The actress who portrayed Indy's first flame talks about stepping back into this world and much more
Karen Allen is certainly back, folks. After her feature film debut in a little college film called Animal House, it wasn't long after that the big roles came a calling. The caller was Steven Spielberg, who cast her in Raiders Of The Lost Ark and, within three years the young actress had two of the biggest hits of all-time under her belt. While she continued to work steadily throughout her career, the actress hadn't been in a film since 2004 when Steven Spielberg came calling again for her to reprise her role as Marion Ravenwood in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which hits the DVD and Blu-ray shelves on October 14. I was recently invited to the picturesque Paramount lot in Hollywood for a press lunch with Allen. We all chatted with the actress for over an hour about her classic character and much more. Here's what Allen had to say.
What kind of differences have you seen between the reception of the first one and this one?
Karen Allen: You know, it seems to me that the reception has been incredible for this film. I get a specific point of view on it, just mainly people coming up to me and telling me how much they loved the film. In Japan, they were just so excited about the opening of the film and the Cannes Film Festival was just amazing for us. When the film was over, you know, Cannes is an interesting place to open a film, because it can be disastrous. I mean, if they don't like a film, they have no problem letting you know. Films have been booed there and all kinds of things. A film like Crystal Skull is not necessarily a Cannes type of film, so you don't really know what's going to happen, and they just loved it. It was like a four-minute standing ovation. Steven (Speilberg) had tears in his eyes. It was a lovely experience. I hadn't seen it with an audience at all. The first time I had seen it I was with Shia (LaBeouf) at Paramount. We were just going in to see a screening before we went over to Cannes so we weren't seeing it for the first time in front of 3,200 people (Laughs). It can be a little traumatic.
I think almost everyone that wrote about the film, wrote about what a welcome return it was for not just Marion, but for you. How does that feel to get that wave?
Karen Allen: It felt fantastic. I've had so many people just come up to me and say, 'When you came up on the screen, everybody in the theater applauded.' It's just so sweet, really. It makes me feel very touched, very moved, that, somehow, that character has somehow stayed in those people's consciousness and that they were so happy to have me and her come back into the story. What could be better, to get that kind of enthusiastic response.
Several of the films that you've done have had quite a life afterwards. Not just Indy, but Animal House and Starman.
Karen Allen:Starman is just one of those ones that has been there, and Scrooged and even this funny film where I just play this little part in it, is The Sandlot. I still have little kids who constantly come up to me and go, 'Oh my God. You're the mom in The Sandlot!' (Laughs).
Was this one of the circumstances where you said, if this group of people ever came back, I'd do another one, or were you more particular on your return, and the story?
Karen Allen: I don't even know how to answer that question, because it's sort of like all of the above. To have an opportunity to work with Steven and Harrison and (producers) Katherine Kennedy and Frank Marshall again, was just wonderful. As these rumors sort of persisted over the years, there were these little hints that would be dropped, and they were trying to do another film and they wanted my character to come back into the story, I'd hear that and then I wouldn't hear anything for a long time. At one point, when they released the DVD set of the films, which I think was four or five years ago, the way they decided to do it was to get myself, Kate Capshaw and Allison Doody together out here in L.A. and do it as the women of the Indiana Jones series were going to promote the DVD's. Frank was there and Harrison stopped by. We were kidding with them, like, 'Is there going to be another one, and if so, who's going to be in it?' Frank was like, 'I'm not saying anything.' I never really knew what their plans were or how it would turn out. I think when Steven called me and told me that they had written me in as a character and that it was not just a cameo, but they had really written me a major role in the story, I think my first feeling was, 'I'm there.' Then I think it was a couple of weeks before I had a chance to read the script, there was this thing - it wasn't that I worried about if it wasn't going to be good. You know it's going to be good. They spent how many years trying to get a script that they were all happy with and Steven sounded very very happy about the outcome of the script when I talked to him, so I knew it would be a wonderful script. But I think there's that thing where you feel a little self-protective of your character. There's a bit of trepidation like, 'Oh, what if I read it and I don't like what they've done with my character?' There was a little bit of a concern that I was going to be disappointed, or that I might not like the decisions they had made for where she goes from there. When I sat down to read the script, all of that just went away. From the moment she came into the story, and when I saw where it was going and what they had done, I was just so knocked out by it. When we got to the end of the story and I saw that they had Indy and Marion getting married, I was crying. I was really just so touched. This is very special. They've really decided to bring these characters together in a major way and allow them to fall in love with each other.
