Twenty Minutes with Actress Karen Allen
White Irish Drinkers at the Mahaiwe on February 5
The most famous person you are likely to run into on any given day in Great Barrington is also one of the nicest: Karen Allen, the actress who first became famous for her roles in Animal House and Raiders of The Lost Ark and who’s worked steadily in film and on stage for three decades. Now the owner of Karen Allen Fiber Arts on Railroad Street, which sells the one-of-a-kind cashmere sweaters she designs at her studio around the corner, she continues to act and support the the local arts community through her work at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, the Berkshire Theatre Festival and the Berkshire International Film Festival (BIFF.)
On Saturday, February 5, at the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington, BIFF will hold a benefit screening of White Irish Drinkers, which will be followed by a Q&A with writer/director John Gray, Allen and her co-star Peter Riegert. “We thought that we would bring White Irish Drinkers to the festival in June, but it got distribution and now it is opening in theaters in March, so we decided to do a special fundraising event this weekend,” says Allen who is a BIFF board member. “I think it is a wonderful film so I am quite happy to share it with the community at large.”
Do you like watching other people watch your movies?
It’s always a mixed bag. The first time you see a film it is very difficult to see it with an audience because your experience is more internal and you see it for the first time from the outside. It is always a bit disconcerting in a sense to see a film that has been edited, especially if you have not been part of the process, which actors rarely are. Once I’m familiar with a film, it is easier to see it with an audience but the first few times are always tricky. This is such a different kind of role for me. It’s the antithesis of a Hollywood-type of film. It’s a bit . . . I don’t know exactly how to put it, but it’s a bit shocking when I see myself in the film. There’s no process of trying to glamorize the character at all—it’s a pretty stark way in which I was photographed. It’s the most unglamorous character I have ever played in my life, and when I look at the film I am like whoa—oh my god!
Were you hesitant about taking this part?
My main concern when I said “yes” was that I had to find someone to work on the dialect. And quickly. I only had ten days to prepare. A Brooklyn dialect is not one that I really have in my pocket. There are some accents that I can do very easily, so I immediately had to dive into that because the last thing you want when you begin to shoot is to not be completely at home with the voice of the character. One of the most important aspects of building a character is finding the voice.
How did you prepare?
I immediately called the best dialect coach I know, a man named Tim Monich, and he was in the middle of working on Wall Street 2, which was shooting downtown, but he has a home in Connecticut and I went to work with him there on the basic structure of the dialect. Once I came into New York to start my real preparation for the role, he would come to my hotel after working on Wall Street and we would work on it. I locked myself in my hotel room for a week before shooting and did nothing but prepare for the role, really delve into it.
Tell me about your character Margaret Leary.
It’s the 70s. It’s Brooklyn. She’s a second or third genration Irish American who is married to a dock worker, and they have a very troubled marriage. He’s an alcoholic. He’s quite an abusive man who aims most of his physical abuse at our elder son who is about 20. When the film begins, our 18 and 20 year old sons are still living at home, but one has begun to go down the wrong path, getting mixed up with criminal types. And the other one is a very sensitive, artistically-gifted boy who kind of hides from the world down in the basement below a delicatessen, and he’s become quite an extraordinary artist unbeknownst to anyone, including my character. And she discovers this in the course of the film. She works as a waitress, navigating a fine line trying to keep her family together and safe, and she has the weight of all this on her shoulders. She’s of the old school—it’s a Catholic family—she’s made her bed and she’s got to lie in it. She’s going to stick with this marriage for better or for worse, through thick and thin, and she’s going to stick with this man she truly loves despite all the ways he’s certainly not living up to anyone’s expectations of what a father should be. He basically works the docks all day and then goes and ties one on and comes home drunk every night. That’s the milieu of this film, which sounds all dark and troubling, but the film is very funny in many ways and it has a lot of lightness and beauty.
Did you shoot on location?
Yes, in Bay Ridge in an old brownstone apartment that had been completely abandoned. It was the shell of an apartment.
How is that different than shooting on a soundstage?
They both have their positive aspects. We were shooting in November, and I don’t recall that we had any heat. We had little electric heaters we plugged in. I am always in the kitchen cooking in the film and whenever we turned on the stove it smelled like cat piss; obviously the previous occupants had cats, so we tried to not use the stove. When you work on an actual location, you are working in very tight quarters. For actors, it’s fantastic. For the crew, it’s challenging.You don’t have walls you can fly out so it really limits the way you can shoot, which often works in your favor. We shot the entire film in 17 days. A normal feature film can take three months. I have never shot a film this quickly.
Do you have any local projects coming up?
I am directing Moonchildren at Berkshire Theatre Festival. [She directed a well-received student production at Bard College at Simon’s Rock two years ago.] I am very excited. It will open the summer season at the Unicorn Theatre in June.