Body and Soul: Pam Grier Will Still Kick Your Ass ‘Graciously’

Pam Grier is an icon many times over, and is known as equally for her spirited, strong protagonists in early 1970s Blaxploitation films such as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) as she is for the career-defining film for which she makes our list, Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997). Grier has played many women throughout an expansive forty year career in the film industry and though there has been considerable attention paid to her work, the focus of coverage on the actress has, of late, frequently shifted from her famous lovers (Freddie Prinze, Richard Pryor and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar among them) to her status as a feminist icon and pioneer to her role as a 20-plus year survivor of cancer and life-long survivor of rape and abuse.

Perhaps unfairly, her iconicity has occasionally eclipsed one of her most interesting traits: a singular dedication to learning and rigorously practicing her craft, no matter in what size, shape or form the part; continually challenging herself. She remains a defender for and powerful ally to all of those in need of a hand — animals and humans alike — landing a solid (verbal) right hook square to the noses, when necessary, at homophobes, transphobes, racists and other assorted haters with a delicious joi de vivre that is befitting of her legend, which at times has dictated she hide razor blades in her wig to stop unjust behavior. In her memoir Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, Grier upends all of these myths, presenting an alternately shocking, wistful and steely portrait of her own mythology that is compulsively readable.

Grier has become ingrained in the very language of cinema, cutting a dashing figure in the canon of the greatest female film images of all time, and among the most fascinating things about this woman is that she is almost completely the opposite of what one might expect from her body of work. More at home in jeans and working with her horses on a rural Colorado farm, Grier’s story, and her unique talentedness, immediately calls to mind some of the strongest women of the movie world who escape to country havens, keeping the industry on a very short lead, to be trained and walked at their convenience.

In the tradition of firebrand stars like Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek and Barbara Stanwyck, Grier’s own fiercely personal commitment to her art, her activism, and herself has kept the public curious and continually coming back for more: she will play Julia Roberts’ confidante in Tom Hanks’ upcoming Larry Crowne, due next year. “I don’t think I’ve worked maybe twice in Los Angeles!” she exclaimed when I spoke to Ms. Grier early this summer about this surprising melding of personal and public personae that sets her apart from her contemporaries, of whom there are precious few.

Hello Pam, thanks so much for speaking with me today. This is such a delicious pleasure…

Delicious? You haven’t eaten yet! You’re just hungry…(laughing)

(laughing) I actually haven’t eaten yet, but let’s talk about your book Foxy: A Life in Three Acts, which I thought was so informative and so surprising. I have to admit, I did not know much about your personal life, and it was a delight that your on-the-farm/Colorado persona so often directly contradicts your glamorous film star image. Its so great to see misconceptions and preconceptions being shattered like that. What did you hope to achieve in writing your memoirs and opening up your private life?

I am psychic, by the way! (laughing) So many female historians and actresses have shared their history, their memoirs with me and opened doors, and with that sharing allowed me to navigate through my life. I had so many lessons learned, being a cancer survivor, learning about Islam at an early age, learning… As I was writing it, the impetus was that if I write things about my life, I don’t want this long, never-ending saga of details and data. What were the events that formed my character, good and bad? That I can share with others and help them not make the mistakes and allow them to be free enough as they make theirs?

I know that I am a part of this vibrational energy field that’s going on in the universe where we’re sharing information, we’re all surviving together. How do we heal a nation? How do we heal ourselves? How do we look for solutions? How do we do better? How do we entertain better? How do we get the messages across? How do we be sensitive and not narcissitic? (laughing) With my memoirs, I have a lot to share! I don’t want to bore anyone. If I sell two books, it’ll be a miracle! (laughing) But I know I have a lot of lessons…

When I read Stormy Monday by Lena Horne, she went through fire, going through a back door, just to be able to have dinner and to be able to rest her head. She went through so much. And so did Hattie McDaniel, and Bessie Smith, and so many women. I just thought ‘I have enough…’ There is more, but I think this is what the audience wants — and by the way, without an audience there is no actor. I felt that they would respond in a way, knowing that “she” was amazing, a character, a placard, an image that no one knew. I’ve been an enigma for so long no one really knows… They all assume I live in Los Angeles or New York but I’m living in Colorado. I come home and take care of my family and I rescue horses. This is my healing place, where everyone comes to not brush their hair for three or four days and just read and not try to be like the Joneses.

