Karen Allen on Indiana Jones


We always knew she’d come walking back through our door.

ComingSoon.net didn’t have a whip, a fedora or even a line of shots when we sat down for a leisurely lunch with actress Karen Allen, but we did get her to join us on an archeological adventure of sorts, digging through the memories of her life as Indiana Jones’ true love, Marion Ravenwood.

And we quickly understood exactly why Dr. Jones – and filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, not to mention a couple generations of moviegoers – fell for her. An engaging storyteller with a winsome personality, Allen clearly relishes her experiences making 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and its 27-years-later-sequel Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (out on DVD today, Oct. 14), and she unearthed some fascinating insight into her journey – and a definite willingness to return for another adventure at Indy’s side now that she’s truly his “goddamn partner.”

Q: What differences have you seen in the new film and the first one? When the first one came out no one knew what to expect.
Karen Allen: It seems to me like the reception for this film has been incredible. I get a specific point of view on it, mostly people coming up and telling me how much they love the film. In Japan they were so excited about the opening of the film. The Cannes film festival was amazing for us. When the film was over, and I think that Cannes is an interesting place to open a film because it can be disastrous because if they don’t like a film they don’t have any problem letting you know. I mean, films have been booed there and all kinds of things. A film like “Crystal Skull” is not necessarily a Cannes-type of film in a way, and so you don’t really know what’s going to happen. They just loved it though. It was like a four minute standing ovation. Steven [Spielberg] had tears in his eyes. It was a lovely experience and to see it there with an audience for the first time – that being the first audience because I hadn’t seen it with an audience. The first time I saw the film I was alone – or no, I wasn’t alone. I was with Shia [LeBeouf]. It was Shia and myself at Paramount just going in to see a screening before we went over to Cannes so that we weren’t seeing it for the first time in front of the 3,500 people, which can be a little traumatic.

Q: I think everyone who wrote about the film wrote about how good it was to see both you and Marion back on screen again. How did that feel?
Allen: It felt fantastic. I’ve had so many people who came up to me and said, “When you came on the screen everyone in the theater applauded.” It’s so sweet really and it makes me feel very touched and very moved that somehow that character has stayed in people’s consciousness and that they were so happy to have me and her come back into the story. What could be better, getting that kind of enthusiastic response? It’s fantastic.

Q: Were you willing to do this film with these people no matter what or were you particular about the story and how they brought you back?
Allen: I don’t even know how to answer that question because I think it’s like all of the above. To have an opportunity to work with Steven and Harrison and George Lucas and Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall again was just too wonderful. As these rumors kind of persisted over the years and there were these hints that kept getting dropped that they were trying to do another film and yes, maybe they wanted my character to come back into the story – I’d hear that and then I wouldn’t hear anything for a long time. I never heard it from anyone…At one point when they released the four DVD packages of the film which I think was four or five years ago, the way that they decided to do it was to get Kate Capshaw, myself and Alison Doody together out here in L.A. and do it as the women of the “Indiana Jones” series. We were going to promote the DVDs. Frank was there and Harrison stopped by and we were kidding around with them: “Is there going to be another one and if so who’s going to be in it?” Frank was like “I’m not saying anything – wink, wink, wink.” So I never really knew what their plans were or how it would turn out, and I think that when Steven called me to tell me that they had written me into the character and that it was not just a cameo, but that they’d really written me a major in the story I think that my first feeling was like, “I’m there!” Then I think it was a couple of weeks before I was going to get a chance to read the script and then a little bit, although with Steven and George and Harrison – it’s not that you worry whether or not it’s going to be good. You know it’s going to be good. They spent however many years trying to get a script that they were all happy with and Steven sounded very, very happy about the outcome of the script when I talked to him. So I knew it would be a wonderful script. But I think there’s that sort of thing where you feel a little self-protective about your character so there’s a bit of trepidation, like, “Ugh, what if I read it and I don’t like what they’ve done with my character?” I think there was a little of a concern that I would be disappointed or that I might not the decisions they had made for where she goes from there. When I sat down to read the script all of that just fell away from the moment that she came into the story and when I saw where it was going and what they had done. I was just so knocked out by it. Then when we got to the end of the story and I saw that they had Indy and Marion get married I was crying. I was really just so touched. I thought “Oh, my God, this is really very special. They’ve really decided to bring these characters together in a major way. They really allowed them to fall in love with each other.”

