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Karen Allen – Experiencing a Year by the Sea

Updated: Mar 17, 2020

Karen Allen stars in “Year by the Sea.”

Karen Allen

Experiencing a Year by the Sea

By Jay S. Jacobs

One of the dirty little secrets of Hollywood is that for actresses, even ones who have been stars in huge films, it is difficult to get good roles after you reach a certain age. Therefore, the film Year by the Sea, based on the best-selling memoir of the same name by Joan Anderson, is something of an anomaly. Not only is the main character a woman over 60, but two of the main supporting characters are as well.

Karen Allen may have been the perfect choice to play writer Anderson in the film. The story, about a happily married woman who found herself lost and yearning for something different when her children grew up, was a story that was familiar to Allen. Like Anderson, Allen was an artist who somewhat put her career on the back-burner to take care of her son. However, she never lost the need to create art. Anderson ended up moving up to Cape Cod. Allen has had a second home in Massachusetts for years.

Allen’s career has been an adventure for decades; a great journey which ended up giving her roles in some of the defining films of the 70s and 80s. Her first film role was as Katy, the smart (and dare I say it, mature) girlfriend of Boon in National Lampoon’s Animal House. Three years later, Allen was scavenging for treasure with Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Other classic films that she graced included John Carpenter’s Starman, Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers, Scrooged and The Sandlot.

While Allen never completely stopped her work to be a mother, like Anderson did, she did limit the roles she would take and how far from her New York/Massachusetts base she was willing to go. Over the years, she has built up an intriguing body of supporting roles in films like Malcolm X, In the Bedroom and The Perfect Storm. She also gravitated back towards theater, doing several Broadway shows, and also becoming intensely involved with the Berkshire Theater Group.

Now she has two exciting projects hitting screens at once. The film version of Year by the Sea, which she filmed on location in Cape Cod with actresses Celia Imrie (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and S. Epatha Merkerson (Law & Order) and actor Michael Cristofer (The Shadow Box). Allen has also just directed her first short film, “A Tree A Rock A Cloud,” which is currently on the film festival circuit.

Just a couple of weeks before the release of Year by the Sea, we were able to sit down and chat with Allen about her movies, her life and her career.

Karen Allen stars in “Year by the Sea.”

Were you familiar with Joan Anderson’s books before taking on this role?

I wasn’t. I wish I had been, because I have enjoyed reading them so much, but, no, I wasn’t. It was a little surprising when I finally did meet her, because she and I have had lots of little places where our lives have crossed. She has been teaching workshops at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, which is one of my favorite places to go. I usually try to go there at least once or twice a summer. I often perused the catalogue with great care. For some reason, I just never crossed paths with her; with her work, or her workshops, or her books. Once I’d read the screenplay, and a few hours later went out and got the first book, Year by the Sea, she had me. (laughs)

Did you get much time to spend with her to get in touch with her as a character?

It’s very interesting what happened, and quite hard to explain. I went and met her for lunch. We spent about four hours together, just talking, talking, talking. I would say we immediately hit it off. She and I then had some conversations on the phone. If I was working on the script, or reading her book, and if I had questions, I would send her little questions. We’d email back and forth.

As an actress, how much did you want to represent the real Joan, and how much did you want to create your own fictionalized version of her as a character?

The Joan I was meeting was a Joan who had 20 years of very profound experience. [That] was really quite a different person than she had been when you meet the character at the beginning of the film and as she wends her way through the film. I’m playing a different Joan… a Joan who is caught in her own identity issues, in a sense, as we all often are. We live in a world where by the time we’re eight, or ten, or twelve, we’ve been told so many times who we should be, or who we are. Who we might be, or who shouldn’t be. What we should think, or what we shouldn’t think. We are all yearning to find that authentic self that is underneath all of that. I was playing the Joan who was completely covered in all those layers of expectations of who she was. She was trying desperately to get to this place where she felt authentic, where she felt she had a voice. She had been a writer as a young woman. Then she’d taken on the role of mother. Looking after a house, she was a wife and she was the caretaker of that world. She lost that singularity, that person who she was without all these new roles.

You’re the mother of an adult son, so obviously you do understand the whole “empty-nest” syndrome. How much did you relate to Joan’s situation?