My Colorado upbringing of being self-sustaining and turning my little old country house into a sustainable green house, and commuting to work has just been very healing for me. I think because of my upbringing I’ve been able to navigate being here in Colorado and work all over the world. My last picture I worked on was in Los Angeles for Tom Hanks, I just finished Thursday, on his film Larry Crowne playing Julia Roberts’ best friend.

One of the connections I had not made until reading your book was the fact that as a child grew up in the prime civil rights era years where segregation and racism were rampant — and then as an adult you got to kick the butts, so to speak of the haters. Its a beautifully cinematic denouement. How did you channel these frequently racist experiences growing up into your characters?

At some point, I was able to bring the reality of watching my mother, who couldn’t fight back, who had to take it on the chin, the indignity of not being able to go into a restroom or theater or a market, or on the bus. To see when people were very hurtful to her and how she kept her pride and her head straight, and her posture. She looked very dignified and was very graceful and she took it and turned that negative energy into something. ‘Ok, you say that now, but one day we’ll be friends.’ And they could see that in her eyes. I thought if I did anything, I would be fighting for millions, not just my mom or African Americans, but a community; for everyone. People who loved each other, of all races.

I define myself by my energy, not my age, so [I take] the fact that people will think that I will look like I did in the 1970s — you know, with an afro, with a jumpsuit, in platform shoes and blue eye shadow — (laughing), with the same diction and the dialogue from those films, and that I will come in to kick ass, graciously. I’m grateful. You ask ‘how did I do it?’, how did I use that information? I was able to transfer it in a sense for all of the civil rights. I was doing it for that, for the people who fought for me, who were hosed down by firehoses, who didn’t get to go to high school or have books and things. So, I was able to use that energy and I thought I would use it in a way not for revenge or to get back but to show an example that when you humanize someone and you see that person being brutalized, and hurt, dishonored and disenfranchised, there would be empathy and that’s what I was hoping I would gain.

That’s so lovely! Life-long learning is such a prevalent theme throughout your memoir. I’m both a film and gender studies scholar and recently I took a class called “Gender and Resistance in African American Women’s History”.

Wow! Great class!

It was pretty awesome. When we got to the topic of the blaxploitation genre the gears shifted to a talk about nudity in film in general , where perhaps unsurprisingly the discussion turned heated. In the class we learned about the way black women have been historically, negatively stereotyped as sexually promiscuous and animalistic, so there was a lot of tension and apprehension when it came to this topic.

I wish I had been there!

(laughing) Me too! How have you dealt with such divergent, passionate responses to your own occasional onscreen nudity in the ’70s?

Well, in the 1970s we also had a parallel issue that was forming and that was the Women’s Liberation Movement. Loving your body. Burning you bra. Empowerment. Equinimity in a relationship, equality in the work force and in education. And as I was doing, starting those films — female action films — there were quite a few black films that were before mine, done by males, a gender issue, with football players, karate experts that had the same formula. Pimps and hoes. Good versus evil. Corrupt politicians. It was the same formula until I stepped into those shoes. And when a woman steps into those shoes…

Now I was posturing like a man, a man who talked about women’s boobs or breasts or ass or legs or whatever. Here’s a woman talking about a male and his anatomy. It was a role reversal. That’s when it really caused a stir. In a way, I felt, and I can’t theorize it, it’s not the gospel according to Pam, but I believe I made a lot of men jealous because I was stepping into their world, their roles. Women were supposed to be taken care of and walking behind and barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, the little woman, the little wife. Well, now here’s this independent woman who can hunt and fish and shoot, from Colorado, has a miltary, urban and rural background who is posturing like a man and standing up for women and talking to black vigilantes and telling them what they need to do to enforce parity.

What [the characters] were doing, and women are also much more nurturing, [were saying was] let’s stop sweeping the issues under the rug and let’s address them to correct them. These were women with different perceptions about how we should handle crime. Any situation where there’s going to be aggression, a woman’s going to have her clothing torn off and there’s going to be an element of luring men because of being sexually provocative. There’s a DNA that’s going to work. Roger Corman had the formula down pat of why people go to the cinema. Why is there sexuality? When you have sexuality and action and violence , those are the three main points that make people go to the movies. Without them, it’s not a movie, it’s a documentary and very few people are going to pay to see that. The film industry is a business. I would have loved to have seen women making those movies, what would have been the issue then?

