Embracing every version of herself
Karen Allen has used a guiding principle when choosing roles during her 50-year acting career: Only one person can die in the film, and the other characters must be very sad about it. That’s how the actress, famed for roles in National Lampoon’s Animal House, Starman, The Sandlot, and Scrooged, avoids appearing in films that she considers too exploitative or violent. She laughingly acknowledges an exception: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which 22 people are killed, some in especially savage ways.
“I feel almost a kind of responsibility for the stories I choose to tell,” says Allen, who began acting in 1973. “I like films that change me in some way — that make me think more deeply or compassionately or that wake me up in some way emotionally, spiritually, politically.”
Allen, 71, will pull double duty at this year’s Santa Fe Film Festival. She will present her 2022 film A Stage of Twilight at 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, preceded by a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Allen then will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award during a ceremony Sunday, Feb. 26, the festival’s closing day.
A Stage of Twilight is a love story in which Barry, played by William Sadler, is diagnosed with terminal cancer and makes a decision about ending his life. His wife, Cora, portrayed by Allen, vehemently disagrees with him. Allen says she met the film’s writer and director, Sarah T. Schwab, about 10 years ago while performing in a play in New York. Schwab had recently lost her father and wanted to explore end-oflife issues in film.
“She would pass [the script] to me every time she did a new version of it,” Allen says. “She wanted me to play Cora from the very beginning, and I would give her my feedback on the different versions of the play as it developed. Then we started doing readings of it. The [script] really, really, really changed and developed over the years.”
When the pair began discussions about the storyline, Allen had no firsthand experience with A Stage of Twilight‘s subject matter. By the time filming began, that had changed.
Two of Allen’s close friends got sick and concealed their illnesses from friends and family members, she says. As they drew closer to the ends of their lives, both refused to see any visitors.
“I found that shocking,” Allen says. “It never actually occurred to me that someone would want to die alone. And it’s interesting that Sarah wrote this play that goes in this direction. And I think when Barry tells Cora what he wants, on some level he has convinced himself he’s doing it to protect her or to spare her the difficulty he is going through.”
Allen’s character sees things very differently — as did Allen herself when the storyline was still being developed.
“I was truly as baffled as Cora in the beginning — like, who would do this?” she says. “And then when I experienced [something similar], it was clear to me that this is not a rare experience. It’s not a rare choice. There are people who have to make this choice.”
Among the key questions raised in the film, Allen says, is whether a person really owns their own death and decision to die, given how many others are affected by one’s departure. She was going through her own heartache during filming.
“I also had lost my mother and my sister within a year or two of starting to shoot the film,” Allen says. “So I also was in a kind of grieving process, which gave some meaning to the grief that Cora was going through, because it was not so abstract, in a sense. These were two people I was very close to, and I think I might have approached [playing] Cora differently, not having had those experiences.”
Allen worked in theater for several years before her breakout film role in Animal House. She credits her theater experience with teaching her to be judicious when selecting roles.
“I had very rigorous training,” she says. “One of my main teachers, the artistic director of a company that I worked for, gave me a strong sense of the inherent importance of the roles you choose to work on. You
“One of my main teachers … gave me a strong sense of the inherent importance of the roles you choose to work on. You choose a story and a character where you feel there’s something you can bring to it.” — Karen Allen
choose a story and a character where you feel there’s something you can bring to it.”
Allen still acts, of course, and also owns and operates Karen Allen Fiber Arts. She has lived for 35 years in a small town outside of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in a bucolic region known as the Berkshires. Locals know her and vice versa, and she’s rarely stopped and asked, “Hey, are you Karen Allen?” The same often is true elsewhere, but for different reasons.
“I do spend time in New York, and I do travel quite a bit,” she says. “And I think the cellphone is a double-edged sword. People are always staring at their phones or their computers or their ipads or some device. I call them EWS, which is a little code for ‘Elsewheres.’ There’s a lot of Elsewheres that are running around in the world, all around us. It’s a riot. I mean, I’ll come into a restaurant or get on an airplane, and you walk down the aisle and there’s just no one looking up.”
On the other hand, when people do recognize her, cellphones have dramatically altered the nature of their interaction.
“Everybody is singularly attached to a camera,” Allen says. “I mean, people used to ask you to autograph their napkin or something, and now everybody wants a selfie. It feels very vulnerable, because you feel like it’s like an acquisition — pictures they can put on Instagram or Facebook. In the good old days, so to speak, people would have you sign their program at the theater or something. It meant something on a personal level.”
If Allen watches her early work now, she’s accepting of the younger, less experienced version of herself.
“I feel much kinder and gentler toward my early work than I did at the time,” she says. “Often at the time, I wanted to rip it apart and edit it and say, ‘No, that was not the way I meant to play that scene.’ I will look at [a performance] years later and think, ‘It wasn’t as awful as I thought it was.’ I’m not as critical of a film I did 20 years ago as I can be of a film I did five years ago. I think things soften over time, and I look at them through different eyes.”
Film festival programmer Aaron Leventman says Allen has had an amazing career and merits the recognition at the festival.
“Even though she’s never stopped working, I don’t think she’s quite gotten the attention that she deserves in the last 20 years for her body of work,” he says.
Allen is forever linked to the comedy classic Animal House, famed for one-liners such as Dean Wormer’s admonition to John “Bluto” Blutarsky, played by John Belushi: “Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”
That said, she prefers more organic humor, the type that stems from life’s idiosyncratic moments.
“I tend to find behavior more funny than one-liners,” Allen says. “In the theater or when I’m watching something, a film or a television show, I often laugh when nobody else is laughing, and I don’t laugh when other people are laughing. I’ll sometimes go to see a play on Broadway, and if it’s a comedy, I’ll sit there and feel like the lines are set up. It’s like, boom, boom, and then everybody laughs, and it feels strange to me.”
This is Allen’s first time visiting for the Santa Fe Film Festival. She estimates she spent about three months in New Mexico filming Animal Behavior, a comedy-romance about a chimpanzee’s intrusion on a sign language scholar’s romance that hit theaters in 1989.
“I’ve just come to Santa Fe for the pure joy of coming to Santa Fe,” she says. “In fact, I’m going to stay for about five days after the festival is over and two friends are coming to meet me. I just have a love for New Mexico.”