Perhaps the foremost icon of the blaxploitation era, Pam Grier began her film career in the early 1970s and quickly came to represent a new female cinematic archetype: sexy, strong, and perpetually willing to whoop some bad-guy ass. A military brat and the cousin of football player Rosey Grier, Grier made her debut in Russ Meyer's cult classic Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. While attending college (she majored in pre-med before switching to film) and working at American International Pictures, Grier caught the eye of B-movie maven Roger Corman, who paired her with writer-director Jack Hill for a series of popular action movies, including Foxy Brown and Coffy. When the blaxploitation boom ended, many of its key players were left scrambling for work, but Grier worked regularly in theater, television, and film, forming long-term work relationships with filmmakers like John Carpenter and Andrew Davis. In the mid-'90s, longtime fan Quentin Tarantino gave Grier's career a boost by casting her in the lead role of Jackie Brown, his follow-up to Pulp Fiction. Grier won considerable accolades for the role, including Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for Best Actress. Since then, she's appeared in films like Ghosts Of Mars, 3 A.M., Holy Smoke, and the recent Bones. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Grier about the blaxploitation era, race, height, gender, sex, violence, and her role as an icon of female empowerment.
The Onion: You began your career doing beauty pageants. How did that begin?
Pam Grier: I did it to gain confidence and raise money for tuition. My mother said it was one of the best ways to overcome my shyness and other things I had grown up with. So, as far as the beauty pageants, I never went in thinking, "You're an African-American woman, so you're never going to win." I was just in it for the experience, and to show my brains and talent and help break stereotypes. It wasn't like, "Oh, I'll become a star. I'm beautiful." I never thought I was pretty. I couldn't even put on eyelashes or makeup. When you come from an environment that's military, and they don't stress that topic of aesthetics or beauty pageants and makeup, there are a lot of things you just don't have that city girls have. Or the country girl who goes to movies and dreams of going to Hollywood as an actress. Not too many sisters at that time dreamed about becoming actresses. You're still a member of the Black Panthers, you're still trying to vote, you're still trying not to get run off the road or stopped or frisked.
O: Growing up, you didn't think of yourself as beautiful or striking?
PG: No. We weren't taught anything like that in our family. We were taught that if our eyes worked and our legs worked, we were beautiful. We had so many kids in our family that if we all got in front of the mirror and were ashamed of browns and golds and yellows and whites, and we believed what society told us—that the darker people were less attractive and the lighter ones were prettier—we would have had inter-family sibling murders. So we didn't stress that in our family. It was character, and having your limbs. My family, being half-rural and half-military, just came from a different place.
O: The first films you made were with Roger Corman.
PG: Roger Corman was looking for an in-your-face, radical kind of natural actress who hadn't been pampered and frosted with wigs and blue eye-shadow. And one of my jobs happened to be at an agency where he was having trouble finding an actress. So people said, "You're tough and you're a military brat, you keep us in line. Why don't you go up there?" And I'm in film school, so I really have to sock away my money for school, tuition, and so on, and I really don't have time. I don't want to be an actress, because I think that they have to be really pretty, and I'm not. So they say, "We can offer, like, $500 a week," and I'm saying, "I'm working three jobs and bringing home half that!" I guess they liked my attitude. The next thing you know, I'm doing a film in the Philippines, guerrilla filmmaking at its best, with a director named Jack Hill. He had a European sensibility to film, and so did I, and when it came to nudity, we're thinking about Fellini and Kurosawa and Bertolucci. You're not thinking about some sort of Victorian handicap called, "Don't show your breasts, it's considered indecent." And then I just said, "I'm just going to try to do the best work at whatever I'm going to be, and I don't think I'm going to be an actress." But every time I did a film, they kept me there, and I did another one. The next thing you know, they're saying, "Ma'am, you're really a good actress. You're real. You're a natural, you're right there." So I had to learn and catch up with everybody, and I took it seriously. Even though I was doing a movie that was considered a B-movie, I thought it was Gone With The Wind. I thought it would win an Oscar. I think if anyone doesn't approach their work on that level, they won't achieve what they're looking for, whether it's great success or just acknowledgment, because you're half-stepping. I went in doing the best work I could, which frightened them, because they didn't expect me to.