Q: Was Shia involved in at that point? When did you find out he was involved?
Allen: Steven told me that he wanted Shia to do it. I didn’t know who Shia was. I had never heard of him and so I went kind of Netflixing around and got some films so I could see his performances and I was just knocked out by him. What a fantastic young actor. Steven told me that he was trying to get Cate Blanchett to play the role of the villainess and he wasn’t sure that she could do it, but that’s who he really wanted at the time. She had another commitment that was going to conflict and so he was unsure if she could do it. He had definitely decided on John Hurt at that point, but Ray Winstone wasn’t involved yet. He was really not sure who he wanted to play that role.

Q: Working with George and Steven and Harrison, in what ways were they the same guys that you worked with on the first and in what ways had they evolved over the years?
Allen: To me it just seemed like everyone was just much more relaxed, having a good time… I think that when we were doing the first one and maybe this was just more my perspective, but it seemed like everyone was under a lot more pressure. We were all away from home. So this time Steven really made a decision that he didn’t want to go overseas to do it, that he wanted to stay and be with his family and so the bulk of the film was going to be shot in Los Angeles… I think it had been such a long time coming and they had been working so hard to get a script that they liked. So it just seemed like one of those projects where when it was finally clear that we were all going to come back together and do it… From the first day, when I flew out here to do some camera tests and they were going to be looking at wardrobe and trying to figure out how Marion was going to look, what kinds of costumes I was going to wear – that was the first time that I met Shia. Harrison was there. George was there. Kathy Kennedy, Frank and Steven too. It was just this sort of feeling of everyone being so excited that we were going to do the film. On “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” because it was an unknown nobody had a sense of what it was yet. At least I didn’t. My joke is always that I thought we were making a kind of “Casablanca”-type film [Laughs]. I had a whole different film in my head. When I saw the film I was like “Oh!”

Q: At what point did you come into this process? Was it with this script that we see onscreen or have there been previous versions of the story that were slightly different?
Allen: I read a version of it in Steven’s apartment when he first had me come to New York to sit and read it. As I’m sure you all know they’re very, very secretive about these scripts. They were secretive about the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” script. I mean, a courier brought that script to me up in Northern California where I was shooting something and sat in the hotel room while I was reading the script and then took the script back when they offered me the film. [This time] I went to Steven’s apartment, sat in the apartment reading the script, and then he arrived and we talked for a while and then David Koepp arrived and I got to meet him and we talked a little bit. Then I had to leave without a script. There were some things that changed between my reading of that script in his apartment to two or three months later when I got the script, but what those changes were I couldn’t tell you. I had just read it once, and then three months went by and I never had anything else to compare it with when I got the final script. I’m thinking that once Cate Blanchett said yes to the role that that role, between the two versions that I read I believe that role grew quite a bit. That role got fleshed out a lot because I think that Steven was so happy that she was going to do the role that they really wanted to make something great out of the role for her. I just don’t remember it being as prominent although it might have been. So that script remains sort of vague and abstract in my mind.

