FilmCourage.com recently had the honor to receive a few thoughts on acting from the amazing Karen Black! Karen Black and Director Russell Brown have put together an essential 75 minute interview series entitled ‘Karen Black: On Acting.’ The series is available on Distrify for a rental of only $2.99. Karen Black: On Acting an informative look at the craft with 40 years’ of insight, getting into character, working with supportive directors and more that artists on both sides of the camera should watch!
1) What choices/decisions seemed like a mistake in your career, but once a few years passed, you realized how wise a choice it was that you stuck by this decision (such as choosing/turning down a particular role, determining an agent or manager, etc)?
Yes, there are a few mistakes, different kinds of mistakes really. The first kind of mistake is not working with some people that I regret just simply not having gotten to know. I was asked on two occasions to do a movie with James Garner, and from everything I can glean, he is one the the nicest, warmest actors walking. I was asked to do a film with George C. Scott. I always figured I looked like his twice married wife and years later, it struck me as possible if not probable that we would have struck up a little something between us. Woody Allen asked me to do a film, and where could my head possibly have been at to turn him down!!? I feel like writing him a note that says, “Dear Woody, I’ve changed my mind.”
I feel that doing Day of The locust was another kind of mistake: entering into a group which never really respected me and, since I had no way of building that respect, it hurt my standing in the community. I simply couldn’t get them to see me, as they had been gossiped to quite skillfully.
Many of the films I did, I just did as a working person for money with which to live. You know which ones they were. They were pretty much all mistakes.
2) You mentioned in the video for ‘Karen Black: On Acting’ that once you determine a character’s real need (as opposed to their false self), an actor can truly embody a character. How did you discover this as being a catalyst for someone to inhabit a character, instead of merely imitating a role?
The answer to this question is a strange one: I was not made aware of the difference and the reality between what a character wants and what he needs by another actor, a teacher, nor a director, but in fact by a screenwriter, one Waldo Salt. Waldo loved my screenwriting and made sure that one of my screenplays got into the Sundance institute. He was helping me with my work when he revealed this wonderful truth to me. He was telling me that in Midnight Cowboy, Ratso thinks he wants to be the best possible pimp in New York City. But what he needs is a friend. And as the movie draws to a close, he does achieve that goal and so the film is satisfying to us all.
In the Great Gatsby, Myrtle Wilson wants to be socially accepted. She wants Tom to gift her with fancy clothes, up-scale friends seen at glamorous parties, and eventually to become his wife and to look down at -or at least on the same level with- all the fur-coated, be-jeweled snobbish women folk who have been looking down on her as shabby and impecunious all of her life.
But what does she need? What drives her from deep within? She needs to accept herself. She need so badly to think well of herself, to be able to live each day simply, with that dignity that should come naturally so that it doesn’t matter to her how she may be regarded by her fellow man at all. I won the Golden Globe for my performance.
3) If you say an actor is responsible for carrying an entire film (not simply reciting lines and showing emotion), how can an actor take ownership of a role, no matter how small?
The actor would look over the script with the goal -to perceive what part his character plays in the structure and balance of the screenplay. I recently saw a film wherein there were two kinds of families: those with a structured existence and a family that had traveled doing stage shows its whole existence. We were, I believe, meant to take up the side of the “looney family.. .“ Now it’s only my opinion but the mom of that family was not played in a loving enough way to make us understand the closeness that can occur there. And it gave the “other side” so to speak, all the right guy marks, which I thought unbalanced the story.
I just mean that when going into a movie, and not that I always have, believe me, it is best to ask yourself questions. What part does this character play in the whole of the story. And. What does the audience need to finds out by watching this person?
4) Do you have to find something likable about each character you play, even if the role is deemed negative in some way? For instance in Some Guy Who Kills People, you play Ruth Boyd, who never misses an opportunity to take jabs at her son, or in The Day of the Locust, as the beautiful and manipulative Faye Greener, who tempts men into taking care of her. Did you like both of these characters as people, or was this not necessary for you to play them so brilliantly?
I think of the actor in a film as part of the work, more like a sculpture which would be part of a sculptor’s presentation. I frequently don’t consider a role as a single entity on its own. Yes, I just loved the part of Ruth Boyd, and like any actor worth his salt- was looking forward to seeing if could get all my laughs- which I know a sarcastic voice or point of view can bring on!
With Faye greener, in fact, I feel now she could have been played with more shallow selfishness than with which I played her. Why? Faye needed, as a persona, to contribute to the very root of the idea about Hollywood at that time in American history: self-absorbed, people run by fear and ambition. This concept of life – not a pretty one- makes up the meaning of the movie.
I was asked to play Mother Firefly in Rob Zombie’s first film and she’s a horror of a female!!. But her loving embracing of the slaughter that her sons commit was interesting. All she knew was that they were her boys and that whatever they did, it was good. The ingrown family lunacy was shown by this crazy attitude on her part and helped to make the movie work.
