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A Candid Conversation with Sissy Spacek

The actor talks about her new film ‘The Old Man & the Gun,’ her solo ‘Castle Rock’ episode, ‘Carrie’ fandom, Seventies filmmaking and much, much more

Sissy Spacek

Spacek in New York City on September 21st, 2018.

Griffin Lipson/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

Imagine you’re hanging out with someone’s sweet old grandmother, the kind of person who will ask if you’ve got a sweater in case it gets cold, and how are things at school, and would you like a slice of pie or some more peach iced tea? Now picture that same person having once played a blood-splattered teenager primed to slaughter her fellow high school students, or one half of a serial-killer couple, or country-and-western legend Loretta Lynn.

This is a bit what it feels like to have coffee with Sissy Spacek, the woman sitting before you who is still all freckles and smiles and farm-strong into what she keeps referring to as “my seventh decade.” She radiates kindness. It’s impossible to talk to her for a few minutes, much less an hour in a Toronto restaurant, and not feel like you’re in the presence of the third nicest, most polite person ever to walk the Earth. And as with any actor who you might have spent decades watching on screens — some huge, others small — it’s near impossible not to see her best-known/your favorite roles staring back at you. Maybe it’s Carrie White, or that sweet-voiced coal miner’s daughter, or the baton-twirling Holly Sargis, or the lost-in-her-own-world Ruth Deaver on Hulu’s Castle Rock. (“Stephen King has done well by me,” she’ll say.)

Or maybe you see Jewel, the horse-ranch owner she plays in David Lowery’s incredible new movie The Old Man & the Gun, in which Spacek costars with potentially-possibly-ok-probably-not-retiring Robert Redford in the semi-true story of Forrest Tucker, a gentleman bandit still liberating banks of their loot well into his autumn years. She meets him on the side of the road, when her car has broken down and he’s trying to avoid the cops after a job. They end up chatting in a diner, just two people long past their giddy teenage years getting to know each other and flirting, with Redford turning on the 100-klieg charm and Spacek giving us an expression that’s the acting equivalent of the first time you taste ice cream. It’s not like the actress has not been around — she’s having a bit of what she calls a “saying Yes” year, where she’s capitalizing on the Peak TV boom with strong work in the just-concluded Castle Rock and Amazon’s soon-to-be-released series Homecoming. (A week after our conversation, she’ll show up in an LCD Soundsystem music video.) But when you watch Spacek in this beautiful outlaw character study, it feels like you’re watching someone who has just rediscovered the joy of playing someone else. Which, she admits, was exactly how it felt to do it.

Over several cups of strong java, Spacek talked about her new movie, her Castle Rock solo episode, Carrie fandom, David Lynch, Robert Altman, Michael Ritchie, Badlands, the Seventies, TV, her career and why she feels “she’s just sorta getting started” with this new round of roles. (There are Old Man spoilers here, so go see it first and then come back.)

The Old Man & the Gun looks like a film you would have done in between Carrie and 3 Women. It feels like such a throwback.
They did such a great job beating it up, didn’t they? It was shot in 16mm, and I think that really helped. It feels like you’re watching a Seventies movie, right? It’s set in the Eighties, but I didn’t see any crazy-big shoulder pads! Did you? There’s no pouffy bangs! [Laughs] It’s a Seventies movie, I don’t care when it takes place.

I loved Ain’t Them Bodies Saints — which also looks like some lost film from 40 years ago — and I’d been a big fan of David Lowery for a long time. The first time he talked to me about this, he just gave me the broad strokes of it. Jewel had not really existed, you know. Forrest had had a wife, who’d left him years before we see him here. But David wanted to have a love interest for Bob’s character. In the beginning, it was written that she goes off with him, she goes on the run with him … and I thought, “This woman, she grew up in Fort Worth, Dallas, she’s part of a community, she owns a farm, she has horses and dogs and a pig — she’s rooted.” I just didn’t feel like she was the kind of woman who’d leave all of that.