Q: What’s happened with your career heat in the wake of this movie? Is Hollywood all of a sudden saying “Get me Karen Allen!”
Allen: Well, I’m reading a lot of scripts right now. We’re in this funny little holding pattern with this looming SAG strike that isn’t happening, but is kind of keeping films from really moving forward to the extent that they might be otherwise. So there are a couple of things that I have been interested in that are kind of waiting to be greenlit. So those are some things that I don’t know about and I’m actually reading something that I was given yesterday. So I think there are going to be other roles out there for me to do. I got to a point where there was so little that I was being offered or being given to read that I liked, probably seven or eight years ago and I was also raising my son, and so a lot of times I couldn’t just go to Thailand for three and a half months at the drop of a hat. I would get a call and they would say, “You’re being offered this role. You have to be in Thailand for four days.” My son would be in the middle of eighth grade or something and I was a single parent and I couldn’t pull him out of school for three and a half months to take him to Thailand to sit in a hotel room. So I had a lot of those kinds of decisions that I had to struggle with and make. I have to say that also there were very, very few things that I would’ve been so excited to do that I would’ve tried to solve those problems. Most of the time it was pretty easy to say no thank you to the projects that I was getting. Television projects haven’t interested me so much because often you have to relocate. You have to live in Los Angeles or you have to live in Vancouver or you have to live in Toronto. You have to live somewhere a good chunk of the year, seven or eight months out of the year and I just haven’t been really willing to do that. So I just kind of shifted my focus to a life that I thought was really going to be in support of my son getting through high school and finishing his sort of primary education and me finishing my primary parenting duties and that turned out to be starting a design company and creating an interesting and creative life for me that didn’t really involve the film industry. I think that I was always open to something if it came my way and was something that I really wanted to do and I could figure out how to do on a practical level. Luckily enough for me this film sort of timed out perfectly, just as he was getting ready to start college. Although he skipped two years of high school and started college early. The “Crystal Skull” kind of came into my life right at that moment, the summer that he was finishing high school.

Q: You’ve worked with a lot of big directors, but from an actor’s point of view what makes Steven Spielberg a one-in-a-million director? What are the qualities that make him who he is?
Allen: He’s so clear about what he’s doing, about the storytelling part of it. You often feel as though he’ll let you try anything and yet he kind of has a good sense of what it is that he’s looking for in a given scene. I think that my favorite thing about him as a director, some directors love to work in a very improvisational way and some directors are very structured and Steven is both. He’s structured and improvisational at the same time. So he’ll kind of go in having an idea of what he wants to do and yet he’s quite open to doing it differently if things happen in such a way that suddenly… sometimes I feel like directors get stuck trying to decide how they want to do something. Then if it’s not working they sort of just still stick with what they’re doing. He’s very open. If it’s not working he’ll immediately shift and start working with people and trying this and trying that and bringing in elements or deciding to shoot it in a completely different way. So all of his preparation is there, but there’s this fluidity about him where you can come at something in so many different directions. I think that makes him a really interesting director to work with. He loves to draw out ideas from people as well and use things in the moment, spontaneous moments. In fact I think that a lot of those moments he’s allowed to happen that weren’t necessarily in the script become kind of classic moments in the films like Harrison shooting the guy with the sword. These are just little things that sort of happened out of the moment on the set. I think for him to recognize a moment like that and go ahead and shoot it even though it’s a far cry from what was planned in the script, I mean that was supposed to be the big fight sequence in the middle of the film with whip and the guy with the sword. It ended in like five seconds.

Q: What do you think makes Marion the classic “Indy Girl,” the one out of all of the movies that would come back for the fourth one?
Allen: I just think that she was beautifully written in the first film… I just think that she was such a boldly conceived character and then especially for that time. I just feel like they developed a kind of way… it’s in that line of “I’m your goddamn partner!” From the very beginning she was saying “We’re working together. We’re a team.” I don’t know. I think also something just happened with Harrison and I where it just kind of clicked in that film. It clicked on screen in that their relationship worked and I think you wanted to see them together. It ended so ambiguously when they’re on the steps and I say “Come on, let’s go get a drink.” That’s where we leave them. Then people were so disappointed when I didn’t come back in the second one, but of course somehow or another no one really knew that that one went backwards in time. I’ve always had to explain that to people. “Why weren’t you in the second film?” I said, “Well, if you look at it, the story was before. It happened like a year before the one I was in.” We know from what she says to him that they haven’t seen each other for about ten years and have never gone back as far as ten years because it would’ve been played by a different actress. She would’ve been sixteen or something [Laughs].

