Scott Voisin: You were primarily a theater actor before doing your first film, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster. Did working on that film meet your expectations of what it's like to make a movie?
James Karen: Well, I had no expectations because I really had no plans on being a film actor. I was dead broke, and they paid $500 a week. I had just come back from London where I had been doing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? over there, and I was broke because of the taxation problem. I took the job and had an absolutely wonderful time. I really got to understand how much fun you can have working in a movie. It was shot in two weeks for, I think, $67,000. They had a wonderful director, Bob Gaffney. He really worked hard on it. The leading lady, Nancy Marshall, was a very nice, beautiful woman who gave up acting and became a psychologist. I think she saw the picture and saw the writing on the wall. And the guy who played Frankenstein (Robert Reilly), I don't know what happened to him but I thought he was good. You really could see a soul through the makeup, a little like (Boris) Karloff in The Mummy.
SV: You never planned on acting in movies?
JK: No, no, I loved the theater. I always had a sneaking suspicion that filmmaking was a bastard art. I loved seeing them, I loved going to the movies, but I thought all of the breaking up of the performances -- a short burst of work and then cut and then go on to another short burst -- I didn't think that was acting. I've since learned that it requires much greater concentration. I actually like it, and I think of the crew and all of the people around me as an audience.
SV: So which do you prefer, acting in a play or in a movie?
JK: It's a wonderful thing to be in a play. The whole story goes in one evening and you're in charge of that theater and that audience. That's a marvelous thing, but it pales after a couple of months of doing the same thing over and over again. There's something really wonderful about the excitement of making movies. I love making movies overseas and traveling and meeting new people. It's hard work because in those moments when you're doing a take and the camera's grinding, it requires the utmost concentration. You can't be thinking about anything else in the world except what's real at that moment in the script and in your mind.
SV: The first time I remember seeing you on the big screen was in Poltergeist. How did that role come about for you?
JK: Rather oddly. My wife and I were in East Hampton on vacation, and my wonderful agent, Mary Ellen White, called and said, "Honey, do you know a guy named Steven Spielberg?" I said, "No," and she said, "Well that's funny... They just called and asked for you for a good part in Poltergeist, a movie they're doing. It's more money than you've ever made and, I don't know... I hope they've got the right guy." There was always confusion between me and J.D. Cannon, a marvelous actor who just died recently. As a matter of fact, I left the William Morris office because Jack and I were often confused for each other, and he was there first so I thought I should leave. So I always thought Spielberg was looking for J.D. Cannon and couldn't get him, so they got James Karen. I was talking to Spielberg once during the shoot and I said, "How did you happen to think of me for this?" He said, "I was surfing through TV one night right before we were casting the part, and I saw Capricorn One. I only saw a few minutes of it, but you were very good in it, so I said, 'Get that guy.'" Sometimes that's how you get parts.
SV: Over the years, there's been some controversy about who actually directed Poltergeist.
JK: Don't go into it, it's not worth it. Tobe Hooper's name is up there as director of that film, and Steven Spielberg is there as producer. That's just the way it is, and that's the way it should be. I will tell you that Tobe Hooper was on that set every day.
SV: Fair enough. A few years later, you worked with Tobe again on Invaders from Mars.
JK: That was a lot of fun to do. It's not a great picture, unfortunately. The Martians were a bad choice, they just didn't look right to me. It was an odd design. They were awkward, galumphing things.
SV: Did you say anything about that or did you keep your thoughts to yourself?
JK: No, you keep those things to yourself. The die is cast, they've already spent a couple of million bucks on them and it's too late to change. I think it was one of Stan Winston's first big jobs, and he has certainly gone on to some great things since then, but they were a lot of trouble and didn't work too well.
SV: While we're on the subject of Tobe, wasn't he originally going to direct Return of the Living Dead?
JK: Yes, Tobe was supposed to direct Return of the Living Dead but didn't because he got stuck over in Europe on Lifeforce, that marvelous, odd film he did. It took much longer because of the weather, and they had a lot of problems. He didn't get back in time to direct Return of the Living Dead, and the wonderful Dan O'Bannon, who had written it, got a chance to direct. We just had a 20th anniversary showing in Hollywood at the Egyptian Theatre. Everybody was there except Linnea Quigley, whose mother and father were terribly ill, and the poor guy who played Suicide (Mark Venturini), who was killed in an automobile accident about ten years ago. But everybody else was there, and it was a lot of fun.
