Hello, Karen? It’s Steven . . .

Share via
Times Staff Writer

She WAS Boone’s girl Katy in “Animal House,” and this was enough to cement her in the collective conscience of a certain kind of male. This male was 13 when the National Lampoon comedy was released, in 1978; what he has retained in his mind’s eye about Karen Allen are the freckles and long brown hair and big eyes, at once inviting and a little cool.

So what happened to her? It as much to ask: What is the trajectory of a culture that has gone from Karen Allen to Jessica Alba?

Hers was a naturalistic beauty that seems synonymous with the 1970s and so missing these days, in what is advertised on screen as young and beautiful. She was simultaneously materially attractive and subtext: In “Animal House,” when Boone catches her post-coitus with their English professor, it made sense; a girl like that would go off with older men, abandoning the boyfriend for needing his toga.


Did she quit Hollywood or did Hollywood quit her? We mean, after 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and that nakedly classical opening salvo: “Indiana Jones. I always knew someday you’d come walking back through my door.” There was, less remembered now, 1984’s “Starman,” in which she played another loner tough girl -- this one visited by an outer-space creature (Jeff Bridges).

But at some point she went to go knit in the Berkshire Mountains. There was also a marriage followed nine years later by divorce, and single motherhood that would, in concert with the dwindling Hollywood career and the shock of 9/11, prompt her to quit Manhattan permanently for the Berkshires.

She had done summer theater in Stockbridge, Mass.; she felt at home there. With her Hollywood money she’d purchased an 18th century barn and remade it; the place came with its own beaver pond, and Allen added a hot tub. She cleared the attic of bats and made it into a master suite with its own sunken bath and office.

Here the former bohemian girl selling jewelry in Greenwich Village enrolled her son in a Rudolf Steiner school, drawn to its nontraditional methodology (Steiner, the Austrian philosopher and father of biodynamic agriculture, created the Waldorf educational method, with a varied, curriculum in which, for instance, math is “introduced through rhythm and song, and studies of the natural world,” according to the school’s website).

Allen would make news, but locally, in the Berkshire Eagle, under headlines like “Allen to Direct ‘Batting Cage’ ” (she involved herself with local theater). The knitting thing grew to Karen Allen Fiber Arts, selling cashmere knitwear and accessories, with a store and a studio in quaint old buildings in crunchy, latte-inflected downtown Great Barrington.

And then one day, early last year, the phone rang in her studio, and it was Steven Spielberg, with whom she had not gotten along at all on “Raiders.”


“He said, ‘Karen?’ ” Allen recalled of coming to the phone that day.

He was asking her to return to the long-rumored “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” Allen reprising her tough-minded tomboy-fatale Marion Ravenwood.

What, no Alba?

She drove to Spielberg’s Manhattan apartment and read the script, because she wasn’t permitted to take it home. Just like old times.

“When I did ‘Raiders,’ I was working on a television miniseries of ‘East of Eden,’ and we were up somewhere in Napa [Valley],” she said. “And he sent a courier to my hotel room, who had to sit in my room the whole time I read the script, and then took the script away.”

Her coronation came last summer at Comic-Con in San Diego, live via satellite from the “Indiana Jones” set in Downey. “Hello, Comic-Con,” cast members Ford, Shia LaBeouf and Ray Winstone said. Then Spielberg went off camera and trotted out -- Creedence! Together again! -- the original Marion Ravenwood.

“Good God, what a moment,” blogged Quint on, from Comic-Con, on seeing Allen again. “She looks exactly the same!”

Back in the saddle

Well, mostly. Allen, 56, appears to have left her face alone and kept her body trim with yoga (she used to run a yoga studio here in Great Barrington).


“People all want to know why I haven’t been doing more films,” she said, sitting over coffee at her country breakfast table several weeks ago and shooing away one of her cats with a spray bottle. “It actually feels exciting to be able to talk about it.”

The house is redolent of earthy wealth; blues, folk and rock in rotation on the CD player, there are instruments out. The living room features two abstract paintings by actor Jeroen Krabbe, with whom Allen worked in Steven Soderbergh’s second film, 1993’s “King of the Hill.” Her ex-husband, actor Kale Browne, formerly a regular on the ABC soap “Another World,” recently moved back to the area, she said, to be nearer their son, Nicholas, who is attending the local liberal arts school Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

“I was in that kind of real weird transitional period there,” she said, asked about removing herself to this country idyll permanently. “I was in my late 40s, early 50s, and it’s a strange little place that you can fall into.

