At the end of the 1970s, after a few years working on stage, Karen Allen auditioned for a movie role. The film was National Lampoon’s Animal House. The year was 1978. The beautiful Ms. Allen would go on to play Katy, in what turned out to be a cult classic. The rest, as they say, is history. With more than three decades in acting, Karen believes Animal House is the only movie she ever auditioned for.
Karen Allen tells us she never planned a career trajectory. When she began acting in her early 20s, her goal was to make enough money to live while working in theater. She never thought movies were a possibility for her, let alone landing a role in Raiders of the Lost Ark and working with Hollywood power players Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford.
The series of movies based around Harrison Fords filmic Indiana Jones is one of the most potent franchises in moviedom, beginning with 1981’s Raiders and running, so far, to 2008, with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Ms. Allen has appeared in both the first and last films in the series.
Karen tells us there is a good possibility there might be another Indian Jones movie sometime in the future, as it’s currently being discussed and worked on.
Ms. Allen will be back on the silver screen in White Irish Drinkers, a piece set in 1970s Brooklyn, opening in theaters on March 25th. Additionally, she tells us she’ll be directing a film in the future. Though she’s been in the business for over 30 years, Karen Allen says her best work is probably still ahead of her. Movie fans will, no doubt, be looking forward to seeing more of her work.
You can read or listen to the entire interview below:
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Chris Yandek: For all the decades you’ve been in film, what would you like people to know about your life today starting off?
Karen Allen: “About my life today?”
KA: “Gosh, let’s see, that’s an interesting question. My life today, it’s very diverse and interesting. I work as a director in the theater and I’ve got a film I am hopefully going to be directing when I can get focused on it. I just did this really beautiful film White Irish Drinkers, which is just opening. I’ve raised a son who’s 20 years old and about to move off into the world doing the thing that he’s the most passionate about, which is he’s a chef. I have a design company, which I run, which is another aspect of my life that I just find very satisfying and I guess that’s a start. (Laughs)”
CY: In doing research for this interview, a lot of people, a lot of your fans have called you ageless. Do you have any secrets?
KA: “Secrets of agelessness?”
KA: “I don’t know. I think it’s just staying engaged in life. It makes me feel very, I don’t feel stuck. I often feel like when I meet people who I feel like are fatigued before their time or are cynical before their time, it always feels like they’re kind stuck in some, stuck in a problem or stuck in a situation that’s a sign of wearing them down. I think that I have really tried to live my life where I don’t feel stuck. Not that I haven’t found myself up against the wall or backed into a corner or things from time to time, but I guess I’m a very solution oriented person. I wanna kinda get through it and figure it out and move forward and find things that keep me feeling very passionate and full of life and interested and it’s kind of a Zen beginner’s mind thing I suppose.”
CY: Interesting analysis.
KA: “I don’t know.”
CY: As someone who had a breakout role in the 1970s, what was it like to go back to the 1970s for this role in White Irish Drinkers and relive some of that period?
KA: “Well, boy it’s such different worlds. Are you talking about Animal House?”
CY: Yeah. Yeah. Sure. Absolutely.
KA: “Although that is actually set in the early 60s. I suppose Animal House, isn’t it like 64?”
CY: Well, you came up in the 1970s in that role. I’m saying, there you were 1970s, big actor off the cusp of greatness and here you are now, later in your life you’re going back to the 1970s as an adult in an acting role. What’s it like to go back to that period?
KA: “Yeah. Well, it was great. I was living in New York City. I moved here in 1969. So when this film is actually taking place, I was living as a teenager here in New York City. So I’m kind of, I was the age that those characters are in the film during that period of time. I just lived a very different life. I was a student in Manhattan as opposed to being somebody emerging in a Brooklyn neighborhood. So that was what was really fascinating to me.”
CY: What has it been like to grow as a veteran performer and now play the mother role like you do in this film?
KR: “Well, I’ve actually have played an awful lot of mothers going way back. The one that just popped into my mind, I play this terrible drunken mother with Brittany Murphy in this film calling Falling Sky. It feels like I’ve been a mother and playing mothers for what feels like for a long time. I love, it’s been such a meaningful part of my own life to be a mother that it feels quite good. It feels quite natural.
This particular mother is sort of a heartbreaking mother. She’s somebody faced with things you hope you’re never gonna have to be faced with in your life. So it was a real challenge to dive into and take on her problems, her reality, what is happening. It’s the one thing you hope never happens to you that you’re gonna lose your child when they’re 20 years old in the way that she does. I found this mother very moving the way that he wrote her, very multilayered, very up against a lot of different struggles and challenges, so it seemed something very meaningful to work on.”