O: What was it like making films in the Philippines?
PG: Hot, buggy, and sticky. I got sick a lot, but doing films over there, they were so enraptured by the filmmaking process and Hollywood that it was fascinating. I did a lot of my own makeup, a lot of my own stunts. I wanted to learn, and it was fascinating seeing what the director did. I thought, "Wow, that's a lot of responsibility." You've got to have an eye for photography. You have to have an eye for that kind of grand scope, to be that kind of a painter. I thought, "Hmm, I wonder if that would interest me? I'm not sure, and I'm not sure if the opportunities are there for me, but I'm not going to wait for them." I don't think I can break down any doors, but I'm thinking, "Maybe I can be a cameraman, because I love the cameras." And the cameraman would show me how to thread the film, how to repair it, the lenses. That's when you become, like, goony goo-goo about it. You breathe and eat camera, and all of a sudden, you don't want anything else in the world. You finally know, "This is my calling." When you're passionate about something, it doesn't become work. It's art and it's fun. It's arduous, it's sweaty. You spend 15 hours in the elements, behind a camera, whether you start out changing film or you start out being an operator, second unit, loading, carrying. Anything involving the camera, you're passionate about. Because there's no movies without it.
O: Shooting in the Philippines and doing your own stunts, were you ever worried that you might be seriously injured?
PG: Oh, all the time, but since I was very athletic, and had run track in school, that helped. I was kind of a bouncy kid. I used to roller-skate into the sides of cars. [Laughs.] We skied. I had some flexibility, I loved speed, and for some reason, I did some of the stunts. But you're always in danger of something exploding, or leeches or cobras or snakes. You can get hurt at any time. But you listen and watch. These people live there, they understand the jungle of the Philippines, they know what to do. But if you're stupid and you're arrogant, you're going to get hurt. It's not the place to be arrogant.
O: When you were making Coffy and Foxy Brown, did you have any conception that you were creating a powerful new female archetype, this sort of iconic, larger-than-life figure?
PG: No, not at all. You never know how people are going to respond. I just wanted to try to do interesting work. I was surprised and humbled by the legacy of it.
O: You were sort of the first woman to play that type of character.
PG: Yeah, well. I saw it in my real life, I saw it in the police force in Denver, and I saw it in the military. I saw women share the platform with men in my personal world, and Hollywood just hadn't wakened to it yet. Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn changed the way they saw women during the 1940s, but I saw it daily in the women's movement that was emerging, because I was a child of the women's movement. Everything I had learned was from my mother and my grandmother, who both had a very pioneering spirit. They had to, because they had to change flat tires and paint the house—because, you know, the men didn't come home from the war or whatever else, so women had to do these things. So, out of economic necessity and the freedoms won, by the '50s and '60s, there was suddenly this opportunity and this invitation that was like, "Come out here with these men. Get out here. Show us what you got." And they had to, out of pure necessity. Out of necessity comes genius. Not to say that I was a genius, but I did the things I had to do.
O: Did you get a lot of feedback at the time about your film work?
PG: The masses enjoyed it. They enjoyed seeing a female hero. And then some of the more conservative people said, "Couldn't you have done something else? Couldn't you have played a nun? Couldn't you play Mother Mary, or something more conservative?" And I said, "You guys are so fragmented that nobody's going to come. Nobody's going to see those movies." The way things are right now, they want to see action, they want to see heroes and heroines. And if you're not that, you're an art film, and if you were black, then you weren't going to be in that art film. If you were black, you may not get to do theater. So you're marginalizing yourself even further, and you're not going to get the experience, and you're not going to break down stereotypes. Although at the beginning, my ambition was never to break down doors. It was just to earn tuition for myself and work in an industry where women hadn't been allowed or invited. That's all I wanted to do, not thinking that I would make waves, change minds, excite people, incite people, turn on people, repulse people. We've got $20 million actresses today who are nude in Vanilla Sky, nude in Swordfish. So what did I do different? I got paid less, but that's it. And if you see it as an art form, what's the problem? You know what it's rated, and you know what you're going to see, because the critics tell you. So if it offends you, don't go.
