Karen Allen: Artist, Harmonicist, Raider of the Lost Ark

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Actress Karen Allen is much more than Indiana Jones’ main squeeze. In a career spanning roughly 30 years, Allen has earned an impressive reputation — she’s starred in films opposite Harrison Ford, Jeff Bridges, Bill Murray and John Belushi. Tuesday afternoon, Allen sat down with WEEKEND before her Berkeley College Master’s Tea to talk about her early years in film, re-writing scripts on set, and kissing Harrison Ford.

Q. Well, Ms. Allen, I think after President Jimmy Carter and the owner of the Atlanta Falcons, you’re probably the most famous person I’ve ever personally talked to before.

A. I feel honored.

Q. You should.

[awkward silence]

Q. So I think we’re just going to get the obvious question out of the way early. Is Harrison Ford a good kisser?

A. Um?

Q. You don’t actually have to answer that.

[sigh of relief]

Q. I believe that your first major film debut was “National Lampoon’s Animal House”?

A. It was.

Q. How were your experiences on the set of that film? There were some big stars, John Belushi, obviously, and also Donald Sutherland. But there were also some actors that would go on to great success after the movie, like Kevin Bacon and Tom Hulce.

A. You know, it was a really interesting group of actors, because for pretty much everyone, except Tim Matheson and Donald Sutherland, we were all doing our first real film. Belushi had done one other film in which he’d played one tiny little part, but mostly he’d done just a lot of live television. Even John Landis, who directed the movie, had only done a lot of low-budget independent films.

Q. It seems that you were then almost learning together?

A. We were, which made the whole shoot an enormous amount of fun. No one was really intimidated by anyone else. We were all just trying to help each other figure out what we were supposed to be doing.

Q. It’s interesting to look back on it and see all of these actors then and now.

A. Yeah, but a lot of them were coming out of theater, so they all had experience acting. Me, personally, I was coming out four years of just theater.

Q. A few years after “Animal House,” Steven Spielberg cast you as Marion Ravenwood in the first “Indiana Jones” movie. Can we agree that’s probably your most famous role?

A. I think probably that role, and “Starman,” and “Animal House,” and of course now “Scrooged” gets played so much around Christmas that people constantly say things about it to me. Yeah, all of those are probably the best-known ones. But there’s also apparently a cult following for the film “The Wanderers,” which I did. People are obsessed with that film! I’ve done about 35 films or something like that, but there are only four or five that people really think about.

Q. You’ve worked with many, many big names, like Bill Murray and Harrison Ford. Which actor did you like working with the most?

A. I’d have to say Jeff Bridges. He’s just been an enormous amount of fun to work with. He’s just definitely somebody who leaps to the top of the list. But I just worked with Stephen Lang on a dark film called “White Irish Drinkers,” and he was wonderful to work with. And Harrison, of course, he’s great. In a lot of ways, I enjoyed working with him more on the [last] “Indiana Jones” movie than the first.

Q. Why’s that?

A. Just because on the first film, everybody was trying to figure out what the relationships were among the characters, and what kind of film were we trying to make — or at least I was. And having never really seen those Saturday afternoon serials that the movie was based on, I didn’t have a very accurate image in my mind of the kind of picture we were making as we were making it.

Q. What do you think about that first film, looking back on it now?

A. Oh, I think it’s wonderful! But as we were shooting, I spent most of my time trying to figure out what we were doing.

Q. You hadn’t really done such a film up to that point.

A. No, I hadn’t. I wasn’t used to such big sets.

Q. I’ve heard of one scene in “Indiana Jones” when you acted somewhat outside of the script. Have you done a lot of improvisation on set over your career?

A. You know, I’ve done everything from literally rewriting scripts to not changing anything. I’ve even gone into situations in which we knew that the script wasn’t particularly well written. So I’ve had moments when the director might tell me, because I had a little experience writing, that if I could come up with something better than what we have here, that’d be great.

Q. That’s obviously not the case with most of the directors you’ve worked with.

A. There are some that’ve been married to the script. They don’t want you to change anything. Then there are some who see the script as a skeleton and they want you to add to it or say it doesn’t work.

Q. That takes some nerve, though, doesn’t it?

A. I think I had too much as a young actor. I would sometimes come into meetings with directors, and I would have the gall to tell them I didn’t think the script was really there yet. And it took me years to realize that if they didn’t think it was there yet, most of the time they wouldn’t be meeting with actors yet. But it took me so long to realize this because I was coming out of experimental theater.

Q. How were your experiences with that?

A. We were very much a part of the creative process, and there was a lot of improvisation involved. So it never occurred to me when I was just starting out that it wasn’t all right for you to say, for example, that you didn’t like the costumes.

Q. Is there anyone out there you haven’t worked with that you want to?

A. So many, many, many. If you say living or dead, then I think of people like Katherine Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman and other actresses I absolutely adored. Then there’s Meryl Streep as well.

Q. What about directors?

A. David Fincher. I love what he does. Also, Steven Soderbergh. I worked with him very briefly on a film called “King of the Hill,” and I’d love to work with him again. I think he’s a fantastic actor’s director.

Q. We’re beginning to run out of time now, so let’s make a slight gear shift here. What’s something about Karen Allen that you wish people knew about?

A. Wow. That’s a tough one. Um, I’m a really good harmonica player.

Q. I’m very glad I know that now.

A. It’s a fun fact to have.

Q. Well, I think that’s about it. Just one last thing. So, seriously, Harrison Ford?

A. No comment.

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