SV: It must have been a good experience making the film to get that many people together again after so many years.
JK: Everybody loved everybody. Most of the kids had never done anything before, they were absolute beginners, and Dan had never directed a picture. Dan talked (producer) Tom Fox into giving him a week's rehearsal. We rehearsed it like a stage play. Each day we would go through the movie a couple of times in order -- from scene to scene to scene -- so that you had an emotional map of where you'd be when we shot it out of order. It helped everybody, and in that week, we all got to know each other. By the time we were shooting, we all had ideas about how to turn others on to interesting little things. I'm a great believer in rehearsing a movie, and you rarely do it, you rarely get everybody together. But it sure helped Return of the Living Dead because it's really an ensemble piece.
SV: Was it a no-brainer for you to come back and do Return of the Living Dead Part II?
JK: Yeah, it was. I loved working with Thommy Mathews. Return was Thommy's first movie, and he really worked well. There were some Japanese investors who insisted on Thommy and me being in the picture even though we died in the first one, so they just ignored that and put us in the picture. That wasn't as happy a time. I will not go into the reasons why except that, from the top down, it wasn't as happy a time.
SV: Were you satisfied with the finished film?
JK: Not really. I thought it lacked the wit of the first one. There was no sense of humor in that picture, that was the problem. It's very tough, I think, to do a funny horror picture with a kid as the lead. The young kid (Michael Kenworthy) was very good, and I thought he was quite wonderful in the part, but it's hard to make fun of a kid. In Return of the Living Dead, we were all making fun of each other.
SV: What was it like working with David Lynch on Mulholland Drive?
JK: I love that movie, and I'm crazy about David, he's a marvelous person to work for. He's a honey, a great guy and a gentleman. He's easy to work for, and he inspires you to do your best work just by being himself.
SV: The movie was originally intended as a pilot for a TV series. Would you have been a regular cast member if it became a series?
JK: Yes. What happened was David showed it to ABC the week of the Columbine murders, and ABC said, "What are you, crazy? We can't have all this violence, we can't show violence after what's happened. We're not going to do it." He kept trying to get them to go for it, but they wouldn't do it, so he got money from Universal through Canal Plus and he bought the pilot and re-wrote it as a feature film. I think it's one of the better things I've done. It's not a huge part, but it's one of the more interesting things I've done.
SV: You've done several movies with Oliver Stone. What is it about him that keeps you coming back for more?
JK: I'm crazy about Oliver. He's a difficult man, he's complex, he's his own worst enemy, but he is a brilliant, talented man. He's pushing you all the time, and he encourages you to go beyond something you've done before. There's a certain freedom working with him. He writes and directs, but he's not afraid to say, "You know, that's a lousy line. Can you think of something better to say there?" His ego doesn't go in that area, he doesn't feel that whatever he does is the perfect thing. Some writer/directors are very difficult to work for because they don't see, they hear. If you drop a syllable, they get all upset. They're hearing it through the ear phones rather than seeing it through the camera. It's difficult to work in film that way. I've worked for a few writer/directors that I haven't cared for, and a few that I have, especially Oliver. I think he's a genius.
SV: Another director you've worked for more than once is Bryan Singer. How did you two meet?
JK: Bryan was a student at USC, and he was very active in the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. He had a chance to make a small film for a management company, and because he knew me through the academy -- we had never spoken before, but I knew he was the head of the youth group there, and he knew me as having done all those genre movies -- he called me and said, "I have a chance to make a management film, and I would love you to play the lead in it." I had just finished Wall Street, so I said, "Send me the script." He brought it over, I read it, I liked it very much, and I said, "Yep, I'll do it." So we did the film, and a couple of months later, I called him to see how he was doing on it. He said, "Well, I'm in trouble. I haven't got enough money to finish it. Could you write my parents a note or something? They live in Princeton and they're in pretty good shape." So I wrote his parents a letter. I told them he was really talented, and they had to help him finish the picture because he was going to be a big star director. And they gave him the money to finish the film.
