Karen Allen: Back in Action

Karen Allen, 56, has a thriving business and a reunion with Indiana Jones in the role that made her famous.

By Jancee Dunn
Karen Allen, 56
Photograph: Photo by: Michael O'Neill

The Heroine Returns
She was the first crush of a million boys, the spunky role model for a generation of girls. As Marion Ravenwood, the game-for-anything heroine of 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, Karen Allen threw punches, drank burly men under the table, and even managed to look good in a fussy white dress with a big flower on her backside.
But Marion didn’t make it into the blockbuster film’s two sequels, and Allen moved on — to other roles (Starman, Scrooged), motherhood, and a new vocation as a maker of knitwear. Over the years, fans never gave up hope that she’d return to the role, and friends would call whenever rumors surfaced that Steven Spielberg was planning a fourth Indiana Jones film, but Allen never heard anything official.
Until January 2007, when the man himself phoned.
"Steven said, ‘I guess you know why I’m calling,’" Allen says. "And what’s funny is that his wife, Kate Capshaw, had just bought a lot of my knitwear for Christmas presents." She throws back her head and laughs. "I thought he was going to tell me he loved the presents! He said, ‘Haven’t you been watching television? We’re doing another film, and you’re in it.’ And it wasn’t a cameo, it was a big, beautiful part! I was jumping up and down."
Yes, at 56, Allen is reprising her iconic role, in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a film so feverishly anticipated that when the trailer was released, it was viewed more than 200 million times in its first week. What’s even better, she says, "is that we’re not pretending that we haven’t aged — the movie takes place more than 20 years later."
If she had to, though, Allen could easily pass for 20 years younger. When I meet her at her 1820s home, a converted barn in the Berkshires, in western Massachusetts, she is waiting at the door with a big grin, her clear blue-green eyes alight, looking slim and strong in black jeans and a chic black shirt. "Come in!" she says, throwing open the door and bounding up stairs to the kitchen. "Are you hungry? How about some tea?"
Allen brims with warmth and energy. "Karen has this sort of girlish streak to her, even as a mature woman," says Indy himself, Harrison Ford. "And yet it’s not a coy thing. It’s not a weak thing. She has a sense of adventure." On the first day of filming, "there I was in a fedora and a leather jacket," he says, "and she showed up looking like the Karen of old." He laughs. "Or of young."
The actress is flattered but also somewhat baffled by the emphasis on her youthful appearance, which is dissected on Internet message boards under headings such as "What the hell is her secret?" As she offers me a bowl of yogurt and raspberries, she muses, "When people say to me, ‘Oh, you haven’t aged at all!’ I think, that’s a nice thing to say, but yes, I have. I feel as if I embody my age: healthy, good, age-appropriate." (She does give fountain-of-youth credit to good genes, a lifetime of yoga, elliptical-machine workouts and skincare products by SK-II, Patricia Wexler, and Bobbi Brown. Plus a complexion tip from Joanne Woodward: witch hazel. "I’ve used it every day since," Allen says.)
