The New Yorker Interview
“When You Earn It, They Can’t Take It Away”: An Interview with Pam Grier
The actress on country living, blaxploitation, and how the needs of Hollywood are different from her own.
March 1, 2020
At seventy, the actress Pam Grier has relaxed into the simple country life she has always craved, though her life story is full of mind-boggling tales.Photograph by Rikkí Wright for The New Yorker
am Grier came to Hollywood in 1970, as the film industry was straining to catch up with a counterculture fuelled by sexual freedom, women’s liberation, and Black Power. Grier was an Army brat who had grown up in Denver, Colorado, and on Air Force bases across the world, though she felt most at home at her grandparents’ farm, in Wyoming. Within four years, she became an icon of blaxploitation: off-the-wall black action movies that were made on the cheap but raked in millions of dollars. After decades in which black women typically appeared in movies as maids, Grier broke the mold completely. In films such as “Coffy
” and “Foxy Brown
,” she played empowered heroines who fought back against drug dealers and pimps—while often winding up in outrageous catfights
. (These movies were, after all, made by men.)
One of her fans was Quentin Tarantino, who two decades later gave Grier the role of a lifetime, in “Jackie Brown
,” as a flight attendant who gets caught up in a smuggling heist. Since then, Grier has appeared in the Showtime series “The L Word” and released an autobiography, “Foxy: My Life in Three Acts
,” which is now being developed as a bio-pic. In the book, she revealed a history of sexual assault, starting at age six, when she was raped by a group of older boys. The incident left her deeply scarred, and she was never quite comfortable being the sex symbol that Hollywood wanted her to be. After a cancer scare in the late eighties, she bought a small ranch in Colorado, from which she commutes to Los Angeles when there’s work.
I met Grier on the set of the ABC sitcom “Bless This Mess,” co-created by and starring Lake Bell, about a city couple who relocate to a farm in Nebraska. Grier plays Constance, the owner of the local general store and the town’s sheriff. She looked the part: black cowboy hat, a fringed deer-hide jacket, turquoise jewelry. We were in the mountains of Santa Clarita, California, on a Hollywood version of Main Street, U.S.A., lined with tractors and bales of hay. “It reminds me of my family way back, in Wyoming,” Grier said, sitting by the window in her character’s store. As we spoke, there was little trace of Foxy Brown. At seventy, Grier has relaxed into the simple country life she has always craved, though her life story—especially the seventies portion—is littered with mind-boggling tales. In the course of two hours, she spoke in an ebullient stream of consciousness, drifting from her present to her past and then back again. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
When you’re not in this Hollywood version of a rural town, you live on a ranch in Colorado. What is your day-to-day life like?
I’m up at three or four, before the sun comes up. I get my coffee and all the dogs, and we go down to the barn and check on the horses. I kiss them and hug them. Because I’m a cancer survivor, I say, “If you wake up breathing, you’re going to have a good day.” Then I go back up, check the fences. All the animals eat first, before I do: here’s your grain, here’s your hay. We’re so glad to see each other for twenty-some years. That’s longer than my relationships!
What’s the town called?
It’s not a town; it’s an unincorporated area, an intersection really. But if I tell you, you’ll have everyone out there going, “There’s no plumbing!” I do have fresh, clean mountain water from my well, which I like.
Do you ever have to fend off wildlife?
No, we respect each other’s space. I know when they’re hibernating, and I know when they’re pregnant. I know when the fauns are born. They come really close to me, because they know I won’t harm them, and my dogs are taught not to be aggressive. There are bears and mountain lions and coyotes and bobcats, but we respect each other’s habitat.
Is it true that Snoop Dogg has visited you on the ranch?
They had a concert—him and Xzibit and Dr. Dre and the whole crew—so I said, “Come on out for breakfast!” They came out in a van, about twelve or fifteen of them. My ranch house is a small brick house. It’s inconspicuous, so they drove by. They turned around and said, “We thought that was the help’s house.” I said, “I’m the help!” They expected, you know, Pam Grier’s ten-thousand-square-foot house, with wall-to-wall carpeting. No. I have hard wood, because I have animals. Easy cleanup.
So they opened up the door and the smoke billowed out. It hit my mom in the face. She said, “Oh, that smells spicy.” They all had the munchies later on, and they ate about a thousand eggs and fifty gallons of orange juice.
