(Originally published in OC WEEKLY, May 20, 2004)
Karen Black has acted in hundreds of films, some of them classics (Five Easy Pieces, Nashville), some of them forgettable schlock (Children of the Corn IV), and some of them fascinating schlock (Plan 10 From Outer Space, a sequel of sorts to the Ed Wood masterpiece). Whether she’s working with Robert Altman or Rob Zombie, Black absolutely owns every film she appears in; there’s just something about the woman that commands your attention. She certainly commanded my attention during the following interview, which reads as much more contentious than it sounded. In person, Black comes across as sweet, smart and strikingly un-horrifying.
OC Weekly: I was looking up your résumé on the Internet Movie Database . . .
Karen Black: I’m not that old! [Chuckles] I just thought I should make that clear.
Oh. Okay. Well, your career has been amazingly eclectic, and I wondered what film you’re most often recognized for.
I hate to tell you, but it’s probably [the ’70s TV movie] Trilogy of Terror. Or, surprisingly enough, it might be The Great Gatsby. I think mostly people just know my face, but they’re not sure where they’ve seen me before, you know? Not too long ago, I did some TV parts I get recognized for now; I was on Party of Five and some other things. I guess those would be considered “comeback” parts or whatever you’d call them.
Alfred Hitchcock had that famous line about how actors should be treated like cattle. Did you find any truth to that when you worked with him on Family Plot?
Not at all! He corrected that later; he’d really said . . . what was it? [Thinks for a long while] Er, something like, “Actors aren’t animals, but they should be treated as if they are!” He was very charming, very shrewd and avuncular. He was this amazing collection of playful beings, rather vaudevillian in spirit, in a way. He liked limericks, and he’d test our vocabularies. He’d say, “You were very perspicacious in that last scene, my dear.”
Moving on to your latest film, Gypsy 83 . . . I see it was filmed in 2001. Why has there been such a delay getting it to theaters?
Oh, you’d have to ask Todd [Stephens, the film’s director]. I don’t know. Actors are never told these sorts of things. We do a role, and then we move on to the next thing, and we don’t hear any more; we don’t look back. I’m sure you’ve heard things like that before?
Uh . . . well, sure, I guess. On the film’s website, Stephens has this essay about making the film and about how personal it was. He makes himself sound kind of high-strung. Was he neurotic on the set?
[A little huffy] Well, I’m not sure I understand how you’re connecting the first thing you said with the last thing you said. What was it you said? About it being personal?
I . . . well, he has this whole thing about how his last film, The Edge of 17, was very autobiographical and how he eventually had to step down from directing it because it was too stressful to go back into his past like that. And this new film is also rather autobiographical . . .
Oh, well, I wouldn’t say he was neurotic at all. Quite the reverse. He ponders things in the most attractive way. If you’d lost your bag or something and things were in utter chaos, he’d think things through in the midst of utter chaos and he’d always have the most pragmatic advice. He was just a joy, honestly.
Great. Now, I have to ask you about this band, the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black . . .
[Quickly] They’ve disbanded now.
I’d heard that. But that name really stuck with people, and I’ve always wondered what you thought of it.
Well, I think they should have asked before they just used my name like that. When you become famous, you lose control of your public image to some degree, and you can’t control things like that or the things they write about you on the Internet. I’ve made something like 13 scary movies and something like 110 art films, and the art films are really what I’m passionate about. I never wanted to have my name associated with horror like that. I don’t particularly like horror. Somehow, that’s what stuck in people’s minds about me. But that’s okay. Kembra [Voluptuous Horror’s lead singer] is a friend of mine, and I thought they did some very good music. But they should have asked.
You’ve said your career was really hurt by some bad experiences on the set of Day of the Locust. Could you elaborate?
No, I don’t want to. I’m in a good mood today, and I don’t want to complain.