I grew up hearing about Karen Black as far back as I can remember. She would pop up on television and my mother would point her out as a compatriot from their college days at Northwestern University, a mixture of pride and wistfulness in her voice as the memories came back. When I finally got the opportunity to sit down with Karen during the summer of 2007, the venerable actress had turned playwright, with a well-received L.A. production of "The Missouri Waltz," a musical for which she penned the book. Black was alternately eccentric, passionate, grounded and fascinating during our chat, her obvious intelligence shining through the entire proceedings. She remains one of my favorite conversations during nearly twenty years of doing interviews. RIP.
Karen Black first entered the cinematic lexicon with her heartbreaking turn in Bob Rafelson's landmark 1970 film Five Easy Pieces, playing a trailer park queen who is the lover of fugitive concert pianist Jack Nicholson. Black's brilliant, nuanced turn earned her an Oscar nomination, as well as a Golden Globe Award. Born and raised in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, she was born Karen Ziegler, and was a precocious student who entered Northwestern University at 15, where she studied with renowned drama teacher Alvina Krause. After making a name for herself on Broadway, Karen made her film debut in 1966's You're a Big Boy Now, the first major feature (after Roger Corman's production of Dementia 13) of Francis Ford Coppola. After appearing in dozens of TV productions, Karen next appeared (with dance legend Toni Basil) as one of the New Orleans prostitutes in the classic Easy Rider with whom Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda tryst in a Big Easy graveyard.
Following the success of Pieces, Karen Black quickly became one of the most sought-after performers of the 1970s, appearing in such classics as Cisco Pike, The Great Gatsby (her second Golden Globe Award win), Day of the Locust, Nashville, Family Plot, and in her second collaboration with Robert Altman, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. More recently, Karen has appeared in Alan Cumming's Suffering Man's Charity, and Henry Jaglom's Hollywood Dreams.
Karen Black is also a produced writer, whose credits include Movie Money, Murder, Malaika, Going Home, Men, Charades, Edna McCoy's Festival, and The Invention of Dr. Morel. Her first produced play is currently trodding the boards at The Blank Theater, through July 1. The Missouri Waltz is a delightful musical (songs by Harriet Schock) comedy set circa '73, starring Karen and Dana Peterson as deceased sisters who watch over their niece, who occupies their former homestead. Karen sat down with Venice on The Blank Theater stage recently to discuss her remarkable career.
You grew up in Park Ridge, IL. What did Dad do?
Karen Black: He was in charge of sales for the Ed Filkins Company. They would build factories and figure it all out. He was also a violinist, and his father was Arthur Ziegler, who was the first violinist for the Chicago Symphony. He was a great guy: very robust, humorous, extraordinarily handsome as a young man, before I knew him. And my mom is an award-wining novelist, Elsie Reif Ziegler, although she's not writing anymore because she's getting elderly. She's very brilliant, very beautiful, a redhead. I have a sister, Gail (Brown), who was on Another World for many years. She's a blonde, but we look a lot alike, and I have an older brother, Peter, who isn't really working anymore. He married the daughter of the governor. He's a sweet boy.
When did you know you were an artist?
I don't think it's something you cognate on, because it's something you are, so you are it. Whitney Laux, who's in the play with me, and I were talking about how we like to wear sunglasses when we go out, and just observe people. Nobody understands that, except those who write, direct, and act. It's just about being enthralled by people: how they think, how they talk, how they gesture, the relation between them all. It has a great meaning, a great cause and a great purpose, which is there are ways of viewing things aesthetically. You don't view them pragmatically or functionally. And after many years of being enthralled by watching people, which I loved to do, I realized I was putting them on stage. There's that scrapping, arguing family sitting in a restaurant at the airport. And were you to put them on stage, they would be the greatest actors in the world. Were they on stage? If you're looking at them like that, it's incredible. How can they be so natural? How can they be so real? And that's why we get so excited, because we're viewing it aesthetically. So you take all that, and you put it in your movie, or put it in your script, and that's why the people sound like they're really talking, because you've heard it, and you've learned it.
And nobody captured what you're talking about better than my hero, Robert Altman, who you got to work with twice.
