A guy walks into a bar. And is promptly socked in the face by a righteously angry woman.
It sounds like the set-up for an old joke. But for moviegoers, it’s the moment they fell in love with Marion Ravenwood, the self-sufficient and spirited equal to “Raiders of the Lost Ark”’s adventuresome archaeologist Indiana Jones.
It’s when Karen Allen fell in love with Marion, too.
“When they gave me the script I was only given that one scene, when she’s drinking this guy under the table, then she pops (Indy) in the jaw. She’s speaking Nepalese. I thought ‘What a great introduction to a character!,’” says Allen, who played Marion in Steven Spielberg’s 1981 original and later in 2008’s “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”
“I liked her strength and tenacity.”
More than 35 years later, the actress is playing a different tenacious woman, although one, unlike Marion, who’s just beginning to know her own strength. Recently, Allen was in Palm Beach County to promote “Year By The Sea,” based on author Joan Anderson’s memoir of choosing to not follow her husband to a job in Kansas and instead spend a year alone in a remote cabin in Cape Cod.
“(Director) Alexander Janko sent it to my agent, and I ran out and got the book and read it, and two days later called back and said ‘I really hope you would like me to do this film,’” she says. “I didn’t relate to every specific thing in Joan’s story - I was a single mom for the most part (son Nicholas is a personal chef who just won an episode of the Food Network’s ‘Chopped’) and she stayed married. But she put her life on the back-burner, and we do that. When you come to the end of raising children and they’re suddenly just gone, you realize how you’ve done this. I didn’t realize how much the rhythm of my life would change. You’re never prepared for it.”
Allen, whose father was in the FBI, began her theater career in a New York-based Shakespearean company, then studied acting at the noted Lee Strasberg Theater Institute. Her first film role, as Katy in 1978’s “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” exposed her to a distinct fan base.
“There are people of a certain age who know me as Marion, and then there are the fans, men in their 40s and 50s, who really love ‘Animal House,’” she says, laughing. “I didn’t know how many people loved that movie.”
But it would be her next big role, as Marion, that propelled her to stardom. The self-sufficient, hard-drinking bar owner has now become a feminist icon because of her smarts and ability to go toe-to-toe with villains and with Indy himself. Allen says it “never occurred to me” that Marion would be seen that way, but she knew that she reminded her of “so many strong female characters” played by icons like Katherine Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman that she watched as a child.
In fact, after falling in love with Marion in that first jaw-popping scene, Allen says she was disappointed to find that, in later drafts of the script, “she was more a damsel in distress. So I would literally say ‘No.’ They created this strong character and then they put her in a little white dress. I didn’t want that to happen. I was very attached to her, so I had to fight for her integrity.”
In the end, Marion did get kidnapped and need to be rescued, but she also “got to shoot guns and punch people,” Allen says, laughing. As much as she loved the character, she admits that she wasn’t immediately interested in playing her again, or even anyone like her.
That’s because, “in Hollywood, if you’re successful in a certain type of role, they want you to do it again,” she says. “They think ‘This is a certain kind of actor.’ I felt resistant to that. The first few things I was offered after (“Raiders”) were way too similar. I was yearning to go in a different direction.”
And she did, playing an adult Helen Keller in Broadway’s “Monday After The Miracle,” Albert Finney’s lover in the family drama “Shoot The Moon,” the Paul Newman-directed version of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” as shy, disabled Laura Wingfield, and 1984’s still-beloved “Starman,” where she plays a widow who meets an alien (Jeff Bridges) with her late husband’s face.
Allen says she was excited about exploring all of the possibilities available to her as an actor, which affords her “such a privilege to be able to step into another person’s shoes. It’s not unlike being a musician who’s given a great piece of music, the opportunity to interpret it.”
Of all of the movies she starred in post-“Raiders,” Allen marvels at the endurance of one that’s become a favorite for Millennials - 1983’s kid baseball comedy “The Sandlot.” The line “You’re killing me, Smalls!” has become a popular rejoinder for some in their mid-30s.
She says she’s “blown away by how many people know me from that. I didn’t even know it was a popular film. But forget ‘Raiders.’ For kids of a certain age it’s all about ‘The Sandlot.’”
Recently, Allen directed her first film, “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud,” based on a short story by writer Carson McCullers, and a winner in several film festivals. She says that she’d considered directing episodes of NBC’s warhorse procedural “Law and Order,” on which she appeared in the ’90s, and had shadowed her friend, executive producer and director Ed Sherin.
Although she decided that wasn’t her path - “‘Law and Order’ was a very masculine show”- it did open up what has become a career-extending possibility.
“I learn so much about acting every time I direct. It’s amazing,” she says. “And it opens up your world. I’m 65. There’s not much for me to do as an actor. I would be very happy being on a television show, but in terms of film roles, there’s not a lot. I have turned things down, but I can tell you I haven’t turned anything down that I regret. There are a lot of really gifted actresses my age, but not a lot that get the opportunity to act.”
And that’s why movies like “Year By The Sea” are so special - “You get to see yourself on-screen once in a blue moon. Those things can open up a life,” she says.