SV: His movie, Apt Pupil, really got under my skin. What was it like to work on?
JK: Brad Renfro was an absolute nut about Return of the Living Dead. In between takes, he drove me crazy asking me to say lines from the movie. He'd be like, "Say, 'That's not a bad question, Burt.'" He was absolutely crazed about it, and we had a good time. Bruce Davison is an old friend of mine, and we started working together in 1976 on The Gathering, a big Christmas TV movie. I got to know Ian McKellen very well, and I see him whenever I'm in England. He was wonderful in that movie.
SV: What can you tell me about your role in Bryan's upcoming movie, Superman Returns?
JK: I can't tell you too much about it because it's all very secretive, but Superman has been away for a long time. He comes back, and he finds that his adoptive father is dead, and his adoptive mother is going with me -- we're courting. Eventually we'll marry if there's a sequel. I signed a deal for three pictures.
SV: Was there any thought on the set about comparisons to the Christopher Reeve films?
JK: They may have thought about it, but you just can't think about things that are negative when you're making a picture. First of all, the script was so terrific -- everybody was knocked out by it -- and the cast is immense. Kevin Spacey is Lex Luthor, Parker Posey is his girlfriend in the sexiest costumes I've ever seen, and Lois Lane is played by the brilliant Kate Bosworth. I watched Kate on the set, and I just couldn't get over the depth of her work. I was also fortunate enough to work with Eva Marie Saint, who plays Superman's mother. She's such a great actress and so much fun to work with. I've known her for a long time, and she's still very beautiful and funny as hell. Brandon (Routh), the young man playing Superman, is just terrific. He's handsome, he's hard-working, and he's a very thoughtful young man. Brandon is sensational, and he's going to be a major, major star. If he isn't, there's something wrong in the universe.
SV: Do you ever read reviews of the movies you're in?
JK: That's hard to say. If I think there's going to be a bad review, I don't look for it, but if I think the picture is a good picture, then I want to know what they think about it. I must say that I think some reviewers don't know what the hell they're talking about. There are some good reviewers, but for the most part, I don't think they understand what we're doing. I'll read a review of a movie I'm not associated with that they liked, and I'll go to see it and disagree with them. So I can't take it too personally if they like me or they don't. I can't always say that I believe them either pro or con. What I really like to do is watch dailies. I find that I can learn a lot about my performance. Some directors don't like actors to look at dailies because they think the actors will start directing themselves, but I don't look at it that way. I look at it as a tool to help see how your performance is going.
SV: Have you ever done a film and have it turn out completely different than you thought it would?
JK: I did a wonderful picture called Frances in which I had about twelve scenes, and I aged throughout the film. I played a judge, and there were a lot of courtroom scenes in it. Just then, a picture came out about the law and the courts and it didn't do well, and they said, "Well, we've got to cut the courtroom stuff, that's what killed the other picture." I didn't know this, and I went to the screening at 20th Century Fox. Nobody had said a word to me, I saw two of my scenes, and then suddenly I realized there were four or five of my scenes not in there. They had very meticulously aged me with subtle makeup during the picture, and the next time you see me, I'm an old man and you don't even know who I am. That was very disappointing, but the movie Frances is very good.
SV: When you do a fact-based film like Frances or All The President's Men, do you research the real-life character you're playing?
JK: Absolutely. For Frances, I did a lot of work. I was crazy about Frances Farmer, and she had worked in the Group Theater. I had an uncle, Morris Carnovsky, who was one of the stars of the Group Theater, and I used to hang around there and got to know her a little bit. Most of my reading is biographies, and I like to read about people and get to know them. That's what you do in acting, you get to know your character. You get to know the things your character likes and doesn't like, and the things that turn him on and turn him off. Knowledge is the gristmill for an actor's characterization. The more you know about the character, the closer you get to him -- even if he's imaginary -- the more comfortable you are with him.
SV: Once you get a part, is there a process you go through to prepare yourself?