Thank you so much. Absolutely right. Yeah, we worked together three times, actually, because I was in The Player briefly. He had such confidence. When you're creating something, I think you have a certitude about it. It's present and it doesn't really compromise, and it's not self-reflective at all, in fact there's no ego. You just see it a certain way. And that's how he was, like all great directors. He also believed in idiosyncrasies and audacious, inadvertent events. If you made a mistake, he loved it. He embraced it. During Nashville, everyone was miked. I was miked on my inner thigh, forgot it was even there, and you never saw the cameras. It was like they were up in the rafters, or something. So you weren't self-conscious in any way, so you just improvised. It made you feel very safe, because everything was going to work if even mistakes were wonderful. I don't know how many lines we had going into sound, maybe 24, so we could all talk simultaneously.
It's funny, when I interviewed him and asked about how he got all that overlapping dialogue in MASH, he said it was all due to the sound mixer, and said "If that guy didn't win an Oscar, he sure deserved a citation from God."
Yeah, on the other hand, it's really his concept. He was a good friend. He'd always call back, and we'd have conversations. The other thing is that he represented a way of working, he was sort of like a symbol of the values and the structure of independent filmmaking. We have so many independent filmmakers in America, and I think they all felt supported by Mr. Altman. He was very important to all of us in that sense, and in that sense, I think he's still there.
You entered Northwestern University at 15, and studied in its renowned speech and drama department.
I would say that the college training was very lousy, and I don't think that people learn by being invalidated. I think people get some idea along the line from their analyst, who evaluates for them based on other people's journeys that they've studied who have nothing to do with you, and then you have to buy that evaluation. That's utterly appropriate. Acting teachers, not all of them but many, seem to think that beating up their students and invalidating them will make them better, which I think is completely wrong. And at that age, you don't realize that this sick person is really projecting all their neurosis onto you, you think that you're the one who's damaged. So I think that Alvina Krause would not validate and would not allow. I think she had favorites, and you could never figure out why you weren't a favorite, and it never made any sense. The thing you have to remember is that if a person is making you feel bad about yourself, that person is going to be in his or her own world. They are lost in their own universe. If they can't grant you who you are, they're locked in their own nutty universe, and they' To bring this to the present, the director of this piece, Angela Garcia Combs, never evaluated and never invalidated any of us, and it's been such a joy working with someone like that.
What was it like working on Easy Rider, arguably the film that helped launch the American independent movie?
It was insane! (laughs) I have never really done drugs. I'm against them, all kinds. I think I smoked grass twice. Toni Basil, who is still my good friend, doesn't do drugs either, so we were in another universe from these guys (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper). Time was very slow for them. (laughs) We'd get in the Winnebago, and we never found the Mardi Gras parade, and there's not a single shot of us in it. Dennis would see some guy outside the window and say "Hey man, you see that guy outside the window? I'm gonna get him!" And he'd go running out, and lose track of time...It was NUTS! He was NUTS! (laughs) But, that said, Dennis is also a genius and Easy Rider was his masterpiece. He would've done anything to get it made. He had a great vision, was very driven, and made that movie with great belief in the way that certain people were living at that time, and loving it, and having a real affinity for it. It holds up very well.
Five Easy Pieces is one of the great American movies.
Did you know it was shot in sequence? Not one shot was done out of sequence.
No, I didn't know that. What was (director) Bob Rafelson like to work with?
Great guy. He laughs a lot. He'd weep sometimes when we were shooting. He's a passionate person. He believes in what he believes in. He's maybe too passionate for Hollywood. The last time I saw him he said "I'm leaving. I'm getting out of town."
What was it like working with Nicholson on that picture, which really solidified his "great actor" status?
I just loved Jack. I had a crush on him, but I had a boyfriend, and he had a girlfriend. He never seemed unfamiliar to me. He's a very great spirit, and one of my favorite things to say about him is, once I said to Jack, 'You know, there are certain people, I just can't find them. They're just not there.' And he said "Blackie, you can always find them. Just keep looking." He has a really wonderful, human quality to him.
Your portrayal of Rayette was really amazing, because she's one of those characters that would have been easy to turn into a cartoon, but you made her very three-dimensional. What was it like being Rayette?
