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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Deeper Dish with Karen Black

Last year I featured actress Karen Black as a Groovy Gal, and what I said then is still true. There is no one else quite like her as she is one of the most fascinating and unique performers. She has starred in some of my favorite films and guilty pleasures over the years, including Five Easy Pieces (for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress and won a Golden Globe), Airport 1975, Trilogy of Terror, Nashville, Family Plot, Burnt Offerings, and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. And Karen does not appear to be slowing down anytime soon as she has many new film and television projects on the horizon. The other night I had one of the most delightful phone conversations of my life with this brilliant actress, who is also the sweetest person. Before I even began asking her any questions, Karen was inquiring about my own life in Chicago with my partner and two cats - and she even told me what she imagined I looked like (her description wasn't very accurate, but if I was single, I would want to meet the gorgeous guy she described). It was an amusing icebreaker to begin our chat, and I am so thrilled to have the lovely Karen Black here on the Dish to discuss her career and answer a few pop culture questions.

Let's begin with your recent film, Stuck!, directed by Steve Balderson. How did you get cast in the role of the Next Door Neighbor Lady?
I love Steve Balderson. I was in his film, Firecracker, in which I played both leads – a mother and a beautiful singer in a circus tent. Steve became a very good friend. I call him, visit him and I know his dad. We talk all the time. He has a repertory company of actors – Susan Traylor, Pleasant Gehman, Mink Stole and myself. We’re all friends. So he sent me the Stuck! script and asked me who I wanted to be in the movie. And I chose the Next Door Neighbor Lady.

How was the experience working on the film?
One of a kind. Macon, Georgia, is a city that is dedicated to the arts. Tony Long Jr. works with the film festival there – and that's how he met Steve Balderson, who fell in love with the town. Instead of having catering, every night the cast and crew would walk to one of the beautiful homes in Macon and people would cook dinner for us. We got to know everyone in town. The lady who sat near me in the film's court scene was the nanny for one of the households we had dinner at. And the judge in the movie is the mayor of the town.

Can you tell us more about the new Will Ferrell-produced HBO series, Funny or Die Presents, in which you and Bud Cort play a couple who produce really strange corporate videos?
You can see it on February 19 at midnight on HBO. I was blessed to be in this spin-off of Will Ferrell's Funny or Die website. Jonathan Krisel was the writer and director of my sketch, Magical Balloon Videos, in which I play a wonderfully ditzy character who makes these lousy and ludicrous videos. Jonathan and Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! were the creative forces behind the segment, which is one of three sketches in the opening show.

You have a one-woman cabaret show called My Life For a Song, which is a retrospective of your career. How did this project come about?
Many years ago Toni Basil was the other whore in Easy Rider. She's a true genius and a great artist. She's worked with David Bowie and choreographed many shows. And we wanted to do a show together years ago, but I went off to do my thing and she went off to do hers. Years later in the '80s and '90s, I finally did my one-woman show in New York – and people adored it. Then three or four years ago Jeffrey Johnson, who has a theater in Washington, D.C., said we could open it with my show, so I rewrote it – and we were a big hit. Then last year I performed it at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto, where I changed the name to My Life For a Song and added some songs.

Do you have plans to perform the show again in the future?
I haven't thought very much about it lately. They wanted me to do a tour, but I don't like being away from home. I like to make spaghetti and have my daughter and her fabulous boyfriend come over and have some garlic bread. I don't understand tours. But I might do it at The Players Club in New York City, which was once the home of actor Edwin Booth, John Wilkes Booth's brother.

You launched your career as a playwright in 2007 with your play, Missouri Waltz. Are you currently writing any new plays?
Ernest Thompson, who wrote On Golden Pond, directed readings of my play, Mama at Midnight, at the Zephyr in Los Angeles and at La Mama Theater. I have been working on a new play called Hell - about Hell - which has been challenging.

Did you ever see the cult glam-punk band, The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black?
Yes, I went to see them. They were very good – but they didn't wear any clothes. Their bodies were painted. Kembra [the band’s lead singer] is a very nice girl, but they didn't ask me if they could use my name. And then they took over all the Internet sites with my name and on YouTube, so you can hardly find me. You just get the band, which has disbanded. So it was an intrusion – even though they meant no harm. And they were a great band for awhile.

You've appeared in so many interesting films over the years. What is the first thing that pops into your mind about:

You're a Big Boy Now (1966)?
I was in love with actor Peter Kastner, who was the great love of my life. It was my first movie. Peter and I met director Francis Ford Coppola, who was a very gentle and sweet person. He wore a T-shirt that said, "Don't overact." And Geraldine Page – she was an incredible actress. I saw her laugh at her husband Rip Torn's jokes – I don't know if she was faking, but it doesn't matter. A marriage always works when a wife laughs at her husband's jokes.