I am. There are some differences between Joan’s experiences and mine. My husband and I, although we are still very good friends, we separated and lived separately from when my son was six. Through a big part of raising my son, I was a single parent. I didn’t have the support that she had, either financially or physically. I did continue [my career], while Joan kind of put herself as a writer on the back burner. Through raising my son, I made adjustments. I stopped taking film roles that would take me to far-distant places, because I didn’t want to be pulling my son in and out of school. I didn’t want him sitting in a hotel room with a tutor, while I was working 14 hours a day. That didn’t seem like the way I wanted him to grow up into the world. I took on things that I felt were going to be interesting, and creative for me, but allowed me to be in one place while he was going to school. I never, unlike Joan, really stopped working in my world. I shifted it and changed it a little to more accommodate the circumstances in the present.

Michael Cristofer and Karen Allen star in “Year by the Sea.”

Do you think you’d have the bravery at her age to toss everything and change her lifestyle so completely?

I think the empty nest is a common experience. It’s as traumatic for men as it is for women. It’s that moment in which a lot shifts in your life. Suddenly your children… whether you have one, two, three, ten…, they are all out. (laughs) In spite of how much you think you are maintaining your integrity or your singularity as an adult, your life really does on many levels revolve around their caretaking. There is a rhythm to your life when there are children who are adolescents, or adults. When suddenly they’re gone, you really do come stock still. Suddenly you miss the mess, and you miss the noise. (laughs again) All those things you thought would drive you crazy at times, they suddenly become so profoundly absent. I related to that so much. I related to her finding herself at this juncture. Thinking where do I go from here? Her husband – the role that Michael Cristofer plays – although he is probably retirement age, he has no interest in retiring. Had he had an interest in it, it might have been a completely different story. In the very beginning, she says, “Why don’t we go off on an adventure?” He’s more interested in maintaining and holding on to his career. And she is really feeling very lost.

I apologize if this sounds a little snarky, but I remember thinking while watching the film, how much would you have to love a man in order to move to Kansas for him?

(She laughs heartily.)

Seriously, I did find it interesting that Joan spent the entire movie learning to live without her ex-husband, and towards the end it seemed like through her growth, he finally became willing to try to be the man she needed him to be. Obviously, the film left this up in the air, but do you think Joan as a character – I honestly don’t know what happened with the real Joan – could let him back in her life just as a friend, a fellow parent, or something more?

He moved to the Cape to live with her.

Oh, that’s great…

Yeah, and they’re still together now, 25 years later. They have a wonderful relationship. Her next book is called An Unfinished Marriage. The book that came after Year by the Sea is called An Unfinished Marriage. It really is about her and him trying to renegotiate. This happens in so many marriages. You go through 30 years of marriage, or 25 years of marriage, and the kids leave and you kind of look at each other and go, “Who are you???” (laughs) “Why are we still living in the same house?” You can see it in just the beautiful, spare writing at the beginning of the film. She says, “Why do you love me?” He says, “What do you mean? Men love their wives. And their mothers.” There is this disconnect that has taken place there. They are not really talking to each other. They stopped really being tuned in to each other’s needs, and who each other essentially is, or is trying to be. It’s that part of herself that she is so hungry to try to get back.

So, she needed to take some time to herself…

In some marriages, the husband and wife could take that time when the kids leave to really reestablish their relationship. But, doing what she does, he doesn’t seem particularly inclined to do that at all. She has to really make a radical movement in a sense to even get his attention. It’s like that beautiful moment in the car, which I love, when she takes him out to the dunes. She says, “Come dance with me. Come dance with me.” He says, “You do your thing.” Then they are sitting in the car and he says, “You’ve changed. You’ve gone wild,” or something. And she says, “I just think I’m starting to like who I might be.” That’s where they are missing…. Then the next day, he just leaves, because he’s so threatened by the possibility that she doesn’t fit into this little box that he thought she fit into as his wife. Something in him has to open up before he’s going to be able to really see her.

Karen Allen and Yannick Bisson star in “Year by the Sea.”

Yes, it does.

