The Mary Sue

Interview: Bad Hurt Actor Karen Allen on the New Film

Karen Allen, Michael Harnley

Hollywood veteran Karen Allen has a filmography that any actor would be proud of. She’s headlined comedy classics such as Animal House and Scrooged, was part of the iconic Indiana Jones franchise, and starred in plenty of critical hits, including Starman and The Wanderers. This week, she stars opposite Theo Rossi in the family drama Bad Hurt as the matriarch of a working-class family.

As Elaine Kendell, she spends her days caring for her developmentally disabled adult daughter (Iris Gilad) and veteran son (Johnny Whitworth), who suffers from PTSD and drug addiction. Her husband (Orange Is the New Black’s Michael Harney), struggles with his own past as a veteran, and their  difference of opinion on the family is causing an increasing distance in their marriage. The film premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, where I interviewed Allen about her powerful role, and she also gave some amazing insights into navigating her the acting profession in a meaningful and fulfilling way.

Lesley Coffin (TMS): Your character is very interesting, and immediately feels very ordinary and working class, and defines herself as a mother. What interested you in playing her?

Karen Allen: Mark sent me the story. I read it, and I felt a great kinship with her, actually. I don’t know that I’ve had, directly in my life, those specific experiences, although I have friends who have gone through very similar things to what this character goes through. I think I could feel, in the way that Mark had written the story, how personal an experience it was for him. I knew I would have him there as a resource and guide. I’m the mother of a son, and there is that kind of universal thing that one has of wanting to care and protect, and make sure nothing happens to your children. This is a story about somebody where that’s very true, and her life is just spinning out of control, but there’s nothing she can do to help her son. There’s nothing she can do for the development of her daughter who is getting older and bit out of control. And She knows for sure that her other son is getting left in the dust because it’s the kids with the serious problems who end up taking all of the family’s attention and energy. It’s a very poignant, heart-breaking story. One that I didn’t have any problem feeling drawn to and relating to at all. I was very eager to do it.

TMS: It’s sad because there is also a sense that she is suffering from burn out because she never has the opportunity to see her children leave the nest and develop that new, adult relationship with them. She’s been the caretaker for decades. Theo’s character is the only one able to take care of himself.

Allen: Theo’s character Todd (the youngest son) is living independently, not particularly happily. He’s a little lost and hasn’t found his way in life yet. The character that Johnny plays, one has a feeling, had he not gone over to fight in the war, that he actually had a very promising future and would have left home. He was one of those stars of high school. Had he not gone through the damage that he experienced fighting, he might have been somebody who would have done very well in life. You never know without knowing. The real issue is that they have a daughter who was seriously brain damaged at birth. They’ve made the very compassionate but difficult choice to keep her in their home. When I was growing up I worked in my summers, when I was 14, 15, 16, 17, at a place where it was a day-care center for mentally handicapped children and adults. I think they started at 2 and 3 and went up through adults, maybe in their 40s and 50s. I learned so much during that period of time in my life about how families related to mentally handicapped children. Some of them were extraordinarily loving and given the same care and attention they would have given any of their other children. For some families they treated them very, very poorly and didn’t really take care of them very well at all, which came as a huge shock to me as a teenager. That people could be so removed. The fact that somebody wasn’t “normal” was in a way seen as making them less than. What I love about Elaine, in this story, and as Mark has shared with me about his mother, she almost overcompensated. She poured love into her daughter, into Didi. A lot of Didi’s higher functioning and Didi’s enthusiasm for life came from the incredible compassion that her mother had for her daughter.

TMS: Have you had experience as a caregiver, or research and observe what is involved with that kind of 24 hour care?

Allen: My younger sister does quite a bit of that sort of work, and has done it a long time. She works quite a bit with elderly people who are left in circumstances, in homes, and can’t take care of themselves. I’ve been with her when she’s doing that and we talk about it endlessly on the phone. I have aging parents right now. I just spent a couple weeks with my mom who had fallen and broken her hip and had emergency surgery and is in recovery right now, and can’t even do things for herself like move from the bed to the bathroom. She needs constant care and help. In the most immediate way, it’s begun very much to touch my life, to see that. I have seen that through the eyes of friends. I have two friends who have a child whose cerebral palsy, and its 24/7. This child can do absolutely nothing for themselves. They have some speech, but they’re confined in a wheelchair and have to be carried everywhere. I don’t think you can live in this world and not have a lot of exposure to these relationships. Sometimes these relationships inspire us and make us feel deep compassion for the people who are. Sometimes you think, wow, could I be that person? Could I be somebody who is so completely devoted to looking after somebody who is so completely dependent? On that level, I’ve never had that experience in my life.