JK: Oh, yeah. I read the script over and over again, and I try to make an emotional map like the one you can get from rehearsing. Sometimes I'll actually draw a map of the whole story and where I am emotionally in each scene. I make little notes like, "Now I know this," or "Now I know that." The more you pick at a part, the more you understand it. My friend Jason Robards used to say, "Peel the onion." You take each layer off and go down and go down until you get to the middle of it, the heart. Most of that I get from just reading and thinking. I always ask questions before a scene like, "Where am I coming from? Where was I? What do I want from the other people in this scene? What do I want to hide from them?" It's a big help.
SV: With all of the credits on your resume, do you still have to audition?
JK: Well, people who know you don't really ask you to audition. I don't have to audition for Bryan Singer or Oliver Stone, but there's always so many new people in the business that I often have to audition. I hate auditioning, it's the thing I hate most in the world. I audition for a lot of roles and don't get them for various reasons. Sometimes I can be too old, I can be too tall, I can be too thin, too fat or too short. There's always some reason, but mostly the director just doesn't like what I did. I love to act, but I hate to audition. I love the process of the work, but I hate the process of getting the work. It's a hideous situation.
SV: Do you get recognized a lot in public?
JK: Sometimes. Usually people know my face but they don't know my name. Last night we were in a restaurant, and the waiter came over to us and said, "Everybody's asking who you are. We know we know you, but we don't know your name." I always say, "I'm James Karen," but what is sometimes embarrassing is when they say, "What have I seen you in?" So I say, "Wall Street?" "No, I didn't see that," and your heart falls a little. So I say, "Poltergeist?" "No, I don't like horror films." After that, I don't go on any further, I just say, "Google me." The worst thing in the world is to mention five of your films and they haven't seen any of them.
SV: Of the people that do know your work, what film do they associate you with the most?
JK: A lot of younger people know me from Return of the Living Dead. Wall Street is a big one, a lot of people have seen that. Of course, everything ends up showing over and over again on television, things that I've forgotten I did. Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster shows up every now and then. A picture I did called Amazing Grace suddenly has popped up on television in the last month or two. A dreadful little picture that I loved shooting on the beaches of Greece -- Hardbodies 2 -- is on all the time. Capricorn One, Poltergeist, Jagged Edge... it's amazing what shows up. The other day, I got a check for 14 cents for Car 54, Where Are You?. I had forgotten that I ever did it, and there it is, still on.
SV: With all of your years in the industry and all of the people you've worked with, have you ever thought about writing a book about your experiences?
JK: Well, I've been urged to do that, but I just don't seem to get around to it. First of all, I'm a little embarrassed because I think it's better to write a book if you're a big star. You're more likely to sell some copies. Somebody who's a character actor whose name is not known, I think it's difficult to sell a book like that. I'm having too good a time to sit down and write, I'm too busy. I've been urged a great deal by a lot of people to pick up a pen and write, and I've tried a couple of times, but I got sidetracked by living. I doubt very much if I'll ever do it. It's not that I'm lazy, there's just too much other stuff to do.
SV: What advice would you give to aspiring actors?
JK: Well, I think the best thing is to start on stage and get theater experience, I think it helps you enormously. It gives you the confidence you need for film. The most important thing is to somehow be able to support yourself outside of acting. There's bad periods -- sometimes when you first start out, sometimes in the middle of your career, sometimes late in your career -- and I think you need to have some other interest. I was in the antique business and was very interested in classic cars. I used to work on classic cars and did a lot of different things in that area. Try to do something where you're your own boss so that you can go on an audition and not be dependent on a boss letting you do that. It's a precarious living to say the very least. Some people make a great deal of money, but most people don't do well at all.
SV: Are you happy with the way your career has gone?
JK: I'm delighted that I've had a career that's lasted a long time. I never became a star, but I've been working for over 60 years. I feel great, I've been very fortunate that I've enjoyed good health, and I think part of that is because I'm happy with what I'm doing. I feel energetic about work. I have a lot of friends from the war from the 11th Air Force, and they're all retired and they say, "Come on, J., don't you want to play golf and sit around and have fun?" As much as I like those fellows, I cannot imagine just sitting around. To be able to continue working at something you love to do is one of the greatest gifts you can get.