Say the name Karen Allen and chances are the role that comes to mind is Marion Ravenwood, Indiana Jones’ hard-drinking girlfriend in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But that was 36 years ago and the perky ingénue you are picturing turned 65 last year when you weren’t looking.
In the intervening time, she starred opposite Jeff Bridges in Starman (1984) and Bill Murray in Scrooged (1986), appeared on Broadway as Annie Sullivan in a sequel to The Miracle Worker called Monday After the Miracle (1982) and has performed and directed often at the Berkshire Theatre Group and Williamstown Theater Festival, near her Massachusetts home.
Still, she cemented her image as Ravenwood when she returned to Hollywood to play the character in 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Since then, she has appeared in a few independent films including Year by the Sea, based on memoirs by Joan Anderson, a long-married woman who takes a year off from her marriage to live by herself on Cape Cod. It opens Friday in several venues in Florida, the start of a hoped-for national rollout.
Hap Erstein reached her by phone while she was traveling from Atlanta to Columbus, Ga., the hometown of renowned author Carson McCullers. There she screened her film directing debut, A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud, based on a short story by McCullers.
Erstein: Aren’t you known for turning down many of the film scripts you are offered?
Allen: Yeah, I don’t have a hard time saying no to things that I don’t think are very interesting or very good. I really try to find things that, when I read them I really feel it’s a story I feel compelled to be a part of.
Erstein: Why did you say yes to Year by the Sea?
Allen: I found her story very compelling. I read the script and then I went running out the door to get the book. I felt it was a story that was universal in a lot of ways for women of a certain age. That after raising children and after being the kind of person who ran the household, putting their own interests on the back burner, she felt she’d kind of lost her voice, she didn’t see a way forward for herself. And I just felt it was a beautiful story to tell, and one that hasn’t been — I don’t feel — really developed very much in the film world. About a woman going through that life phase, trying to reconfigure her life, searching for herself.
Erstein: This film seems likely to appeal to a very different demographic than the Indiana Jones movies, don’t you think?
Allen: You know, it’s hard to say because, of course, I did the very first Indiana Jones film and now all of those people who watched those films are Joan’s age. We’ll see.
This film was in around 18 film festivals — I went to maybe five or six — and we found it had a pretty broad-based audience. You would think this would appeal to women of a certain age, kind of not unlike the character. But we found that men quite often were responding to the film equally enthusiastically.
We also discovered that there were a lot of people in their 30s and 40s who were very vocal about the film, because they felt they were looking at their parents’ dilemmas. I think the audience for this film is going to continue to surprise us.
Erstein: Do you feel a responsibility to make films that attract those Indiana Jones fans?
Allen: No, because I of course have no idea what that would be. I would just be wildly guessing. There again, I think that that’s a pretty broad base of people who have a lot of different interests. No, I just stick with the things that sort of fascinate me at a particular moment in my life or a particular tale that I think is worth exploring or telling. Or a character that I find fascinating or a relationship that I think is interesting to explore.
I tend to just love good writing and I love to work with directors who I think are going to be interesting to work with as an actor, and who are trying to tell a really good story.
Erstein: You’ve been doing some film directing yourself?
Allen: Yes, in fact I’m on my way now to the world premiere of a film I directed called A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud, that is adapted from a Carson McCullers short story. This coming Sunday is Carson McCullers’s 100th birthday, so there’s sort of a worldwide celebration that’s happening in 2017. We’re going to take the film to Rome, where they’re having an international Carson McCullers conference and we’re going to show it in New York City in a couple of weeks, where they’re going to release a new leather-bound version of her collected stories.
So, yeah, that is my first film that I’ve directed, but I’ve been directing in the theater for about the last 10 years.
Erstein: Is directing where your career is headed now?
Allen: I kind of like going back and forth, doing both. Directing is a much broader palette, a much larger scope of things that I could do. As an actor, when you look at a story or a film script or a novel, you’re looking for a role for yourself. As a director, it doesn’t have to have a role for me in it. That opens up a world of plays and a world of films, a world of material that I can explore.
Erstein: Do you sense the industry being more open to female directors or are there still roadblocks based on gender?
Allen: I think that there’s a growing number of women directors, although it needs to continue. I think women need to be writing more and more scripts and talking more about their own experiences. I think it is improving slightly, but the film world still tends to be a man’s world in a lot of ways.
