Pam Grier: Being Jackie Brown

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Talking to Pam Grier is like talking to Jackie, Foxy and Coffy all in one. She sounds positively joyful that Quentin Tarantino’s underappreciated gem Jackie Brown is finally coming to Blu-Ray. Her speech is punctuated with coos and chuckles, and the whole conversation takes on a vibey, ’70s-era groove.

“I’m very proud that it was good enough to make the Blu-Ray cut,” she laughs. “I mean, there are some films that will not make it to Blu-Ray. And I think Quentin would have been extremely disappointed if it had not made it. The fact that he wrote and directed such a remarkable film, such a full-bodied Tarantino, and that it holds up over time and has legs and they’re still showing it and people are still bombarding me…I must have 10,000 pieces of mail from all over the world from people seeing it and loving it. They love Tarantino, and they love seeing another side of his craft. So it’s remarkable and rewarding for all of us.”

Grier’s Jackie shakes up the world of bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) just as thoroughly as you’ll remember. Grier still finds it funny all these years later. “Jackie scared him to death, didn’t she?” she asks playfully. “He thinks, ‘I’d like to get turned on by this, but I have a vague feeling I might get hurt. It won’t be just backscratching.’ I think I scared him to death. But that’s how Quentin wrote it.”

As far as the source of those two pitch-perfect performances, Grier gives the credit to Tarantino’s rehearsal style: “All I can say is, we got to rehearse. To me, he embodies that rehearsal process that they have on Broadway. You rehearse it so you can be free. Because when you work with Quentin, you’re liberated. You’re not constricted or controlled. People say he’s controlling, but it’s the opposite. You are so free. He’s free himself, that’s how he works. And either you will get it in rehearsal, or you will not. But most of the time, when he meets you, he knows. It’s instinctive. And in rehearsal he’ll ask you what your favorite color is. What do you eat, and why? What are your senses like? How do you walk? Some people take showers with socks on [laughs]. He wants to know who this being is that he’s placing in this huge orchestra of human souls. It’s like a symphony orchestra—you’ll have 20 of the same instrument, but they have to sound like one pure tone. So you would think it’s control, but it’s not. It’s liberation. And that’s the joy of working with him. The freedom to be that artist and explore.”

That freedom leads to an ability to go to great lengths to explore a scene, she explains. “All he says is, make sure you know the lines. And you do that in rehearsal, so that you know where you’re going, and he knows where to cut or not cut. When we shot the scene where Ordell comes to Jackie’s apartment, he said, this is a 15-minute scene, and I don’t want you to drop a line. I don’t want to cut. So the minute he comes to the door, it begins, and just dance through it and don’t stop. So we were able to absolutely enjoy that.“

But if the actors are part of the orchestra, so is the music. Grier agrees that the soundtrack is integral to setting the tone of the film. In fact, she has a novel idea: “I think it should be a Broadway musical! From that genre and that time, Quentin knew every song, every artist, every lyric. He even liked Ohio Players, ‘Skin Tight, ooh, ooh, ooh.’ And I was like, ‘How do you know all those songs? You didn’t go to school at all, did you? You just hung out in bars and clubs and juke joints.’ He’s amazing; he truly is extraordinary. But when he knows that a composer or a song represents a time, a time of political awareness, or a movement, or religion, or whatever is going on in the country, a song can just paint incredible scenery for you. It’s important music, and he locks into it. And he just throws all those factors in there and says, ‘Be free!’”

One of the most brilliant notes in both the main actors’ performances is the stillness that each brings to his character. For her part, Grier credits a different kind of training. “The stillness comes from studying martial arts,” she says. “When you’re very still you blend in. And your opponent cannot see you, because he expects you to move. It’s like a chess game; your opponent expects to pull you out so that he can disable you. But in martial arts you’re very still and very calm. They can’t make you move. And that’s ominous. Also, you know, as a child I was abused. And often, to deflect people from noticing me, I could be very still. And later that helped me in martial arts.”

Unlike many actors, Grier doesn’t use her craft as a way to work through issues from those bad days. “No,” she explains, “there are some roles that I can’t recreate, because they’ll take me back to a time when I thought I was about to lose my life, the third time I was attacked as a young woman. There are a lot of roles I can take, but I know that there are some situations and circumstances in someone’s life where I cannot go there. It’s not good for me. That’s why actresses don’t take on every role, but sometimes you just mentally can’t. It will scare the shit out of you, and you will be traumatized and drop your lines. And that’s not good energy for the rest of the actors. A generous, caring director can sometimes help you through, but it’s not something everyone can do. And it’s not therapeutic for me. When I’m going to be therapeutic, I got to have someone to talk me through it so I won’t have nightmares. And I shouldn’t be having that padded-room moment on the stage or in front of the camera. No catharsis here!”

Instead, living well is the best revenge for Grier. When asked, in a town that tends to discard women by age 30, what it feels like to be a sex symbol in her 60s, she purrs, “It’s hot. It’s so hot. And these young studlies, I’m a cougar for them. When they see me on my horse in my tall black boots, that’s all they want. ‘Wear those boots out tonight! And bring the riding crop too!’ They love to see me in the whole outfit—my riding pants and riding boots, and my jacket and riding helmet. That just makes them crazy.”

With such a spirited personality still firing on all cylinders, it should come as no surprise that plans are underway to turn Grier’s memoir into a film of its own. “It’s going to be a kick-ass feature,” she exults.

And as for who will be up for playing the larger-than life Grier? “It will have to be someone that can portray those terrible moments that influenced my life. And I won’t know that until I sit down and talk with them. Whether that’s Beyonce or Rihanna or Vivica or Thandie or Zoe or Kerry, there’s probably at least 15 actors that in a perfect world would be great. But you don’t know if they can actually recreate what I went through. For example, in The L Word, there were a few actresses that thought they could kiss Jennifer Beals, but once they were hired they couldn’t, because it bothered them to portray a lesbian. They think it’s easy, but it’s not. You’re dealing with human beings; people are not robots. Not all actors can be as liberated.”

One thing’s for sure—whoever gets that part will have a long way to go before they begin to capture all that is Pam Grier.