Every film buff has a favorite Karen Black movie. Since her first significant role, in Francis Ford Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now, the versatile actress has appeared in nearly 200 films, working with literally an A-to-Z list of directors, ranging from Altman, Robert to Zombie, Rob. One of the most in-demand actors during the “New Hollywood” era of the 1970s, Black starred opposite every leading man of the period and even in Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot. While cineasts might prefer her work in tonier projects like Five Easy Pieces or Nashville or The Day of the Locust, gay audiences are indebted to Black for her turns in more low-brow fare like the television thriller Trilogy of Terror and the campy all-star disaster film Airport 1975. For many, Black’s finest performance was as the tormented transsexual Joanne in Robert Altman’s film version of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.
With her new film, The Blue Tooth Virgin, by out director Russell Brown opening in theaters this weekend, Black chats with Advocate.com by phone from Macon, Ga., where she’s performing in Missouri Waltz, a Southern Gothic play she also wrote.
Advocate.com: In your new film, The Blue Tooth Virgin, your character is a script consultant who is also something of a life coach to a young screenwriter. What appealed to you about the project?
Karen Black: I read it and I thought it was great and I called [Russell Brown] and said I’d do it. The character was complete. She has a lot of perception and she sees a lot of truth in this guy.
One point raised by the film is that artists need validation to continue creating. Do you think this is true?
I think it depends on whether you’re sitting there with certitude about your work. I’ve had a lot of failures and I never stopped. It didn’t occur to me to not continue. It didn’t cross my mind. I have known people who with a failure will become despondent about the future. That’s something you either do or don’t do. I think you just continue and you love your chosen art. Think of painters starving when no one bought their paintings — imagine if they didn’t paint anymore.
You’ve worked with young gay directors like Russell Brown and veteran gay directors like John Schlesinger. Do you find them to be more sensitive to actors and their process than straight directors?
Sensitivity is not genetic. It’s just not. I get a lot of scripts, and I can’t tell you the number I’ve gotten where there’s a group of sexy guys and girls, and they get killed at a camp or in a big old house. I don’t think one of them came from a gay director. You get films about sensibility, what it’s like to be this or that — they’re enlightening. … It seems to be true that a gay director will choose something that’s close to his heart. It means something to him and he wants to communicate it, which is what art is. Art is not about communicating something to make money. I do find that movies with violence and that are more crudely woven together are by straight guys.