Saturday, February 12, 2011

Pam Grier Fights On

The following is an expanded and revised interview by Chris Poggiali that originally appeared in Fangoria #209 (January 2002)

“What am I doing, helping Chris write his book?” Pam Grier jokingly asks me after I pull the old one-last-question routine on her for the seventh time. Or is it the eighth? “I thought this interview was supposed to be about GHOSTS OF MARS and BONES! Why are you asking me about TWILIGHT PEOPLE?”

Because I’ve been a fan of yours for 20 years, Ms. Grier, and now that I have you on the telephone, there’s really no way on God’s green earth I’m going to let you hang up until all of my questions have been answered.

I don’t say that, of course. I make “ha-ha” noises and quickly follow them with, “No, really, one last question.” Which means five or six more -- or as many as I can get away with.

Let's see...

Did you get a chance to work with director Burt Kennedy on DRUM before Steve Carver replaced him? How come there are two versions of ON THE EDGE, and you’re only in one of them? What was it like working with Vic Diaz? Was a week in Martinique the driving force behind your decision to take such a nothing role in TWILIGHT OF LOVE (a.k.a. THE NIGHT OF THE HIGH TIDE)?

Forty-five minutes on the phone with me. She really has the patience of a saint. And this is after I called her two hours earlier than I was supposed to. That wasn’t my fault, I swear. The New Line publicist told me to call at 1 pm, stressing that it would be Eastern Standard Time, and my contact at the magazine checked the area code and informed me that Ms. Grier was in Florida (“probably filming something down there”). She is in fact at her home in Colorado, and had expected my call at 1 pm Mountain Standard Time -- or 3pm to all of us riding the shortbus here in New York.

[Kids, if you’re considering a career in journalism, my first bit of advice to you is this: Do your homework. When someone hands you an area code that is foreign to you, consult your telephone directory before calling. It could save you the utter humiliation of calling two hours early and making an idiot of yourself in the eyes of one of your favorite actresses.]

Ms. Grier’s been in the movie business for three decades now, and I’m hard-pressed to think of another leading lady who -- 25 years after the supposed height of her career -- still works as often as she does. Horror movie fans had several opportunities to see Pam in action in 2001. Too few turned out for GHOSTS OF MARS, John Carpenter’s best film in years, which found slammin’ Pam helping Ice Cube and Natasha Henstridge take on a horde of murderous Marilyn Manson look-alikes. Next is BONES, where Pam plays the girlfriend of Jimmy Bones (Snoop Dogg), a no-nonsense inner city do-gooder of the ‘70s who gets killed by gangsters, then rises from the dead to clean up his crack-infested neighborhood and get revenge. Let’s not forget “Switch,” an episode of the Night Visions series, which plotwise sounds a lot like last year’s J-Lo serial killer thriller THE CELL. After that she will be seen in the Eddie Murphy sci-fi comedy THE ADVENTURES OF PLUTO NASH and the ABC/Showtime miniseries FEAST OF ALL SAINTS, based on Anne Rice's novel.

As you can see, Pam Grier is a very busy lady. So after this one last question, I’ll let her go...

When I saw the trailer for BONES, I thought it was a possession film -- sort of a throwback to J.D.’s REVENGE -- but now that I’ve read more about the story, it sounds like THE CROW.
There are similarities, but BONES is a love story as well as a horror film with a great revenge angle. I love the fact that when Snoop’s character comes back to seek revenge, he takes me with him. Our characters were in love back in the ‘70s, but he died before he even knew that we had a daughter.

Can we expect a BONES franchise?
Hopefully, if it turns out to be as successful as SCARY MOVIE. It will really need to find its niche. We’ll be competing with big budgets, and BONES has a minimal budget. I don’t know what it looks like, but I’m hoping they were able to squeeeeeeeze those dollars!

What attracted you to the role?
Ernest Dickerson, the director. He came to me a year before the script was finished and said, “I have a great story, it takes place during the ‘70s and since you were part of the ‘70s, I’d love for you to be in it -- and I know you’re not old and dusty yet!” (Laughs) He had a great hook to it, and I’ve always wanted to work with him. And Snoop, too. There are more middle class kids listening to rap and hip-hop now, and that’s a core audience that helped bring my work back into focus.

As an actress, does it bother you that so many rappers are getting movie roles now?
I’m not opposed to it, because they have to work as hard as we do -- even harder, in some cases. I love to see them sweat and say, “I don’t want to do these stunts! They’re too hard! We work long hours!” Rap artists go to sleep at 6 am and we’re up at 4 am. We’re starting our day when they’re going to bed, so it’s fun to hear them bitch about that. I just say, “Hey, you wanted to be an actor!”

Have you met Foxy Brown yet?
Yes! Inga is wonderful! [Foxy Brown’s real name is Inga Marchand] She even asked, “Will you give me the blessing to use the name Foxy Brown?” I said, “Girl, of course!” Foxy Brown is universal. There are Foxy Browns all over the world, in all colors, shapes and sizes. They’re women of all races who are independent and can stand up for themselves. The name Foxy Brown applies to any woman who is trying to be the best that she can be.

In GHOSTS OF MARS, you worked with another rapper, Ice Cube.
I didn’t get to work with him much, actually. When the producers asked me if I wanted to do the film and they told me Ice Cube was going to be in it, I said, “Oh great! Do we get to be the gruesome twosome?” They said, “No, you get to take him from one jail cell to another, and you hardly do anything with him.” So that was disappointing, but I know him and I know his family, and he’s great to work with. And if he helps fill the seats, then so be it.

Your character doesn’t last too long in the film.
Well, that was the structure of John’s story, and it made a good point: if you like this character, and she’s very strong and confident, then what happens to her will create a fear element. How can she be so smart and strong, but get wiped out so early? What the story is saying is, will we repeat history? Will we go to another land -- another planet, in this instance -- and forcefully take it away from its original inhabitants, the way this land was taken away from the Native Americans? Will we destroy the land the way we’ve destroyed the environment on this planet? I think John’s reflecting on what we’ll do and hopefully not do in the future.

You’ve played two very manly characters for John Carpenter. How did you go about preparing for those roles?
As I was putting my character [in THE GHOSTS OF MARS] together, I thought, “OK, she’s very ‘out there,’ she’s like a man. Well, what do men do? (Shouts) THEY TALK LOUDLY AND WALK WITH BIG STEPS! (Laughs) Otherwise, it would’ve looked ludicrous -- this butch, femme commando dressed in leather and carrying a big gun, moving down the street like a ballerina. I almost pulled my back out trying to walk like a man in those boots. It really took me a while to get that walk down, but John knew I would do that for the character because I had worked so hard on ESCAPE FROM L.A. For that one I grew the hair in my armpits, I lowered my voice, and I walked like a homeboy in the ‘hood so I would look like a guy who had gone through a sex change and was now a woman.

There’s some same-sex sexual tension between your character and Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) in ESCAPE FROM L.A., but that’s taken even further in GHOSTS OF MARS when you hit on Natasha Henstridge.
In the future, I think we’ll have sexual choices without having to state, “I’m gay” or “I’m bisexual.” We’ll simply choose partners because they happen to be nice people. That’s already an issue with young people who are saying, “I’m not gay, but if I like the person and I want to have sex with them, that’s my choice.” They’re doing that now -- it’s just not being discussed. A lot of high school girls are having same-sex relationships, but they don’t consider themselves lesbians because they want to be taken to the prom by a guy – but they want to have sex with their girlfriends! I think the film industry is behind in what’s going on in the social world.

The same can be said of interracial relationships.
Sure. A lot of people in the industry are married interracially and have great, passionate love stories. Our realities are much more integrated than film. Penelope Cruz is very hot right now. Sorry -- even when I was 22 years old, you wouldn’t see me in a love story with Tom Cruise. Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz... You see more Hispanic actresses than black actresses in love stories with white actors.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 had Tom Cruise with Thandie Newton.
Yeah, but lots of people don’t even know she’s black. White people were saying to me, “Is she?” “Well, she’s mixed.” “Oh, half and half! OK!” But would you have seen a darker skinned actress in that part? I don’t think so. There are certain racial barriers still, so the studios won’t risk it. They want to make back every dollar.

Colorblind casting seems to be more accepted in the action and horror genres than in other types of films.
Because it fills seats. Look at SCARY MOVIE. I think what the studios are thinking about -- since they’re spending so much money on special effects and advertising -- is “We want to fill seats. We want to go as wide as we can with this.” They’re not trying to change the world or create a liberation movement, they’re just trying to make money.

What was it like working with William Marshall on SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM?
Wonderful! It was such an honor to work with him. He had been an actor during a time when black artists were marginalized and had to go to Europe for more opportunities. You wanted to say to him, “Tell me more! Let me sit at your feet! Teach me!” I could listen to him talk about his life and his career for hours.

