When I first started taking movies seriously in the 1970s, Karen Black personified everything glamorous and exciting about Hollywood at that time. It was the era of "Easy Riders and Raging Bulls" -- a hip, young generation of directors like Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, and Bob Rafelson were busy dancing on the grave of the old studio system and creating what has come to be known as 'independent cinema.' And, indeed, it was the groundbreaking film that started it all, Easy Rider, that made Black a star. With her exotic, offbeat beauty and intensely-felt, intelligent acting style, she stole every scene she was in -- from Jack Nicholson no less -- and went on stealing scenes in a string of seminal '70s films all the way through today.
Black is currently the subject of a Nitehawk Cinema retrospective, which features six of her classic outings: Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Burnt Offerings, The Day of the Locust, Family Plot (Alfred Hitchcock's final film) and the campy cult classic, Airport 1975. And though she has been in the news lately for her battle with cancer and efforts to raise money for treatment via the crowd-funding site GoFundMe, Black agreed to record answers to a few questions from one of her biggest fans.
As the current NYC retrospective demonstrates, you were at the heart of what many consider to be the Golden Age of American movies -- the 1970s. Did it feel like you were making history at the time?
No, not at all. We were just doing our thing. I happen to have an acting style that is very spontaneous and very un-self-conscious, and it went with the movies of the '70s. It was a great time, it was a very beautiful time. There was a way of loving freedom -- or loving spontaneity. Even in Airport 1975, I had the freedom to stick my tongue out when I was trying to pull somebody into the hole in the plane. It seemed to work, you know.
You've worked with virtually every major director of the past five decades. Which one was your favorite to work with? Who gave you the hardest time?
It's impossible to say my favorite director, because they have all these different qualities that are extremely wonderful. I would say that I like a director who is open more than a director who has already decided on certain things. And so I think that directors that hold to that have been my favorites. Of course I just love love love Robert Altman. He was extremely free, and he made sure that you were free because you didn't know where the camera was. In Nashville we improvised everything. I improvised what I said about Julie Christie: "Movie star? She can't even comb her hair!" And then the whole crew and cast were breaking up laughing.
Karen Black in Five Easy Pieces
Are you a fan of Kembra Pfahler and her band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black?
I like everyone to do their thing. If she wants to have a band where everyone is naked and painted, I'm glad for her. I do think that it would have been a courtesy to ask me if she could make herself look like me as much as possible and then pose on the front of her album with her legs spread. I kept thinking, "If my mother ever sees that, she's going to scream and faint." Or maybe faint and then wake up and scream.
Did any one performer inspire you when you were starting out?
This may seem like a strange answer, but Jennifer Jones in Portrait of Jennie. When I was a little girl, six or seven or eight, I saw Portrait of Jennie on television. And until that time, I didn't know what acting was. I didn't know actors felt as much sadness when they're acting as they might feel in life. I had no idea. And then here I am sitting in front of my TV, at home, and Jennifer Jones turns towards the camera. Tears fill her eyes. I was sort of stunned. I thought, "Well, if tears fill her eyes, then she really is going to cry. She really does mean it. So this is what acting is."
Which one of your films would you place in a time capsule under the heading "The Portable Karen Black"?
I believe you're asking what movie do I believe represents me best, but what I've been trying to do in my life is character work. What I'm hoping to have accomplished is different characters. I would like people to be amazed that I can play Rayette in Five Easy Pieces, and Joanne in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. I would like that to be what I leave behind. The Portable Karen Blacks because I'd like to be known as someone who does a great variation rather completely.