“These days all somebody has to do is Google you and they know how old you are. I would show up for roles that were written for somebody in their early 50s, and people would say, ‘You can’t do that, you look too young,’ but if I showed up for a role for somebody in their early 40s then the people would say, ‘Well, but she’s 50.’

“I’m from a generation of fantastic actresses. It’s a big pool of really wonderful actresses, and so many of them we never even get to see on the screen anymore.”

She ticked off several -- Jessica Lange, Debra Winger, Julie Hagerty.

“I was thinking about Julie Hagerty the other day,” she said. “Remember her in ‘Lost in America’? . . . It’s been so fantastic to see Julie Christie come back and be in films again, because I always loved her, and she disappeared for a long time. Glenda Jackson just completely walked away and became an MP,” she said, referring to the actress-turned- British Parliamentarian.


She laughed. She was 39 when Nicholas was born, 45 when she divorced. Allen wanted to be a mother who acted, not an actress who periodically mothered. But she didn’t want to live in Los Angeles, and she wouldn’t do network TV.

Allen, ultimately, would enroll in the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, having dropped out in her young 20s to bum around the West Indies, Jamaica, South America. Back in school she studied machine knitting technologies.

“I just felt like I had to create a life for myself where I was more independent,” she said. “Where what I was doing in my life was so interesting I could literally put my whole acting life on the back burner because I was so fascinated by what was right in front of me. And that was the only thing that felt healthy to me. Short of that, I felt like somebody who was waiting for the phone to ring.”

One ‘Indy’ was plenty

Allen said Spielberg and George Lucas had told her at the time of “Raiders” that they were planning three Indiana Jones films, and her character, Marion, would be only in the first one. This suited her just fine; the idea of committing to sequels didn’t jibe with her boho New-York-actor sensibilities.

Neither did Spielberg’s world of story boards. In her head, she thought they should be doing “Casablanca,” not another take with mummies falling on her. She felt she had to fight for the integrity of her character. Why would Marion, for instance, wear that white dress with the bow on her butt if she planned to escape the clutches of the bad guys?

“I didn’t quite get all the time what he was going for in certain ways, and he didn’t quite get me, how I worked,” she said of her relationship with Spielberg. “I was kind of a much more internally oriented actor, and at times he wanted me to be much more external than I was being.”


Spielberg, she sensed, enjoyed watching what happened when he subjected her to snakes, or when she got dirt up her nose and in her eyes. “He thought, ‘She’s such a nice person, I have to toughen her up,’ ” Allen said. “And I think he often, from my perspective, was not very nice to me, and I think there was a method in his madness.”

Spielberg did not respond to an interview request made through Marvin Levy, his DreamWorks representative. Said Allen: “We’re both older, and I’ve done other films like this. So I kind of come into it just so much more relaxed and open-minded. I already know what kind of film we’re making.”

Allen wouldn’t reveal the plot circumstances around her character’s return, and it’s hard to discern how much she’s actually in the movie. The marquee-name female in this latest “Indiana Jones” is Cate Blanchett.

Regardless, “Indiana Jones” still is not the kind of film she loves. Her Oscar vote for best picture last year went to the small, touching “Lars and the Real Girl”; she would love to do HBO’s “In Treatment.”

She has reunited with her first Hollywood manager, Joan Hyler, who also represents Diane Lane.

“I was in Tunisia with her on a camel, with Bruce Vilanch. Can you picture?” Hyler said by phone, recalling the original “Raiders” shoot.


“First of all, the universe of great roles for women is not just limited to the movie business,” she said of an Allen resurgence. “Plus, there is a really fully functioning independent business which is actor-driven. And she’s able also to do the ‘Babels.’ ” And if the phone doesn’t ring anew?

Then, one presumes, Karen Allen will remain anchored in the world where external validation comes in being named the Berkshire Entrepreneur Network’s 2007 Entrepreneur of the Year, with a dinner in her honor at Asters restaurant in Pittsfield, and a nice little write-up in the Berkshire Eagle.