I was surprised when you turned up as the Dust Witch in SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES.
That was wonderful to be a part of because I had read the book as a little girl. When I got the part, they told us at the studio, “She’s black! Ray Bradbury didn’t have any black people in his book!” And the producers said, “She’s not black, she’s Egyptian.” (Laughs) That was our joke.

In his review of SNOW DAY, Roger Ebert referred to Hollywood as “a thoughtless place” for not offering you better roles after JACKIE BROWN.
Everyone said, “Oh, Pam, you did JACKIE BROWN, you’re gonna get all these ‘A’ movies.” I said, “Yeah, once every fifteen years! Until the next Quentin Tarantino is born!” (Laughs) I don’t think so! I think I’ll just be an actress, do all types of films, do theatre, enjoy my craft and be the best that I can be. There’s nothing better than working for different directors with different beats, different colors, and different textures. As an actor, that’s what one should do. That’s what makes a full career. Otherwise, acting would be a hobby for me. I’d work every 5 or 6 years.

I read a funny story once about you crashing the set of a Fellini movie.
Yes, I was at Cinecitta Studio in Rome shooting THE ARENA, a female gladiator movie for Roger Corman that has a different title now [NAKED WARRIORS] and will probably have another title tomorrow. I was riding a black stallion named Donatello -- taking him around, warming him up for the shot so he could hit his marks -- and one of the crewmembers popped him on his flank with a towel and he took off. I tried to calm him down, but we were heading toward the back of another set. They weren’t filming at least, but they were just about to start when in I came -- on a black stallion, right in the middle of Fellini’s shot, wearing a leopard skin outfit and a big ‘fro! Fellini said, “My fantasy has come true!” Everyone started laughing and saying, “Who’s this woman?” Oh man, I knew they were gonna can me! I just knew they were gonna ship me back to the States! But no, I had lunch in the commissary with Fellini and we talked about cinema and the lack of black actors in cinema, and when I told him I was a Southern girl he said [in an Italian accent], “Do you know what I want to learn how? To make fried chicken.” (Laughs) I said, “You show me how to make sauce, I’ll show you how to make fried chicken!” He was such a generous man.

The other movies you did for Roger Corman -- THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE, THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, THE BIG BIRD CAGE, and WOMEN IN CAGES -- were all made in the Philippines, and you made BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA there as well (for Samuel Z. Arkoff). Do you have any horror stories about working in the Philippines?
We were shooting outdoors in a tropical location most of the time, so the big problem was the environment. When nobody has proven how toxic the environment might be to the actor -- whether or not you’ll become infected with all types of diseases from filming in a bat cave -- that’s when it was troublesome. The heat and humidity there was intense, and we had to deal with bacteria and bugs that take chunks out of your flesh. Everybody got sick. I had the measles when I came back. People asked me, “What’s that?” “A bug bite.” “Whoa! What kind of bug was that?!” “A big one! As big as your toe!” (Laughs)

Were your Filipino movies all shot during one visit, or did you go back to the States in between each film?
The first time I went to the Philippines I did THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE, and then I came back [to the U.S.]. I was working for Roger Corman so I could raise money for school. Between films, I’d go back to my 9-5 job. My agent had to search for me: “Where are you? You should be home waiting for us to get you your next job.” “I’m at work.” “Work? Did we get you that job?” “No, I’m at the Thrifty drug store accounting department.”
“What?! You’re an actress now! You should be home waiting for us to get you your next job!” “Well, get me that job and I’ll go home!” I was a student supporting myself.

One last question: Is it true that you punched that writer for New York magazine in the --
No! He said I kicked him in the crotch. That was a lie. There’s no way in the world I could’ve gotten away with that. He would’ve sued me and my career would’ve been over. That whole story was fabricated. [“Sex Goddess of the Seventies,” by Mark Jacobson. New York. May 19, 1975].

So much for journalistic integrity. Why did he do that?
Because I wouldn’t go out to parties with him and do crazy things. I was very conservative, and he was upset with me for not being like the characters I played. He expected me to wear leather and have a big ‘fro and to just be ‘ghetto,’ and I’m not like that. And it’s sad, because not many black actresses have made the cover of that magazine. Usually we’re stereotyped, and I wanted people to read about my life -- growing up rurally, living on air force bases -- and see that we’re not all ‘ghetto’ or from poverty or a criminal family. Being on the cover was an honor, but when I saw the final story, I was heartsick. It just wasn’t accurate. And If I had kicked that guy in the crotch, he never would’ve been able to have children. He would’ve been on the floor, and he’d still be there!

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