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Pam Grier reflects on five decades of strength, spirit, and onscreen empowerment

The pioneering actress looks back at her lengthy career, including the early days as a blaxploitation icon and her work with Quentin Tarantino

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Left: Foxy Brown; Center: Pam Grier at the Turner Classics Film Festival; Right: Black Mama, White Mama (All images courtesy of Warner Media)
Left: Foxy Brown; Center: Pam Grier at the Turner Classics Film Festival; Right: Black Mama, White Mama (All images courtesy of Warner Media)
Image: The A.V. Club

For more than 50 years, Pam Grier has been commanding the screen in roles great and small. Starting with producers like Jack Hill and Roger Corman in exploitation filmmaking, Grier immediately stood apart from other actresses, exuding strength, spirit, and intelligence, all while amplifying her status as a sex symbol. In films like Coffy, Foxy Brown, Sheba, Baby, and Friday Foster, Grier offered up empowerment during the blaxploitation era.

Even in films like The Big Doll House and Women In Cages, Grier evinced a screen presence and a talent that could not be denied, leading to a career that would include a Golden Globe-nominated performance in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, and her work on television series like The L Word. Grier recently joined The A.V. Club for a lengthy conversation about her career highlights, the challenges she’s faced along the way, her collaborations with Tarantino and Jack Hill, and sitting through 20-plus hours of interviews for a career retrospective on Ben Mankiewicz’ TCM podcast The Plot Thickens.  


The A.V. Club: How eager were you to explore your life and career for this podcast? Were there topics that you didn’t want to cover?

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Pam Grier: Revisiting anything in my life is sometimes joyous and sometimes painful. I thought, well, it would be nice just to have people who may want to hear and learn from the events in my life. If we do this with Ben, who is an excellent interviewer, it will be the perfect vehicle to start the process—a teaser of what the film or the series [based on my book] will be. So I thought, “Let’s test my memory on it.” And in hindsight that worked out very well. I had reservations as usual, because once you go through the process, you don’t know how you’re going to react. I may snap and remember nothing. But it turned out I was very impressed with the questions and certain things that weren’t covered in my book.

AVC: With your early films, did you go in knowing they would be these sort of exploitation movies? Or as a working actor, were you fully committed to them as serious acting exercises?

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PG: I started doing the films that they would call exploitative, which was basically action and adult films—adult films that have crime like any other shoot ’em up with male leads. I just was doing them for tuition. I wasn’t a serious actor at all. I wasn’t looking to have a career in film in front of the camera. That just wasn’t my ambition at the time.

I was 16 and broke with a tuition and I didn’t have a clue. As I was reading and studying as a good student, eventually getting into film school, I was developing an audience of who would see a woman in action who could perform martial arts, who could perform stunts, and who walked in a man’s shoes, held a gun, used profanity, pinched the guys. But it would be a huge examination of the audience and where we’re going in filmmaking. So, what I was doing at the time, but I could I was seeing it assembling before me.

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AVC: The films you made with Jack Hill are hailed as feminist classics. Were you thinking about that when you were making them?

PG: I wasn’t thinking about it at all. In hindsight, I think when I was in Black Mama White Mama, there was such an incredible audience for myself and if I can engage with any actresses to join me in action, in stunts, and riding horses and fistfights, things that some people think it’s fantasy, but there was a reality that I grew up in. Especially in rural, urban areas where they said it was exploitative. I said, “No, you need to go to my neighborhood and they’ll exploit your ass right out of there, okay?” Some people weren’t accustomed to that and they thought it was exploitation. I said, “No, it’s for real and we have problems.” We have drug issues and oppressive issues in our communities based on discrimination and Jim Crow and not being included. Therefore, if you keep sweeping it under the rug, it’s going to continue to be a problem in society, so why don’t we just uncover our problems and address them?

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As a student in college, that’s how I worked with the films—let’s treat this as a study. Because I see men that respond differently to women when it comes to incarceration or being in a social or political situation. And there are gender differences and it was another study for me in psychology and sociology. So here I was formulating a way to figure out how I can turn this off. I’ve walked away from pre-med, so I’m now entering into filmmaking. I need to figure out where I am going to be a filmmaker and how to succeed. So those were my issues. And whatever everybody else formulated or perceived, that’s their own perception. Mine was different and it wasn’t there to make the money, I just wanted to see how human beings interacted with each other, especially where men were a patriarchal society accustomed to dominating women. “No, you can’t fight. No, you can’t scream. No, you can’t raise your voice. No, you can’t protect yourself. Wait for me to get home to protect you.” Uh, no, I don’t think so. So these were my personal goals and explorations.

The Plot Thickens: Here Comes Pam - Episode 1: The Black West

AVC: You talk about acting at first to get money for tuition. Was there a moment that you transitioned from that, when you felt like a legitimate actress, like you were giving multi-dimensional performances.

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PG: Not until Fort Apache, The Bronx. When you have rehearsal and you’re relating to things that are extremely horrific, and the women in Jack Hills films, they were sometimes camp comedy—people didn’t believe women fought and studied martial arts. And so when it came to the reality of Fort Apache, The Bronx and the drug addiction and killing, that was a real test to my resilience and my strength as a person. First, because some things are really horrific and you have to prepare to see something so damaging and psychotic and deranged. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for myself, I’d have to see certain things that would help me to be convincing. I don’t know, it just came through life preparation. [Someone took me to] Avenue A, B, C and D where it was deeply dark with drug addiction and drug cartels and things I hadn’t seen and it helped me tremendously. But also I had seen a lot of personal things so I would try to protect myself so I wouldn’t snap. But you don’t know until you are in a rehearsal process, and when someone’s grabbing you by the throat and they’re supposed to be convincingly looking like they’re choking you and they’re not and you have to play at being the victim—you have to prepare. It is like theater. It’s like ballet. You prepare. So I had prepared for a lot of the mental anguish that my characters were going to portray. I did a pretty good job and I had a level of reality that was, I thought, convincing because I had been choked before. I’d been attacked four times, too, as a child and twice as a young woman. So I could relate to the end of violence.

