thought my Samsonite luggage was cool! She was so striking, and her history with being a model who broke down barriers, being so stunning and yet down to earth. . . . She was so fascinated with me, coming from a midwestern environment. Like a lot of people she didn’t know there was a black west, so we thought of maybe doing a western together. But [the press] were trying to pit us against each other. I don’t know if it was for box office or what. Our goal was to do a movie together, and the next think I know they were saying things about us that were not true. We didn’t think of it as a rivalry at all. I don’t know where that came from.
Tamara Dobson’s career, and the careers of many African American actors and actresses, fell off after the 1970s black film boom ended. Yet you managed to reinvent yourself.
I don’t know if Tamara’s choice was to be an actor infinitely and have a long career. I know she had other personal, private things that she was enjoying. There were a lot great actresses around my time who could have easily done more films. Brenda Sykes, she was just stunning. Ja’net Dubois, Gloria Hendry, Carol Speed, all of them fantastic actresses. But for some of them, once they got married and had children, basically their careers were over. If I had met someone, if I had married and had a family, I don’t think I would have had a career as an actor. I would have been focusing on raising my children and getting them educated. That’s a full-time job, and you have to be there, present, daily at their piano recitals, soccer, this and that. I probably wouldn’t have continued my film career. I think because I hadn’t met a partner to marry or have a family with was the reason why I continued.
The book reveals that you were raped at age 6 and again at 19, and you later fended off an attempted rape. Did you draw upon your experiences when playing a character like Foxy Brown, who takes bloody, violent revenge after being sexually assaulted?
Yes I did. I had moments where there was some inner rage, and my heart raced, and sometimes I would think about it for a moment, briefly. Other times it was so repressed in my mind that I wouldn’t think about it, but I knew it would trigger a moment of survival instinct, where I had to do whatever I can to fight off, to survive, to breathe. There were moments when I would read a script and I would ask, “Can I do that?” I would ask my [acting] coach, and he would say, “I don’t know, but you need to proceed with caution and talk about it first. You might not be able to do it; they might have to have [a double] shoot the scene. There are some things you might have a hard time with.” There was a scene with Philip Michael Thomas in Miami Vice, a love scene in bed when we were playing around. He grabbed my arms and I went back to being that little girl — I had a moment. You never know when it’s going to happen.[When the first assault occurred] I was a little girl, and there were kids who had harmed me. . . . It didn’t scare me; I just learned that there is a predator who can harm you. I can swear on my life that a rape doesn’t happen because of a woman who’s teasing or enticing someone, or who’s wearing an incredibly short skirt or being provocative. [When the second assault occurred] I wasn’t drunk, didn’t drink, didn’t have a revealing outfit on. I had done nothing to encourage this young man; he just turned on me. The third one, I was going to fight off. I knew if I had to fight and scream and tear the place up and hit him with chairs, the third time was not going to happen. I would go to jail or end up in a body bad, but it was not going to happen. And in my roles, yes, I can draw from those experiences. Because here’s a person who I thought was friend but who has now turned into a human predator. You don’t know if they’re going to take your life; this could be your last moment on Earth. What do you do? How do you survive this moment? Yes, I’ve been there and I can draw on that.
As you said earlier, a new black Hollywood was emerging in the late 1960s as new opportunities opened up in film and TV. Yaphet Kotto described that period in his autobiography, and said there was a tight-knit community of black actors.
There was. There were so many of us who had the same passion, the same journey, and we were delighted. There wasn’t any organization — I think the Black Stuntmen’s Association was formed, but there wasn’t a union for black directors or black producers or black actors, nothing like that. Basically, it was, “Let’s be the best that we can be, and share among ourselves.” Because we knew our world was marginalized, but we wanted to work in the mainstream world to get our experience. We don’t want to be judged as a black cameraman, as a black director; you just happened to be a camera person or a director or an actor. You wanted to work in the industry. Those definitive racial lines weren’t there; I think the press made more of it. We still were in the Black Panther era, and the SCLC and SNCC and NAACP and CORE, there were so many organizations, Urban League, who were saying, “We’d like to give you more leverage with the visibility that you’ve established. How can we do that?” And I said, “You don’t alienate and draw lines, for one thing. If you have the banking industry behind you and you can finance a film, then that’s what you bring to the table. But right now, we’ve found our audience and it’s not going to go away. The films we’ve done, they’re history; what are we going to do in the future? What banks and production companies are you going to bring to help all of our directors, our producers, our writers, and our actors. What are you going to do for that future?” And you can see what came out of it.
There are several theories why the black film boom ended. One is that protest groups like the Coalition Against Blaxploitation made the studios so uncomfortable, they simply abandoned the black audience altogether.
