Karen Black: Black and Blue

Now starring in The Blue Tooth Virgin, the legendary actress chats with Advocate.com.




Your film and play Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is one that resonates with gay audiences. How did you come to be cast as Joanne, the transsexual?
I was sent the play by Robert Altman and was offered the loudmouthed Texan that Kathy Bates played. As I was reading I found out that Joanne used to be Joe and it was over. I decided I was going to play that part.

How did you develop your characterization?
It was a very, very difficult task, and it took me months to achieve that character. I thought I could do the trappings of a transsexual, thinking they were identical to the trappings of a transvestite, and they’re not. You can’t do the trappings. You have to do the real work and change the inside of your being. I went to all the bars and watched, and I had a transsexual lady work with me on crossing my legs and lighting cigarettes, talking to me. Essentially what I did was become a guy inside who is suffering as a girl inside. My pain of being a guy matched Joanne’s pain of being a girl.

It’s a superb performance. How did you find working with Cher and Sandy Dennis?
Cher and Sandy Dennis got to be a friendly twosome and I was pretty much excluded. I remember I came up to the table and asked if I could sit down and Cher said, “Well, you’re already here.” It wasn’t a whole lot of fun. [Cher] was brilliant from the moment she opened her mouth on-screen, but she was snobbish to me, and that was her prerogative.

You have many classic films on your résumé, but I want to ask about two in particular. I know people who claim to have had nightmares from watching Trilogy of Terror when they were children. What do you remember about it?
I almost wish I hadn’t done that film. What do you think?

I think it demonstrates your range since you play four different characters, including twins. And it’s one of your films that people obsess over and still talk about.
Isn’t that strange? Well, my manager came over and he wouldn’t go away until I said I’d do it. I told him I’d do it if they used my then-husband to be my boyfriend in the film. The thing about it is it put me on the road to being a scary movie broad and that doesn’t suit me. I like slice-of-life films. I think my work is very fine. I’m not interested in gore at all. I want nothing to do with it.

OK, the other is Airport 1975. Not a great movie from a critical perspective, but it’s relentlessly entertaining. You gave the only truly committed performance in the film. The rest of the all-star cast seemed indifferent to the impending disaster.
That’s exactly what happened. We were shooting the film and the director, Jack Smight, asked me to watch the rushes. It was the scene with the hole in the plane. I saw Sid Caesar doing marvelous jokes and Myrna Loy being charming, but no one seemed to have any sense of danger at all. Even Charlton Heston thought it was kind of a joke. I realized that if I didn’t care that the plane got over the mountain, no one in the audience would. I actually learned to fly a plane from our technical adviser, but they shot me from the chin up, so you couldn’t see my brilliant skill. But you’re right, I had to tear my heart out or it wouldn’t have thrust. I thank you for seeing that.

Finally, tell our readers why they should see The Blue Tooth Virgin.
Three reasons: (a) you won’t forget it, (b) you’ll have a great time following the twists and turns, smiling and laughing and being entranced, and (c) you can talk for the next month about the questions raised in the movie.

Tags: film