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Interview: Karen Allen on 'Year by the Sea' and How She Grew Up Being Like Marion Ravenwood

By Jose Solís.

Karen Allen stars in "Year by the Sea," opening next Friday

In Year By the Sea, Karen Allen plays author Joan Anderson, whose memoirs served as the inspiration for a film that asks what happens to women after their kids leave. For Anderson the answer came in a trip of rediscovery that took her from her home, to a small town in Cape Cod where she learned how to feel truly alive again. Allen’s portrayal of Joan reveals new layers in her work, she has always been compulsively watchable onscreen, but as the quiet Anderson she is absolutely luminous. Watching her in scenes opposite Yannick Bisson who plays the sexy fisherman Joan flirts with, she shows us that sensuality should not be relegated to 20-something, scantily clad female characters, and in scenes where Joan spends time with her friends, we crave for more fiction where women of a certain age get to be leads, not supporting characters.

I spoke to Allen about playing Anderson, how the book helped her develop the character, and what are some of her favorite scenes in Raiders of the Lost ArkRead the interview after the jump...

JOSE: What elements in Joan’s memoirs did you find the most helpful when you were developing the character?

KAREN ALLEN: The books were tremendously helpful because even if I’d read the script, those tend to be outlines in a way. The film pulls material from other of her books, so reading them I felt I got to know her very well. It showed me Joan’s real heart and thought processes, I also met her and spent some time with her which was another revelation in terms of who she was. It was a wonderful resource to have both the book and the woman.

JOSE: After meeting her did you feel you had to emulate her mannerisms and way of speaking more than you did before meeting her?

KAREN ALLEN: What was interesting for me was that I was playing her at a very different time in her life than I was meeting her. She’s grown a lot in the last 20 years which is what the book was about, I was going to play Joan at a time in her life when she felt very stuck and lost. That woman was much different than the woman I met. I was able to glean a certain spirit from her, but I felt in terms of personality and even physically she was changed. It’s been fascinating because a lot of people who know her tell me it’s uncanny how much I remind them of her. I don’t think I ever consciously tried to emulate her, there must be some alignment there that works on a subconscious level.

JOSE: Did Joan inspire you to write your own memoirs?

KAREN ALLEN: (Laughs) Well, it’s certainly something I’ve thought of doing. But I feel for me to do it well, I’d need to set aside a year of my life and work on it with some clarity. I love the idea of it, I’ve always loved to write, I work on some other projects, so to sit down and try to write something about one’s own life experience sounds fascinating. Will I get to it? I don’t know, it’s not on the board right now.

Do you know where you’d go if you wanted to take a year off?

Italy. I feel very at home in the Italian countryside, or the Irish countryside would be great. Those are my runaway places.

Joan is a very active woman, we see you as her sailing, running, doing all sorts of physical work. Had you done any of the things she does in the movie before?

I certainly had never clammed, so that was new for me, but neither had she at that time. I do have a kayak, years ago I used to canoe a little bit, but a rowboat like the one in the film was unfamiliar to me. It was fun to deal with her own learning process and think about how she felt doing these things for the first time. But I don’t think there were any challenges in that regard, I’m a runner, I’m a fairly athletic person, so I didn’t find any difficulty playing that part. If anything I might have toned down how much of an athletic person I am during the shoot.

It was so refreshing to see women who are usually supporting characters be the leads in a film. Can you talk about the process of developing your chemistry with S. Epatha Merkerson and Celia Imrie who play Joan’s best friends?

It developed so easily, the three of us hit it off right from the start. The director found a place in the Cape for all of us to stay, there were these little cabins by the water a stone’s throw away from each other. We spent a lot of time together, I drove them in the morning, Celia was coming from England and was afraid of driving on the other side of the road. We’d also have dinner together, I’d met Epatha before when I’d done a few Law and Orders, I’d never met Celia before but I just loved her.

Was it exciting for you to read a screenplay centered on a woman your age?

It was fantastic! When I read the script and saw this film was being made, I hoped they’d cast me, but I was very aware that every actress in New York in that age range would want to play this role. I was thrilled when they asked me to do it, there aren’t that many fully developed characters for women to play, this one for me was important because it’s very gentle, but it’s about a woman struggling with her identity and wondering what was ahead in her life. I think it did take some courage on her part to decide to make this trip and discover herself. She had been a published writer before she had kids, I’m not sure if this comes across in the movie, but she put all of this in the back burner and she didn’t know if she had the talent to do it again.

Your dad was an FBI agent and I read you moved a lot when you were a kid. Did becoming used to new surroundings and new schools help you in any way when you decided to become an actor?