Quentin Tarantino, Ageism, and ‘The L Word’

That sounds like a very exciting time and one of the most exciting images in your book for me, as a complete film geek, was of you on an out of control black horse running through Federico Fellini’s set at Cinecitta studios in Rome. That is forever burned into my memory. What an indelible meeting of the minds… what did you learn from him?

(laughing) Well, of course, everyone loves his work. Who could not love his work? 8 ½ ?! But also, he taught me how to make sauces, Italian cooking. He was sincere. I made him fried chicken. He was just such a prolific film maker and there were films being made all over the world, en masse, not just in America, but over in Roma at Cinecitta and in India, in Bombay, in Hong Kong, that all showed the power of cinema. And when you can put a political agenda in cinema, which in the films that I did, so many political agendas were addressed, it’s exhausting, but he thought of a way. We learned that people want to see beautiful cars, handsome men, handsome women. He would say that the world was not, that everyone in the world is and he could capture beauty in anything and in anyone. I thought I was horrifically dressed and my hair… (laughing) He thought I was the most stunning fantasy up on this horse, no make-up, just moi. There I was. He taught me about beauty and the simplicity of beauty.

So from one auteur to the next, I have to ask about Quentin Tarantino and Jackie Brown. I was fascinated by the detail in your book about the process of making the film and the process of creating the character. The whole journey was amazing. What elements of Jackie were most like you and which were most unlike you?

I think that the dominant character, is the will for self-survival. Handling the gun when Ordell [Samuel L. Jackson] comes to her apartment to kill her, her element of cool. The seamless cool. And Quentin had rehearsed Sam and I. He had taken three days to light that set, so we had to hit our marks, he didn’t want us to drop a line. It was a fifteen minute, lengthy scene and it wanted it slow, like a dance. And he said ‘the main thing is that I don’t want anyone to see you take the gun out of the purse and put it in the back of your skirt.Now, how do you do this?’ [I said] ‘I don’t know!’ (laughing) Oh God, another rehearsal please! (laughing)

All day, by myself. And I did! I rehearsed it as if it was something that was so effortless and something that I had done before, because you didn’t know if Jackie had been around firearms before. I had to bring this level of comfort to her. I don’t smoke, Jackie smoked. The gun, I’m familiar with firearms, I don’t flinch, I’m not afraid. A lot of people are afraid of a firearm and won’t touch it. And then the fact that she has this will, this steel will, especially against Michael Keaton, who was so intense to work with; brilliant, just brilliant. I just brought a level of my survival skills and that means to be calm and to use my senses and when you live in a rural area, there is predation around me and you know that you don’t go for a walk after dark. Or as your walking, you don’t walk around with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Or a hot dog. (laughing) You’ll be eaten. There’s just certain elements of awareness that I brought to the character that gave her subtext.

So we’ve talked about racism and sexism, but I wonder what kind of ageism you see in the business right now?

Oh, there’s a lot of ageism because everyone is definitely afraid of aging. The fear of aging and dying is so prevalent that people are off-balance when they should be embracing it like other cultures do. I don’t define myself by my age but my energy. The men I am attracted to are in their 40s and they don’t even know what I am! They’re like ‘God, you look like you’re in your 40s and then whoa! They don’t realize that I am much older than they are! (laughing) After a while, it really doesn’t matter. What I see is that people do have a fear, they’re really afraid of losing the beauty. They love it so much they don’t want to move forward, which is unhealthy. They don’t want to balance their lives, which is unhealthy.

When you look at other countries, and their cinema, and their standards of beauty, you see women and they don’t dye their hair, they look fabulous, they’re sexy, it comes from within. If you’re superficial on the outside, you’ll never get to know the instrinsic, the innate wonderfulness of someone’s inner beauty. In this climate, its very shallow, if you will. Is it Madison Avenue? Is it advertising? Are they selling youth by the gallon because people are afraid of aging? Therefore you have 12-year-olds getting facelifts and nose jobs and breast augmentation, and the parents taking them and not wanting to see their children age because then they’re reminded that they’re aging.