She’s the exact opposite of Holly from Badlands, isn’t she?
The young ingenue who hits the road with the outlaw versus the older woman who’s stable and isn’t going to go running off with him. Yeah, I knew this time! I’d already done that once and learned my lesson. After you’ve gone on a killing spree with Martin Sheen, you don’t need to do it twice! [Laughs]

But I thought, you know, he tells Jewel what he does for a living — that he robs banks — and she doesn’t really believe him. He teases her, he sorta toys with her about it. He’s charming, he made her laugh, he’s so good looking and unique. Forrest is unlike anyone she’s ever met, so she sort of falls for him before she really finds out that he’s serious. The thing about David is, he wanted our help in honing the script. So I just said, you know, why not write her as someone who falls in love with him in spite of what he does?

You actually see her fall in love with him. When she says, “Well you better hurry up” regarding his bucket list, and he just goes “What do you mean?” That look that passes on your face …
Have you seen what Robert Redford looks like? He’s pretty easy to fall in love with. [Laughs] There’s that scene in the jewelry store where she sees that bracelet, and then he rushes her out because he’s taken it. She feels this rush of excitement when it dawns on her that they’ve just stole it — for one second, she gets to feel what he feels all the time. The scene originally ended there.

Really?
And then it’s like, she knows all these people. She can’t do this. So we added the part where she forces him to go back and actually buy it for her. That’s what I mean about David being collaborative. He trusted us to go, well, I’m not sure that’s right.

She still stays with him after that, though — when she knows who is and what he does, right?
It’s sweet, what they have. But yeah, I wouldn’t say she was lonely, except … Actually, you know what? She is lonely but I don’t think she realizes it until she meets him. You know how it with chemistry between people. I do think it’s a pretty bittersweet romance.

Why’s that?
Because the whole time, I just wanted to shake him and scream at him, “Wake up!” He’s like a compulsive gambler or an addict. He needs that rush. He can’t live without it. “Once you find something you like, you better stick with it!” [Laughs]

In that Fort Worth area, I once went to a bronco riding event. Now, saddle-bronc riding — if you don’t win, you’re dead. It’ll kill you. There was the guy, Monty Henson: He was a world champion but he’d been all beaten up. Someone asked him, why do you keep putting yourself through this? And he just answered, “It’s what I do.” I never forgot that.

How many actors have said the same thing, working in an industry that can prop you up…
…or make you come crashing down. Yeah! Right. It’s what we do. We’re stuck. We’re lucky! But we’re stuck.

You had never worked with Redford before?
No, but I’d met him years and years ago, when I was about 18 and he wasn’t that much older, maybe in twenties still. It turns out that the same casting director, Marion Dougherty — God rest her soul — separately took he and I under her wing and gave us our starts in the business. We just realized this, like, a week or so ago. But I met him once in her office when I’d stopped by to talk to her, and I was so nervous I called him “Bobert.” [Laughs] For 40 years, I’ve been kicking myself for saying that. He doesn’t remember, of course, because I was just some 18-year-old kid.

Actually, this director he was working with at the time, Michael Ritchie — he’s the man who would do The Candidate and Downhill Racer with Bob — was the one who cast me in my first movie. I was probably there to meet him.

You’re talking about Prime Cut. It’s a great Seventies movie about the underbelly of America — that part of the nation’s psyche that you try to shove under the rug.
Yeah, it’s a rough ride. That project was fraught with problems between Lee Marvin and the studio, but I loved Michael and I was so wet behind the ears. You know, I’m making a movie! I was making collages in the honey wagon with Gene Hackman, who was a prince. But yeah, years later when I talked to Michael about it and could really see what he’d been going for, I was just all … [shudders]

When you were in the middle of making these movies with these filmmakers, during what folks now consider this second Golden Age of Hollywood — did you have a sense back then that you were in the middle of something special?
I knew it was something special. I don’t think I knew how special until later. But I knew I was fortunate because I was just an ordinary American girl, nothing special — I represented some sort of everywoman, I guess. And It’s also how I met my husband, Jack Fisk; he was the production designer on a lot of my films — Badlands, Carrie, a whole bunch of others. But because of directors like Michael Ritchie and Terence Malick, I was kind of plucked out of obscurity and got to ride that wave. I mean, working on a film, working with director who had a vision and really wanted you to add to the process — to me, that was everything. It was like Mickey Rooney said, “Let’s go out in the barn and put on a show!”