When you first read the script, was Shia involved at that point, or at what point did you find out that Shia was involved?
Karen Allen: Steven told me that he wanted Shia to do it, and I didn't know who Shia was. I had never heard of him. So I went Netflixing around so I could see his performances and I was just knocked out by him and was like, 'What a fantastic young actor.' Steven told me he was trying to get Cate Blanchet to play the role of the villainess. He wasn't sure that she could do it, but that was who he really wanted at the time. She had another commitment that was going to conflict, so he was unsure and he had decided indefinitely on John Hurt at that point, but Ray Winstone wasn't involved yet. He wasn't sure who he wanted to play that role.
In working with Steve and George (Lucas) and Harrison, in what ways were they the same guys that you had worked with on the first film, and in what ways had they evolved over the years?
Karen Allen: You know, to me, it just seemed like everybody was much more relaxed, having a good time. I think when we were doing the first one, and maybe this was just more my perspective, but it just seemed like everybody was under a lot more pressure. We were all away from home, so this time, Steven really made a decision that he didn't want to go overseas to do it. He wanted to stay and be with his family so the bulk of the film was going to be shot in Los Angeles. I think it had been such a long time coming and they had been working so hard at getting a script that they liked, and it just seemed like one of those projects that, when it was finally cleared, that we were going to all come back and do it. From the first day, when I flew out here to do some camera tests and we were going to be looking at wardrobe and we were trying to figure out how Marion was going to look and what kinds of costumes I was going to wear, the first time I met Shia, Harrison was there, George was there, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank were there. It was just this sort of feeling that everybody was so excited that we were going to do the film. In Raiders Of The Lost Ark, because it was kind of an unknown, nobody really had a sense of what it was yet, I know I didn't. My joke is that I always thought we were making a sort of Casablanca (Laughs). I had a whole different film in my head.
There have been many versions and drafts and writers on the screenplay. At what point did you come in? Did you come in with this script that we see on screen, or were there previous versions of the story that might have been different?
Karen Allen: That's a good question, and I don't even know how to answer it. I read a version in Steven's apartment, when he first had me come into New York to sit and read it. As I'm sure you all know, they're very secretive about these scripts. They were secretive about the Raiders Of The Lost Ark script. I mean, a courier came and brought that script to me, up in Northern California where I was shooting something and sat in the hotel room while I was reading and then took the script back. I went to Steven's apartment, I read the script and then Steven arrived and then David Koepp arrived and we got to meet him and then I had to leave without a script. There were some things that changed, between my reading that script in his apartment and two or three months later when I got the script, but what they were, I couldn't tell you, because it was like, I read it once, and then two or three months went by, so I never had anything to compare it to when I got the final script. I'm thinking that once Cate Blanchet said yes to that role, between the two versions I read, that role grew quite a bit, it got fleshed out a lot, because I think Steven was so happy that she was going to do the role, they really wanted to make something great out of the role for her. I just don't remember it being as prominent, but, you know, it may have been. That script sort of remains as a vague abstract in my mind.
What's happened with your career in the wake of this movie? Is Hollywood all of the sudden like, 'Give me Karen Allen?'
Karen Allen: Well, I'm reading lots of scripts now. We're in this sort of funny little holding pattern with this looming SAG strike that isn't happening but is sort of keeping films from really moving forward to the extent that they might be otherwise. There are a couple of things that I've been interested in that have been kind of waiting to be greenlit, so those are things I don't know about. I think there are going to be other roles out there for me to do. I got to a point where there was just so little that I was being offered or being given to read that I liked, probably seven or eight years ago, and I was also raising my son, so I couldn't just go to Thailand for three and a half months at the drop of a hat. I would get a call and they would say, 'You're being offered this role. You have to be in Thailand in four days.' My son would be in the middle of 8th grade or something. I was a single parent so I couldn't pull him out of school for three and a half months to go to Thailand and have him sit in a hotel room. I had a lot of those kinds of decisions I had to struggle with and make and I have to say, also, there were very very few things that I would've been so excited to do that I would've tried to solve those problems. Television projects haven't interested me so much because, oftentimes, you have to relocate. You have to live in Los Angeles or you have to live in Vancouver or you have to live in Toronto. You have to live somewhere a good chunk of the year, a good seven or eight months out of the year and I just haven't been willing to do that. So I just sort of shifted my focus to a life that I thought was really going to be in support of my son getting through high school and finishing his primary education and me finishing my primary parenting duties and that turned out to be starting a design company and creating a really interesting creative life for myself that really didn't involve the film industry. I think I was always open to something, if it came my way and it was something I really wanted to do and I could figure out how to do it on a practical level. Luckily enough for me, this film sort of timed out perfectly. Just as he was getting ready to start college - he skipped two years and started college early - the Crystal Skull sort of came into my life right at that moment, in the summer he was finishing high school.