Not at all. Our audience was getting bored with doing the same things. We’ve got a lot of black heroes and heroines in our history. We could have done some really good stories; there’s list after list of great people and still nothing was done. Back then we didn’t have multiplexes. We had one theater with one screen, and we had a limited amount of time to be in that theater before the mainstream films, which outnumbered our films 20 to 1, came in. You had to get out, because other films are coming. You see, the population builds the industry. You build it, they’ll come. You bore them, they don’t come. There are other dynamics, not just making the film. First, in order to make it you have to finance it. But you can’t finance it unless it’s written, and written well, and you have a director attached. And you can’t get a film done unless you have your cast attached. A cast that likes the script, a director who likes it, a producer who likes it and will put their name on the line. And if they don’t make their money back, they don’t get to do another one. Those dynamics are complex. You can say, “Do this” and “do that,” well, OK, sure. You do it, for a marginal, segmented audience. I’m sure not only myself, but Cicely Tyson had a lot of good ideas. Sidney Poitier called me when he wanted to do a film about poor women in college, and he wanted to direct it. A lot of us had good ideas, but we just didn’t have the backing, the means to make it happen.
The book covers your relationship with Richard Pryor and his well-documented penchant for self-destruction. Unfortunately you only made one film together.
He asked me to help him go cold turkey when we met on Greased Lightning (1977). We met, we had dinner and he was a delight. He was fun. He had a sixth-grade education, but he wanted to be able to read War and Peace. He had to learn his lines phonetically, and he was embarrassed by that. Once he learned, then he could ad lib; he would never do it the same way twice, and that made everyone nuts. He had great ideas.
People thought I was trying to be Mrs. Richard Pryor, but no, not at all. He was always ticked off at me for not being so close. I said, “I just don’t want to smother you.” He said, “I can’t stop if you’re not here, so you need to be here.” So I said, “Let me give it a try.” It was a lot of partnership, a lot of work. After maybe a couple of months he was doing really well, getting very healthy. But he said, “I’m afraid I might not be funny if I’m straight, if I’m not stoned.” I said you’ll never know until you try. So try, and if you’re not, go back. A lot of musicians smoke weed, drink their scotch, have their whatever, but they manage it so they can perform. It’s all doable if you learn to manage it.
Richard was a man of his own destiny. I didn’t know if I could ever be in his life; I felt I would be a visitor, a guest. I chose to leave and he hated it. “No one ever leaves Richard Pryor! Why don’t you love me?” I said I do, I do, but you’re going to take me down with you, and I have to take care of my family, I have to work. I’m not going ask you; I’m independent. I have to be able to take care of myself. And sometimes you have to forego that love, because at the end of the day your survival is imperative.
Your career entered a new phase as you began playing character parts. One of the most memorable is Charlotte, the murdering junkie hooker in Fort Apache the Bronx (1981).
Oh my God. I said, “How do I give a performance when I don’t talk? How do I show through every pore of her body where she’s been, where she is, and where she’s going? And there were times when I risked my life on the street, doing research withMiguel Pinero. He was taking me places, and I’d say, “Miguel, are we supposed to be here?” He said, “No, and we might get killed. That’s why we have those letters in our pockets.” Are you kidding me? “You follow my lead and make sure you don’t make any sudden moves.” Great, he’s gonna get us killed. News at 11. I’ve hung out with some desperadoes, let me tell you.
The prostitute is a departure from your early roles to say the least. She looks believably sickly, and it’s a bit startling to see you in that state.
Actually, I looked worse the day I went in for the audition. They cleaned me up for the film; what I wore at the audition was much more gaudy and tacky. I cut up a skirt and wore red stockings with a red garter belt. I had platform stripper shoes on and a Mickey Mouse satin baseball jacket, and a blonde wig. Bright lipstick, heavy makeup. And when I got to the audition they didn’t believe it was me. I said, “It’s me, I’m in costume, let me in!” And I wouldn’t let them talk about ‘how was your trip’ and all that. When I hit the door I was like, “No, let’s get to the scene, motherfuckers, I don’t wanna talk about no other shit.” I didn’t want to break character, so I went in as the ho of ho’s. We did the scene, and I died and slid down the wall, fell on the floor, and they applauded. Paul Newman was going crazy. “We found our Charlotte.” And David Susskind said I’ve got the job.
They asked me if I wanted the other role, Rachel Ticotin’s role, and I said no, I want this one. Pauline Kael loved it; she gave me a stunning review, said I walked away with the movie and I was disgustingly, utterly frightening. I can play a lover, a girly-girl anytime, but that character scared me to death. I was afraid of that role.
Given the endless recycling, it’s inevitable that a Foxy Brown or Cleopatra Joneswill get remade at some point. A new Enter the Dragon is already in the works.
