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.
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.