That’s what I love so much about the story. [Anderson] didn’t make this clichéd story: dissatisfied woman goes off, woman meets younger fisherman, woman has affair, woman rediscovers herself. She made the harder film. She made the film about the woman who doesn’t want to end her marriage. She just wants to honor herself and get to know herself. When she’s done that, she wants to try to figure out if they can move forward together. She’s not trying to do it the easy way.

Particularly in some of the early parts of the film, much of your time on camera was done with you alone, acting silently. As an actress, how hard it is to keep thing intriguing with just you there?

It might be true that I’ve never played a character on screen that had so much silence. There were so many internal scenes. I don’t think I ever really concerned myself with whether or not the audience would find it interesting. You can’t really go there. I just tried to understand what she was feeling at any given moment. What was going on. I felt that if I could really articulate that somehow, in her mood, in her way of being, some sort of physicality with her, it would be a part of the story. So much of our lives take place in silence. Sometimes it’s true on films, they are almost afraid of silence. People are just yakking, yakking, yakking. It’s rare to really allow a character to [just be by themselves]. I mean, there are great films, like that film with Robert Redford a few years ago [All is Lost] where he doesn’t speak one word the entire film. Personally, I absolutely loved it, and I loved his performance.

Yes, that was an amazing performance and a terrific film.

Tom Hanks, too, did that amazing film [Castaway] where he is on the island, which is a very silent film, although I guess he has some lines. There is a film that I’m going to do in the future where I play a character who is alone a lot of the film. I find it challenging, in a really interesting way.

You live in Massachusetts. Was it nice to be able to film the movie right there in Cape Cod?

Well, I live pretty far from Cape Cod. I live way in the southwest corner of Massachusetts. I’m actually closer to New York City than I am to Boston. I divide my time between New York and Massachusetts. This place has been my little sanctuary to escape from New York from time to time and just be someplace without jackhammers and honking horns. (laughs) I love to be outside and alone. It’s my idea of heaven. That’s almost an impossibility in New York City, so I come up here to enjoy that kind of connection with nature. I love the trees.

Karen Allen stars in “Year by the Sea.”

The scenes with the seals were stunning. What was it like to film with them?

That was thrilling. When they dropped me on that little Monomoy Island, and I got to walk with those seals all around me – thrilling. I had never been in the presence of seals, other than looking at them through glass in a zoo. That was pretty exciting.

As was pointed out several times in the film, Joan’s cabin was rather “rustic.” As a modern woman, what do you feel would be the hardest parts of living that kind of lifestyle, and what would be the most rewarding?

First of all, where it was situated was absolutely beautiful. To look out on that landscape every day – with the gulls and the wildness of it all, with the dolphins jumping in and out of the water, and just the smell of the sea and the sound of the water lapping the shore – there is something very restorative about that. It makes perfect sense to me that we go to the sea. It’s almost a religious thing, sometimes. We’ll go to the beach, and we get into that salt water. There’s something life-affirming about it. I had never really spent any time on the Cape, even though I have had a place in Massachusetts for 30 years. It was a whole new world for me. We were there, sadly, in April and May. It was very cold and windy. (laughs) Really cold and windy. I think by late May, June, it really warms up there and becomes quite a pleasant environment. But, I loved that little rustic shack. It wasn’t a real living situation. It was a boat house that had been turned into a livable-looking shack for the purposes of the film. I could live there. (laughs again)

Sadly, in filmmaking there aren’t all that many juicy roles for women over a certain age. However, this one not only had a terrific role for you, but also for Celia and Epatha.

I know!

S. Epatha Merkerson, Karen Allen and Celia Imrie star in “Year by the Sea.”

What were they like to work with?

They were a joy! I just fell completely in love with both of them. Our director, Alexander Janko, did one of the loveliest things. He went up there way ahead of time, to the Cape. He found a little place that had these beautiful vacation cabins on the water. It was off season, so they were very available. He rented them for the entire cast, for himself and our producer. We all basically came home to this one little place, with all these separate cabins, in the evening. We had dinner together. We spent time really getting to know each other. It was delightful. I would say within – we actually had a week of rehearsal, which is unheard of these days, but was wonderful – within the first three or four days, there was major bonding going on. They are both a delight to work with. Very funny. Lots of laughter. Lots of real enjoyment. I would include Michael in this as well, we had a terrific time with him. He’s an awful lot of fun and such a lovely person. It wasn’t lost on us that we were making the rare film that has four people over sixty in it. (laughs)

While you still do a good amount of film work, you often work in the theater these days, particularly with the Berkshire Theater Group.