At one time, Halle Berry was going to be a remake of Foxy Brown. I thought, “Oh my God, it’ll be genius. Because there’s more special effects, there’s more intelligence, there’s more war, more crime. It’s more sophisticated, more over the edge. Oh my God! She’s going to be tired!” [laughs] It was a good idea at the time, because Sam Jackson had done Shaft, and I thought it would be really interesting to see the distaff, the women’s side, the women’s perspective of that. They announced it, but they ended up doing Catwoman instead. I still think it’s a great idea, though I don’t know who could do it now, who wants to do it or who’s capable. Basically Angelina Jolie has done it.
But isn’t there something counterintuitive about turning 1970s icons into modern movies with endless, rapid cuts?
There’s a new formula for film viewers today. You can have the romance of the legacy, but when it comes to the filmmaking you better have money for the big-bang theory; you have to have stunts, you have the actor be very courageous and do things that haven’t been seen. If they had done the new Shaft like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, now you have something. But you can’t do it retro; the audience just doesn’t have the attention span.
I’ve seen Avatar six times. Granted, you can still have the independent films where it’s built on character development, but then you have the action film, and for that audience you have to spend money. You can’t just have a few cars speed down the road and turn over; you have to have much more than that. Something like Shaft or Foxy Brown, in order to make the money back and bring back the legacy, you’d have to go so far over the top it’s no longer a realistic street movie.
You said earlier that you couldn’t have done Jackie Brown earlier in your career, and if you hadn’t spent time working in theater you wouldn’t have been able to pull it off. What made it so difficult?
It was intense. The scene when Samuel Jackson comes over to my place — we shot that for three days. Quentin said to me, “I want this to be a long scene, like they did in movies in the seventies, when they didn’t do all these cuts.” I choreographed it from point A to point B and tried to stay on the mark. How do I move around, go to the refrigerator, get the ice out, get the vodka out, get the juice out, turn on the record player, light a cigarette, get the gun, put it in the back of her skirt all without him seeing it? I had to practice. Quentin said, “Pam, there are no special effects. You have to do it like your life is on the line.”
Other than a handful of iconic roles, you’ve worked steadily for the better part of 40 years not as a star but as . . .
A working actress. Well, I think that was very vital to me, and a part of my character. I don’t know what it takes to be a movie star. I know you have to have a whole machinery behind you that supports you, does the PR. Movies are part of a product, a brand, and each franchise you do, you become a part of that. I’m not a franchise. Back then, you could do Coffy, Foxy Brown, Sheba Baby, Friday Foster— we were trying to make each one a little different.
You’ve worked on a number of interesting projects and with notable directors — Ernest Dickerson’s Bones (2001), Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke (1999), Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! (1996), Larry Cohen’s Original Gangstas (1996) to name just a few. Some of these parts were relatively small, but do any stand out?
There’s bits and pieces of each one. The one role that I love in its entirety is Jackie Brown, but I enjoy little bits and pieces of many because I wasn’t in a lot of films where I’m in it a lot. Like in John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars (2001) my head’s on a stick after the first 15 minutes. Or the role of Hershe Las Palmas in Escape from L.A. (1996) — I’m playing a man in drag, so when I went into John Carpenter’s office to get the role I had a sock in my pants! So I have a very limited vault to research. And my performances in plays — each play I’ve done, I’ve loved.
But even if don’t consider yourself a franchise or a brand, you’re an icon nevertheless.
It’s amazing that I’m an icon with not a lot to do. But I made it. If you want to be an actor, you go out and you act. It’s not like I would do three or four films a year. Maybe every 10 to 12 years I get a big film. I did Jackie Brown in 1998. And there are roles that I choose not to do. I turn down a lot of scripts. There’s some work I could do just to stay busy, but I don’t. I prefer to do something that I like, and I hope we’ll do well with it and that we sit down and collaborate, and it becomes really something. Sometimes you don’t get that. When I did the series The L Word for six years, you only have a small hiatus to do other projects, and so I wasn’t available for a lot of good roles I was up for. It’s all timing, it’s all kinds of elements of how to be the movie star, how to be the icon. I don’t know who bestows these titles on you. I just work. And I go, “Oh, really? Thank you.”
Star or no, you helped transform women’s roles in film and your work will continue to be studied. You must be pleased about that.
I am. I was not trying to be historical; that was not my intention. It was to explore an opportunity that was given me by Jack Hill and Roger Corman. I didn’t know I would make a second film or a third. Maybe it was serendipity or the cosmos, but each opportunity that came my way, I followed it, thinking, “The day I get bored, that’s the day it stops.” But I wasn’t bored. I remained curious.