The actor: Nancy Allen, a former dancer and model who moved to Los Angeles in the early ’70s, right when the “New Hollywood” was in full flower. Allen broke through in director Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie, and began a personal and professional relationship with De Palma that spanned nearly 10 years and multiple movies. (The best film from that collaboration, 1981’s Blow Out, is being released by Criterion next week in a terrific-looking, features-packed Blu-ray edition.) Throughout her career, Allen has worked with some of the most distinctive filmmakers in the business: Hal Ashby, Paul Verhoeven, Steven Spielberg, Steven Soderbergh, Abel Ferrara, Robert Zemeckis, and more.
Blow Out (1981)—“Sally”
Nancy Allen: The part wasn’t written for me, and I had no intention of playing it. In fact, as written, neither John Travolta nor I could’ve been cast in those roles, because the characters were supposed to be much older. So Brian had to rework them to make it work for us.
The A.V. Club: That was the fourth film you made with De Palma. Did working with him get easier each time? Or did your relationship complicate things?
NA: No, it was really easy. Maybe more so than the first time, because we knew each other really well. You develop a shorthand in terms of communicating. As a director, I knew what he liked, and I think his knowing me as well as he did, he was able to touch on some things that would connect for me and make it easier to make an adjustment. So yeah, easier. The more you work with anyone, the more comfortable and safe you feel. The more you have an understanding.
AVC: De Palma’s films frequently have a distinctive tone that’s both serious and tongue-in-cheek. Is that something that he explains to his actors or something you figure out on your own?
NA: No, he didn’t. I think either you get it or you don’t. With the exception of Carrie, he wrote all the movies that I worked on with him. Brian and I shared a very similar sense of humor and sensibility, and it was all very apparent to me in the writing. Maybe that’s only because I knew him as well as I did. Maybe not to others.
AVC: In your interview on the Criterion disc of Blow Out, you mention the scene in the film where you’re pulled out of a car underwater, and you said it was difficult for you because of your claustrophobia. De Palma’s Body Double, which came out three years later, is about a claustrophobic actor. Was that based in any way on your experiences?
NA: I don’t know. Maybe he took that. That was me, perfectly. Maybe he took that aspect. You know, you write what you know and maybe his experiences living with me and knowing about that was something he decided to give it to the character in that movie. You’d have to ask him. I do know I bought him a telescope, which, you know… the telescope’s a big thing in Body Double. But if you go back to Greetings and Hi, Mom, you have Robert De Niro as the king of peeping in windows. It’s a common theme in Brian’s movies, as I’m sure you know. Home Movies too. He’s always peeping, you know what I mean? So I think that was very much Brian.
AVC: Do you have a favorite of the four movies you made with him?
NA: No, not really. Carrie was special because it was my first significant role in film, and it was an amazing experience. Home Movies was kind of fun because I got to do something really silly. And Dressed To Kill was written for me, so that was a nice surprise, because it’s wondrous to have something written for you. And Blow Out I came to love because, you know, what an extraordinary cast to work with. And to take a character that I didn’t really quite like, and make it work for me and find something that I really liked about her… that’s always fun and interesting. But they’re each special to me in their own way.
The Last Detail (1973)—“Nancy”
NA: The director, Hal Ashby, was very low-key. I was extremely nervous and intimidated about coming onto a movie set. Everything about it was intimidating. Jack Nicholson was great, though. We didn’t really rehearse. We just started shooting him talking to me, and I’d be looking and rolling my eyes. And I have to tell you, people say, “Oh, you’re really good with the way you ignore him and how bored you seem,” but really, the truth is that I think I was just paralyzed with fear. [Laughs.] I don’t think I could’ve spoken if I had been asked to. I was originally offered the role of the hooker, the role that Carol Kane ultimately played so fabulously. And I remember calling the casting director, Lynn Stalmaster, and saying that I didn’t think I could talk and be naked at the same time.
There’s a scene where we’re sitting at the table and Jack’s character is continually talking to me about himself. So we’re sitting there in between takes just talking casually, and I don’t remember what we were talking about, but I didn’t even realize that the camera had started rolling and he literally slipped into character and I’m thinking, “What is he doing?” [Laughs.] “Why is he acting like this?” You couldn’t even see him slip into character. It was amazing. I was there only for three days. Pretty quick in and out. But it was enough to give me the bug. It took me another few years to do it, but that was when I decided I’d pursue an acting career in film. Until then I’d been doing commercials in New York.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)—“Pam Mitchell”
AVC: How was Robert Zemeckis as a director, so early in his career?