O: Other than the nudity, it seems like what bothered some people about your films was the violence. Did you ever have a problem with the violence in your early films?
PG: No, not at all. I saw more violence in my neighborhood and in the war and on the newsreels than I did in my movies, so it didn't bother me. Coming from the '50s, things were very violent. We were still being lynched. If I drove down through the South with my mother, I might not make it through one state without being bullied or harassed. I feel like unless you've been black for a week, you don't know. A lot of people were really up in arms about nothing, and if you challenge them, they go, "Well, maybe you're right." In the meantime, you have a headline writer who's made waves by asking questions and raising flags and saying, "Oh my God, Sam Jackson said the word 'nigger' 37 times in Jackie Brown!" And Sam said, "Well, there were 10 in the script, but I chose to say it more." He doesn't get attacked. Everyone else can maim, kill, and shoot, and they don't get attacked. At the time, I just said, "You guys just have to get real." I just came from a very real place of no pretension, like, "Yeah, I'm sorry it's ghetto. I'm sorry it's lower-class." I wish it was elite and I was Ivy League and I lived in the suburbs and my folks made $100,000, but that's not the real world. Either they accept my art and my sensibility, or they don't.
O: A lot of your earlier films were attacked by the NAACP and other mainstream civil-rights groups.
PG: Well, they would attack, but very minimally, and not very loudly. I mean, I hosted their awards show the year before it went to television, and my date was Freddie Prinze. I hosted the show, so if I was that horrific, why was I hosting the show? I was given keys to the city from every major black city in the country. I was meeting with mayors and raising funds. Of course, I was opening doors, and as you open doors and become bigger box-office, you have an opportunity to do Lilies Of The Field. Maybe I can do non-violent films. I'm still trying to do films about black women. Angela Bassett finally did a film about Rosa Parks, but look how long it took for that to get done. Why didn't somebody do Rosa Parks sooner? Why didn't they do Tina Turner then? There comes a point where you're "not valid." But as time goes by, and with education and academics and plain old consciousness, you kind of realize what went on, who did what, who got the limelight. Spike Lee got a lot of limelight by accusing Quentin Tarantino of giving 37 lines of "nigger" to Sam Jackson. When, in fact, that wasn't the case at all.
O: Do you think being known for action movies has hurt you in terms of getting other kinds of roles?
PG: Not at all. I've done the best theater in the world. I've done Sam Shepard plays and won awards. I did Frankie And Johnny In The Clair De Lune and won awards. It's what you bring to the table. It's whether you can fill seats, you know? You got Ice Cube getting roles. You got rappers filling the seats. That's all they care about. They don't care about me. They don't care if I'm gonna be naked and black. And whoever the critics are, and whoever the naysayers are, they don't get it. This is a private industry. If you're invited to come to the party and drink from the fountain, it's a privilege. You can't tell them what to do. I don't see the NAACP telling them, "Well, why don't you make these films?" How come they don't go up to the black directors and tell them, "How come they aren't making these films?" But I did 3 A.M. You know I've been nominated almost 10 times by the NAACP? I won once for one of the plays, Fool For Love by Sam Shepard. I've been asked to do plays on Broadway every year. But also, you need to understand the dynamic. I tell young actresses today who are looking to get into films, "First of all, you are marginalized by the color of your skin." I tell actresses, "If you're too tall, if you're too fat, you're not going to work. I don't care how talented you are." It's a business, and sex sells. Sex, action, special effects, and violence sell. Yes, you can have art films about the triumph of the human spirit and all of that, but you'll have it done with a big-budget icon with a $20 million salary. You'll have Julia Roberts, you'll have Robert Redford, you'll have Russell Crowe doing those films, because if they're going to cost $90 million, they're going to make that movie for a public that's very large and mainstream. They're not going to make it for three or four million black people.
O: When did you realize that acting was more than just a fluke, and something to which you wanted to devote the rest of your life?