So, those are the real valid issues and if they balance it, it will be great, but if there’s an imbalance… I still want to see a “Golden Girl” on television, today’s Golden Girls. Remember The Golden Girls with Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Betty White? Estelle Getty was brilliant, she was the one that was very youthful in her spirit, but was the oldest one, she was the elder.

Absolutely. I’m obsessed with that show, of course. I think that the show was actually really edgy, ahead of it’s time, even…

(laughing) It was, for it’s time, it was brilliant! If there were Golden Girls for this time, it would be fabulous. For the baby boomers, there should be another Golden Girls. Today’s Golden Girls, drive in Porsches, they drive their own planes, and have a lot more giddyup! I’ve pitched it several times and they look at me like ‘we’re looking at the 19- to 49-year-old boys‘ [demographic] and I go (disappointed) ‘okkkkkkkk….‘ (laughing)

I love your association with The L-Word and I also love what you say about the queer community’s struggle for equality. I think that anybody who has Pam Grier on their side is going to win the fight! It feels as though you have a deep, personal connection to justice and equality.What is the next step, in your opinion, in equality in same sex marriage and queer rights?

I think that no one wants to be forced into any decision, no one wants someone sitting and pontificating in front of them. I think the greates act of service was to show these wonderful stories about these [allegedly] “scary” people, humanizing them in story and having it matter. I had never had such a wonderful feeling before, not once, but on several occasions, people would come up to me — and these are varied genders, male and female, white and black — and would say to me that because of me, they watched the show and realized that they had tossed away, thrown away like a discarded soul, someone who was born into their family, who was gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender. They threw away people. And I said (takes a very serious tone) ‘have you ever put yourself in someone else’s shoes? Have you ever thought about you being in that position? What would you do? What would you think?’

And also, it’s greater than mankind who invents and writes Bibles and writes theories and writes things, but when it comes from a greater source, every human being, as in the teachings of Buddha, has a purpose on this planet. The world is a big puzzle and we’re little pieces that fit. When you come from another entity, a religious entity, that is on many occasions hypocritical with race and gender issues, people will follow those dogmas and crucify other human beings because of a teaching that is archaic and may not fit today. It makes you wonder… Sixty percent of Americans in this country don’t have a college education, that have no belief in evolution, that have such a strong belief in archaic issues that outside of this country… they look at us and say ‘who are those people?!’ They’re so abundant, then they say ‘we’re the number one most powerful, most educated people in the world’, but not anymore, obviously. We’re rated like number 18. Brazil has the same economy that we do today. We don’t have enough PhDs in our country to run our new technology, we have to buy them from other countries, India’s been good, they stay there and they make $15,000 as a PhD. Everyone believes in self-improvement to the max. They come over here and make a $100,000 as a PhD.

We don’t have enough PhDs in this country, which is sad. And we still have people saying (doing a spot-on backwoods religious zealot accent) ‘welllllll, ya know the Bible says…and ya know that’s wronnnnng… and a marriage is between a man and a womannnnn.’ So when you have people making up laws and issues for other human beings… Remember when women couldn’t vote or drive? You couldn’t marry a black person and in some states that’s still on the books? You couldn’t marry outside of your race? ‘You can’t because I say so?’ So when you have that thinking and you have that philosophy, and you have people passing it on and the other countries are flying past us… then you wonder. How do we go to them? You have shows, you have television shows, that just show people living their lives with great dignity and suspense and uncertainty and fun. And you show these people and you humanize them. I think that is one of the ways.

I think almost everybody knows someone who has had cancer but many fewer actually know someone who has beat it. What is the key piece of advice you can offer to people who are diagnosed with the disease?

Seek knowledge. Bill Moyer, does the documentary that I saw the night before I had to inform everyone the next day of, you know, [how] I’ve got a road ahead of me of therapy and wellness and surgery and uncertainty. He had visited these countries, witch doctors and shamans and the theories and therapies that were not Western and he observed this woman who had a cyst on her back and in China where you have two billion people… they don’t have a lot of hospitals, [even though] you know, they have two billion people. This woman had acupuncture, acupressure, and herbs and tea and they saw this tumor go to zero. She had no cancer in her body. That’s when I knew, that was a sign, Bill Moyers, Mind Over Matter and it is in book form and documentary on DVD. Balance, Eastern medicine, balance in life. I didn’t know if it would help but I certainly sought it.