Actress Karen Allen opens up to Berkshire Magazine.
What is Karen Allen’s ideal Berkshire day? Perhaps strolling down Great Barrington’s Main Street on a gorgeously sunny afternoon. Or eating dinner at a local farm-to-table restaurant with close friends. Maybe catching a new production at one of the local theater festivals or skiing with her son at Butternut.
“It would be doing the most simplest stuff imaginable,” Allen answers, then pauses to take a sip of organic juice and a bite of a shared bagel. She is comfortably tucked in the corner of the Monterey General Store as little touches of sunlight dance their way across her reflective blue eyes and lightly freckled face.
“My fantasy ideal day is lying in my hammock and reading all the books that have been sitting by my bed waiting to be read for a really long time and just listening to the wind in the trees, making a little lunch and sitting by the pond,” she says as she settles back into the wooden chair and folds her arms across an exquisitely embroidered jacket she is wearing, an item she carries at her clothing store. Allen radiates a classically simple charm as fitting in this tiny village market as it is on the two-dimensional silver screen.
For those of us who know her—or feel like we know her, which is one of her endearing qualities—we can’t help the faint smile that finds its way across our collective faces as we mention her name. Allen, simply put, is purposeful, resilient, and “optimistic to a fault,” in her own words. “I have no reason to be as optimistic a person as I am. That’s almost a ridiculous part of my personality.”
That positive persona has carried her through life-shifting moments—challenging movie locations, pausing an acting career to raise her child as a single mom, starting a business or two, taking on new roles. Today she finds herself again in transition, reflecting on her past and pondering her future.
The 61-year-old actor, best known for her roles in Animal House and as Indiana Jones’s rugged love interest in two of the series’s films, makes one thing very clear to the photographer standing nearby: Easy on the smile. “Very rarely do I picture myself with a Cheshire grin”—often how she is portrayed in the media. “To me, happy is like a cloud; it kind of passes through the sky and then something else comes, and then you’re sad about something, horrified about something, distressed by something, angry about something, disappointed about something.” Got it. We move on.
At home here in the Berkshires, Allen finds a comfortable fit with the region’s liberal perspective and tolerance of others, its artistic community, and cultural climate. She sits on the Berkshire International Film Festival board and is directing two plays onstage this summer: the psychological thriller Extremities by William Mastrosimone, which opens July 13 at the Berkshire Theatre Festival; and Ashville by Lucy Thurber, at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City.
Last winter at Cherry Lane, Allen headlined A Summer Day, the emotionally stark play about a woman who loses her husband on a late summer’s day when he takes a boat out on the water near their rural house and never returns. As does any performance that Allen commits to, it profoundly impacted her.
“I think of things like what happened in Newtown, Connecticut, and it brings up that sense of randomness of life, that we’re not in control,” she says. “We do wake up in the morning and we do carry some sort of sense of safety and some sort of sense of how the day is going to go, what’s going to happen, and that the people we love and care about are going to be safe and then something happens.”
Although this type of personal, reflective role draws Allen to the stage and to film, it isn’t what she’s famously known for. A 30-minute walk from Cherry Lane is the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, where Allen attended classes some 39 years ago. She was among hundreds of people who passed by a three-by-five card posted in the lobby, and she was one of only three who responded. She got the role—Katy in Animal House. The 1978 film propelled her career and that of other actors, notably John Belushi, Tim Matheson, Tom Hulce, Kevin Bacon, Jamie Widdoes, and Bruce McGill. “It’s sort of a brilliant film,” Allen says. “It’s still very, very funny.”
Many of us know the wide-eyed actress even better as Marion Ravenwood opposite Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Allen was among 50 would-be Marions who auditioned. “I saw Casablanca,” she says of her reading for the part. “I didn’t see this sort of stylized, boy-adventure thing because I didn’t have the vocabulary in my head.”
Filming was tough. “The first time you meet me, I’m drinking a 400-pound man under the table, so that was the character I fell in love with. There were times when I felt that the character was left very passive and I had to fight for her life every day. I had to say, no, no, no, she’s not going to just stand there and go ‘Eek.’ She’d grab something and say ‘I’m gonna hit you with this’ because that was the character I met when I auditioned.”
