in “Year by the Sea
Probably best-known for her turns in “Raiders of the Lost Ark
” and the “Christmas Carol
” retelling “Scrooged
,” Karen Allen
has been working regularly since her 1978 debut in “Animal House
.” She serves as a theater actor and director in addition to acting onscreen in projects like “In the Bedroom
,” “Law & Order,” and “Blue Bloods
.” Allen recently made her directorial film debut with “A Tree a Rock a Cloud.” The short is adapted from a Carson McCullers
story about a random, but significant, conversation between a boy and an older man. Allen’s latest project is Alexander Janko
’s “Year by the Sea
,” a portrait of a newly single woman rebuilding her life in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The film is based on Joan Anderson
’s bestselling memoir of the same name.
We sat down with Allen to talk about her connection to Anderson and the book, the way Hollywood treats women over 60, and why she decided to try her hand at film directing.
“Year by the Sea
” opens in New York September 8 and in Los Angeles September 15. A national theatrical release will follow.
This interview has been edited. It was transcribed by Lyra Hale.
W&H: I really wanted to ask you how you became involved in the film?
Ka: I was just at home and I got the screenplay, which was sent to me, and I read it and thought, “I didn’t know Joan’s work,” which is odd because we have a lot of similar pathways in our lives. It’s kind of surprising that we never met each other, that the book never came into my world. But I finished reading the script and I went right out and got the book and I sat with the book and I thought the book was quite courageous.
This was a woman who had reached a crisis moment in her life, who was taking a very clear tough-minded look at herself, and had made some decisions about just wanting to get to know herself. She was interested in that authentic self underneath all the things that she had piled onto herself over the years in terms of other people’s expectations and she just wanted to somehow — instinctively she knew in order to survive, and in order to really find herself, she was going to have to figure out how to let a lot of that fall away, go back, and really get to know herself again.
I found that very inspiring and moving. I went to meet the director and I was very open about how much I would love to play the role and about a week later they offered it to me. I met Joan and I spent some time with her, and we had a wonderful connection, which has stayed to this day.
I had a great time making the film. She was there but she didn’t interfere in any way at all. She let us do our thing. And I was playing her 25 years before the time period where I met her, so I wasn’t really playing the woman I was meeting. I was playing a woman who was at a much different part of the journey than she’s on right now.
W&H: I felt like this journey was about how women take on other people’s baggage and lose their own selves. It’s kind of a very common theme with women as they get older. So I would imagine that this would resonate a lot with women.
Ka: With women and certainly with anybody who’s ever been a parent. We don’t mean to do it, we don’t necessarily aspire to do it, but we fall in love with our children and we want to care for them, support them, educate them, and help them, in every way we can.
They become this daily rhythm and part of our lives and when they suddenly grow up and leave you feel this huge piece of yourself is missing because you really have adapted, grown, changed, and become a person who is a caretaker.
In spite of everything, you really do feel — and unlike Joan, I worked all through the raising of my child. I made tough decisions about what kind of work I would do and I stopped doing some of the really far-flung travels that I had been doing earlier in my life because it began to feel very unfair to pull my son out of school for three or four months and take him to somewhere where he would sit in a hotel room with a tutor or babysitter while I went off and worked 14 hours a day, six days a week. It just didn’t seem like a way of life that I wanted to embrace or that I wanted him to have to embrace. So I made choices that I felt were in support of him in terms of my working life.
And I think in Joan’s case, she’s a published writer, and she just put that on hold to raise two children and had a husband was very much involved in his work. She took on the role of parent and looking after their world. It’s an important role but it’s a role that ends at a certain point. It’s not a role that you’re going to have for life.
W&H: Hollywood has so many issues with women who are over 40 and here is a movie with women who are over 60 embarking on exciting things in their lives, and I’m just wondering what it felt like for you to be in a movie with women who are 60?
Ka: Well, I was thrilled because there just aren’t just that many films that come around. If I read a script with a role for a 60-year-old woman, it’s usually in some capacity of a grandmother, a mother, or a boss. They’re not fully realized characters. To have the opportunity to play a role like Joan Anderson
, work with Celia Imrie
, and Epatha Merkerson
, as my two co-stars, and Michael Cristofer
— all of us being over 60 — it just seemed like such a rare experience to have.
W&H: Well, it is. How many scripts do you actually get from your agents, to read?
Ka: I have scripts that come to me from all over the place. I just directed my first film and I’ve been out at film festivals with it.
From my agents, in the course of a year, in a good year, there could be 30 and a tough year maybe half that. Many of them are not ones I would really consider very seriously just because I don’t think they’re particularly film worthy. I work a lot in the theater, both directing and acting, and in the theater very rarely does the play end up on a major stage unless it’s really remarkable. So you don’t kind of have that same dilemma in the theater.
I come from, I feel like, a very real and extraordinary generation of actresses. And I’ve grown up with them all. I was in New York at the age of 25 and I pretty much know, if not know them well or personally, I certainly have met most of the actresses of my generation at one point or another, or had the pleasure of working with them. It’s a wonderful large and fantastic generation of actresses and I don’t see nearly enough of them on screen. It actually breaks my heart how I can think of 40 names right now who I just feel like I don’t get to see anymore.
