Pam GrierBy Caroline Ryder
A Colorado beauty queen of eclectic African-American, First-Nation, Philippine and European heritage, Pam Grier has more than 100 screen credits to her name—yet when she moved to Los Angeles in 1972, she was reluctant to become an actress. Her real dream was to be behind the camera, and she was working several jobs so she could save up money to go to UCLA’s film school. Then legendary movie man Roger Corman thrust a copy of Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares in her hand. “That book taught me everything about being an actress,” says Grier, 59. Under Corman’s mentorship, she landed her first movie role—a bit part in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls—and went on to become the reigning queen of 1970s blaxploitation film.
As feminism’s bras burned bright, Grier’s helming of Coffy (1973) marked the first time a woman had played the lead in a blaxploitation flick. In Coffy, as well as the subsequent Foxy Brown (1974) and Sheba, Baby (1975), Grier presented America with a revolutionary new female archetype: the badass. “My mom was Coffy, literally,” says Grier. “And my aunt—she was Foxy Brown. She rode a Harley, she bought her own Thunderbird convertible, she had children by different men, she loved her lover, she was wild and prolific and honest. I had all these strong women around me. This is how I was brought up.”
Grier’s first major foray beyond blaxploitation was in Paul Newman’s Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981), for which she visited the grungy shooting galleries of New York’s Meatpacking District in order to research her part as a heroin-addicted prostitute. Some observers wondered if Grier’s career had gone off the boil after Fort Apache, but all the while she was active in theater, touring in Sam Shepard’s “Fool For Love” and then “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.” “People say, ‘You went away and you didn’t work any more,’ but I did work—I did theater,” says Grier. “Don’t negate my career just because I’m not doing movies!”
Despite her many lucky breaks and supreme physical blessings, life was never smooth sailing for Grier. In 1981, a racist cop tried to arrest her outside her home in West L.A., not believing she actually lived there, prompting Grier to move back to Colorado, where she still lives today. Grier had already lost her best friend, soul singer Minnie Riperton, to breast cancer when, in 1988, she found herself battling cancer as well. She was given 18 months to live, but pulled through. All the while Grier continued to act, but was primarily cast in bit parts and cameo appearences for the better part of the next deccade.
Her major big-screen comeback was the lead in Quentin Tarantino’s much-lauded Jackie Brown (1997), an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch. Her performance as the title character, a sultry flight attendant, earned her Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild best actress nominations and an NAACP Image award. It also introduced Grier to a whole new generation of moviegoers.
Grier talked to SWINDLE for two hours over the phone from her hotel room in Vancouver, where she was shooting the sixth season of the groundbreaking lesbian TV drama The L Word.
On her childhood:
Life was exciting and exotic in the early days. My father worked on military bases, strategic air command bases that were sometimes secret. We couldn’t always live with him, and he couldn’t always talk about his work. So, being a military brat, I grew up in many different countries and cultures. We lived in Swindon, England, for two years, and the people there loved us. As black Americans, we were second-class citizens at home—but we felt equal in England, and highly regarded. They loved our music and our recipes, and we felt so great to be valued for our pride. Then we came back to America and hit the wall of segregation. Buses wouldn’t stop for me and my mom when we were walking home with groceries. I remember one day, a bus driver was at the end of his route and took a great chance in stopping for us. As a child I was taught who to talk to and not talk to, and what bathroom you can and can’t go in to.
On her heroes:
I always admired many of the figures from the black West. Like Mary Fields, the first black stagecoach driver and a woman. And my great grandmother—she owned a three-story boarding house for African Americans, Asians and First Nation people in Colorado. Back then they couldn’t stay in the white hotels. Also, I was inspired by Rosa Parks, and by entertainers like Lena Horne, Josephine Baker, Bessie Smith and Leontyne Price, who were well respected but who had to drive from show to show because, as blacks, they weren’t allowed to take trains or planes.
On the Watts Riots:
Back in Denver I joined a gospel group called Echoes of Youth. Some of the founding members of that group ended up in Earth, Wind and Fire. With all the money we raised from touring Colorado, we bought a vintage Greyhound bus and drove down to California. We were singing at the Reverend James Cleveland’s church in Watts, and the third day we were there, the Watts Riots broke out. The city was burning, bullets were flying and we were stranded. One church member took us into his apartment, so there were literally 30 kids and six adults in a one-bedroom apartment. After three days we got out, because we were running out of money and food. After that, the tour was over. It was scary, seeing a black community in absolute war. I was 12 or 13 at the time, and that was the beginning of reality for me. I realized America was at war.
On moving to L.A.:
I was working as a receptionist in Colorado when I entered the Miss Colorado Universe pageant to try and win money for college. That’s when I realized the effect of b eauty. It’s an aphrodisiac. How a man has power and a woman has beauty. A talent agent noticed me and suggested I move to Hollywood. The black film movement was happening, and they needed more actors. But it was a year and a half before I became an actor.
