Remembering the One and Only Karen Black

In the fall of 2011, I had the pleasure -- and honor -- of being assigned to interview one of my favorite actresses, Karen Black, about her hilarious and touching turn in the darkly comic play, Moses Supposes, at Los Angeles' Zephyr Theatre. Nobody knew at the time that the performance would be her theatre swan song.

An Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe winner, Karen Black had a unique gift for embodying characters sliding down the razor blade of life; dark, sexy and vulnerable with unexpected comic touches, often in the throes of falling apart. Any film with Karen Black suddenly became more interesting just by her inclusion.

Karen Black film montage:

Black insisted I come to her home for the interview. She could not have been a more consummate and generous hostess -- pouring hot tea in antique cups advising me to add honey "for good health." Karen was as interesting offscreen as her characters onscreen -- and just as loveable, complex, and surprising. She proceeded to shift from interviewee to interviewer -- asking me more questions, and much more personal ones, than I asked her -- and I just went with it. When I felt the interview had reached its end, she quipped "I felt this interview reached its end a few minutes ago." She was a one of kind, and will be greatly missed.

Fortunately she leaves behind an astonishingly vast and robust body of acting work from 1959 to today -- much of it in independent film.

The interview I did with her in October 2011 never saw the light of day -- never published or posted anywhere -- until now...

Xaque Gruber: At what point did acting become your passion?

Karen Black: I wanted to act since I was six. Back in school, they would say "We're going to do a play. Who wants to be Christopher Columbus?" My hand would go up. They'd say "You're a girl." I'd say "I don't care, I just want to act."

Karen with Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Toni Basil in Easy Rider(1969)

XG: Which performances do you look back at and say 'that was my best work?'

KB: I'm so proud of my work (as the transsexual 'Joanne') in Robert Altman's Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. For some reason you can't find it on DVD. Kathryn (Altman's wife) wants to see it come to DVD as well. It was a very difficult role, and it's almost a miracle that I accomplished what I did in that film.

With Cher and Sandy Dennis in Come Back To The Five And Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean:

XG: You've played an incredible variety of unhinged characters over the years including a good deal of horror. What draws you to those roles?

KB: I like unusual characters with an element of surprise. When I did (Director Rob Zombie's) House of 1000 Corpses, my character (Mother Firefly) wasn't bothered by killing people, but if you made a bad face at one of her sons, watch out. That felt real in all of its insanity. As an actor, I have great fun diving into that.

Karen Black's entrance in House of 1000 Corpses:

XG: You have quite a talent for music and singing. You were even nominated for a Grammy for your participation in the soundtrack to Robert Altman's Nashville (1976).

KB: I love music, and I love to sing, and draw, and act. All of the arts are important pieces of life's puzzle. I had a blast writing Missouri Waltz, a stage musical with my friend Harriet Schock that ran at Hollywood's Blank Theatre. I'm always experimenting with new ideas with music and acting, and am currently working with my dear friends, David Proval and Toni Basil on an experimental project done in the style of New York City's The Wooster Group. See that quote (she points to a sign hanging in her living room "Dwell in Possibility." Emily Dickinson) - that's my mantra.

Karen Black singing Me & Bobby McGee with Dolly Parton on The Dolly Show(1976)

XG: What advice do you have for aspiring actors?

KB: If you knock on someone's door and they don't come to the door, don't take it personally. You may think you know why they didn't respond, but you don't. People who are working are busy, and fail to be able to keep up with themselves. We asked Tilda Swinton to be in a film, and at first she said no, then a second time she said no, then she said yes. Repetition wins the day. So if at first you don't succeed, try again!

XG: You've been in movies for over half a century, and still going strong. To what do you attribute to your longevity?

KB: I don't know if anyone with longevity really knows why, but I could give you a couple of guesses. One is acting comes easy for me, like eating breakfast. It's a very lively interest and I have a lot of curiosity. Also, I don't have barriers to communication when I'm on stage or on screen. I have no scrim that separates me from the audience. If you were to take apart the components of the human soul, you would find that one of these components is communication. It's a basic function of being human. And it drives me.

Karen on acting: