Sissy Spacek Acts Her Age
Sissy returned to Quitman after school had already started. “Everything had changed,” she said. “I’d missed majorette practice — I didn’t get to be head majorette. You know, you always build up to your senior year; it’s supposed to be a big deal. Well, it just wasn’t a big deal.”
Her brother died early the next year. “It changed everything. What you were supposed to do was not as important as the things you felt you should do.”
Her room at the University of Texas had already been secured, as was her position with a rush sorority and a full schedule of classes. It cost her $200 to forfeit those plans, but Spacek returned to New York the next summer with a new plan.
“I intended to be a rock star,” she recalled. “That was my hanging-around-Greenwich-Village, following-Bob-Dylan period.” An appointment with the William Morris Agency, set up by Rip Torn, resulted in agents politely asking her to come back in a few years. A demo made with Eddie Simon, Paul’s brother, also fizzled. She flunked a Tonight Show audition because of “hoarseness.” Bob LeMond, the manager who later came to represent John Travolta, advised her to “drop the accent and go home.” (Years later, she costarred with Travolta in Carrie. “Now every time I see LeMond, he says, ‘That’s the little lady I told to go back to Texas.'”) It was not a productive period, but she never failed to leave behind a trail of friends. Though it would have been enough to send Pollyanna packing, Sissy stayed and continued to make friends.
“I remember meeting the Allman Brothers,” she explained. My best girlfriend’s boyfriend was a booking agent. I was at her house, helping her make dinner. Her boyfriend was coming home with some guys. He finally came home with this whole group of guys. There was Duane, who was just about the nicest person I’d met, and his little brother Gregg, who I was kinda sweet on. Gregg had been to the dentist and had his tooth pulled. I didn’t know they were a band or anything. We just hit it off; we were both from the South, and he had this big fat jaw. Then they had to leave. I went home.
“I had a date to go to the Fillmore East, and I was just sitting there, looking at the piano player and the lead guitar player and I said, ‘They look just like the guys I spent the day with.’ Then I went backstage, I couldn’t believe it was them. I always thought rock stars would be crazy, but they were nice little Southern kids. Whenever Duane came to town after that, he’d call up to borrow my twelve-string. He never forgot a name.”
Spacek eventually recorded a single for Roulette Records under the name of Rainbo. It was a folk song she wrote entitled “John, You’ve Gone Too Far This Time,” and in it Sissy scolded John Lennon for posing nude with Yoko on the cover of Two Virgins. Conveniently, she says, she never kept a copy.
Then, finally, came acting. Enrolling in the Lee Strasberg Theatrical Institute, she set about learning the ropes of the Method. Eight months of classes taught her the fundamentals she still uses: “Anything you can use to understand the character and his motivations . . . and to become the character, you should use. I’m not above even poking my eye to help me cry. But the best method for me is to become a blank page. I’ll just wear light-colored clothes, fast, go hiking, do research, and one day I’ll be the character.”
Intuitively curious about most everybody she meets, Spacek claims that her most enriching character study came, not at Lee Strasberg’s studio, but afterward, on the way home. “My girlfriend and I,” she recalled, “would walk to Fourteenth, cut across Seventeenth and Park, then go up to Max’s Kansas City. It was always crowded, always full of the greatest characters I had ever seen. I felt like a beatnik; it was wonderful.”
Spacek moved through the collection of underground media celebrities with ease. “I was anonymous. All my life, you see, I’ve been able to be in all these outrageous situations and I’ve been neutral. It’s probably been my greatest asset.”
She was befriended by Holly Woodlawn, the actress-model, and in 1970 wound up with a role as an extra in Andy Warhol’s Trash. (Years afterward she would thank Warhol for that opportunity when he came to tape her for the cover of Interview after the release of 3 Women. “You were in that movie?” he asked. “Wow.”)
The following year, Spacek got her first real role, as an innocent victim of white slavery in Prime Cut. Filmed in Canada with stars Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman, Spacek remembered: “I was the only one in the cast who believed the script. White slavery? You bet. I believed Lee Marvin would have picked me.”
A crew member recalled that, on the set of Prime Cut, Spacek was “so goddamn sunny she made you want to put on sunglasses.” I asked Spacek how she felt about her cheery image of her work.
“It never bothered me,” she answered. “I am the way I am. I don’t try to exploit my accent or the way I am. I’m just . . . compulsive about making other people feel comfortable. I believe, ultimately, that it’s a better working situation if people are happy.”