CY: Is it true when you landed the role in Animal House, you had been pursuing acting for a long time at that point and time and maybe if you had not gotten the Animal House role maybe your career would’ve possibly been different or you wouldn’t have continued?
KA: “No. It’s not true. In fact, I hadn’t been acting for very long at all.”
KA: “I started working. I had no interest in acting at all until I was maybe 21 or 22 years old when I saw a theater production that really, really moved me and I started to study acting then at the age of 22. So I worked in the theater for about three years with a theater company in Washington, DC where I was living when I sort of fell in love with the idea of becoming an actor. Then I moved to New York City and I think I was there only maybe four or five months when I was cast in Animal House. So no, I didn’t really have the time to even think about not, no. I never auditioned I don’t think for another film. I got the first film I ever auditioned for.”
CY: This year is the 30th anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark. What do you reflect upon 30 years later now?
KA: “It’s turned out to be a huge part of my life, this film, even more so since I’ve come back to it again and possibly will even be doing another film. So you know, it’s really been a very thick thread that’s woven through my life for the last 30 years. I don’t know if I would’ve said that five or six years ago because five or six years ago before I came back to do the other film, The Crystal Skull, it was just one of the films that I had done. Even though it was possibly an identifying, a marker film in my life and one that people, any time you’re in a film that successful, it kind of ends up getting attached to your name.
You see your name written Karen Allen and the parentheses say Raiders of the Lost Ark. It becomes this sort of identifying point, which it’s one of those things. All actors want to have a film that is an identifying point and at the same time, you don’t necessarily want to have one. It’s one of those things. It’s a two-sided coin. You don’t want to necessarily have a film that follows you through your life, but at the same time you want to have a film that follows you through your life. It’s not a bad one to have following you through your life.”
CY: So there might be another Indiana Jones movie?
KA: “That certainly is what I’m hearing. I don’t know for certain when or I don’t know much about it. I know Harrison [Ford] or Steven [Spielberg] will talk about it from time to time as though it’s definitely happening. As far as I know, they have a story that they like and they’re working on the script. I think the first phase is a script has to be written that Steven Speilberg likes, that Harrison Ford likes and that George Lucas, that they’re all happy with. When and if that happens, then the next phase will move forward. I think that’s where it is right now, it’s being written.”
CY: Did your career after Raiders of the Lost Ark go in the trajectory that you’d hope for?
KA: “You know, I had no trajectory I hoped for. When I was an actor starting out, I had, my largest ambition was to make a living working in the theater. I grew up in a world, I had never met a single actor either in the theater or in film. I didn’t know anything about that world. I sort of fell in love with acting because I saw an experimental theater company perform at the age of 21 or 22.
My whole life took a huge turn right then and there and I began to study acting and started performing with a small theater company and had you said to me at the age of even 25 you’re going to be somebody who works in film and is gonna get known for doing films, I would’ve laughed. I would’ve said, that’s not even possible. Really, my greatest ambition was, I was gonna move to New York and I was gonna find a way to pay my rent by working in the theater. There was never any trajectory for me.
I just kind of looked at projects, little by little as they came along. I didn’t have any perspective on what it would mean to create or build a career. The first time people started to talk to me about things like that was maybe after I had made four or five films and I suddenly had a really wonderful agent working with me. Then you start having those conversations, but I never had those conversations with myself. I was just happy to be working, doing something creative that I really had no idea a person could get away with.”
CY: When it’s all said and done for your acting career, how do you want to be remembered?
KA: “Gosh, I really don’t know how to answer that question. I feel as though and I know this probably sounds like a cliché, like actors say this, but I really do believe it. I believe that it’s very possible that my best work is ahead of me. That I kind of stuck my foot in the water as a young actor and I was lucky, I was fortunate to get a lot of roles just as I was developing and just as I was learning what I was doing.
Then I took some time and kind of veered away from it for a while as I raised my son and to have a life. I feel like now in the last few years I’m starting to come back into working as an actor. So my hope is, is that the work that I feel like I’m capable of doing as an actor still sits in front of me and I would hope that I’ll be remembered for something that I don’t even, haven’t even conceived of yet.”
Screen Media Films will release White Irish Drinkers on March 25th. You can find more information at the official site for the movie at http://www.whiteirishdrinkersthemovie.com/