Well, for the most part… I did a play as an actor about four years ago in New York, but all the work I’ve been doing at the Berkshire Theater Festival has been directing. I’ve been directing plays, which I love to do. I just directed my first film, so I’ve kind of moved into that world, now, and am really very, very much enjoying it. I love working in the theater, and I have the intention of doing a lot more of it as an actor, as well. There’s a play right now that we’re trying to find a time when myself and the main actor and director are all available for it, so we can do it in New York.

How is live theatrical performance better – and worse – than working on camera?

I love both. Film and theater have very, very different demands, in terms of how you work as an actor. They are both really fascinating to me. Fascinating in their difference. To be doing a live performance eight times a week is a very disciplined life. To be able to continue to do it over a period of however long, three months, even sometimes six months, I find my life becomes very, very set. You have to sleep until a certain time of the day, because your energy has to peak at a certain time. There’s a maintaining of focus on the play. Whereas, in film, you do a set of scenes, and then those are done. You’re not going to ever do them again. (laughs) Then you might have a couple of days off in the middle of the week. Then you have maybe a half a day where you do some physical scenes and say two lines. They are just so different in nature. If it’s a good story and a good role, I love them both. It’s nice to be able to go back and forth between the two. If there is not an interesting film role, I find myself being able to look at plays and think about doing them. And now, add directing to it all.

Celia Imrie and Karen Allen star in “Year by the Sea.”

What can you tell me about your film directing debut?

It’s based on a Carson McCullers short story called ‘A Tree A Rock A Cloud.’ It’s a beautiful, beautiful story that I’ve known for about 40 years. This is Carson McCullers’ 100th birthday –  this year, 2017 – which was a complete coincidence to my making the film, but it turned out to be the case. It stars Jeffrey DeMunn, who is a wonderful actor I have known for many years, and James McMenamin, who is an actor I’ve directed in the theater twice. He’s on a show called Orange is the New Black. And [Jackson Smith], a beautiful young boy, a twelve-year-old boy who had never acted before, but who is exceptional in the film. We shot it about a year and a half ago in Massachusetts. We’ve been out on the film festival route. Our first film festival was in Manchester, England, in the spring. We won best international short film, which was quite thrilling and encouraging. We’ve been to maybe now – I’m going to say twelve? – film festivals. We’ll continue going to festivals. Usually you spend a year taking a film to film festivals, and then that’s it. We’re making it Academy Award eligible, so we can submit it as a short film to the Academy Awards this year. I had the most wonderful time directing it. It was so awesome.

You’ve been in some classic films over the years, obviously Animal House and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but also things like Starman, Scrooged, The Perfect Storm and In the Bedroom. In those films and more, you worked with some of the great directors in Hollywood. Were always intrigued by the idea of directing? Were you keeping an eye on Spielberg or Carpenter to see what they were doing? What did you learn from them to help your own directing?

Well, the answer to the question is really no. I never really thought I would have an inclination to have an interest in directing films. Although, I was always very interested in the whole dynamic of how people worked on the set, and how a crew worked with a director. I was possibly more absorbed in how different directors worked with the actors, which was my main area of interest. I worked with a lot of extraordinary directors in the theater, as well. I worked with Arthur Penn for about a year and a half, doing a play that eventually went to Broadway [The Monday After the Miracle] in four different incarnations. He had an enormous impact on me, in terms of how I work as a director, because I had such a long, interesting experience with him. I watched him work. We had some cast changes over the course of it, and I watched him work with extraordinary actors in the course of working on this play.

How was directing for film different from directing a play?

