Actress Karen Allen will forever be linked to “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but she has appeared in many significant films, from “Animal House,” (her debut) to “Cruising,” and “Starman.” She gave lovely performances in the underseen “Until September,” and now delivers an exceptional turn in “Bad Hurt,” an indie drama written and directed by Mark Kemble (and based on his play). In the film, which had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Allen plays Elaine Kendall, the matriarch of a family coping with various difficulties. Elaine is not close to her husband, Ed (Michael Harney), and she is the caregiver for her developmentally disabled daughter, DeeDee (Iris Gilad). One of her sons, Kent (Johnny Whitworth), is struggling with PTSD. Her other son, Todd (Theo Rossi) tries to keep the family together as various crises threaten to pull them apart. In this interview, Allen, who speaks slowly, thoughtfully and delicately, talked about coping with trauma, the characters she has played and how she built her career.
Let’s start with something upbeat. Elaine likes to dance. Are you a good dancer?
Yes, actually, I am. Not in a formalized way. I never had any dance training, but I absolutely love to dance — free form dance. I always have. I grew up in Washington, D.C., in the time of Motown. If you couldn’t dance in the world I grew up in, you were not going to be cool at all. You had to dance. [Laughs.] I wanted to be cool.
“Bad Hurt” is about characters coping with trauma. Elaine is coping. How do you stay calm in a crisis?
What a fascinating question! Let me think about this… I think my coping skills have changed over the years, certainly. I don’t think I grew up with a lot of ability to cope with problems. I don’t think I really knew how to. I had to quickly, over time, gain coping skills. Breathing is a good one. [Laughs]. I was a big time smoker for most of my young life. I think I used that to cope. I started smoking when I was 14. I managed a lot of my emotions by…I equate smoking to pushing down the breath—kind of self-strangulation—and I think that was one coping mechanism I took on very early on. I had to learn how to breathe. I lived with this sensation that I can fly apart into a million pieces or something. I had to learn over time that that wasn’t going to happen; that I could have profound feeling and I wasn’t going to fall apart. I don’t think I grew up knowing that somehow.
There is also an emotional moment in the film when Elaine turns on the radio, goes into the closet, and screams to cope with an unfortunate situation she is facing. What can you say about her despair and her anger?
I think that is something that she does. A lot of her trauma is chronic—daily, ongoing trauma. This huge gap has opened up between her and her husband, and they hardly speak to each other. She has the ongoing difficulty of looking after her daughter, and protecting her daughter, and making sure her daughter is functioning and safe. To live with that sort of stress for such a long period of time…She is such a ray of sunshine; she has such an optimistic point of view on life. It was interesting to dive into that world and look at those specific challenges. When I was 13, 14, 16 years old, I spent my summers working with developmentally disabled kids and teenagers. I got a chance to see how families—back in the 1960s—we were a much less educated and supportive culture at that time. Families had such different approaches to coping with having a developmentally disabled child. It was such an eye-opening experience for me. It’s a lot on their plate. It isn’t how they planned their lives.
Elaine couldn’t have planned her life that way. How did she become so determined?
As I love to do, I sat and wrote a whole long book about her life. I asked Mark [the director] a lot of questions—he was able to give me a lot of information about her, he was writing about his own mother. She was such a survivor. I think that I felt very strongly that she came from a good strong Irish Catholic family and was a real working class girl from a working class family. I thought about people I grew up around—there is a real resiliency and strength in them to persevere. I think she is a woman of faith—not in a phony way. We don’t see her at church, but I think she is a real woman of faith.
What can you say about the roles you’ve had over the course of your career, which range from ingénue to heroine to playing mother characters?
It’s hard to have an overview of your life in that sense. I feel that my thing is—and this goes back to my childhood—that I have a love of storytelling. I want to be a part of telling a good story, whether it is on the stage, or on film, or on television. I’m going to direct my first film, a short based on the Carson McCullers’ story, “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.” I think, throughout my work as an actor, I’m just trying to find beautiful stories to tell. There are a lot of films that are sent to me that I can easily say no to. I really care about wanting to tell the story. As an actor, the character is a part of the story for me.
I’m curious about your thoughts on the final scene of “Cruising,” which I think is really fascinating…
You and me both! It was not scripted. I was doing my last day of shooting and Friedkin just said, “I want to try something. Are you game to just try this thing? I’m just going to talk you through it.” My part of the film was supposed to end when Al [Pacino] comes back and he’s in the bathroom shaving, and Friedkin said, “I want you to walk into the living room and put on the jacket and the hat,” and I went ahead and did what he asked me to do. When I saw the film, I thought, “What does that mean?!” Suddenly, I could be the killer? People have been asking me about that for years. I have absolutely no idea. It was so controversial. I don’t think Al suspected that it would be so controversial. It was quite traumatic for him. People were picketing. I only worked on it for 4-5 days. I didn’t have the major stuff to deal with. But it was a mystery to me then, and remains so.
Your achieved early success in “Animal House” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and later, “Starman.” Did you feel pressure to compete in Hollywood following the success of “Raiders?”
I must not have felt pressure. I did all the things according to all the people in the business part of the film business that you weren’t supposed to do. Right after “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” I did two plays. People were mystified by why I took a year and a half off after I did “Raiders.” But it was just what I really wanted to do. I got offered a couple of really fantastic roles in the theater, and I hadn’t worked in the theater for a few years—I had been focusing on film—only because I had started out in the theater. My grandest ambition for myself was to come to New York and make a living working as an actress in the theater. I never met anyone who was in a film. I didn’t know anything about making a film. I was a fan of films—I grew up loving film—but to me film was a world of mystery, totally outside of my world. It was Hollywood—a different animal than the theater. When I started, getting cast in “Animal House,” I think I realized it is a whole other skill to work in film, and if I was going to do this, I was going to have to learn. I did “The Wanderers” to learn, and suddenly, I was offered “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” so I was learning by the seat of my pants as I went. I felt, and I still do, a need to work on stage, as an actor or director, and even teaching young actors. I don’t know that building a Hollywood career…I probably behaved badly. [Laughs] But it’s been good for me.