W&H: Let’s talk a little bit about why you ventured into film directing. You said you’ve done a lot of theater, and why were you tempted into making the film that you did?
Ka: I’ve been directing in the theater for awhile and a producer who I had to work with in New York, who had produced play I had directed, that won an Obie [Off-Broadway Theater Award], was sitting with me one day and he said, “Why not film? Why have you kind of shied away from directing a film?” And I said, “I don’t know that I’ve shied away from it. It just seems to me like I’ve spent my adult life on film sets and I can’t for a second fool myself or be naive enough not to know what a large undertaking it is to make a film.”
For a director it can be two to three years really committed to one project. And as an actor I’m at times committed for three to four months, but that’s usually the longest. So it’s another way of approaching a project. It’s like saying, “Gee, I’m going to be doing this for 3 years.”
So he and I continued to talk and I said, “If I were going to do a film I would want to be wise and do a short film. I would want it to be a certain kind of film that I felt I could really do well, that would play on all my strengths so that I would really have a positive experience making it and not go into it feeling completely overwhelmed.”
I have seen many first-time directors with that deer-in-the-headlights look. I’m very familiar with it. I’ve worked with a lot of first-time directors in film. So we continued with that conversation and he finally said, “If you were going to do it, what would it be? And I said, “There’s a story of Carson McCullers
’ that I’ve thought about for 40 years.”
It’s just been something that had sat there in my head for a very long time. And he said, “I would love to help you do this.” And then we brought on another producer, Diane Pearlman
, who was with me in Cannes, who I don’t know if you’ve met her, she runs with Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative in Western Massachusetts. Then we moved forward and just decided to do it. And it has taken three years.
We’re still working on it and I was able to bring many, many women onto the crew of our film. I had a female first A.D. [assistant director], a female production designer, and a female costume designer. We were female rich, which was a great joy.
I decided to open up my world to directing about 10 years ago because I don’t want my creative life to be limited by whether there’s an interesting role for me at 65. I love telling stories and I love developing projects and I don’t see any reason why I’d have to be in them for me to be involved.
So it makes for a very enriching experience for me to also embrace working as a director because, you know, particularly in the playwriting world there are so many plays that I love, so many playwrights whose work I love, where there isn’t a role for me.
W&H: What did you learn as an actor working with first-time directors, that you took into being a director?
Ka: One of the main lessons is preparation, preparation, preparation.
If you show up on the set the first day and you have really done the work; have a sense of how you want to shoot the film, know the material, chosen the right actors, and you know your actors and you have done the work with them to know you’re on the same wavelength. If you’ve done the work then you can actually be very calm, clear-minded, and put your attention where it needs to go when you’re actually shooting.
I somehow felt like those were lessons that I had gathered over my 35 to 45 years of being on sets. And it seemed to me like the sets that were successful and the people who were really able to bring out their best, came from that kind of calmness in the director, because they knew what they were doing, they knew where they were going. They had a shot list, they knew how they wanted to shoot a scene, and yet they were prepared and open. Prepared and yet open. And I think actually to be open you need to be prepared.
So I tried to emulate that, and I actually feel I was quite successful at it, that I was a bit of a whirling dervish for about four months during preparation. And probably drove everybody crazy because I was into so much of the minutiae and I just wanted to make sure everything was explored and every decision was sort of looked at from all different angles.
It paid off in spades when I got on set with my actors.
W&H: That’s good advice. I would imagine that you have gotten the bug now and you want to direct more film?
Ka: Well, I’m really willing to take it a little bit at a time. At Cannes I had three scripts that were sent to me after people saw my film that were in various phases of development. None of them are fully funded.
The more my film gets out there into the world — we’ve been going to film festivals, we’ve won a number of awards — and the more that the film is being seen by people, the more attention I am getting as a director.
So it feels as though if I do want to do that, I could move in that direction, which is great. It’s lovely to feel like there’s a door opening up for me. So I’ll just see. One of the most difficult aspects of making this short film was that we raised the money ourselves. And it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do in my life. I don’t think I’m particularly skilled at it.
W&H: Last question: You’ve been in movies that have been so seminal to so many people. I was just wondering, what does it feel to be in films that have had such profound effects on people?
Ka: You know, that’s such a hard question to answer. It feels like often it just feels like such a privilege to have had a chance to work in the film world and to be hired to do all these wonderful roles. I had this wonderful period in my life, maybe for 15 years, where I was really working in an ongoing way, being offered really wonderful projects that I just loved every minute of. And now to still be doing it.
I don’t get offered all the great projects. I’m not on anybody’s A list for the next whatever. But I still keep working in independent films and in the theater. I’ve started to direct a couple films and you know it’s been such an incredible journey and I don’t know what it feels like for other people and their experiences. I know sometimes people are just, they love some of the films so much — “Starman
” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark
It comes back to me sometimes in the most surprising ways and I can’t imagine having done anything else in my life. And certainly the first 22 years of my life I couldn’t have imagined anything like this was possible. I’d never met an actress or seen a play. I’d seen films. I loved films. I love to watch films. That world seemed a million miles away to me.
“Year by the Sea
” Star Karen Allen
on Joan Anderson
’s Book, Directing, and Roles for Women Over 60 was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.