PG: Not until Fort Apache, The Bronx. Back then, I was going to film school. I started screenwriting classes, and I remember HBO had just formed, and half their executives had signed up for night-writing classes. And guess who I ran into on the campus one night? [Rocky star] Carl Weathers. He was taking courses at UCLA, and the next thing you know, he wrote, produced, and starred in Action Jackson. That's when I realized I was passionate about the work, and I might be good at it.
O: You're friends with the rapper Foxy Brown. How did that begin?
PG: I had heard of her, and I had loved her music and was buying her CDs. Eventually I'd bump into her at events and things. And she was great. She said, "I was going to call you and ask you if I could use the name Foxy Brown." And I said, "It's not about me giving you permission, it's about you sharing the responsibility of what it meant." It's the best honor when someone wants to use as their professional title the name of a character that you portrayed. It's such an honor, because I did my best work in the movie and it made a difference. It made people feel confident in themselves. It made them feel, "I'm not going to be a victim anymore." Because women were victims. Their husbands could beat them up when they wanted to. They couldn't work. They could be maimed and killed by their husbands. The law would let them, and Foxy Brown said, "No more." She reflected the women's movement—not only tongue-in-cheek, but in fantasy and exaggeration.
O: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
PG: I consider myself conscious of how we're treated, and sometimes I can be a feminist. Sometimes I'm a little Republican, sometimes I'm a little Democrat. Sometimes I'm angry, sometimes I'm not angry. I'm not a total feminist, but I believe in rights for females. I believe that if we have to pay 100 percent for our college tuition, and then we get into the workplace, and we're only given 70 percent of our counterparts' salaries, then we shouldn't have to pay but 70 percent of our college tuition. Maybe that'll stop the bullshit. Now, come on. I ask you, how would you like your mom, your wife, your daughter to spend $100,000 to go to Harvard or some state school, and go out into the workplace, and you know she's great, and men are getting paid $200 per week more than her? Would that piss you off? What if you lost your job and you stay home crippled while she goes out, and she thinks she's going to get a good job, but someone male with the same level of experience and the same level of education gets paid more than her? You're going to get pissed. Until you walk a mile in someone else's shoes, I don't want to hear it. See, that's the disparity that we have. That's what makes people angry. That's what makes people say, "Why should I work so hard? I'm not going to get paid." When we have that so prevalent in the black community, that's what saddens me, because that's when we know we can't get films that uplift made. We have to have films about action and violence and special effects. That's the sad part, but you know what? It's not me doing it.
O: Is it true that you auditioned for Pulp Fiction?
PG: Yes, I did. I went into Quentin's office, and there were all these posters of me up on the wall. I asked him, "Did you put these posters up because you knew I was coming?" And he said, "No, I actually was thinking about taking them down because you were coming." But it was nice, and the artwork was so cool. They were the original posters, and they're worth, like, $10,000 each. I was amazed that he was so interested in the style of that whole genre. Not only was it romantic, that type of genre, but the style of long scenes that we had because we didn't have the budget to cut, cut, cut, so the scenes were lengthy, as are some of his scenes. It worked very well, but it takes like a day or two to set up the whole scene before you can shoot it. But that's the brilliance of Quentin and his cameramen. They spent three days setting up the lighting for one scene so they could do it without cutting. It was incredible, because you had Robert De Niro and Michael Keaton with a sister at once. You have Batman and Raging Bull in the film with me, and Sam Jackson. And the fact that he would put a black woman in his film to make it interesting, you know, wasn't just hype. He did a really good job telling the story. So he brought his legacy. I was just invited to the party.
O: It seems like a lot of black actors and filmmakers who made action movies in the early '70s object to the term "blaxploitation" because they feel it's demeaning. Do you feel that way at all?
PG: No, not at all. I'd be a hypocrite if I did. No, but everyone else can do violence. You know, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, they can all do shoot-'em-ups. Arnold Schwarzenegger can kill 10 people in one minute, and they don't call it "white exploitation." They win awards and get into all the magazines. But if black people do it, suddenly it's different than if a white person does it. People respond differently because people come from different places.
O: Can you see a time when that isn't the case?
PG: I will not be on this planet. I may come back in another form, and you know, I'll come back as a white man. If I get the chance, I want to come back as a white man and go to Ivy League schools. [Laughs.]