We settle into cushy chairs, and Pumpkin, one of Allen’s two cats, jumps into my lap. It’s the coziest scene imaginable, and Hollywood seems far, far away.
Allen lives alone in this house, which is filled with books, art, and mementos from her many travels ("This is one of my favorite vases," she says, pointing to a large Greek vessel with an octopus painted on it). Divorced from actor Kale Browne, she moved here five years ago with their son, Nick, and made their second home a fulltime residence. Now Nick, 17, attends a nearby college. She misses him, but she’s not the type to sit on the couch paging through photo albums. "Honestly, I have to say, 56 is my favorite age ever," she says. "I’ve raised my son, and I’ll never stop being his mother. But now he’s moved on in his life, and that opens up mine as well. It’s taken me this long to figure out how to create a life that’s diverse and interesting and balanced."
Last June, when Nick was preparing to go to college, his father came east to stay with him while Allen headed for New Mexico to start the Indiana Jones sequel. On the first day of filming, she and Ford, who turned 65 during the shoot, had to leap from the back of a moving truck into its cab. "Harrison and I were laughing in between takes, saying, ‘Here we go again,’" she says. "It just felt really seamless." The new film is set in 1957, with Indy and Marion battling Cold War Russians (led by a diabolical Cate Blanchett) for the possibly supernatural artifact of the title. Shia LaBeouf (Transformers) plays a young man who may or may not be the couple’s love child.
This time around, Allen reports, she will not share a scene with 7,000 snakes, as she and Ford memorably did in the original. (Trivia: To simulate the noise made by the slithering reptiles, the sound designer ran his fingers through a cheese casserole.) She deals with only one snake in this go-round, but it’s satisfyingly jumbo size. "I adored it," Allen says. "It was huge and beautiful and cool."
But the script presented plenty of other challenges, and according to LaBeouf, "Karen was down for it all. It was never Karen saying, ‘No, Steven, the fire’s too close,’ or ‘That bomb’s too loud.’ Instead, it was ‘Karen, we’re about to go jump in these rapids,’ and she was so excited, like a kid."
Initially, LaBeouf was a little dazzled by her. "Anybody who saw Raiders is in love with Karen Allen," says the 22-year-old. "I feel that way, my dad feels that way, a lot of the crew feel that way." He laughs. "You come to the set and you’re fighting with other guys over Karen’s attention!" Besides being beautiful, he says, his seasoned costar was overwhelmingly kind. "Here I am, this young-buck actor on this gargantuan movie," he says. "And every time I was nervous, I’d have a talk with her. As soon as you see her smile, the nervousness is gone. Without Karen, I would have had a very tough shoot."
Back in 1981, it was Allen who was the intense young actor. But this time, "it felt so natural and easy," she says. "Now we’ve all grown up, we all have kids: Steven has seven children; Harrison has several families." She laughs. "As a younger actor, I had a harder time enjoying the process. I was so serious about it all; there was more ego involved. I’d never worked on big action things where you spend the entire day navigating through snakes or having corpses fall on your head, and I was overwhelmed. My film career happened so quickly, it was all by the seat of my pants."

