Sissy Spacek has never shied away from making controversial films. Over the past decade, she has starred in such political hot potatoes as Oliver Stone’s “J.F.K.,” Costa-Gavras’ “Missing,” “The River,” which criticized the government’s treatment of farmers, and last year’s racial drama “The Long Walk Home.”
Spacek’s latest film, HBO’s “A Private Matter,” tells the true story of Sherri Chessen, a mother of four small children who struggled to get a legal abortion in 1962. Well-known in the community as “Miss Sherri” on Phoenix’s televised “Romper Room,” Chessen discovered that thalidomide, a sedative she had taken during her early weeks of pregnancy, caused babies to be born without limbs.
Aidan Quinn co-stars as her husband, Bob Finkebine.
The drama, directed by Joan Micklin Silver (“Crossing Delancey”) is expected to spark political and religious debate in an election year in which abortion has become one of the major issues. The film premieres a month before the U.S. Supreme Court is to decide the constitutionality of Roe vs. Wade, the landmark ruling that legalized abortion in 1973.
During a recent interview, Spacek, 42, said she really doesn’t seek out controversial roles. “But controversy is good,” she said in her Texas twang.
“I know back in the old days, I remember being told that there was a kind of rule of etiquette that you didn’t talk about politics and religion. I think that’s wrong. I don’t think we need to to be afraid to express ourselves. I think that is what this country is all about. I think everybody needs to search within themselves. I am not afraid of controversy.”
Spacek, married to director Jack Fisk and the mother of two girls, said it was the character, not the subject matter, that drew her to “A Private Matter,” her first television film since 1975’s “Katharine.”
“I have always loved characters who go through some sort of transition,” Spacek said.
“I haven’t in years had the opportunity to do anything that explosive with intense emotions. This woman, because of what’s happening to her, loses control of her own life. The whole world is watching her and wanting to make this decision for her. She is in the hot seat. I was so glad it was just a character I was playing and I didn’t have to go through that.”
Spacek said decent film roles have been tough to find.
“I guess after a while, you have done so many things it is harder to find something,” Spacek said. “I think it is the nature of the film industry now. You have to roll with the punches and go where the good work is.”
During the filming, Spacek said, she couldn’t help wondering how she would have reacted if she had been in Chessen’s situation.
“You have to,” Spacek said, “but I couldn’t imagine being in that situation to be quite honest. Times have changed so much. (Making the movie) was like being thrust into a totally different times. Her reaction was very emotional because she had so little control. Now, I think women have more control...”
Spacek paused in mid-sentence and frowned. “Of course, the control may end,” she said with a hint of sarcasm, referring to the upcoming Supreme Court decision.
“But we have more control over our lives in every way, so I don’t know how I would have reacted.”
Executive producers Ronnie D. Clemmer and Bill Pace said they both wanted Spacek for the movie when they began to develop it more than four years ago.
“She has a normalcy and a humanness about her,” Pace said. “She is someone who understands the human heart and she portrays normal people in extraordinary circumstances better (than most actresses). She has that gift of communicating in her face and her mind.”
Now a grandmother, Chessen, who still lives in Phoenix and does cartoon voices, said she felt “blessed with the caliber of the actress portraying me. I want the most important thing (about the movie) not to be me, not Sissy Spacek, but the story. If anyone can do it, she can.”
Spacek spent little time with Chessen, although Chessen visited the set for several days in December.
For her 1980 Oscar-winning performance in “A Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Spacek observed every aspect of Loretta Lynn’s life. But Spacek said she felt she didn’t need to do that with Chessen.
“I decided not to mimic her behavior,” she said. “I wanted to get to the heart of this woman’s emotional life. Having her on the set, she was very supportive and terrific.”
Chessen said being on the set was traumatic for her--in fact, she broke into tears watching a scene in which she discovers that the press disclosed her name--but different “from the way I remember it.” Because of her background in performing, she was trying to observe the filming from a technical point of view. “I think it helps me maintain a balance,” she said.
But when she first saw the young actors playing her children, “I had a lump in my throat seeing my babies again.”
Chessen also had difficulties coping when she saw a photo on the set of a baby born without limbs.
“I realize how fragile a lot of the scar tissue I formed is,” she said. “I turned the picture backward.”
Neither the executive producers, Spacek or Chessen view “A Private Matter” as a film strictly about abortion.
“It is about a woman, age 30, who comes of age,” Clemmer said. “More than a pro-choice piece, it is an anti-drug piece,” Chessen said.
Said Spacek: “The power of it is just for me the story of this woman. I don’t think we want to say, ‘This is the way you should feel (on the abortion issue).’ We want to say, ‘Watch this. How do you feel?’ ”
Spacek’s feelings about her career have changed since becoming mother to Schuyler, 9, and Madison, 3. Though Spacek has a film production company (“Doesn’t everybody?”), her main focus is raising her children. The family lives far from the madding crowd of Hollywood on a farm in Virginia.
“I think careers have to change,” Spacek said. “If they don’t, you have to. I have always admired the careers of Katharine Hepburn and Joanne Woodward, women who have had long careers. I have always wanted a long career, not just pounding it out. (My career) is not the end-all, be-all. My thing now is living my life and raising my children.”
Spacek always takes her family with her when she goes on location to make a movie. “We take the whole brood,” she said, smiling. “We set up housekeeping and (the kids) think it’s great. We get tutors, life goes on and I come home to a real life.”
“A Private Matter” airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.