NA: Oh, fabulous. Absolutely sensational. It was a great experience. He was 26 when we made the film, and though I was only a year older than him at the time, I had made a few movies. So, first day of rehearsal, I remember him saying, “When you did Carrie, did you guys rehearse? Did you read the script?” And I was like, “Yeah, we read the script.” So he’s like, “Okay, let’s read the script!” [Laughs.] I already knew he was good, though, because he had directed me in the audition. Right away I thought, “Okay, this guy’s really, really good.” The rehearsal process was fun, except I was a little nervous about the guitar scene. But that shoot was action-packed. He knew what he wanted. The actors were really close. We got really collaborative. I would just say that script he wrote with Bob Gale was so tight and so clear and Bob was so specific about what he wanted. It was just, boom! And you kept moving. Like a fast-moving train that didn’t stop. We had a blast.
AVC: Can you see any continuity between the films Zemeckis made early in his career and his later films, which won a lot of awards and made lots of money?
NA: Well, of course one thinks of Forrest Gump, which is very different, but I guess what I’d have to say is that there was a progression. If you watch all his movies, you could see how he developed. He had very clearly developed characters in I Wanna Hold Your Hand, who all had a really strong purpose. And then from there he went on to do Used Cars, which seems really dark and really cynical, although it did have heart. In the midst of it all, there was a piece of heart. I think there’s an evolution to his filmmaking, just like the maturity and development in his own life. One hopes to grow and develop and mature, and have deeper experiences, which will be reflected in the work they do. And that’s how you can connect those dots.
1941 (1979)—“Donna Stratton”
NA: [Laughs.] Where do I begin? Everybody I had worked with previously was cast in it. They all kept calling saying, “There’s a great part for you in here. You should call Steven.” And I thought, “You know, if he’s interested in me and thinks I’m right, then I’m sure he’ll call.” I didn’t have the script, which was originally called, which you probably know, The Night The Japs Attacked, or just Japs at one point. But I was on vacation in Hawaii and my agent hunted me down and said Steven Spielberg had requested me to come in to read. So I went in to read and I met with him, and they were shooting in miniatures at the time. This was on the MGM lot, and he walked me around and showed me all that stuff. We sat in his trailer and he said, “You know, I’m gonna do something kinda crazy that I’ve never done, and I’m just gonna cast you. I’m not gonna bother to read you. Because you’re so right for this part. And everybody’s been saying ‘Nancy, Nancy, Nancy.’ The casting directors, Bob Zemeckis, Bob Gale.” What had happened was that he’d gotten to know me too well, because we’d dated together. Not Steven and I, but Brian and I and he and Amy Irving at the time. We’d spent a lot of time together socially. He told me, “I just stopped thinking about you in that way.” [Laughs.] That was my first memory of 1941.
I was very excited and thrilled to be working with Steven and all the other people I was going to be working with. So there was that. And then I was on the film for six months. [Laughs.] I was hired for 14 weeks, and I was on the film for six months. And so was everybody else. It was a very long shoot, needless to say. It actually got to a point where the script kept changing and pretty much everybody stopped reading it. We were just, “Whatever.” You had to wake up, say, “What are we doing today?” and then go for it.
I am very happy that Tim Matheson and I, our storyline was very simple and very clear, and it didn’t get messed up at all. Most people, even if they didn’t like the film, they at least liked what we did. The scene where we’re up in the plane, it was a mock-up on a set in the studio, and they were using what was called a Louma crane, which is a computerized camera, so that this little head of the camera was coming in, while Steven and the DP and whoever were watching on a monitor. They could direct the camera from where they were. They’d just tell the computer what to do, like a robot. But there was a freak accident with flash bulbs and feathers, and it ignited a fire. I was trapped in the cockpit, and they pulled me through the fire and my little stockings were burned off. We jumped, and now I understand why people jump: because fire is very frightening. [Laughs.] I literally jumped out of the plane, and a big grip caught me and flung me onto the wing.
So I have many vivid memories of this film. There were a lot of great times, because this was a tremendous cast of talented people, and we had a ball just hanging out. But the movie was, I think, lacking a strong producer’s hand. And it was very disappointing when it opened.