If you look through the eyes of Rayette, it looks nice, really beautiful, light, not heavy, not serious. A very affectionate woman who would look upon things with love, and longing. She wasn't a person who would tear things apart or recompile them, or asses or evaluate, none of those things. A completely uncritical person, and in that sense, a beautiful person. When Rafelson called me to his office to discuss the part he said "Karen, I'm worried you can't play this role because you're too smart." I said 'Bob, when you call "action," I will stop thinking,' because that's how Rayette is.`
You worked with Alfred Hitchcock on his final film, Family Plot, in 1976. What was he like?
Overall, very avuncular, although he did kiss me one day in a very sexual way, but the rest of the time he was very avuncular. He was funny and shrewd, and knew exactly what he wanted and knew if you were creating that. He thought I was too sympathetic (in my portrayal). So he said early on that he wanted me to be less sympathetic and to speak in a mid-Atlantic accent. But the truth is that I wanted the other part, the one that Barbara Harris played. I told him, and he said "No dear. That character is too low class." (laughs) I thought to myself "This guy hasn't seen Five Easy Pieces." He was just great. We used to read each other poems and limericks and tried to catch me on my vocabulary. He once said "You seem very perspicacious today, Miss Black." I said, 'Oh, you mean "keenly perceptive?' "Yes." (laughs) So I got him this huge, gold- embossed dictionary that said "Diction-Harry," at the end of the shoot. And I have to say something about him that I think is remarkable and stunning and obvious, yet I've never heard anyone talk about it. We all know people who make storyboards, and they go shoot the movie, and their storyboard goes all to hell. But his movies were the storyboard. He storyboarded with really, really seeing the finished movie, so he didn't make any mistakes. And nobody has done it before or since. I think he was kind of bored on the set, as they say, because everything in his mind was done.
Around the same time you played what I think was the most tragic character you've ever played, Faye Greener in Day of the Locust. It just breaks your heart.
If you have one, and I'm not sure that Nathaniel West (author of the book) did. That was not a fun experience, making that film. It was just horrible. I wish quite heartily I'd never made it, because I'd have had a much longer career in Hollywood. I'd have been making major movies for many years, had I not done that film.
Why did that film kill your career?
It was a very troubled production, and I became the scapegoat that everyone blamed. People kept getting sick, getting fired, and it was just a horror, an absolute horror. Seven months. There were all these rumors that people made up...and I wound up being the center of it. Poor (William) Atherton walked off and didn't do the final scene, because he couldn't take it anymore and, oh my God...awful. Gossip-mongers are often very convincing, and there were all these people making things up behind my back, and it really hurt me. It hurt me a lot.
Let's talk about writing.
I was writing and doing diaries and work as a child, and then started college at an early age because I was sick of high school, and I wrote a lot there, as well. So I've always been a writer, I think.
On that note, tell us how The Missouri Waltz born.
It was sort of inadvertent. I was about to do The Vagina Monologues and I studied an online course about playwriting. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was their model. And I went to see Harriet, and she was very light about this. She didn't sit on me at all. I worked with someone else once who had to have me over every day, and it was awful. But this was so easy. The play is written around Harriet's songs, and the first drafts were so different from what you see today. A year went by with me not writing it. I just wasn't interested. Then I met this girl who told me about an old black & white movie she'd seen about a woman who was devastated because some freak in town was trying to take her house away. And I really liked that, and that's what made it click for me. There's just no saying why certain things attract us. I mean, why do I like red, and you like blue?
Because, exactly. So when I wrote it again, it made sense to me.
Creatively, how is it different from being an actor, and how is it similar?
For me, it seems more similar to acting than certainly directing would be. I've tried directing before and it's just not for me. It's too exhausting, too many parts to it. When you're writing what's similar is that you are imagination-based. Everything that occurs in this zone is imagination-based. In that sense you mock up a life, and then you become the effect of what you've mocked up, so it's cause and effect. So the more you can mock it up so that it seems real to you, the more you can react to the effect. That's what acting is, and that's what writing involves for me, too. That's the simplicity of it. It sounds simple, because it is. The other thing that is very important is that how good your work is, is based on how accurately you've gauged the effect you create. I'm a pretty accurate actress, in other words I can get people to think I'm stupid, smart, sensual, dried up, evil, you know what I mean? So I can create the effect I intend. If I create an effect that's far removed from my intention, then that's how bad my art is. If it's as close to the effect I intend, and it does engage and effect the audience, then that's how good it is. So when you do that, you have to be the audience. That's the key.