When Pam Grier first started playing a bad-AF heroine in the early 70s, she was fearful of losing her job—because she didn’t know how to act. Although she was completely new to the trade, and only took it up to cover her tuition at UCLA, Roger Corman saw something in her, and casted her in his women-behind-bars flick, The Big Doll House. As the story goes, he gave her the book An Actor Prepares, by Constantin Stanislavski. The rest is history.
From classic Blaxploitation films like Coffy and Foxy Brown to an unassailable role in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, Grier’s worked at just about every level in the business. Her newest role in Bad Grandmas finds her amongst a group of gun-toting, pot-smoking grannies, including a hilarious Florence Henderson in her final role. With the film opening nationwide in theaters this week, VICE caught up with Grier at the film’s St. Louis premiere:
VICE: What did you think when you first read the script for Bad Grandmas?
Pam Grier: I thought, This is my Arsenic and Old Lace that I always wanted to do, either in films or on Broadway. I couldn’t wait. I love to participate in indie filmmaking, helping small film companies, especially if the script is exciting. You never know how good it’s going to be until you get to the set. I [told them] I wanted to know who was going to play the lead. They said, we’re talking to Florence Henderson, and I said, “You know what? I won’t do it unless she does it.” We had worked together before and she was so much fun. When you have the Brady momma and Foxy Brown, come on.
What was it like working with Florence on her final film, and how would you compare your role to others that you’ve played before?
In Bad Grandmas, I’m playing older than I am—she’s a grandma. I wanted to show that gray can be lethal as well. I just wanted to play comedy as an older woman, which I will be soon. I had so much fun the first time I worked with her, and [on Bad Grandmas] it just continued. We were separated at birth; she worked on Broadway, she sang musicals, she had a great sense of comedic timing, and she was very generous and sharing. Not all actresses are like that. We were old friends and just had a great time. After work, we’d sit at the bar in the hotel and have dinner and share our past. It was just very comfortable. I wish she could have been around for a few more years.
How was the premiere?
It was so much fun. I like to see filmmakers all around the country, because demographically there’s different political, psychological, artistic, and cultural aspects of every area. It’s going to be refreshing to see our history told on film in the form of entertainment. A lot of it is flat when you read it or discover it, or you dust off bones in the dirt, but when you see it on film, and you see it with a narrative of the different shades, textures, music, and the creativity of the filmmakers, whether they’re old school, new school, or after school…
Just the fact that Srikant [Chellappa, the film’s writer/director] wrote it in St. Louis, Missouri, which is the heartland, I was really honored to be a part of it. I love being out there, going to the comic cons around the country. You’ve got to salute the indie film community. I’ve got one coming out next year, with Cybill Shepherd and James Brolin, from a small indie company out of Austin, Texas. It’s unique and different.
When you act, how much of the character is you, and how much is what’s written in the script?
Well, you’re in a moment, and so if you’re sitting too long, your butt’s numb. So we’ll use that. We use numb butts. We use everything. I haven’t cut anyone up, not yet. However, it was fun doing comedy, and it was fun being physical. [Growing up] I watched my grandmother, and I watched my aunts in their 80s, and I said, “I got to use that. I got to use that model. I got to make sure they help me up off the floor.” So I would say 50/50.
Who’s your favorite character you ever played?
They are all unique and all different. There’s no particular one that I love the most, but I can articulate that [the one that] gave me the most variables in a performance was Jackie Brown, with Quentin. I was in a two-hour film with an excellent budget, working with great actors. I had done four years of nothing but theater, from August Wilson to Sam Shepard to Terrence McNally. The Sam Shepard play Fool for Your Love was 90 minutes with no intermission. The August Wilson thing was another type of theater work where I got to play piano and gospel from my own background.
What was it like working with Quentin?
To bring all of that to Jackie Brown was a great opportunity to show and flex various colors and textures and beats and articulate exactly what Quentin wanted. And not everyone can do that—a lot of people want to get on the set and improvise, but it doesn’t work that way. If you cant deliver his dialogue, his beats, and you can’t rehearse, he cannot work with you. It’s not that he’s selective—he knows who hears his drumbeat. He knows who hears his pulse, and not everyone does. I was surprised that I fit in and wasn’t fired.
Back when you were first doing Coffy and Foxy Brown, did you ever see yourself becoming such an icon?
I didn’t at all, and the thing about it is, in real life, being active with cars, animals, tractors, boats, guns, and hunting and my family, I just brought what I do to work. That was normal for me. I was already that before I went to film, and living outside of Los Angeles, living in the heartland, you can really develop your character. You can see the world from other eyes, other lenses when you don’t live in Hollywood or New York. You can see the beats, rebel flags, rednecks, and guns all over the place. See different things or different people. That forms your gift that you have.
You’ve watched the industry evolve since the 70s. Can you compare working in film back then to now?
It’s more technologically advanced, but it’s also psychological. The more violence you portray, the more people want to see, and it doesn’t frighten them as much or make them shocked. So it’s interesting to see the audience participation and development. Also, the marketing areas, where one studio hires an actor and they’ll be featured in two or three other films creating a brand—but that’s what they did [back] then, which is interesting. But also I wanted to do comedy, dark comedies, Afrocentric pieces, foreign films. I was really branching out, and then I wanted to do nothing but theater to see if I’m an actor for the celebrity, or if I really am a craftswoman.
Is this my true craft? My true trade? I figured it out, and I just loved acting. It didn’t matter what you were making, didn’t matter about the stars, didn’t matter about the Oscars. It just mattered about the work, and portraying wonderful and delightful characters that were very complex. That’s all that I’m about. I’m not about all the commercial things. I’ve been able to work with some truly sensational directors and just be funny, zany, or serious, or do small independents. And that was the freedom that I was looking for.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.