You know, I had resistance. I knew I wanted to direct in the theater. I always felt the day would come where I would start to do that. But I had resistance to directing a film, because of being on film sets as much as I was through my 20s and 30s. Somebody who is not on a film set so much might actually have a great aspiration to direct a film (laughs) and be so excited by the idea. I had seen so many films made. I had worked over the years with a lot of first-time directors. I could not for a moment fool myself, or be naïve at all, about the challenges of making a film. The difficulty a director is faced with in the making of a film, in terms of wearing so many hats, and having so many things on their shoulders. Being at the center of so much decision making, with usually such a large group of people. I felt, gee, the theater is the right scale for me. I would work under the auspice of a theater. It was myself, a stage manager, four designers and a cast. (laughs again) That felt like a large enough thing for me to take on.

What made you ready to take the leap?

Finally, one day, a friend who had produced a play that I directed in New York sat down with me. He said, “What about a film? What about you directing a film?” I said oh, no, no, no. I don’t think that’s for me. It’s just too complex, too many people, too many aspects. It’s usually a very, very long commitment, by an actor’s standards. My short film, this is year three. I’m just finishing my third year of totally focused, laser-focused commitment on it. He said, “No, no, no, no, no, wait. If you were going to do one, what would you want to do?” I said: well, I would start with a short, because I’ve seen too many people start with features. (laughs again) I’ve seen that deer-in-the-headlights look. Oh God, no, I don’t want to go through that. We started talking. I mentioned this story I knew so well. He read it. He said, “I think you should do this as a film.” He kept encouraging me. Finally, we began to put together a team. We brought on another producer, a woman I know up here, who has worked in the film world a lot. I was dragging my heels a little bit all the way along, like: Oh really, are we going to risk this? Then pretty soon it was like: Yes, we’re doing this. I finally just really stepped into the shoes and said, okay, I’m going to take this on. It was really a fantastic experience. But, yeah, I definitely experienced major reluctance.

Karen Allen stars in “Year by the Sea.”

Now that you’re finished a short, has it whetted your appetite to try a feature?

Well, people have been bringing [it up]… We took this film to the Cannes Film Festival in May. People who have seen the film are starting to send screenplays to me that are in various levels of preparation. There hasn’t been an offer, because most of them are not completely financed yet. But, I’m starting to read things that people are interested in me possibly directing. I have a couple of projects that are things… I wrote a project that Robert Altman was going to direct about, oh, it must be 20 years ago now. He and I worked together for several years on this script I had written. I still have it. Back in that time period, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to want to direct it myself. He was going to do it, and then in the end he didn’t because The Player came out and it was so successful. Suddenly, he had two projects that he had been trying to get off the ground that he had developed himself, so he gave me a wonderful recommendation of another director to work with. Anyway, the project never really came to be. But I now find myself thinking, hmmm… maybe I could do it. (laughs)

Yes, you should revive it. Absolutely.

We’ll see. It’s a big undertaking. You have to really be willing to set aside three – at the very least – years of your life, towards one project. It’s all food for thought right now. I’m going to help get Year by the Sea moved out into the world. I’m going to spend the next few months with my little film on the film festival circuit. Then we’ll just see what comes to pass, I guess.

I can’t talk with you and not ask you at least a couple of questions about some of your classic films as an actress. Your film debut Animal House was just a little low-budget film when it was being made. What was it like to be a part of it?

Well, it was an absolute blast to be a part of it. It was a real seat-of-the-pants experience. I had worked in the theater for four years, but I’d never been on a film set before. In fact, when they cast me in that film, I don’t think I’d even met an actor who had ever done a film in my life. So, it was really stepping into a world that I knew absolutely nothing about. Fortunately for me, about half the actors in the film were in similar positions. They were theater actors, but they had been given a role in the film. We were all in the same boat. (chuckles) And it was a nice boat to be in, you know? We had an awfully good time with each other.

When you were working on it, did you ever have any idea that it would become such a huge, iconic hit?

There was no way we could have known. I couldn’t have known anyway. I knew nothing about the film world. To even anticipate whether this film had a chance, I didn’t even know what it meant for it to have a chance. (laughs) I didn’t know what it meant for a film to be successful or for a film to fail. These were not concepts that even existed in my life. I just went off to Oregon and I made this film. I went back to New York City. I went back to auditioning in the theater. Suddenly the film was finished. I remember showing up to that premiere and just being astonished by how much attention the film was garnering. What are the chances of doing your very first film and having it be something that gets that kind of attention? I got lucky. (laughs again)

On the other hand, Raiders of the Lost Ark was obviously going to be a big deal, coming from two of the biggest directors in Hollywood at the time, as well as one of the bigger leading men.