Does your experience as a single parent inform or give you more perspective that Marion is, for all intents and purposes, a single parent?
Karen Allen: Well, I certainly have that identification. They're exactly the same age, in a way, so sometimes you just get that for free with a character, where something you're grappling with in your own life, you're right on the same page, so that was kind of great.
You've worked with so many great directors over the years, but Steven is one in a million. What are the kinds of qualities that really make him who he is?
Karen Allen: He's so clear about what he's doing, about the storytelling part of it. You always feel as though he'll let you try anything and, yes, he kind of has a good sense of what he's looking for in a given scene. I think my favorite thing about him as a director is, you know, some directors like to work in a very improvisatorial way, and some are very structured, and Steven is both. He's very structured and very improvisatorial at the same time. He will kind of go in with having an idea of what he wants to do and he's quite open to doing it differently, if things happen in such a way. Sometimes directors, I feel, get stuck and they can't really decide how they want to do something and if it's not working, they just sort of stick with what they're doing. He's very open and if it's not working, he'll immediately shift and start working with people and trying this and trying that and bringing in elements or shooting it in an entirely different way. All of his preparation is there, but there is this fluidity about it where you can come at something in so many different directions and I think that is what makes him a really interesting director to work with for me. He loves to draw out ideas from people as well and use things in the moment, the spontaneous moment. In fact, I think a lot of those moments, which weren't necessarily in the script, have become these classic moments in the films. Like Harrison shooting the guy wielding the sword (in Raiders Of The Lost Ark). These are just things that sort of happen out of the moment on the set. I think for him to recognize a moment like that and go ahead and shoot it, even though it's a far cry from what was planned in the script. That was supposed to be the big fight sequence in the middle of the film, and it ended in like five seconds (Laughs).
I'm sure a lot of us watched all three films before seeing the fourth. Was that something you did to try to get a feel of the character again?
Karen Allen: I watched Raiders Of The Lost Ark a few times, but, I have to say, it's been a film that, for one reason or another, unlike a lot of films that I've done and maybe only saw a few times after coming out, Raiders Of The Lost Ark is very unique in the sense that it kept coming back into my life. People would be doing a showing of it, Jabobs, who runs Paris Theater in New York, he decided he really wanted to show Raiders Of The Lost Ark on the big screen and he invited me to come and do a little Q&A after three screenings. It was an amazing experience. It was packed with people and people were bringing their kids to see it on the big screen for the first time. There kept being experiences like that where people would call me and say, 'Would you please come? We're going to show the film.' So it was a film that kept re-entering my life, so I didn't feel like I had a distance from it. It wasn't like, 'Who was that character?' or 'What was our relationship like?' It stayed very current in my life because often I would stay and watch the film, when I was doing these things, and I would see it all over again, on a big screen, which is so unusual. Once a film hits the big screen, we're kind of stuck with seeing it on television after that.
How open are you to getting the band back together one more time, or maybe doing something with Shia, a spin-off with him?
Karen Allen: I would say very open to it. It was a delightful experience and I would welcome it.
Has anyone raised that possibility?
Karen Allen: Not really. Except for fans, no, not anybody officially.
Since the whole thing took such a long time to get going, did the actual filming roll along slowly as well when you were on the set?
Karen Allen: It actually had a really great rhythm to it. It neither felt that we were moving too quickly or that it was slow. There were very few problems, too. The sets, for the most part, all worked. They all did what they were supposed to do, and some of them were very very complicated things. Like the set where the stairs are retracting as we're running down them. We all had to be on harnesses and everything because it's a long fall. All of the sets had amazing little things that they were doing, like when they finally open up when we go into the temple, that incredible door that opens up, oh my God. It worked beautifully. The first time they opened that door for us, we were like, 'Ahh oh my god!' We just wanted to kneel at the feet of our wonderful set designer.
That door wasn't CG?
Karen Allen: No, he made that. It was incredible. I hope they didn't destroy it because that was just a work of art, to see that thing function. Other than the kind of vacuum tubes that we were using when we were in the quicksand, we had some malfunctions with those.
