Though Jamie Lee Curtis often is referred to as the “scream queen” of the late 1970s and 80s, there was an actress who earned that throne by not only starring in some of the greatest horror films of that time, but in some of the best films period! That actress is Nancy Allen.
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Ms. Allen first came to my (and most of my 16 year old friends’) attention with her performance as bad girl Chris Hargensen in Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel “Carrie.” This was her first of four films with De Palma, who she later married (they have since divorced). She did a complete turn around in her next role, a crazy Beatles fan, in “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” It was on this film that she met fellow actress Wendie Jo Sperber. The two began a friendship that would grow and last until Ms. Sperber’s tragic death from breast cancer at the all too young age of 47. After appearing in Steven Spielberg’s “1941″ and De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill” (which earned her a Golden Globe nomination for “New Star of the Year” in a Motion Picture) Ms. Allen reunited with her “Carrie” co-star John Travolta for the film “Blow Out.” Dumped into theatres in the summer of 1981, the film was poorly marketed, with the studio practically ignoring the audience it was meant for. Despite rave reviews by such film critics as Roger Ebert, Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael the film came and went in a matter of weeks. However, thanks to home video, 30 years later the film is recognized as one of the greatest political thrillers ever made.
In 1987 she starred as police officer Anne Lewis in the futuristic “RoboCop” and has also starred in films like “The Buddy System,” “The Philadelphia Experiment” and “Out of Sight,” as well as the two “RoboCop” sequels and numerous television programs (“JAG,” “Judging Amy”). Today she devotes the majority of her time and energy to weSPARK, the cancer support center founded by Wendie Jo Sperber. Over the holidays Ms. Allen graciously took time out from her busy schedule to talk with MovieMikes about her career and her determination to carry on her friend’s work:
Mike Smith: You attended the New York High School of the Performing Arts, which was featured in the film “FAME.” High school is hard enough. Was it tough to compete with your classmates both academically and talent wise?
Nancy Allen: It was tough on a lot of levels. Through the ninth grade I had attended an all girls private school with the same group of girls. A very small group. And all of a sudden I’m in a co-ed school. It was wild… there was a lot of pressure. But I think more than anything…I had danced my whole life because I loved it. And it suddenly became something that I was graded on. It really took the joy out it for me. And more importantly it revealed to me that dancing wasn’t my path. I didn’t know what my path was at that point but you have to be so disciplined and so dedicated and such a hard worker…I danced because I loved it. I didn’t have the obsession with it you had to have. So even though it was a one year foray it was fun.
MS: You made four films with Brian De Palma, who you later married. Did you find it easier or harder to work on a project with someone you’re basically spending 24 hours a day with?
NA: We met working on “Carrie,” so my initial relationship with him was a professional one. And quite honestly we didn’t spend a lot of time together on the set because he and I had different responsibilities. So you’re not really together 24 hours a day. Maybe you find time to grab a bite to eat afterwards but you’re so tired that it’s almost like you’re not there. And that, I think, is the challenging part… to find the moments. Because whether you’re working together or not working together, you have to find those moments. On a professional level, there’s a kind of short hand you develop because you really do know each other so well. The communication is much simpler. He knew me and he knew how to get the performance he needed from me and I trusted his direction. Of course, the toughest part is everybody else’s conversations about it! (laughs)
MS: You had the rare opportunity of working with John Travolta just as his career was beginning to take off and then immediately after he exploded onto the scene. Did you notice any difference in the way he approached his work?
NA: No. John is very particular and meticulous about his work. His career actually started exploding at the end of filming “Carrie.” His show (television’s “Welcome Back, Kotter”) had just started airing. I hadn’t seen it but I could sense things on the set. The week we shot the car crash scene the police had to put up barricades. He and I drove to the set together and I was like, “Oh my gosh, who are all of these people waiting for?” On “Blow Out” I had a little trepidation because it had been a few years and a lot had happened. He had already had some high highs but also a few low lows so I really didn’t know what to expect. But the minute he came in we sat down, had something to eat and talked about the movie…started doing some improv. We always had great chemistry and John was John. He was still fun. He was still adorable. I loved working with him. He’s really one of the favorite people that I worked with in my career.
MS: You were both brilliant in “Blow Out.” It kills me that the film was virtually ignored when it came out and is so under appreciated.
NA: It’s actually become a phenomenon in France. People there are crazy for that movie. And I think over the years that people have caught on to it. But it had so many problems. How it was released was a problem and when it was released was a problem. Back then you had summer movies and fall movies. Films were really released a specific way then. Brian tried to convince them that the film wasn’t a big summer block buster. But because the studio had John Travolta they wanted to try and make it a summer blockbuster. And it didn’t work. But it’s got a great cast, an amazing script…it’s a piece I’m really proud of.
MS: You followed “Carrie” with two very strong comedy performances in “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “1941.” Do you have a preference between drama and comedy?
NA: I love them both. Comedy seems easier because you’re getting the chance to be funny and have fun. When you’re doing a dramatic piece, a lot of times you have to go to those dark places so when you’re doing the work it’s a lot more taxing on your spirit. And a lot of it is the tone…the tone of the set is certainly affected by the piece. Though I have to say that on “Blow Out” we laughed an awful lot. You have to. It’s exhausting to bring up those tears and all of that. So sometimes you have to just be silly.