AVC: You have an inextricable history with Jack Hill. Who are some of the other people you enjoyed working with?

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PG: Well, Paul Newman, Sid Haig, Philip Michael Thomas, Don Johnson, Samuel Jackson, Robert DeNiro, Bridget Fonda. There’s just so many. And I haven’t finished yet because it seems like I’m turning the page and becoming like a 19 year old or something. I just got off of a film with Damon Wayans, who’s just insanely brilliant. And I just did a Pet Sematary with Henry Thomas, and he’s a grown man. He’s was just a little boy on a bike when he was pedaling E.T. into the galaxy. He’s an incredibly talented actor. So I’m really, really—I don’t want to overuse the term blessed—but I was overly given a generous piece of what I really wanted to do.

AVC: Jackie Brown is still my favorite Tarantino movie, and it could not have been more perfectly tailored for you. Was that role easy for you to tap into because of Tarantino’s affection for you?

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PG: Well, Tarantino only worked with you if you rehearse. Not everyone is going to get to work with him. And he liked my edge and the fact that I had to have a wide spectrum of energy—from soft spoken, soft features to becoming like a gangster within 60 seconds—the pendulum is wide. And I had done four years of just theater. With Jackie Brown, there wasn’t any fighting or shooting or anything like that, just raw human emotion—and it was work, but I didn’t know it was. Because when you work with Quentin, he takes you to a place maybe you haven’t discovered. It was another level of maturity, not only in me, but my performance and then his feminine side, and how he saw me in the frames of his work, how I stood, how I walked, how I talked. And when he captured some reactions to me at the Cockatoo Inn with the red light, for some reason, Jackie had this calculating look that was like, “Wow, she’s on fire. I think she’s turning on him.” She was a victim, went into the jailhouse, smelled urine, menstrual blood and vomit all night, came out—it’s just, this is it. I got to go back to jail or die. And I’m not gonna do either one. And so it is her calculation to not show it. And that’s the thing about acting, where you’ll see characters going after the bad guy and they’re grimacing, they’re angry. I’m like, “No, chill.” The most powerful thing is you’re cool and no one sees you angry all the time—that’s some form of filmmaking. But Quentin didn’t want that. The movie would have been over in 10 minutes.

Image from episode 7 of The Plot Thickens podcast featuring Pam Grier
Image from episode 7 of The Plot Thickens podcast featuring Pam Grier
Image: TCM
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AVC: You mentioned that you weren’t sure what aspect of filmmaking you expected to get into. You have obviously proven your abilities as an actor. Do you harbor other aspirations? Is there a directing role in your future?

PG: I’ve written something I want to direct, but I’m not going to be in it. I don’t need to be. But in order to get it done, I’m going to have to. I will be in it. But I have to do an evaluation to see if the audience is ready. I’m developing audiences, not only for men and women, but for interracial relationships. So I have to see—I don’t know if there’s an audience for it yet. So we’ll have to resume this conversation later. But audiences, you have to train them. They have to go along with you. Tom Cruise has his that follows him, you have the Rock that follows his. You have the comedians that I love, Bill Hader—Barry is just phenomenal. You can float around and do all kinds of things. I don’t know. This is a really good film that has moments of greatness. And then the rest of the movie: the character, the chase, this and that—I don’t know. I just hope I don’t bore more people, that’s all.

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AVC: Well, you’re certainly not boring me. You just talked about training audiences to be ready for what you want to show. How do you see that working?

PG: They have to be developed to see women in film. I started watching Jackie Chan’s The Drunken Master, part one and two, and The Bride With White Hair, and all of his films. And that helped us just to have a thirst for his movies and action. And then Michelle Yeoh, who is in there, and she was selected to play in his films and she was brilliant. And that helped to develop the audience for her brilliance. And so if it had happened 30 years ago, maybe not. If Jackie Brown or any of my films had been in the ’50s and ’60s, there’s no way. So you take the steps. You see how people respond, not only to TV, but to theater and film and stories—the everyday stories in the New York Times or Newsweek or whatever. And you just have to see how they respond to films. And a lot of the films are based on reality. So, that could be a part of the success. But you really have to because you don’t want to lose your investors money. You don’t want to have no income, you want to execute something that people are ready to see because they heard about it. So, it’s a lot of thought. It’s a lot of study and before I do anything that is so out of character, so unique, I’ll have to look at the news historically. Look at Game of Thrones and how popular that is. And not in all audiences. But Vikings, those medieval times—there’s certain aspects of the storytelling that are very popular, but not with everybody. And if you look at the numbers and you look at who watched it, who loves it, wants to see it, who doesn’t—it sounds strange. So for how many years did they develop it? Then when it stopped, people went crazy. But look at the production of it. It was awesome. It was like a video game. It was brilliant. And in production, you got to be able to have your team. You can have all the vision you want, but if you don’t have the creative behind you, you’re not going to get it done.

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AVC: Has your career been what you expected or what you wanted?

PG: It’s been more than I expected. And it’s going to be even more because I’ve learned some formulas that work in showing historical pieces that you thought were interesting but weren’t made in the past because it was women. And now there’s a formula that can draw in a contemporary audience. Men are comfortable with watching women be in the outback or climbing Mount Everest climb. So now that you have all these contemporary actors who are really liking to go out there and just jump in the pool with a historical piece that can bottom out and bore everyone or make people revisit a horrible time. But you have contemporary actors and a director and writer that can write the narrative and still feed the lust of the audience. But there’s a formula to it.