I think there is some parallel to that, a lot of actors I know had that kind of a childhood. Whether their dad was in the armed services and they moved a lot, or the parents’ lifestyle made them move a lot. I think when you’re constantly the new kid in school or the new child in the neighborhood, your identity is less rigid than when you grow up in the same place. You get to reinvent yourself, sometimes being in one place for a long time, people think they know you and their idea of who you are is this solid thing. When you move around a lot it’s a more fluid experience, as a child I felt I could show up in a new fifth grade and play with the idea of “who I am now” and what kind of person to be.

Did you find in these reinventions you were more of a Joan or more of a Marion?

I had a lot of the adventurous in my life, when I was 19 I went to live to Jamaica, I also spent a year on the road with some friends when we drove from Mexico City to Lima, Peru. I think I have more Marion in me innately. Joan had kids very young, I had my son later in life, so I had a lot of professional life and moved around a lot before I had a child, so we differed in that way, but I think all parents find that idea of the shift that takes place when your kids move out into the world. You spend 20 or 25 years when your life has revolved around care taking and support of these children, then suddenly they’re gone, and both men and women are affected. We all enter a new phase but don’t know what it holds for us. It’s a period when a lot of marriages break up, spouses find each other wondering who they are. Joan and Robin go through that, she’s trying to make contact with him and he’s not letting her in. She asks why do you love me and he says “because you’re my wife” which is not the answer she’s seeking. It shows how much they’re not on the same wavelength, he even decides to sell the house and move for a job without asking her. It’s a real betrayal in my perspective, there’s no sense that this is their life, not just his.

I loved that scene and there are so many moments in the film where you do so much with silence. What goes on in your mind during those moments when there is no dialogue?

One of the beauties of film is that it is literally possible to see a character think and feel. As people we feel more than we can really say, I felt that was true throughout the script, there are moments when words fail Joan. What I loved about the way the script was constructed is that it left a lot of open moments like that, Joan isn’t a very reactive character, I’ve played a lot of those in my life, who are very tit for tat, but Joan absorbs what’s being said, she needs time to take it in. There’s a beautiful line in the film that I pulled from the book and added to the script, after her husband sees her and says “you’ve changed” and she says “I think I’m just starting to like who I might be,” I felt the whole film sits right there, she’s lost the part of herself she felt she knew and she’s striving to get it back. The beauty of the film is that it’s not your typical she leaves her husband, has an affair with a younger man and has an epiphany. Here she doesn’t want to leave her husband, she needs to renegotiate her marriage, she wants to be in an even playfield and she needs her husband to see her as a different person than she’s been as a mother.

Karen Allen's iconic intro in Raiders of the Lost Ark

The Museum of the Moving Image is showing Raiders of the Lost Ark over the weekend, and since I’m talking to you now, I hoped you could direct me to some moments in the movie that you love and would like me to pay attention to when I go see it.

There are so many little moments! I personally love my introduction in the film, she’s drinking in Nepal and they’re betting on who will last more, then Indy comes in and she socks him in the jaw. We don’t know anything about her, but we learn a lot about her very quickly. I don’t think there’d been a character quite like that in any film before. I also love the reprise of the drinking scene, with Belloq in the tent where I think I’m going to get him drunk and escape and instead it’s a reversal because she gets drunk.

Since you brought up the drinking scene, if someone were to make a cocktail based on you what would it have?

Oh, (laughs) I don’t really drink, I only drink red wine, so I know nothing about cocktails. So maybe it would be something like champagne and something fun...I like the idea of apple cider and champagne. How’s that? We could call it something like…

The Ravenwood!

Yeah, the Ravenwood cocktail! (Laughs)

Year By the Sea is in theaters on September 8

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Reader Comments (5)

I've been fond of Karen Allen as an actress since I saw her in Raiders of the Lost Ark. And now I'm really looking forward to seeing her in Year by the Sea, which I actually hadn't heard about before. So thanks for the interview, Jose, it was great reading it :)

September 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRoald

coincidentally i just watched RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK streaming the night before this interview was published. I hadn't heard about this movie (or the bestseller actually) before now so i'm also appreciative.

LOVED Karen Allen back in the day so eager to see this movie now.

September 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I'd like to warn anyone reading this against watching this movie. Love the cast but it's sub-Hallmark garbage. I saw it at a regional festival last year and we were shocked by the low production values. There were walkouts. Trust me.

September 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLauren

Always had a great screen presence, held her own opposite Harrison Ford in Raiders but was also quite understatlingly brilliant as Al Pacino's confused girlfriend in the cult gay classic CRUISING

September 18, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarty oz

Encountered her on a subway platform in New York several years ago, and made her laugh with a comedic line directed to the man she was with. She was very receptive and sharp, and her nine million kilowatt smile almost made me fall backward onto the tracks. She is also an Ashtanga yoga intructress, the most difficult and amazing form of yoga. I'll delightedly see this intriguing sounding film and I won't be the least bit concerned with production values.

October 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Powers

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