TMS: Did you think about your character’s life outside the home? What type of friends or outlets that she might have, just for herself, alone?

Allen: Mark and I talked about that a lot, because when I first read the script, I felt like, what is her outlet outside the home? Doesn’t she have any friends? Mark, who’s writing from some experience, said, “Sadly, no. She didn’t.” She was so consumed. The job of looking after her daughter and looking after the home. Trying to pinch pennies and do all the grocery shopping, making the meals, and the errands. Making sure her daughter was safe at any given time. Then when her son came back from fighting and had drug addiction. Mark said, “She was really just very, very, very isolated.” She had, no outlet.

TMS: She had no support, then, from friends.

Allen: Yeah. Her husband and her, were very much at odds with each other. That was also equally painful, because they didn’t really see eye to eye on a lot of situations. It’s what the film is partially about, and what even the title “Bad Hurt” means is that, they’ve gotten to this place of, there’s nowhere they can turn that doesn’t hurt. There is no relief.

TMS: Now that you are a mother and have all these experiences to draw from, are there things that you draw from in your work now that you maybe wouldn’t have thought about earlier in your career?

Allen: I’m shooting a film right. I’m just in love with the story. I’m in love with the journey that this character makes in this story. What I look for is, I look for that place where I can hook into the person’s heart, or into the person’s ways of seeing the world, or where I have great compassion for the events that they are up against. Underneath all of the surface stuff in life we are all human, just very humans. As actors, one of the really lovely creative things that we do is we imagine having a different person’s set of circumstances than our own. We know, no matter how cheerful people might seem to be, when you met a person and really sit down and talk with them, you will find enormous buckets of disappointments, pain, crisis, and things that have happened to them in their life. Everybody’s got their obstacles, and their pains, and challenges to overcome. I’ve very familiar with mine. It’s such a pleasure, which might seem like the wrong word, but it’s a pleasure as an actor, because it’s what we do to substitute some other group of obstacles, and group of challenges, and group of struggles, for my own, and explore those. Taking with me the knowledge that I have. How I have gone through things. How I have survived things I never thought I would survive. How I’ve struggled with things that I thought I would never get through. I bring that part of myself to a new set of struggles for the character I’m playing. For me, that’s one of the beautiful things about being somebody who has the opportunity and the love of being an actor. We get to use it in a way to hopefully illuminate, and articulate a script on paper, and bring it to life, with hopefully something meaningful and truthful.

TMS: If you can bring a little bit of yourself to a role, even it’s not character specific, I would think it definitely shows in the character, just how engaged and lively they are on screen, playing out their reality.

Allen: Yeah. I don’t think it’s one of those conundrums in terms of acting. All actors use the raw material inside themselves. Some actors like to then disguise it behind a physical character very different than themselves, which I also enjoy doing when it’s appropriate. Sometimes it’s not so appropriate. It can become artificial to do that. Other times it’s totally the way to go. Mark and I talked a lot about my character’s physicality. First of all, he felt I looked very much like his mother. He felt that the qualities that I was going to bring to this part were very much going to bring her to life just by me diving down and taking on the given circumstances of her existence. The main things that he said…I have to try to remember what exactly it was, but it was like he felt that she had a kind of hope that would not go away. That no matter what was happening to her, underneath, there was a real survivor. A real person who was going to find the good in the circumstance. He wanted to write that character. He wanted to write a mom who is up against so much, but who was indomitable in a way.

TMS: Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask you about your work now that you have this second career, owning a hobby story. Does it take more for a script to get you to want to commit to a project than earlier in your career?

Allen: It’s always taken a lot for me. I’m an avid reader. I love good writing and I love good storytelling. I began in the theater where writing is, generally a play, if it’s going to get put on the stage, it’s good. You don’t get crappy writing in the theater. When I started to work in film I looked at it from the eyes of a person who loves good writing and loves good storytelling. I was never prone to do things that I didn’t think were exquisite. It doesn’t mean that all of your projects turn out as exquisitely as you hope they would when you read them. But I think I have the same critical eye when I sit down and read a script now, that I did when I was 24, 25, and just starting out. I wanted something to engage me, and grab me on a very deep level. For me it’s all about the storytelling. If it’s not a story I think is worthwhile to tell, somebody else should tell it. I don’t have very much of an ego about being offered a role, or not offered a role, unless it’s a story I really, really want to tell. That I really believe in. That I think the writing has great integrity. I don’t think I’ve changed very much in that way? I don’t have any problems saying no to projects. I never have. In fact, I developed a reputation, first five or six years of my career. More for saying no to things than I did for saying yes to things.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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