Why did you originally move out there?
I’ve always been out there. As a child, I’d gone up to my grandfather’s property in Wyoming, where everybody was attuned to the elements and to the earth. That’s how I was raised. And then it can be stripped away when you move to the city, because everything’s given to you. You go to the store for everything. My equilibrium depends on me going home to a quiet place.
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Why did you first come to Hollywood, and what was it like in 1970?
Another planet. I was putting myself through school, at Metropolitan State University, up in Denver, and at the same time was the women’s movement, with Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan. So I needed to do what I wanted to do. I said to my psychology professor, “I like television. I like movies. I don’t know what that’s called.” He said, “That’s film school.”
So I went to California to try to get into U.C.L.A., and stayed with relatives who had a garage that I could sleep in. I was on military bases all my childhood, so to come out to California and drive down Sunset Boulevard—I went into shock. I didn’t know where I was. And I met some film students who were loading up a van with cables and cameras. I had on a plaid shirt and probably the same Timberland boots that I have on now, with my Afro. That’s not the appearance most people were accustomed to seeing. I said, “I’m here trying to get into film school.” And they said, “Well, why don’t you join us, see if you like it?” They were so inclusive. I wasn’t “black.” My heart is beating, because I feel the same thing in my heart that I did then, watching them. I said, “Oh, my gosh, this is what I want to do.”
And then suddenly you’re in the Philippines, starring in women-in-prison movies for Roger Corman.
I said, “Roger, I’m leaving three jobs, and I want to get into film school, and you want to hire me? I don’t know anything about acting. I don’t want to leave these jobs and have you fire me.” But in a sense, he was sponsoring me to learn whatever I could. I did my own makeup. I read Stanislavski, and that was my bible. And that’s how I learned what an actor does.
You have a line in your book that interested me. You were doing “The Big Doll House,” which was your first big role in a movie—
Without a bra!
—and you write, “Jack Hill”—the director—“had told me that I needed to reach into my gut, not my mind, to find the real emotion. I tapped into my intensity and Roger was thrilled that I could bring so much organic frustration and anger to my performance.” You had described yourself as a shy kid who was most comfortable around horses. Where did that anger come from?
It was being attacked as a child, by a patriarchal society that said it was O.K. to slap your mom or push women around or berate them. You would see that in many families, and, as a child, male or female, that abuse was just frightening. You feel it in your gut, and you can’t say anything. That was the nature of the beast back in the fifties and sixties.
I just thought, How do I process all of this? I didn’t go to school, I had nothing to fall back on—if I could just be a good storyteller! I said, “Roger, I want to see what you do, so if I don’t make it in front I’ll have a position behind. Because I’m not the prettiest. I’m taller than half the guys.” And I gained weight so I could do more comedy. It’s really interesting when you have weight. People react differently than when I’m a size 4, when everyone’s drooling in the elevator and I’m going, “Get off of me.”
In your book, you wrote about these really horrible incidents of rape, starting when you were six, when you were assaulted by some older neighborhood boys—
And you know what? They thought I was pretty, and I wasn’t. I didn’t think I was pretty, and they were attacking me. At six years old, at eighteen, and twenty. Or they thought I was so homely that I wouldn’t say anything, and that I would accept the victimization, which many women did.
And your experience with sexual assault as a young person made you develop a post-traumatic stutter.
I still have it.
You say you became withdrawn, feeling like being pretty, being sexy was—
A magnet for being attacked.
Right. So how did you break out of that and—
—become this confident, sexy presence onscreen?
To you and to everyone else. But I didn’t find myself sexy or pretty. I didn’t even shave my legs. To this day, I don’t think of myself as a Nicole Kidman or an Angela Bassett. I remember Steven Spielberg, when I was testing for “The Color Purple,” he said, “Pam, never get your teeth fixed, because that gap in your teeth is just beautiful.” And I wanted to write him and say, “Steven, ten more producers told me I should get my teeth fixed. What the heck?” It’s different with each role. There are some roles I can play with a gap in my teeth, and other roles I’ve got to look like Angela Bassett.
Can I ask you about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whom you dated in the early seventies? This was before you were famous, and he was converting to Islam and wanted you to be his wife. So you had to choose between that life and the one you were leading, which was being an action star who was inspired by the feminist movement and Black Power. How did you decide which path to take?