On being a session singer:
The first week I got to L.A. I got a job singing for Bobby Womack. He said he had a friend named Sylvester Stewart who needed a singer too. So I got to CBS studios and I see these three sisters, and they are Wonderlove, Stevie Wonder’s backup singers. I check in with the coordinator and I go over and meet Sylvester and I stop cold in my tracks—it’s Sly and the Family Stone! I remember he had a bass and a rhythm guitar and these teeth, this smile, and Buddy Miles was playing drums, and I was like, “Oh my god, I am numb!” They said, “Pam, maybe you could go on tour with Stevie Wonder?” and I said, “No, I have to go to school.” So we’re sitting there and it’s late and they are jamming, and then the elevator opens. I see these jeans and this silver belt and a black shirt and a vest and black hair and was like, “Holy moly, it’s Jimi Hendrix!” He went in and picked up an instrument and they started jamming, and we were all in heaven.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, music was really bringing cultures and races and religions together. It was so ripe and sweet and had all these flavors—incense and patchouli oil and sitar, Ravi Shankar and Buddhism and chanting and Tolstoy and Keats and Homer, R&B and Fillmore East and West, and so much stuff happening. I wish we’d had a time machine to take all of the young ones—Snoop Dogg and Alicia Keys and Smash Mouth and Nirvana and the White Stripes—take them back to that time of revolution and music. I can’t even come close to describing it. In 1975, I went home to Colorado, and I was skiing in Aspen with Jack Nicholson and Hunter S. Thompson and Ed Bradley, the late CBS correspondent who went up there and bought a home. At that time we were listening to “Hotel California,” Funkadelic, Philly soul and Motown. It was still acid and coke and weed and music and just a wonderful communion. And then the ‘80s came, with the business and the stock market, and that’s when it all changed.
On her audition for Paul Newman’s Fort Apache, The Bronx:
Before my audition I worked on the dialogue for three days. I cleared my room at the Wyndham of all furniture, and all I ate was two cherry pies, so the sugar would give me dark circles under my eyes. I started walking around in these serious fuck-me pumps, and I had to ask the desk clerk at the hotel, “Please don’t have me arrested. It’s for a part.” Carol Burnett was living there, and one time I stepped into the elevator looking like this blonde hooker junkie, and there she was. I said, “Please don’t be scared. I am going to an audition!” So I went to the audition at the Minskoff Theater and there I am, looking like a serious junkie hooker, with a note in my pocket from the production office saying I am an actress. I started walking down the Avenue of the Americas and people were hooting and howling and women were rolling their eyes at me and calling me a ho, and I said, “Thank you! I look like a ho!” Soon enough, the police pull up beside me and try to pick me up. I said, “I’m going to an audition!” and they said, “I bet you are.” I walked into the building and the receptionist looked at me and said, “You’re not Pam Grier,” and I just headed up to the door. They wanted to chat and I said, “No chattin’ muthafucker, let’s just do this damn muthafuckin’ job.” I didn’t want to break the level of focus I had been building for the last three days. We start the audition, and the guy who was reading dropped his line because I reached over and grabbed his crotch. That’s what Stanislavski told me to do. I was shooting up and passing out and sliding onto the floor and they were applauding and Paul Newman was so thrilled. They said, “Pam, you got the job.”
At an early age I was a self-proclaimed feminist, although I didn’t realize how to fully enjoy my femininity. If I enjoy my femininity, I can give it. With any relationship you learn how to be the best woman you can be for your man. Sometimes my boyfriend thinks I want too much sex, and I go, “OK… that’s my own naturalness.” I like everything about being a woman, and I like making men comfortable with being with a woman who is powerful. My boyfriend was having a really, really dark time in the corporate world. He was really feeling like he was losing his inner power and trying to hold on to his manhood. In order to give to him, I had to receive. So I asked him to read me poetry.
I was 36, I was running seven miles a day, I was 117 pounds and very energetic. No symptoms. My first operation, they thought they were getting something superficial. Then the pathologist calls and says ,“You need to talk to your doctor. You have a high stage 5 cancer,” and I was like, “Excuse me? Do you have the right file?” I went to the cancer center in Cedars Sinai and they said I may have 18 months to live. At the time I was living with a New York architect, and when I told him, he just broke down. He was supposed to come to the hospital. He never showed up. My doctor sat on the bed and said, “Pam, you have to think about living today. You cannot think about him.” Damn. You think you know your lover until there’s a crisis. I did the radiation and a lot of surgery. And I didn’t speak to the architect for five years until I went to do a movie for Spike Lee in New York. I walked out of my hotel and turned the corner, and there he was. He walked up to me and I said, “You better walk away because I think I am going to throw up on your shoes.” He said, “I guess I owe you an explanation.” In his hand was a manila envelope, and I said, “That looks like a ring box inside.” He said he had just picked it up for his fiancé. I said, “Well, I hope she doesn’t get sick,” and wished him good will.
On meeting Quentin Tarantino:
I was driving down the street with my lover at the time. We were in Hollywood, on Highland Avenue, and there is this young white man with long hair in a T-shirt and shorts, barefoot, leaning over talking to someone in a car. It was Quentin Tarantino. He had mentioned my name in Reservoir Dogs. Then he saw me and stood in front of my car and stopped us. I was driving and he said, “I am writing a movie for you!” And I said, “I don’t believe it.” And he says, “I’ll keep in touch. I’ll find you.” And I am going, “Oh my god.” So like maybe a year later, I get a call saying Quentin wants to send me something. I am in New York and we get a notice from the post office saying there’s a parcel waiting, and there’s 43 cents due. It’s the script from Tarantino—he had sent it regular mail and it had been sitting at the post office for two weeks. I called Quentin and said, “It’s really wonderful. So which role is mine?” He said, “I wrote it for you. You’re Jackie Brown.” And time stopped. The world stopped moving. What an honor that was to have someone write a movie for me. I thought, I can soar now.