The original movie was still early on in your career and in everyone's career. Many of these people now doing the fourth movie, they don't have to do it. Even Shia could retire tomorrow with a comfortable life. Did you notice a difference in passion, because people are doing this as a choice? That it's something they love to do and are able to do?
Karen Allen: Shia was there in a kind of sense of awe. Shia kind of couldn't believe his luck. He was like, 'Oh my God. I'm going to be in an Indiana Jones film.' When I met him, he was sort of like, 'Oh my God. I'm meeting Marion Ravenwood.' 'Oh my God. I'm meeting Indiana Jones.' He had already met Steven and George and the day that he met Harrison and me simultaneously, he was so excited about doing this film. He was just over the moon about it. Harrison was too. Harrison came bouncing up the steps to my trailer and he was just delighted to be working with Steven again. I think they have such a great working relationship and he respects Steven so much as a director. I think he feels like he's in such great hands with Steven. I don't know anything about other directors that Harrison has worked with, but I think Harrison just really wanted to do this film. He just really wanted to put on that fedora and leather jacket again. And Cate Blanchet was so excited to do it. She had been an Indiana Jones fan as a kid, so I think there was this sense of passion and excitement and it felt that, even though it was something they had done again and again and again, it had this very fresh feeling because it had been such a long time and there were all these new added elements like Cate and Shia and me coming back. It's not a matter of them needing to do another Indiana Jones film. Steven said he did it, really, because everyone kept asking him to. Everywhere he went, people kept coming up to him and asking, 'When are you going to do another Indiana Jones film?' He said he felt like he was making this film for the fans.
What did you think of Shia? He comes in with a lot of credibility, for as young as he is. How did you feel about him once you got to know him?
Karen Allen: I just adore him. He is a great kid, young man. He's unique. He's very bright, he's very funny and witty. To have the pleasure of sitting next to him in the makeup trailer every day, which we did, I would start the day laughing. He's like a raconteur. I've never met a 21-year-old person that can tell stories the way he can. He's had quite an unusual and interesting life. It's really as an actor and starting out as young as he did and the things that got him into wanting to be an actor. He wanted to be an actor because he met an actor who had a really nice pair of tennis shoes (Laughs) that his family couldn't afford. He said, 'How did you get those tennis shoes?' And he said, 'I'm on this television show and I make a lot of money.' And Shia was like, 'OK!' He's lovely. As an actor, I think he can do anything that he wants to do. He's got a lot of depth to him. I've been very impressed. There are a few films of his that I haven't seen but I really want to see. One is the golf film, which I hear he's just fantastic in, The Greatest Game Ever Played. I heard he's just excellent in that. When I saw Transformers, I mean, that's hard. Talk about green screen. That's really hard what he's doing, making us believe that these giant robots are there and he has this relationship with them. He commits himself so completely every minute when he's working. I think he's fantastic. I had a great time with him. He's just an easy person to work with.
What's the most unusual or remote place that you've been recognized as Marion?
Karen Allen: I could tell you the funniest time I was recognized, but it was here in Los Angeles, it was just the situation. I had a boyfriend who lived here in Los Angeles and I came here to surprise him on his birthday. Some friends of his were going to do a dinner to sort of get him out of the house while I came into the house to surprise him when he came home. I had a key to the house and I came in through the front door and then I called to say I'm here, to his friends. They sort of ended the dinner and I'm sitting in the house and he came home, started to open the door and I'm listening and getting ready to say surprise and, all of the sudden, I don't hear any noise. I wait and I wait and I don't hear footsteps in the house and I keep waiting and waiting. I'm thinking, 'What happened to him?' I finally got up and I went to the door and the door is slightly ajar. I went outside and I don't see him and I look around and I hear a police helicopter above the house. Lights are flashing all over the top of the house and I thought, 'Oh my God. He thought somebody was in his house.' Suddenly I hear all this noise outside the house and, somehow through the glass doors, in the yard I see two cops with guns drawn coming towards the thing. They're like, 'Freeze!' I went, 'I'm his girlfriend. I'm his girlfriend!' I very cautiously go over and pull open the door and the policeman says to me, 'Weren't you in Raiders Of The Lost Ark?' (Laughs)
Seriously, we were dying of laughter for a good few minutes there. Priceless. I can't think of a better way to bring the day to a close than that, folks. It was an entertaining and enlightening day on the Paramount lot with Marion Ravenwood herself, Karen Allen. You can see Allen's classic character, Marion Ravenwood in your own home when Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull hits the shelves on DVD and Blu-ray on October 14.