Q: Did you ever watch “Raiders” leading up to this film?
Allen: Well, I watched “Raiders of the Lost Ark” a few times. Although I have to say that it’s been a film for one reason or another has stayed very… unlike a lot of films that I’ve done which I saw maybe a few times as they were coming out and maybe I would run into it occasionally flipping around channels or something and watch about 15 minutes of it, but most films I’ve done I saw a few times and have never seen them since. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in my life was very unique in the sense that it kept coming back into my life. People would be doing a showing of it or something… The Paris Theater in New York decided that they really, really wanted to show “Raiders of the Lost Ark” on a big screen and invited me to come and do a little Q&A after these screenings and it was an amazing experience. It was packed with people and people were bringing their kids to see it on a big screen for the first time. There kept being experiences like that where someone would call me and say “Oh, please won’t you come? We want you to come because we’re showing the film.” So it was a film that just kept reentering my life over and over. So I never felt a distance from it. It wasn’t like “Who was that character and what was our relationship like?” It felt very current in my life because often I would stay and watch the film when I was doing these things and I would sort of get the chance to see it all over again on a big screen, which you can’t usually do. Usually once a film has hit the big screen we’re kind of stuck with seeing it on television after that.

Q: What’s it like working with Spielberg and Lucas at the same time?
Allen: When we’re shooting the films, George only comes every now and then. He’s off doing whatever he’s doing in his world and he’ll show up and spend two or three days with us. He usually sits around the set and you’ll get the chance to talk to him about whatever, politics or education we talked a lot about this time. They’ll have lunch or something and they’ll go off together and look at some dailies and talk and talk and talk, but I can’t say that I’ve ever really gotten to have a sense of how they work together. It’s very private and not necessarily something that’s on display when you’re in the midst of that. I know that George often feels kind of useless once we get to the point where we’re shooting the film. He feels as though his job is over by then and he comes down to the set more to show support. He’ll laughingly say, “Oh, he never listens to me anyway if I have an idea. He never listens to me.” So I think he feels that he’s there to show his support, but is not necessarily going to suddenly say to Steven, “Oh, I have an idea for how you should shoot that.” Or if he does he feels like Steven is not necessarily going to pay any attention to him.

Q: You were working some of these people at the beginnings of their careers like Spielberg and Harrison. Now these people aren’t struggling for a career and did this by choice. Did you notice a difference in passion on the set towards the film?
Allen: Shia was there in a sense of awe. Shia couldn’t kind of believe his luck. He was like, “Oh, my God, I’m going to be in an Indiana Jones film.” When I met him, he was like “Oh, my God…” and I mean very literally. He was like “Oh, my God, I’m meeting Indiana Jones!” He’d already met Steven and George and the day that he met me he met Harrison simultaneously. I mean, Shia was just so excited about doing this film. He was just over the moon about it – and Harrison was, too. Harrison came bouncing up the steps to my trailer and was so delighted to be working with Steven again. I think they have such a great working relationship and he respects Steven so much as a director. I think he feels that he’s in such great hands with Steven and I don’t know anything about other directors that Harrison has worked with, but he really wanted to do this film. He really wanted to put on that fedora and that leather jacket again. Cate Blanchett was so excited to do it. She had been an Indiana Jones fan as a kid and so I think there was this sort of sense of passion and excitement and even though it was something that they’d done again and again and again it also had a very fresh feeling because it had been such a long time and there were also all these new added elements like Cate and Shia and me coming back. They don’t need to do it, you’re right. Steven certainly doesn’t need to do it. George either. Kathy and Frank too. It’s not a matter of them needing to do another Indiana Jones film. Steven says that he did it really because everyone kept asking him to. Everywhere he went people were always coming up to him and saying to him, “When are you going to do another Indy film?” He said that he felt like he was making the film for the fans of the films and that that felt really good to him, to be able to do a film that he really felt good about, like, “Okay, this one is for you. This is for the people who supported the first three.”