Dual Careers
Allen’s early years helped her to be adaptable. Her father was an FBI agent who was transferred often, and the family — Karen, her schoolteacher mother and her two sisters — moved with him around the Northeast. In 1976, after traveling through South America and the West Indies and doing theater work in Washington, D.C., she went to New York and studied at the Lee Strasberg Institute. Then came her breakout role in 1978’s Animal House. "I couldn’t have had more fun in a first film," she recalls. "It was a group of young actors, all of us in the same boat, and none of us knew what we were doing. But the [male] actors took me into the fold, maybe because I wasn’t one of the girlie girls in the pink outfits, but Katy, the voice of reason."
Three years later, Raiders made her an actress in demand, and she went on to work with stars such as Jeff Bridges, Paul Newman, and Bill Murray. When she and Browne separated after eight years, in 1996, she scaled back on her work to raise Nick. "I never had nannies," she says, shrugging. "It was just me and him, and it was much more of a challenge to do the traveling involved in filming. I thought of myself as semiretired from acting."
Around 2000, when Nick was older, she reentered the entertainment world but found that directors were looking for the latest version of Karen Allen, not the original. "I was at the end of a period in my life, and it was really painful at certain points. I could tell that something had to shift."
When she hit her 50s, she had a revelation: "I was just kind of casting around, wondering, how can I be the parent I want to be and still do something creative? I’m not one of those people who think you have to be a perfect parent — you can be a ‘good enough’ parent, you can love and nurture your kids and also go out in the world and have a life. I felt it was good for my son to see me doing something I loved. I wanted to wake up in the morning and think, yay!" Then it hit her: One of her abiding passions had always been knitting, which she learned at the age of 5 from her grandmother. She enrolled in New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (which she had briefly attended during her college years) to learn machine knitting, which produces garments much more quickly than handwork does. In 2003, she moved permanently from New York to her second home in the Berkshires with the idea of opening a shop.
Allen’s longtime friend Ken Regan, a photographer, says that this is typical of her resilience. "Karen was working less and less, and the roles weren’t as appealing," he says. "And she’s not one to sit and wait for the agent to call. She’s so beyond that."
She found a small studio and started knitting cashmere scarves, sweaters, and hats in richly colored, stripe-heavy designs. They were such a hit that three years ago she rented a 500-square-foot store in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and called it Karen Allen Fiber Arts. Recently she expanded to a larger store nearby; her designs are also available in shops in 13 other states.
The key to successful entrepreneurship is to "find something you’re passionate about," she says firmly. "I enjoy everything to do with designing — the colors, the yarn, even the mundane things like steaming a sweater." But when she started, she knew she also needed to learn the fundamentals of running a company, including inventory and bookkeeping, all of which she does herself. "If I didn’t develop the business side of it, I’d feel like a victim, like I was waiting for someone to come along and save me," she says. "Sometimes you’re cleaning the toilet while you’re paying good wages to people who are doing what you’d rather be doing! Because you’re looking at the big picture, and nobody else is going to."
All of her profits are plowed right back into buying yarn and more knitting machines, and she has contributed some of her savings as well. "The financial part is an ongoing challenge," she says wryly. "Everything is always being reinvested in the company, so there’s a sense that it’s never really making any money, which I’m sure everyone starting a small business feels."
She grins. "Hey, do you want to see my studio and the shop?" She grabs her keys, and we drive to the store, an airy, inviting place that sells not only her wares but also those of some 60 other designers from all over the world. "Hi, Karen," calls a woman across the street as Allen alights from her car.
A man pops his head out of the store next to hers. "Hi, Karen," he says. "Come see me later." After she proudly gives me a tour of the store, we head to her studio a few streets over, a large, tranquil room that’s like a Crayola box of colored spools of yarn. She straightens a pile of sweaters, then sits in a chair and looks around contentedly. "I’m usually here by myself," she says. "I just put on the music and start knitting." She creates about 725 items a year — "not a huge output, but as much as I can handle" — doing about 70 percent of the work herself; the rest is produced by two knitters in New Jersey and New York.
Occasionally she shares her skills in weekend-long workshops at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, in nearby Lenox. The 50 or so women who attend usually don’t bring up their instructor’s other job — at least at first. "On Friday night, it’s totally about knitting," Allen says. "And then on Saturday, about halfway through the day, someone will say, ‘Okay, was Jeff Bridges really as great a guy as he seems?’ " (The answer? "He was an absolute doll.")
Allen may also dip a toe back into the dating pool. While she was raising her son, she had "two or three" relationships, but didn’t want to traumatize him with a series of new "uncles." Now she’s ready to venture out, although if it doesn’t happen, that’s fine too. "I’m quite enjoying my life," she says. She has a wide circle of friends, reads voraciously, travels, skis, and plays piano. "I feel that if I’m going to get involved at this point, I’m looking for the person I’d spend the rest of my life with," she says. "And short of that, I honestly like being on my own." She shrugs. "Every once in a while, I’ll see a really romantic movie, and think, why can’t I find somebody like him? But I’m kind of reconciled to the possibility that I might not."
She is equally pragmatic about her acting career. "There just aren’t that many wonderful roles for women over 45," she says. "I come from a generation of fantastic actresses, most of whom are not working at all, and I don’t think it’s because they stopped wanting to."
Ford has noted a change in her, born of experience. "I think Karen’s got more self-confidence than she did when she was a bit younger," he says. "For her, now, acting is not the only option. It’s just kind of a hoot."
Over the years, Allen says, she’s had offers for television series, but none excited her. "For actors over a certain age, everybody thinks you’re going to work in television. It seems to me there’s one good show a year — like right now I love In Treatment. But most television I find unbearably bad." She flashes that iconic grin again. "So if an acting job comes along that I want to do, fantastic, and meanwhile, I have this really full, rich, interesting life." And one that’s slightly surreal: She talks about attending Crystal Skull‘s glitzy May premiere in Cannes and facing acres of photographers — but first she’s got a backlog of scarf orders to fill.
Originally published in MORE magazine, June 2008.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:19

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