For more on the Karen Black ‘On Acting’ official website and VOD Rental, please visit:
KAREN BLACK: ON ACTING
Directed & Produced by: Russell Brown
Camera: Jason Sicchio
Music: Dan Marschak and Miles Senzaki
Special Thanks: Stephen Eckleberry and Christopher Munch
TRT: 75 minutes
In March of 2013, actress Karen Black revealed publicly that she had been battling cancer for several years. A few months earlier, in January, the Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner sat with director Russell Brown to share 40 years’ worth of insight into the craft of acting. In 75 minutes, this in-depth interview covers everything from perfecting regional accents to finding a character’s inner needs from one of the most respected performers of her generation. A portion of the proceeds will contribute to Karen’s recovery.
When I was a teenager, discovering the great American films from the late 60s and 1970s was perhaps one of the most formative experiences of my life. I became obsessed with movies such as Nashville and Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider, and the spirit of these films and filmmakers has guided my entire career. But it wasn’t just the filmmakers that kept catching my attention. Throughout so many of these movies were performances from an utterly unique, spellbinding actress named Karen Black.
In 2007, I directed my second feature and needed to cast an actress to a play a guru, a powerful woman who imparts wisdom to a young writer. Luck twinkled, and Karen Black said yes. Over the years, Karen and I became close friends. When she asked me to interview her about what she’d learned as an actress, there wasn’t a second of hesitation. The intention of this film is as a seminar about the craft of acting. Although she does often reference her iconic roles, the purpose was to present her philosophies and ideas about acting. I hope the film is informative; but more so, I hope it reveals the beauty and soul of an actress who is a true artist, intellectual, humanitarian, and rebel.
Karen Black has this way of getting around. She has done over 150 movies, 5 Broadway and many off -Broadway plays, got 5 of her screenplays made into movies, excluding her latest screenplay which got selected by the Sundance Screenwriter’s lab. She’s also a playwright and a songwriter.
Her movies include Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces”, for which she received an Academy Award nomination and won a Golden Globe, Jack Claytyon’s “the Great Gatsby” for which she won another Golden Globe, John Schlessinger’s “Day of the Locust” for which she received a Golden Globe nomination, Robert Altman’s, “Nashville”, for which she was nominated for a Grammy, Jack Smight’s “Airport 75”, Alfred Hitchcock’s, “Family Plot”, Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider” and Altman’s “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean”. On Broadway, Karen created the role of Joanne in “Five and Dime…” when it opened as a play. Also, on Broadway, she did “All in the Family”, starring Patrick Magee, “Happily Never After,” and was nominated for a Drama Circle Critics Best Actress Award for her role in Mary Drayton’s ” The Playroom.” She wrote the book for the musical, “Missouri Waltz” with icon songwriter Harriet Shock which had a successful run at the Blank theater in Los Angeles and at the Capitol in Macon, Georgia.
Recently she received 2 best actress awards for her work in Angela Garcia Combs “Nothing Special”. She won rave reviews for her work in Russell Brown’s award winning film “The Blue Tooth Virgin” which won the Jury Prize at The Seattle Film Festival and then enjoyed a run at art theaters across the U.S. In Jasmine McGlade’s “Maria My Love”, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, Karen is proud of her work as a hoarder and hermit; Film Journal hailed her portrayal as “Miraculous”. More recently, “Vacationland” opened the Maine International Film Festival and Karen costarred in the trilogy movie, “She Loves Me Not”, with Cary Elwes, and directed by Sundance nominated Brian Jun. Jack Perez’s new comedy thriller, “Some Guy Who Kills People” starring Kevin Corrigan, Karen, and Barry Bostwick opened in London and is set for a major release by Anchor Bay later on this year.
RUSSELL BROWN – DIRECTOR/PRODUCER:
Russell Brown‘s third feature film, Annie and The Gypsy, starring Cybill Shepherd and David Burtka, premiered on the festival circuit in Spring 2012 and is being distributed by Osiris Entertainment. His second feature film, The Blue Tooth Virgin, was released theatrically in the United States by Regent Releasing in September, 2009. It won the Special Jury Prize at the Seattle International Film Festival in the New American Cinema competition. “Hilarious, acutely knowing… Led by a bravura performance from Karen Black as Sam’s expensive script consultant, Brown’s people are laughably overly analytical. Yet comedy enables Brown to dig into the art-industry equation that is the eternal Hollywood challenge, as well as questions about values, priorities, standards, goals — all leading to what is all-important: self- knowledge. It’s not too much to hazard that Billy Wilder would have enjoyed The Blue Tooth Virgin.” (Los Angeles Times) Brown’s first feature, Race You to the Bottom, was released theatrically in the United States in March, 2007, by Here Films. The award-winning film played at festivals worldwide. “Writing and directing with perceptive wit, Brown adroitly captures the quicksilver shifts in moods within a tempestuous, passionate romance between two articulate, free-thinking young people.” (Los Angeles Times) Brown has also made many well-received short films, including Mama Laura’s Boys (2002), about the oldest blues club in Los Angeles, which was broadcast on PBS, and Reality USA (2004), a study of the emotional and geographic landscape of America, based on work by the noted poet Mark Halliday. Both short films premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.
A Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Southern California’s Film program, he held creative executive positions with Laura Ziskin Productions at Columbia Pictures and Saturday Night Live Studios at Paramount Pictures. Currently, he is developing The Ways of Water with producer Kerry Barden, and is shooting a documentary on artist Robert Therrien.