(laughs) Yes, it wasn’t going to go unnoticed. That’s for sure.

How did you get the role of Marion, and what was the experience of being in that film like?

Well, Spielberg was friendly with [Animal House director] John Landis. Then I did another little film called The Wanderers that was based on Richard Price’s first novel.

I love Richard Price. He’s one of my favorite authors…

Yeah, he’s fantastic. Phil Kaufman [who went on to do The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being] directed that film. Spielberg was also friends with Phil Kaufman. In fact, Phil Kaufman has story credit on Raiders of the Lost Ark. Then I did a film called A Small Circle of Friends that we shot at Harvard, in Boston. Rob Cohen [who went on to make the first Fast and the Furious and XXX movies], it was his very first film. Rob was good friends with Spielberg. So, the three of those directors, I think when Spielberg was looking around to see who might play this character of Marion, all three of them spoke well of me. Spielberg was going to come into New York – back in those days, when a director was casting a film they almost always came into New York first, because the real actors were in New York. It’s all kind of funny, and I think it’s all shifted and changed quite a bit now, but directors came into New York, and they would meet the New York actors. I showed up for a meeting. I didn’t audition, because if there was a script, they didn’t want to tip their [hand]. It was all very, very secretive. I talked to Spielberg a little. He asked me a little bit about myself. We talked for a little while.

What happened next?

A couple of weeks later they asked if I would come to Los Angeles and do a screen test for Marion. They did give me the scene in the bar, when we first meet her. When Indy walks in and I punch him in the face. That whole scene. I worked on that, and I flew out with an actor named John Shea [best remembered for playing Lex Luthor in Lois and Clark], who was auditioning for Indy. I auditioned also with [Animal House co-star] Tim Matheson. Tom Selleck had been hired to play Indy, and then Magnum PI got picked up, and suddenly there was no Indy, because they wouldn’t let him out of his contract. They had not cast the role of Indy. I think I auditioned twice, with Tim and John. They asked me to do the role. When they cast me, they still didn’t have an Indy. Harrison [Ford], I can’t remember how long after Harrison came into the process. It was probably a few weeks. But, they were continuing to look. I’ve heard lovely actors who I know, like Sam Elliott, I think, auditioned. And Jeff Bridges was a potential.

You worked with him later in Starman.

Yeah, yeah. And I worked with Sam not long ago in a sweet little film that we did for Hallmark [called November Christmas]. Have you seen his film The Hero?

I haven’t, but I’ve heard good things about it.

He’s so good in it. And he’s got one of the all-time great voices. (laughs)

Your career has lasted for decades now. Looking back, how would you like for people to see your body of work?

Gosh. You know, to answer that question, I kind of have to get on the outside of myself. (long pause) Heartfelt. Interesting. Quirky. I always feel very happy when women approach me and say that characters I have played have given them strength and courage. And a greater sense of the possibilities. There is something about Marion Ravenwood that had that impact on a generation, or many generations, of young women, who saw that character and were somehow emboldened by her. I feel very good about that. If you can have that kind of impact through doing something like a film, it makes it more than just a pleasure to do it. It means it is also having a positive impact on the world.

That’s true.

The little film I just did, “A Tree A Rock A Cloud,” it’s really a kind of film for an age where the world is so filled with division and we’re struggling so much. It’s a film about the nature of love. It’s a very interesting film to put out into the world right now. It’s challenging all this clenched-fist-ness we have in the world right now, and in just a very simple way, offering another way of approaching life. (laughs) So, I don’t know. I just try to choose characters who I think have a lot of humanity. Who strike me as being complex, but interesting people. I feel like if I try to put as much of my heart and being into them, I guess I want to create people that people connect to and relate to.


For more information on Year by the Sea, please visit:

For more information on A Tree A Rock A Cloud, please visit:

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: September 9, 2017.

Photos © 2017. Courtesy of Real Women Make Waves. All rights reserved.

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