With Roger Corman we’d talk about Bergman - he loved Bergman. Jack Hill [director of Coffy and Foxy Brown] would talk about foreign films, about how Truffaut would set up a shot.The recent release of Jackie Brown on Blu offered me the excuse to talk with an actress I have admired my whole life. I grew up watching the blaxploitation films of Pam Grier, and her women in prison movies were... vital to my adolescence. Sexy, smart and so, so tough, Grier was one of the faces that embodied awesome 70s filmmaking for me.
Then in the 80s I would see her pop up on TV shows, which was cool, but I was so happy when Quentin Tarantino (following in the footsteps of Tim Burton and John Carpenter!) helped bring her back to the big screen. Jackie Brown is one of her seminal roles, giving Pam a new presence for a new generation.
Of course when I talked to her Jackie Brown would be a topic, but it was her early career - the gonzo filmmaking of the Corman years, the culture-impacting blaxploitation films - that I really wanted to get to. I never imagined that by going down that path I would discover Pam's recipe exchange with Fellini...
For Jackie Brown Quentin Tarantino took a character who, in the novel, was white and made her black. What kind of impact does that change have?
You go from one culture to another, which changes the demographics and dynamics and speech and jargon and music. He gave another history, another legacy to this character. It was great that he did that, and I was surprised and honored and humbled that he would take time out of his life to write that for me. But just think if he had done it with an Iranian woman, a Muslim.
You had met with Quentin about a role in Pulp Fiction, right?
Yes, and it came down to chemistry or what he was looking for wasn’t there. He is very intuitive. When I walked into his office all my posters were on his walls. He said, ‘I know you think I’m a stalker, but I’m not.’ And I said, ‘Did you put this up for me?’ He says, ‘No, but I would have!’ I was just taken aback. He loves film. And various types of films, and film styles. If you like film noir or Truffaut or Hitchcock - he has watched films and through this osmosis he has taken from the Masters and become something very unique.
When you’re being directed by Tarantino, who has that huge cinematic background, is he giving you direction by comparing the scene you’re in to another scene in another movie? Is he using that knowledge he has as touchstones for direction?
No, not at all. When he’s working on something you’re in the moment of Quentin Tarantino and his beats and his reality. He wants it to be seamless. He has in his head timing and music and something that represents and tells a story. Maybe in rehearsal he might bring that up, another film or style or actor. He’s a library. But when we’re on the set he doesn’t really bring anything else up except this scene and how we’re going to make it work and make it believable.
One of the most amazing things about your career is that while you’ve made a huge impact, it’s one you never intended. You weren’t looking to be an actress.
How did you fall into acting?
To pay tuition. I was working at a theatrical agency called The Agency for the Performing Arts, and I had two other jobs. In order to stay as a film student I needed tuition, and that was how I was introduced to Roger Corman. I was reluctant, because I didn’t know anything about acting and I didn’t want to be fired. Roger is unique, as you know, and I had one of the best mentors to begin with. I fell into a place that I so enjoy. I didn’t think I would enjoy acting, I didn’t think I would enjoy shooting scenes out of sequence. I preferred theater, of having sequence and the moment where you feel the audience responding to your every action.
But I just enjoyed the camaraderie we all had, the common goals we had. We had a common love of cinema and style. What a world of cinema, where people love and share films from all over the globe. And I get to be part of other people’s dreams.
When you got those first roles for Corman you worked in the Philippines. My understanding is that safety wasn’t as big of a concern as just getting the shot.
Ha! You’re right. The leeches in the mud! But it was still an era that was new. I didn’t have a stunt woman and they yet had to learn how to make a safe and comfortable environment for the actors. There, in a country where they didn’t have the resources, the finances to create a safe environment you had to take it upon yourself that whatever you did to another actor you had to make sure was safe.
There were cobras in the jungle, there were leeches in the mud, there was bacteria in the water. It was guerilla filmmaking at its best! That was a great learning experience, and it was exciting. To be with others who enjoyed the same art you did - you could sit and talk film all night long. You would talk and wonder what it would be like to work with Fellini. With Roger Corman we’d talk about Bergman - he loved Bergman. Jack Hill [director of Coffy and Foxy Brown] would talk about foreign films, about how Truffaut would set up a shot.
When I was shooting a film in Rome with Steve Carver [The Arena], the horse I was riding on got spooked and missed its mark. Fellini was shooting Amarcord next door and I ended up riding through the back of his set. He was setting up a shot and I came through on horseback wearing a leopard skin and he said ‘Oh, my fondest dream has come true!’ We became the best of friends, and he wanted me to teach him recipes. He would teach me to make Italian sausage and I would teach him to make fried chicken!
I love the idea of you guys being on the set of one of these women in prison films and talking about Bergman and Fellini. That blew my mind.
How could you not? We knew that at one point we could be Bergman or Fellini. Or we would steal from them. We were going to take from them and apply that to our work.
The work you did in films like Coffy and Foxy Brown was really unprecedented. There were no female characters like that in films. Who did you turn to for your inspiration?
Most were inspired by my family. Foxy Brown was my aunt and Coffy was my mother. My family is from Wyoming, and these were pioneer women. They could ride a horse and drive a wagon and shoot and hunt. These were things I was taught. I brought that rural woman being independent to cinema which was unique to urban women in the kitchen who were just then breaking out with the women’s liberation movement. That’s why Gloria Steinem was so supportive of me providing that inspiration to women. It’s okay to be the best woman you can be - you’re not trying to be a man, you’re not castrating a man, you’re not taking his job, you’re just being what a woman would be in these circumstances. I brought that to film. I brought that courage to film.