MS: Like “Blow Out,” I personally think “1941” is underrated. Steven Spielberg was coming off the one/two punch of “Jaws” and “Close Encounters” when it was released. Was there any sense on the set that Spielberg felt uncomfortable doing such a broad comedy?
NA: I think one of the problems was that even though there were “producers” on the set there were no producers on the set. Steven had been so successful that nobody would say no to him. I think the script we started with (written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis) was darn near perfect. But people kept saying to Steven “I want to be in it” and they kept re-writing it and creating new parts and story lines. And from a cast perspective we would ask each other “this is funny, right? I mean it’s Steven Spielberg…he knows what he’s doing, right?” I know a lot of us sensed that things were a little bit off the track. I mean, we started with a fourteen week shooting schedule. Everyone was booked for fourteen weeks. We shot for six months! So that will give you a little idea of things having gone a little bit off the beam. I think there are some really good things in the movie…things that had been in the original script. I’m happy that you enjoy the movie. I have a hard time watching it myself (laughs).
MS: You co-starred in both of those films with the late Wendie Jo Sperber, who sadly passed away five years ago this month (Ms. Sperber died on November 29, 2005). What are your memories of working with her? Are you still active in promoting her weSPARK Cancer Support Center?
NA: That is what I do. That is what my life is dedicated to. I’m there, I run it. I’ve created the whole program format… I fund raise. It is my life’s work. When I first met Wendie we were immediately kindred spirits. I loved working with her. I didn’t get to work with her enough. We just had the best time working together. Especially on “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” In “1941” even though we’re in the same movie we really didn’t work together. She was the kind of friend…everybody has one of them…that even if you don’t see each other for months when you finally talk to them you pick up…it’s almost like you never skipped a beat. Knowing her changed my life. Her asking me to participate and help launch her weSPARK Cancer Support Center came at a time in my life where I was not really happy with the work that I was doing. I didn’t like the projects that were coming my way. I was very unfulfilled. And I had a lot of changes in my family life, my perspectives had shifted. And lo and behold! If someone had told me ten years ago that this is what I would be dedicating my life to now I would have said, “are you kidding? I don’t know anything about this stuff. I don’t know how to do that!” (pauses) I miss her dearly.
MS: Going back to the comedy or drama question, do you think that because you may have been perceived as a certain type of actress – lots of screaming, lots of suspense – that you may have been typecast in some filmmakers’ opinions?
NA: I think it’s something that just happened. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is a fantastic movie. It just wasn’t a big hit. I think that when you’re successful in a certain genre – more so even then than now – and if you’re a woman, they think “that’s what she’s successful at…let’s get her to do more of that.” You have no idea how many of those kinds of scripts I was sent after I did “Carrie.” I mean I waited a year and a half before I did “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” I think it’s a case where some people don’t even think of you along those lines. Even on “1941.” Steven had cast almost the whole movie and pretty much everybody I knew was in it. And they’d tell me “there’s a perfect part for you in it.” And I’d tell them, “well, Steven knows me. I’m sure he’d be calling me if he thought that.” He finally did call and when I went in to meet with him he said, “I don’t know if it’s because I know you from your work or because I know you personally but I didn’t think of you and you’re perfect for this. I don’t even have to read you.” So there’s a case of someone who knew my work and knew me personally and professionally and didn’t think of me. So I think we remember people for what they’re successful in and we want them to repeat it. Then we beat them up for it…“why do you always do this…it’s not as good as the last one!” (laughs)
MS: Kind of like Jim Carrey. He’s done some fantastic dramatic work and, unless he’s talking out of his butt, he gets panned for it
NA: If you are great at comedy you can do anything. Comedy is THE hardest…really the hardest. It’s unfortunate because he’s really good.
MS: You appeared in all three of the “RoboCop” films? Any talk of making an appearance in the proposed reboot?
NA: I’ve heard about it through fans but no one has approached me. I hate that they’re re-doing the first one. The second and third one I don’t care about but the first film is such a perfect movie, why re-do it? Find something else that didn’t work and fix it.
MS: You recently appeared as a guest at the Chiller Theatre convention? Do you enjoy having the opportunity to meet your fans?
NA: Yes! A group of us (who appeared at the convention) were heading to the airport afterwards and talking about that. There is something so sweet…people have collected things…it’s their memories. They would talk to me about films and certain scenes or certain movies and it’s really a sweet experience. I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I really did. I love when the share their memories.
MS: I was 16 years old and a theatre usher when “Carrie” came out and I can remember a woman fainting and falling out of her seat at the end of the first show. We were sold out the entire weekend and I can still remember the applause and cheers from the audience when the car explodes and Chris and Billy meet their end. You certainly convinced everyone that Chris was not a good person.
NA: (laughing) She actually was. She was just misunderstood! (laughs)
MS: Are you currently working on anything?
NA: Right now I’m doing a lot of fundraising for weSPARK. I get sent things and I read them but it will have to be really something absolutely fabulous. And I don’t mean it has to be for a ton of money. It has to be something really, really good to take me away for a period of time.
Check out the weSPARK website: http://www.wespark.org/
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