AVC: We interviewed Tim Matheson a couple years ago and he said that the 1941 script wasn’t all that funny, but he figured that with all the talent involved, the movie was bound to turn out good.
NA: That’s funny. I just saw Tim recently. But you know, I would disagree with that. I thought the script was very funny, coming off of I Wanna Hold Your Hand. What made it unfunny is that it kept being changed and expanded. I really believe that it had Bob Zemeckis’ sensibility, and Bob Gale’s. The original script had the very cynical, very edgy kind of stuff that they did. And I always felt like Steven had more of a whimsical sensibility, just like a kid. So you’d have all these explosions when you’d need to be focused on the people. No, I disagree; I think it was a funny script. It just got unfunny as it went along. But he’s right that everyone did go around saying, “This is funny, right?” And, “It’s Steven Spielberg, it’s gonna work, right?” [Laughs.] There was a lot of that going on.
Strange Invaders (1983)—“Betty Walker”
The Man Who Wouldn’t Die (1994)—“Jessie Gallardo”
NA: Strange Invaders was a great script, by Bill Condon. I remember reading it from beginning to end immediately. It was smart, it was funny, and it was just terrific all the way around. I met Bill in the middle of shooting, and by that point I was pretty sure that he should have directed the film. It was a good enough movie, but it would have been a great movie if he’d directed it. We really connected on that and became good friends. In fact, he started developing a project that I was interested in, and he almost got it set up. I just knew he should be a director. And he certainly wanted to.
It was great to finally work with him as a director on The Man Who Wouldn’t Die, a movie we did for television. He’s a very, very good director. He knows how to communicate what he wants, and is able to create an atmosphere where you feel safe to take chances and explore. He runs a great set and I think the world of him.
But adding Roger Moore into the mix was really tricky. He’s fabulous, but he’s so funny. He would have us falling down laughing on the set. Typical of English actors, of course. They’re so well-trained and they don’t take themselves too seriously. I love that they’re not always quiet or, “Oh, don’t talk to him because he’s in character.” For me, I think this job is a lot of fun and that we’re really lucky to make movies and play make-believe for a living. I also think that it’s great to be loose about what you’re doing, and to have that freedom to come in and out of a role. I’ve worked with people—and know actors and friends whom I haven’t worked with—who are just inside of themselves for so long and suffering and dying and crying and thinking and drumming up feelings.
I’m sure you know the great story of Dustin Hoffman, who was walking around with rocks in his shoes to develop a limp, and Laurence Olivier said to him, “Why don’t you just act it?” [Laughs.] It’s brilliant. It’s so simple, it’s brilliant. Or the old James Cagney quote, which I love: “Just plant your feet in the ground and tell the truth.” But anyway, Roger Moore was a hoot. I don’t know if anyone knows he’s that funny.
The Gladiator (1986)—“Susan Neville”
AVC: Abel Ferrara was a colorful character, I’d imagine.
NA: Oh yes, oh yes. He is. [Laughs.] I was very excited to work with him. I think it was the first day on the set, and I can’t remember whether he said it to me or to me and my co-star Ken Wahl, but he said, “So, okay, this is a real piece of shit. What are we going to do with it? How do we make it work?” [Laughs.] And it really was. It was awful, to be honest with you. I don’t know how I got the words out of my mouth. A lot of times when people talk about bad performances of actors in movies, I always want to say, “You know what? Maybe you should read the script and try to say some of these words that are on paper.” But the shoot was okay. Abel is very kind of down and dirty, and I think he was less than inspired on this. I don’t think I got to work with him under the best circumstances, but I think he did the best that you could possibly do with it.
RoboCop (1987)— “Officer Anne Lewis”
NA: Well, I got the script and I called my agent and I said, “They’re going to change the title, right? That’s a stupid, terrible title and I’m sure it’s an awful movie.” But I turned to the first page of the script and thought I’d read a few pages, and then I couldn’t put it down. I read the whole script. Again, it was very smart, very witty, and as you know, there’s a lot of political commentary in there. I met Paul Verhoeven, and then I went back to read and I read two scenes. He said, “I’d like you to do such and such with this particular scene.” I took a minute to think about it, went out of the room, came back in and did the scene. Then I asked him if that’s what he’d wanted and he said, “No, but it was very interesting.” [Laughs.]