Erstein: You began in the theater, intending to have a career on the stage. Wouldn’t you call your film career an accident?
Allen: Yes, in the sense that I started out working in the theater when I was in my early 20s, and never in my entire life had I ever met a single person who had anything to do with anything in the film world. I came to New York to work in the theater and I’d never met an actor who had been in a film, I’d never met a director who worked in the film world.
So it was one of those luck-of-the-draw, by chance situations. It wasn’t that I was disinterested, I just didn’t imagine it was anything that I could possibly do. Whereas the theater was something that I had a good strong base, I had trained in the theater. So I saw a pathway forward. When I thought of film, it brought to mind Hollywood, which was 3,000 miles away and my imaginings didn’t really go in that direction.
Erstein: Unlike so many film actors, you keep coming back to work in the theater.
Allen: Yeah, I directed a play two summers ago at the Berkshire Theatre Festival.
I have a play that I’m going to act in in New York. We don’t know the dates quite yet. It’s a new play that I’ve been working on with the playwright and a director for maybe a year and a half. I would have directed a play this summer, except I’ve gotten so busy with all of the aspects of supporting my film (A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud), so I had to actually bow out of directing a play. So yeah, it’s still an ongoing part of my interests.
Erstein: Your career is not an easy thing to chart. You’ve taken time off, had a son and raised him. That must have cost you some work in the movies. Any regrets?
Allen: Oh, not at all. No, I wouldn’t have missed being such a major part of my son’s growing up. I had my son somewhat late in life. I think I was 38 or 39 when he was born.
I had been working for 15, 16 years. Very focused on films and theater and stuff. I was actually quite delighted to take some time away from it and experience raising my son. And he’s such a fantastic, wonderful person. That might sound like every mother talking about her son, but he really is a very special guy. No, I would have never done it differently.
Erstein: You and the cast of Year by the Sea have been promoting the film at various film festivals. It must be a passion project for you all.
Allen: Everybody’s diving in as much as they can. Independent films have a lot going for them, but they need as much support in all quarters as they can get.
I’ve sat now in probably 15 different screening rooms with audiences. I know how much an audience responds to this film. People come up to me — and I feel this is genuine — they really feel that this is an unusual film, the kind of film that speaks to them in a way that they haven’t felt included by films in a long time.
Erstein: Getting distribution for an independent film is a challenge, isn’t it?
Allen: I know the last two independent films that I did, both of which were beautiful, beautiful films and got a lot of attention at film festivals, they ended up with what I would call “typical” distribution deal for independent films. They will release you in six cities for a week and then they make their money when they pull you out of the theaters and sell you to all the auxiliary outlets. And they say they can’t afford to do any advertising when the film is actually in the theaters so the films die on the vine.
I think there’s a level of frustration in indie filmmaking about that and Xandy (director Alexander Janko) is trying something new. We’re starting in Florida, I think in 10 theaters, we are self-distributing with a new distribution format.
He really wants to get it out into the theaters. He and Laura (Goodenow, the film’s producer) very much believe that they can make this a hit film or at least a film that reaches a wide audience. And I’m going to help them as much as I can.
I believe they’re starting in Florida and then moving across the southern part of the United States, then go back east. And they’ll approach each area in some sort of unique way, looking for the audiences they feel will really be moved by this. I think if we can gather enough momentum from either reviews or box office, it can happen, but this is not my area of expertise.
I have another film script that I wrote some time ago. Robert Altman was meant to direct it. I worked with him on it for a period of years actually. Then it went to George Armitage for a while, then James Ivory was interested in doing it. Then I just got distracted with other things in my life, so it never got made. It’s a Walker Percy novel, a fantastic story that I’ve been in love with for a long time. I don’t know, that’s a back burner kind of project.
Erstein: Might you direct it?
Erstein: Give me the sales pitch. Karen. Why should we all see Year By the Sea?
Allen: Well, I think that it is a very uplifting story about people making a transition in their lives and trying to do it, not by destroying something, but by reinventing it. Joan didn’t leave her marriage and then blithely get involved with somebody else or whatever.
I think this is a beautiful film about renegotiating life, taking the chance to make a leap of faith and see what happens. I think they should come and see it because there’s not enough films like this out there. If people are tired of seeing a lot of special effects and cars slamming into each other and bullets flying across the street and people being blown to pieces. If instead you want to see what it’s like to be a human being, this is it.