Q: What was your take on the new kid in Shia?
Allen: I just adore him. He is a great kid, young man. He’s unique too. He’s very, very bright and very funny and witty and to have the pleasure of sitting next to him in the makeup trailer everyday which we did, I would start the day laughing. He’s like a raconteur. I’ve never met a 21-year-old person who can tell stories the way that he can tell stories. He’s had quite an unusual and interesting life, both as an actor starting out as young as he did and then things that got him into wanting to act. He wanted to be an actor because he met an actor who had a really nice pair of tennis shoes that his family couldn’t afford. He said, “How did you get those tennis shoes?” He said, “I’m on this television show and I make a lot of money.” Shia was like, “Okay.” He’s just lovely. As an actor I think that he can do anything that he wants to do. He’s got a lot of depth to him and I’ve been very impressed. There are a few films of his I haven’t seen that I really want to see. One of them is the golf film that I heard he’s just fantastic in. I saw “Transformers” and that’s hard to do. You talk about green screen, it’s really hard what he’s doing, making us really believe that these giant robots are there and that he has a relationship with them. He commits himself so completely to each moment when he’s working. I’ve seen some of the really interesting independent films he’s done like “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.” He’s excellent in that. I think he’s fantastic. I had a great time with him. He was an easy person to work with.

Q: Can you talk about seeing Harrison on set for the first time after so long?
Allen: It was fantastic. He showed up for the camera tests we were doing. I was just sort of there with my different costumes. They wanted me to try on stuff and Harrison just bounded up to the trailer and gave me a big hug and were talking and catching up. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years. We used to live in the same neighborhood in New York just five or six years ago and so I used to run into him on the sidewalk from time to time which was quite funny because he SO doesn’t want to be recognized when he’s out on the street and he really tries to not be recognized. I would see him and I would go “Harrison!” He’d kind of go over underneath an awning or something. “Harrison! It’s Karen.” Then he’d turn around and kind of relax, but he so doesn’t want anyone to see him when he doesn’t want to be seen. But I hadn’t seen him for maybe four years or something like that and even then it was just brief little hellos.

Q: There’s the onscreen Harrison and then there’s the Harrison we know from our interviews who is reserved and quiet. Do you think people really have a sense of who he is?
Allen: He is very reserved and quiet. You have to draw him out and he’s not that easy to draw out. He’s very witty and you know that he’s always thinking, always has these amazing insights into things. Sometimes he’ll choose to share them, sometimes these little asides for everybody to hear even though you might not be engaged in conversation with him. He can be extremely funny. I think he’s a very private person and it seems to me that he really chooses to try and separate his private life and himself as an actor, the fame and the private life. I think it’s difficult. It’s a difficult thing to try and do, separating them. But I think he’s really grown more and more comfortable with it all. I think he’s more comfortable with it all now than he was 20 years ago. He’s at a good place in his life right now. He seems more relaxed and seems to be having fun with his life or having fun with all he’s kind of got. But I think he’s also someone who likes to be alone. He likes to be up in his plane flying around and he’s a bit of a loner personality.

Q: He seems very proud of the role of Indiana Jones. More so even than for playing Han Solo. Do you get that from him?
Allen: I think so. I think that Indiana Jones is kind of a wonderful creation of a character. I think that he definitely put his own stamp on that character more than most actors are able to with any character that they play. He’s now done this character four times in four different films and gotten to see him go through so many different incarnations with the character. I think there’s something about the character where he can really bring a lot of himself to the character, the meticulousness of the character as an archeologist is very much like Harrison, I think, in terms of the fact that he’s an amazing carpenter. I’ve never seen anything he’s built, but people talk about what an incredible craftsperson he is. He really loves doing things with his hands. I’d love to see some of the things he’s done, but I never have.

Q: How open are you to getting the band back together one more time or perhaps doing something with Shia if there was a spin-off done?
Allen: I would say very open to it. This was a delightful experience and I would welcome it.

