Why 'Indiana Jones' Star Karen Allen Ran Away From The Movie's Success
Karen Allen's Raiders of the Lost Ark heroine Marion Ravenwood is one for the history books. A fierce character who's become a feminist icon, Ravenwood went toe to toe with Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones and permeated the minds of little girls everywhere, including myself. Marion gets captured a few times, but she takes action. She drinks, she fights, and she fires guns. She owns a bar in which she has a shot drinking contest against a man three times her size and wins. Marion is a legend, and for strong, independent gals like myself who now slam their glasses down on the bar upside down in tribute, Marion is the co-hero of Raiders . But there was a time when Allen tried to escape Marion's legacy, and though she tells Bustle that Raiders is now a pleasant memory for her, and a classic film, there was a time when she wanted nothing to do with it.
"I spent a good number of years running from that film, in a sense," she says, speaking to Bustle for the 35th anniversary of Raiders. A huge box office success, the film catapulted Allen to a fame she says she wasn't quite ready for. "It’s one of those things that, when you do something successfully, there’s an awful lot of people who just want you to do it again and again and again. But that wasn’t very interesting to me," she says. Instead, Allen wanted to develop her craft, continue working in theater, and pursue more creative outlets. Says the actor now, "I spent a few years trying to shake Marion off of me. I played that role, and now I’d like to play something completely different."
Before getting the role of Marion, Allen was a member of an experimental theater troupe for a number of years. As a student of counter-culture theatrical icons like Jerzy Grotowski and Lee Strasburg, she honed her skills in New York before essentially making a 180-degree turn by taking the part of Katy in a 1978 college comedy classic. "I got Animal House just by chance," Allen says. "There was a little three by five card on the wall [at school]. I just sent a picture and resume and got a call and went in and was offered this role. Suddenly I had stuck my toe into the film world." After the movie debuted, Steven Spielberg saw Animal House, and sent Allen the script for Raiders. The actor was immediately taken with the character. "Her old lover comes in and she cracks him in the jaw? I thought, 'Well I like this girl!'" she recalls.
But after that initial punch, Marion's heavy drinking, smoking, fighting, and bold moves were things that Allen had to fight to include. "The script had this very strong character that we met initially. But then, over the course of the script, there were some times when I felt I wanted to make more active choices," Allen says. "Or at times, there were no choices that were written, she was just sort of along for the ride. One of the things I fought for in making the film was when there was a moment in which she might have tipped into the damsel in distress mode, I thought, 'no no no, let her grab a frying pan and knock somebody over the head with it.'"
Allen brings up an incident she experienced with John Rhys-Davies, who played Sallah in the movie. The two were in Tunisia in the middle of the Sahara Desert shooting some scenes at the Well of Souls. They were supposed to be driven overnight from one shooting location to another. "We got to the middle of the desert and the car broke down," Allen recalls. "The driver, who spoke hardly a word of English, got out, opened up the hood, started tinkering around for a bit and then disappeared into the night. He left us there. We were so daunted by this. We climbed up onto the roof of the car and John pulled out of his luggage a bottle of whiskey. We sat there telling stories and sipping whiskey in the desert, not knowing whether this guy was going to come back or not."
Other than the unfortunate incident in the desert (the guy came back eventually), Allen says she loved working on the film. "Spielberg is just an extraordinary director," she says, having worked with him twice now, on Raiders and the fourth movie in the franchise, 2008's Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. "He has a visual imagination and visual clarity. He thinks on his feet. He’s very prepared but extremely improvisatory at the same time. He’s a master of the craft. I don’t think anybody can meet the extraordinary way that he sees things." As for her leading man, Harrison Ford, Allen says he's still a bit of a mystery to her, alluding to the actor's famous sense of privacy. "It’s taken a number of years for me to really kind of get to know Harrison. But I really felt like I got to learn a lot from him," she says, adding that Ford had much more experience on a highly technical set. "My main relationship with Harrison at the time was just learning."
And learn she did. Now that time has passed, and Allen has had a number of years to pursue the subjects she wants, she can look back on Raiders with great fondness. "I’ve gone on this journey with her," she says of Marion. "Years later, I feel extremely fond of not only of the character but also of the experience. And I feel very grateful that I had the opportunity to be in that film and play that character because it’s really stood the test of time... people are still talking about [Raiders] and still wanting to see it. Even now I feel very identified with the film and the role."
These days, Allen splits her time between the Berkshires in Massachusetts, where she directs theater, and New York City, and at 64, she's just played what she calls her "largest role yet" in a film called Year by the Sea. "I think that it’s definitely difficult as you get older to find roles that are interesting," she says. "I come from what I consider a very large generation of really really gifted actresses. I could sit down and name 100 actresses that I love, that I came up with in the film world that I haven’t seen in a film in years. There certainly hasn’t been a place for a lot of actresses in their 50s and 60s and 70s to move into careers in film in particular."
Partly because of this, Allen says she prefers theater these days. "We [theater actresses] wait our whole lives for our 60s and 70s when we can play some of theater’s great roles. That will never change. There will always be great roles in the theater based on centuries of great writing." And if Allen ever tires of working in the theater, might I suggest she open her own bar? Shots on the house.
Images: Paramount, Giphy