As one of three women and 250 men on the crew, Allen felt isolated while on location in northern Africa and England. “I had never done a big film where sometimes you could spend an entire week, 12 hours a day screaming, with dirt falling in your face, gagging and pulling it out of your nose and your ears. Then snakes are coming out of the mouth of corpses, and you’re having to scream. It was a very challenging little episode in my life,” she admits.
Her second “Indy” film, some 27 years later, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, turned out to be a lot more fun because it reunited her with some extraordinary people such as Ford, John Williams, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Kathleen Kennedy. Allen is game for another “Indy” movie, but nothing is happening—yet. “As far as I know, they’re working on it,” she says. “They would like to find a story and develop it.”
As an actor, Allen has learned to be certain of one thing—not to be certain about the future. It’s something she mentions to acting students at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, where she periodically teaches. Her audience is between 17 and 20 years old, and she helps bridge their world of student acting with the professional world. “I can’t imagine a better person to have working with our students—her own personal brilliance, her ability to work in personal theater, and her innate talent as a teacher,” says Karen Beaumont, who has known Allen for 25 years and chairs Simon’s Rock’s arts division. “She comes in there and rolls up her sleeves and works right along with us.”
Allen teaches students to use “sense memory,” a technique she discovered after her travels through South and Central America. It changed her life. She had been focused on art and design, and a neighbor invited her to a play performed by the Polish Laboratory Theatre in Washington, D.C. She didn’t understand a word, yet was profoundly affected by one of the actors, Ryszard Cieslak. “It was like how a caterpillar becomes a moth, making the chrysalis transparent and allowing us to watch that process,” says Allen of his performance. She moved back to New York City and took up acting. To this day, she puts Cieslak’s photograph on the wall in her dressing room to inspire her when she does a play.
Although Allen considers her first home New York City because she lived there longer than anywhere else, she calls the Berkshires “my home in the country.” And she is thrilled that her son, Nick Browne, now 22, has settled here. Currently, he is a chef at Cafe Adam.
Allen first came to this area in 1982 for the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s revival of William Gibson’s 1958 Broadway play, Two for the Seesaw. She returned another two summers to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, then again after a ruptured right vocal chord. In 1993, she moved to the Berkshires full time. A student of yoga since age 18, Allen saw the conditions in which yoga was being taught here—in living rooms and damp, chilly church basements—so she opened Berkshire Mountain Yoga in Great Barrington in 1995. She now owns the building and leases it for yoga classes.
Allen moved back to New York City in 2000 so her son could be close to his father, from whom she had separated several years earlier. She couldn’t support two different worlds, particularly after 9/11. “I saw everything just slipping away,” she says. “I thought, I’ve got to figure it out. If I move back to the Berkshires, I’ve got to have something at least where I have attempted to make a living.”
Allen naturally turned to knitting, something she picked up at age five while vacationing with her family at her grandmother’s home in rural Illinois. “When I was a kid growing up, if I wanted to have the kind of ecstasy that I think my son has when he is in a gourmet-food store, it would be in a fabric or rug store,” she says. “My heart would start to beat in my chest so much I would want to cry.”
She studied machine knitting at the Fashion Institute of Technology during her last year in New York City, then brought two knitting machines to the Berkshires. Allen discovered techniques that inspired her to own her own fiber-arts design company, and she maintains a shop on Railroad Street, where she sells her work as well as other unique clothing from small design companies.
Creating these items comes with a price tag. To make one scarf—and she sometimes creates five in one day— Allen must bring a carriage across 200 stainless-steel needles, at resistance, 1,200 times. Her left shoulder has been severely injured from the repetitive motions. “It can get so bad,” she says, “that I have a hard time picking up a cup of coffee.” She still makes smaller items, sending off selected yarns to someone in New Jersey who knits the sweaters on a larger machine. And she consider the store and studio her “expensive hobbies.”
With her son grown up, her focus is even more on acting. “For me right now, there’s a lot of questions,” she says, “and I don’t necessarily have the answers for them.” And like all good actors, she will let the future, for now, be what it is—uncertain.