You know what it felt like? We were scrappy, low-budget productions — Carrie was basically a B film, nobody really was paying attention to us while we were making it. Studios didn’t really care what we were doing. If we failed, it didn’t really make that big of a difference; it wasn’t that big of an investment. So we had freedom. The studios were giving all their attention to the bigger pictures.

They’re busy worrying about The Towering Inferno.
Right, so we could go out and make Badlands, or 3 Women, or whatever. I remember there was this film crew shooting in Montana when we were doing Terry’s movie, like five or six of these guys were driving through where we were and they stopped by to say hi to some of our crew. And I just remember thinking: “Wait, they’re making a film somewhere else? This isn’t the center of the universe?!” I mean, that’s youth talking there, but it’s what you felt when you were on those sets. You were the only shoot that mattered. I just stumbled into the orbit of these filmmakers who were making great work. And it still happens, sometimes. David Lowery has that same look in his eye that Terence Malick did. He’s like a Seventies director.

So do you remember the experience of making Badlands?
Oh god, like it was yesterday. I was having a wild affair with the production designer who’d end up becoming my husband, and every day was some new adventure. Terry was like 26 or 28, a young guy — I knew a scene was going well if you could hear him giggling behind the camera. There was one time where we were getting ready to do a scene and suddenly the moon appeared in the sky, in the middle of the day. And Terry just said, well, let’s follow it! Let’s see what we can get. The more professional folks on the crew … let’s just say they had a hard time with stuff like that. But us young folks who didn’t know how movies were “supposed” to be made? It’s how we got that shot of Martin Sheen with the gun slung over his shoulders. You tell me that’s not magical. If Terry had said, “Jump off that building … but don’t worry, you’ll fly, Sissy,” I’d have just gone, OK, Terry. [Eyes widen, nods vigorously] It was the movie that taught me that film could be art.

On an average day, how many people come up to you and talk to you about Carrie?
[Laughs] Well, I live on a farm in West Virginia, so … the cows don’t care. But when I’m out and about, oh man, a bunch. A lot of people respond to Carrie White.

Why is that, do you think?
Because there are a lot of people who feel persecuted and feel like outsiders, it’s a powerful film for them. I think I’ve talked about this before, but I’d met two of the most beautiful young girls I’d ever seen, and one of them had a tattoo of Carrie on her leg. Very beautiful, in color, with flowers in her hair. The other one had her tattooed on her arm … and it’s from the prom scene, with her covered in blood. And to anybody reading this: Please don’t get tattoos of Carrie anywhere on your body.

You’re OK if they get a tattoo of you as Loretta Lynn from Coal Miner’s Daughter, but when it comes to Carrie
No one has ever got a tattoo of me from Coal Miner’s Daughter!

Don’t be so sure.
Not that they’ve told me, at least. You know, it’s a genuinely beautiful thing, when you meet people who are so moved by a film you’ve done, or one specific role you’ve played. It really, truly is. [Pause] But don’t get tattoos of ‘em, because then your momma will be mad at me.

You’ve known David Lynch for decades; he slept on your couch while he and your husband were putting together Eraserhead, right? How was it working with him on The Straight Story?
Oh yeah, I’ve known him for ages. He and Jack have been best friends since the eighth grade. I have to tell you, that man is the ideal of the consummate artist. They were living the art life — like the real art life — when I met them, and just getting to know David really sort of changed me, changed how I thought about what we were doing. I have to credit him and Jack for helping me see things through a more … I guess you’d call it an artistic lens. I might have just gone through life going [points to imaginary 50-foot screen] “Oh look, there I am up there, yay!” They had a big influence on me in terms of, “No, what you do is serious. It’s creative. It’s not just reading lines.” And that was just from being around them — when I finally got to work with David on The Straight Story, that was even better. I just love collaborating with great filmmakers.