He’s like a madman on the set. Very flamboyant. I don’t know if you’ve ever met him, but he’s very wild. He acts everything out and plays all the parts and then says, “But don’t copy me.” [Laughs.] This was his first American film, and he was so used to small crews and moving at the pace that he wanted to. But they had to put radio mics on Peter Weller and I for a scene, and he was beside himself because it was slowing things down. I remember him saying to the sound manager that he was conspiring to ruin his movie. [Laughs.] He was crazy, but brilliant; absolutely brilliant. And you could feel it.
There’s a thing with great directors, and you can say it about Zemeckis and Brian and Spielberg and Verhoeven. For me, you can feel it when you’re with them. They so know what they want and they’re able to communicate it. There’s an energy that’s created on the set and it’s a well-oiled machine. It’s just very exciting to work with people like that. But Verhoeven was especially dramatic and exciting and irreverent. Crazy. Just crazy.
Out Of Sight (1998)—“Midge”
NA: I got a call from my agent saying they were interested in me. I said, “Sure, I’ll go read for it; I’ll do anything to work with Steven Soderbergh.” So I went and they put me on tape and that was that. I would say he’s fantastic. I came into the film at the very end of filming and George Clooney was very welcoming and nice, and I got to work with Isaiah Washington. I met all those great actors. And of course Albert Brooks. When we were shooting, I was only supposed to be there a few days, but Steven really liked Albert and myself and kept writing little things for us to do. I kind of knew that none of it would make it into the film, because you’re not interested at that point in the story in new character stuff, but it was fun to shoot it. It was a fabulous experience.
AVC: Did you know Albert Brooks before that? He was around to a certain extent with the whole “film school brat” crowd back in the ’70s, yes?
NA: Well, I had met him here and there, at little social gatherings. I think I met him the first time at Thanksgiving at Carl Gottlieb’s house. I was with Steven and Amy and we had just stopped by there. That was the first time. I didn’t really know him, but I’d met him.
AVC: When you casually say things like “dinner at Carl Gottlieb’s house with Amy and Steven,” it’s amusing because that’s such a legendary era to film buffs, that time when Scorsese and Spielberg and Lucas and Coppola and De Palma were all hanging out and making masterpieces. And there was that whole West Coast actress bunch too, with Margot Kidder. Did you feel like something special was happening at the time, or was it just your life?
NA: I look back now and go, “Amazing, absolutely amazing.” But at the time? Everybody was so young. Steven was only a few years older than me, and living in a very funky house in Laurel Canyon. In Brian’s apartment in New York, I think he had two dishes, a fork, and a glass, and that was it. Steven had the success of Jaws and was preparing Close Encounters, but it was all very casual. We were all always together. And Scorsese too, when he was in town.
I remember when Brian and myself and Steven and Jay Cocks and I think a few other people all flew up to San Francisco to see a rough cut of Star Wars. This was when I had first started seeing Brian. I didn’t even know what a rough cut was. We watched this movie and I’m looking at a picture with arrows going across the screen and thinking, “This is a mess. What is this? This is boring.” And we go to lunch and I’m sitting there and they’re saying it’s fabulous and they’re collaborating, saying, “This is what you need to do.” Jay and Brian started writing things for the crawl at the beginning. And then I saw the movie at the MGM screening, I was like, “Oh my God, this is a really great film!” We stayed at George and Marsha Lucas’ house and everybody was writing in an envelope, predicting how much money the movie would make. Nobody even came close. [Laughs.] I think Steven said something like $15 million in rentals.
But I do think about those times. We traveled, Steven and Amy and Brian and I, to all these film festivals and played there. And Sissy Spacek was there. We hung out with everybody. Roman Polanski, Sean Connery… all these people I met as a newcomer to this business. And particularly that time in filmmaking, to have had an inside seat, listening to these people talk and collaborate and give each other feedback. I don’t know how much people do that today, but these guys were really tight. I just think it was really an extraordinary time and I guess people are still talking about it now.
There’s a perspective now that I’m old and looking back. It was amazing. They were all great and young and excited and it was all about, “What can we do next?” and, “What do you think about this idea?” Very, very, very inspiring and exciting times. I don’t think I had any idea of what I was in the middle of, except I did know, without question, that I was with extraordinarily talented, smart and funny people. And that for me was really a turn-on.