Easy Rider (1969)?
Toni Basil and I didn't know what the hell was going on. I was used to Broadway. But Dennis Hopper [the director] was very wonderful and inspired. He may be the most inspired human I've ever seen in my life. I was very moved by his mission. The world will never be the same because of Dennis.

Five Easy Pieces (1970)?
That was a grand elation. Nashville was also a grand elation. The movie was shot entirely in exact sequence as it was written. And Jack [Nicholson] was so wonderful – a great human being. And every night we would all go out and dance to The Beatles.

Airport 1975?
I cared about the movie. Everyone else was doing comedy, making a joke of it, but I cared enough about flying that plane over the mountain so the audience would care, too.

Trilogy of Terror (1975)?
Although I was married, I had a big crush on the director, Dan Curtis, who was also married. It was a mutual crush, so we avoided each other. And I had great bruises along my right thigh from falling down all the time. We improvised a lot – and I helped them with the doll, whose head kept flying off. It was a good time.

Nashville (1975)?
Incredible. We were all together in our motel rooms, sitting on the floor, singing songs at night. Robert [Altman] was a genius. He miked everyone separately, so we could interrupt each other. He was amazing.

Family Plot (1976)?
You'll have to read my autobiography for my Hitchcock stories. Alfred Hitchcock was a very shrewd and playful spirit. He loved jokes and games – every day was April Fool's Day to him. We had fun together. And he loved Barbara [Harris].

Burnt Offerings (1976)?
I was quite pregnant. Eileen Heckart was a drop dead brilliant actress. And Bette Davis was very interesting – a very beautiful person. I had a good time making it.

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)?
That was an unhappy time. I was rejected by Cher and Sandy Dennis, who became the best of friends and would always eat dinner together. Once I asked them, "May I sit here?", and Cher said, "You’re here already." And it was a difficult role, playing a woman who was once a man. I did a lot of research.

My favorite comfort food is:
Potato chips. They're so bad. And a hot dog in a bun with mustard.

The last good book I read was:
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. I'm so happy when I find an author who is into the beingness of a narrator to such an extent that it makes you feel what it's like to actually be the person. Part of the book is about Stephen Dedalus when he's growing up and in school, and it really takes you into the mind of an eight-year-old. It is the best gift to read something like this. Literature is such a rewarding spirit of humankind.

I never miss a television episode of:
The Closer. Kyra Sedgwick is brilliant. I love to see her work. And old movies on Turner Classic Movies.

If I was stranded on a desert island for a year, I would want to listen to:
Brahms. And Frédéric Chopin – I heard a lot of him growing up. Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Chet Baker, Ray LaMontagne, Caruso, Roy Orbison, Jimi Hendrix, and Bessie Smith.

A few of my favorite movies to watch are:
Black Orpheus, The Cranes Are Flying – it's a Russian movie - The Red Shoes, and I really love A Place in the Sun.

If I could have anyone in the world - living or dead - be a guest at my dinner party, I would invite the following people:
Basil Rathbone, who played Sherlock Holmes in the 1940s, and Jack Clayton, the director of The Great Gatsby, The Pumpkin Eater and Room at the Top. He was my friend – such an elegant man. He and Basil would be my only guests – and we'd serve fish.

What's next for Karen Black?
The day after tomorrow I start the movie, Some Guy Who Kills People, produced by John Landis and starring Barry Bostwick and Kevin Corrigan. Then I'll be doing Disturbed, which I feel very blessed to be in. It stars Rachel Miner and Eric Balfour, and the director is Travis Huff. After that I go to Montreal to do the new Mira Sorvino movie, The Boarding House, which I’m thrilled to be doing.

I also have a new movie coming out by director Jennifer Elster. It's a trilogy called Being: ItW, ItC and ItS, and I'm in two of the films: ItW (Into the Woods) with Alan Cumming and Debra Winger and ItS (Into the Studio), in which Jennifer and I play two parts of the same mind. It works beautifully. I will also be appearing in Claiming Julia with Barbara Bain – it's a personal story about three women – and I have a small part in Christopher Munch's Letters From the Big Man. And the American Cinematheque is hosting the Los Angeles Premiere of Stuck! at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood on February 3.

Thank you, Karen, for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish. To learn more about Karen Black, check out her blog, Karen Black's Diary of an Actress and her MySpace page. You can also become a Facebook fan by clicking here.


Stephen said...

Brilliant! I have loved her for 40+ years...
how do you do it?

Deep Dish said...

I met a friend of hers through Facebook, and he helped arrange the interview. Glad you liked the post, Stephen!

Roger Mellie said...

Superb interview as ever!

I prefer the 1980 version of Airplane ;-)