It’s an impressive list: Malick, Lynch, De Palma, Altman …
Oh god, I loved working with Robert Altman! It felt like being on one of Bob’s sets when we shot Old Man & the Gun, because it felt very loose, very familial. But I loved that man. Bob was such an ornery character.

When we were shooting 3 Women, there was this long, long scene where I’m walking through the apartment that Shelley Duvall and I share, and it starts in one room and then winds through the next — a really complicated shot. And then every time I came out of the bathroom, I would flip the light off. And he’d yell, “CUT! Sissy, you’re ruining the shot! Why are you doing this? Every time you turn the light off, we have to do a light change and start over. What’s happening?” I very sheepishly said, “My dad trained me to turn the light off every time I left the bathroom. I’m sorry.” And he just replied, “Your dad just cost me more money today than you saved him in a lifetime of electric company payments. I’m sending him a bill.” [Laughs]

Do you feel like TV is picking up some of the slack from movies? Even something like Castle Rock, which is a brand-name horror series, still allows for something like your episode “The Queen”
Yeah, well, Stephen King has done well by me. It was a wonderful experience filming that show, except for the Maine accent. Two weeks into filming it, I thought, “Why did I do this, this Southern tongue can not do a New England accent!” Every now and then I’d be fun the middle of a scene and I’d just suddenly turn into Scarlett O’Hara, and you could hear the crew just cracking up. [Laughs] It was humbling, to say the least.

How much research into Alzheimer’s did you do before production started?
I did a lot before I got there. Sam Shaw, one of the show’s creators, gave me this book called Memory’s Last Breath, written by this really brilliant woman [Gerda Saunders] who’d had dementia. She talked about all the challenges she had, what scared her the most, what she had to do to try to make her life work for as long as she could. And I watched a lot of documentaries … oh, there’s one called Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter, that’s shot by this woman who’s mother had Alzheimer’s. You’d watch her get scrambled up with things, but she never loses her joy. And rather than try to correct her mom, the daughter would just go along with what she’d say. I took a lot from that.

I didn’t want Ruth to be in misery all the time. She does have a horrible time in that episode, but I wanted to do it because I never thought I’d ever have a chance to something that was as touching and weird as that one hour again. It’s a thrill when you get a character like her that you get to crawl inside of and make her your own. I’m a fool for that. And I love doing TV now, because actors wanna work, artists want to work — and this is like the Seventies for TV right now. Or, you know, whatever you call the digital thing going on …

Streaming?
Yeah, the streaming things where you don’t have any censors. You have that same freedom. The difficult thing is that you get the scripts right before the episodes, which is hard. I’m used to getting the whole thing so you can go, “OK, I can out this here, start doing this there,” all that. I’m a planner. I like blocking it out: “Oh, I didn’t get that moment in here…I’ll put it over here.” You can step back and get an overview. TV is hard to do that. Especially if you don’t know where it’s going. Even when you do, you’re apt to back yourself right off a cliff while trying to get an overview of something so unwieldy as a season of TV, or a series.

You hear some actors talk about that being a benefit though — because you’re playing the moment, and not trying to seed something that happens six episodes down the line, right?
Yeah, I’ve heard some actors say that, too. I will say that your process has to change because you’re usually working with a lot of different directors in TV, and their process is different as well. Which I kind of like. It keeps things interesting. You don’t get stuck into patterns with things. And you know, it’s thanks to TV mostly that I’ve having the chance, in my seventh decade, to explore all of these different characters now.

You were once quoted as saying, “I think a lot of actors do their best work when they’re starting out.” Do you still believe that? Or do you think that notion has changed since you do get to play characters like Ruth in your “seventh decade”?
I think that’s still true in a lot of cases, because you’re such a blank slate when you’re young. But yeah, you could say I’m having a moment right now. “Oh wait, she’s still alive?! Let’s call her!” [Laughs] The great thing is that, I’ve explored being, you know, an ingenue, and a young mother, and a middle-aged women — each time, it’s like starting over, because you’re such a different person than you were when you were 14, or 29, or 45. You’re the same human being. You have the same heart and soul. But you take things in in a different way, because you have a much broader overview of life. And now I get to explore being in my sixties with these roles. It’s a whole new thing.

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