Q: Has anyone raised that possibility?
Allen: Not really, except for fans. I’ve had a lot of people ask if there’s going to be another one, but not anyone officially. Do you know something that I don’t? [Laughs]

Q: If there were to be a fifth movie would you do it because you want to SEE it?
Allen: I would just love to see where they would take it. I’m a fan in the sense that I’m interested in whatever George and Steven would come up with and whoever else they would bring aboard – David Koepp or whomever. I would just be interested in seeing where it does go from here. So now Shia is onboard and he’s become this new and interesting part of Indy’s life. I’d like to see them do another one because I’d like to know what happens next… And I’d also like to see how Marion and Indy, what that marriage would look like. So here we’d probably be coming up with the next one that was ’56 and ’57 and so by the time they’d do another one we’d be in the ’60s, and that was a kind of interesting and transitional time for marriages anyway. Women were becoming more like Marion and less like that kind of Doris Day of female of the ’50s.

Q: What’s it like living with “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and knowing that film will always be considered among the best films ever made?
Allen: It just kind of bowls me over. I had an amazing experience this summer. I live near the Tanglewood Music Festival which is near Lennox, Massachusetts. John Williams comes there every summer and he does an evening of movie music and I had never gone. For some reason or another whenever he had done it and I think he’s only done it like four times or something, but whenever he had been there I’d wanted to go and had never been able to go. Steven called me and invited me and said that they really, really wanted me to be there. I said, “Okay, great.” John Williams did this amazing first half of the evening playing all of these themes to different films and putting together this incredible collage of film music. It was so beautiful. The second half of the evening was all about the “Indiana Jones” films and the music that he had written for all his films. Steven unbeknownst to me had put together this incredible piece of film. John Williams had written a piece of music called “Sirens of the Silver Screen.” I’m assuming that Steven put together this film, and I think he did, that was shown while John Williams was playing this thing. It kept flashing between a moment of Marion next to a moment with Bette Davis next to a moment with Joan Crawford next to Marlene Dietrich and then me [Laughs]. Kate Capshaw was also in it, and Cate Blanchett was in it. I sat there and I was just sort of like “Wow.” I was blown away. Seeing this character sort of put into that sort of thing, a moment of me socking me and then suddenly Bette Davis would be socking someone and then and then I’d be knocking back a drink and then some other character would as well, like Faye Dunaway.

Q: Several films that you’ve done have quite a life afterwards – “Animal House,” “Starman”…
Allen: “Starman” is just one of those that hangs in there. “Scrooged” is in there. Even this funny film where I have this little part, this film “Sandlot” has become such a kind of kids’ classic film. I still have little kids who come up to me constantly and go, “Oh, my God! You’re the mom in ‘Sandlot’!”

Q: What’s the most unusual or remote place that you’ve been recognized as Marion?
Allen: I can tell you the funniest time that I was recognized, but it was here in Los Angeles and it was just the situation. I had a boyfriend who lived here in Los Angeles and I came here to surprise him on his birthday and some friends of his were going to do a dinner and sort of get him out of the house while I came into the house to surprise him while he came him. I had a key to the house and I came in through the front door, and then I called to tell his friends that I was here. They sort of ended the dinner and I was sitting in the house. He came home, started to open the door and I’m getting ready to say surprise and then all of a sudden I don’t hear his voice. I wait and I wait and I don’t hear any footsteps in the house. I keep waiting and waiting and I’m thinking “What happened to him?” I finally got up and went to the door and the door was slightly ajar. I went outside and was looking around outside and didn’t see him and then all of a sudden I hear police helicopters above the house. I see lights are flashing all over the top of the house and I’m thinking “What’s going on?!” I thought “Oh, my God, somehow he thinks someone is in his house.” Suddenly I start hearing all this noise outside the house and I look out and somehow through his glass doors in the yard I see two cops with their guns drawn coming towards the thing. They were like “Freeze!” I go “I’m his girlfriend! I’m his girlfriend!” I very consciously go over and pull open the door and the policeman says to me “Weren’t you in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’?” “Yes.” [Laughs]

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is now available as a Single-Disc DVD, a 2-Disc Special Edition, a Blu-ray Disc and bundled with the first three films in The Complete Adventures Collection.