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A Q&A with Pam Grier

She talks stallions, Stanislavski and stuntwork.

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THE ACTOR PREPARES: Action film trailblazer Pam Grier pays a visit to Arkansas for Spa-Con in Hot Springs.
  • THE ACTOR PREPARES: Action film trailblazer Pam Grier pays a visit to Arkansas for Spa-Con in Hot Springs.

The first thing Pam Grier mentions when I join her on the phone is her family in the Carolinas, who are in the path of Hurricane Florence, and it's clear that Grier's connection to them is preserved in spite of a stacked appointment book. Grier, 69, recently finished shooting a movie Diane Keaton and pilot with Dax Shepard called "Bless This Mess," she's the brand ambassador for blaxploitation-focused streaming service "Brown Sugar," she'll accept the 2018 Ad Astra Award at the Tallgrass Film Festival in Wichita, Kan. — one of many festivals she'll attend this year — and her 2017 film with Florence Henderson, "Bad Grandmas," is still in heavy rotation. "I'm a senior now," she told me. "I'm embracing my age, and I'm embracing my history." Grier visits Hot Springs for Spa-Con this weekend; see the To-Do List for a full rundown of events. I spoke with Grier ahead of that Arkansas visit, about an hour before her horses would come galloping in for supper.

You were working as a receptionist when vet theater agent Hal Gefsky told you about an opportunity to work with "The Pope of Pop Cinema" Roger Corman?

They said, "Would you like to be an actor?" ... I wasn't in acting school, I wasn't at Juilliard or an academy. I thought, "I want to be a cinematographer. I really like making movies or commercials or whatever, but I don't think I can be an actor. I don't know how to be an actor." Plus, I'd already had some emotional trauma as a child, and an adult in college, and I didn't know if I would have to reveal any of that. I'm too shy to really be an actor, yet I was explosive in my emotions. I didn't have to learn how to get angry. I had it at my fingertips.

So when I met Roger, he said "Oh, you're perfect. We'll teach you. You'll be good, and I'll make sure we don't fire you." I told him he'd have to talk to my mama on the phone and convince her.

I'd raise the bar by learning Stanislavski. I still have that book, "The Actor Prepares." Stanislavski says there's no such thing as a small movie, so that's how I approached it.

In your 2010 book, "Foxy: My Life in Three Acts," you mentioned "exploitation film" director Jack Hill. Can you talk about your experience filming under his direction?

Jack was a very progressive director. Women had more opportunity, and at the time the Women's Movement was happening as well. Women had more opportunity to ride motorcycles and shoot with guns and be in the military and be on equal footing. He and Roger Corman, they really opened the door for me to show that there were frontier women who handled guns. My grandfather taught all the girls in our family to hunt and fish and shoot and drive the boat and the tractor and do everything that men could do, and a lot of directors would not allow that.

Another thing I read was that you got the role of "Coffy" in Hill's 1973 film because you could do your own stunts.

They taught me how to do stunts. After I'd done the first five or six movies for Roger Corman, they gave me a three- picture deal at American International Pictures, and I said, "That's more stunts. I've got to have a stunts person." So Bob Minor was a coordinator who helped me find a stunt woman who was my size, my coloring, who liked horses. It helped save me, because you can only do a stunt once or twice and then it begins to hurt.

You're also an equestrian, and you worked with a horse named Donatello —

Donatello! He was a black stallion! Stallions are very dangerous. If they smell a mare in heat, they can run through fences, jump into traffic, kill people trying to get to the mare. He was the lead stunt horse [for "Coffy"], and they knew I could ride horses. I said, "What if there's a mare around?" They said there weren't, but there were!

I was on Donatello, and a crew member popped a towel on the horse's flank to spook him — and make him run. So the horse takes off, and everybody's behind us following on horses. I thought for sure there were gonna be people with broken necks. I tried to ride out his energy for at least 10 or 15 minutes, just to stay on, make sure he doesn't hit anybody or get killed himself. And I rode his energy out and I rode him through Fellini's set. I thought for sure they were going to deport me. I didn't know if I ruined the shot or not. But they loved it. They thought it was funny. There I was running through on a wild horse with my leopard skin, my 'fro, and I'd run through the cardboard ocean liner of "Amarcord."

You've said your mom was "Coffy," and your aunt was "Foxy Brown?"

My mom was a nurse, always caring for the neighbors who couldn't get to the ER. Many of the nurses took care of people in the kitchen. Women came over in labor. We'd come home and there'd be someone in a bathtub giving birth to a baby. And my aunt — she was a political radical. She wanted to ride motorcycles and she wanted to be a pirate. She wanted to be an architect. Because of inequality, she just couldn't do those things, and it was very frustrating for her. She had a fabulous Harley and she was in a club of people who had Harleys and people would say, "Get off that. You're a girl, it'll hurt your innards."

And now I read that there's a film adaptation of your memoir?

We're talking about that now. We've got Jay Pharoah to play Richard Pryor. Idris Elba wants to be in the film. We want him to play Daddy Ray, my grandfather. I'd like to have Ryan Reynolds play John Gaines. I was a student, so I was really able to listen to him, and protect myself from the fast lane of Hollywood. John said, "I don't want you in the fast lane. I'm grooming you to take you to the mainstream and build your brand. Listen to me and you'll go as fast as you want to go." And I did. John was my true mentor — he and Gloria Steinem. She was the editor of Ms. Magazine and put me on the cover. I was the first woman of color to be on the cover.

Pam Grier appears at Spa-Con noon, Saturday, Sept. 22, in a panel called "Pam Grier: From Quentin Tarantino to Jack Hill, 50 Years of the Baddest One-Chick Hit Squad," Room 208, Hot Springs Convention Center. See spa-con.org for details and passes.

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