I’d seen women being validated by men and marriage. Some people fall in love with the idea of marriage: “You can be a basketball player’s wife, and you’ll have wealth and money and kids, and you won’t have to work!” Yeah, but how do you hang on to it? That’s what the teachings of Gloria Steinem and the women’s movement were telling me. If someone gives something to you that you didn’t earn, they can take it away. When you earn it, they can’t.
Photograph by Rikkí Wright for The New Yorker
And this decision came down to this one incredible moment, when he said, “I’m marrying someone tomorrow unless you—”
No, today! “I’m marrying someone this afternoon.” He called me on my birthday. Mind you, he sent me postcards in the Philippines, because he could not believe that I had taken a job and gone all the way around the world to learn independence. And he says, “You’ve had three months to decide. I’ve given you the books. I’m here at the temple, and if you don’t commit to marrying me and becoming a Muslim woman, I will marry someone this afternoon who’s been prepared for me.”
“Prepared for me.” That’s quite a phrase.
For him, it was an honor to be prepared for a man. If men are in the room, you have to walk out. You have to have a chaperone. [Abdul-Jabbar has since written about how his views on Islam and gender relations have changed since he was in his twenties.
I just said, “Wow.” Without all of that, he was the perfect man. He loved jazz. He loved sports. He was an academic. He could have been that first love.
It seems like you had to struggle a lot with how to maintain your independence while being in relationships with men who were big shots, like Richard Pryor and Freddie Prinze—both comedians with drug problems.
They didn’t do the drugs around me. They were trying to change themselves to keep me in their lives. But I couldn’t change them. I struggle with that, with letting go. When you love someone, you let them go. And they’re not going to come back.
With Richard, he said he did want to go cold turkey, and he liked the fact of going to Colorado and being pure. And I said, “But you’re in a world of men. You’re not going to listen to me.” I knew that.
And it came to a head in this surreal way, when his horse was attacked by a pack of dogs.
It was a miniature horse that Richard had been gifted by one of his friends, Burt Sugarman. I get the call—the horse is bleeding. And I’m thinking, Richard’s going to fall off the wagon. I just knew: there’s going to be a bad time if this horse dies. He was sobbing from the core of his body. He was in his bathrobe, and he was so distraught. Some people don’t see their partner in that way, unless there’s a death. I said, “We gotta go. The vet can’t come. We’ve got to put Ginger [the horse] in the back seat.” He said, “But it’s a Jaguar!” She got in, head out the window, tail out the back. I’m, like, “Oh, my God, Richard’s going to have a heart attack. The horse is going to die, and I’m going to get into an accident on the freeway!”
I’d like to point out that anyone passing your car would have seen Pam Grier at the driver’s seat, Richard Pryor crying in a bathrobe in the passenger’s seat, and then a horse tail flying out of the back seat. That is nuts.
Yes, it was. The vet said, “We’re all going to be outside when you drive up, because we want to see this.” They gave her anesthesia and stitches and surgery and everything, and she survived.
But that was also the moment you realized you couldn’t take care of Richard?
There’s always going to be something. When he fell off the wagon, it was because of his friendship with men—very strong men, who manipulated or forced him or influenced him. They assumed that I had told him not to drink, and that wasn’t it at all. When I walked into the house, I felt that I was being attacked. Here I’m standing up to six very strong men. That’s when Richard sheepishly said, “You’re talking to the wrong woman.” We both looked over at the knives on the counter, and I said, “Not to worry. I’m not going for the knives.”
Were people scared of you because of your blaxploitation persona?
Well, that really wasn’t blaxploitation. That was more martial arts. Some people knew that I could defend myself, but I’d rather leave the room quietly than seriously injure someone.
“Coffy” and “Foxy Brown” are cult classics now, but at the time they were completely groundbreaking and outrageous and—
Tongue-in-cheek. You can say tongue-in-cheek! You had to have fun. You cannot be that dramatic in a culture that needs laughter.
They are funny. I love the scene in “Foxy Brown” where you fight your way out of a lesbian bar. That’s just crazy.
It is not crazy! If I have to put a horse in the back seat of my Jaguar, you know I have fought my way out—with John Lennon at the Troubadour? The big fight?
That’s right! You and John Lennon got thrown out of the Troubadour together in 1974.
At the Oscars rehearsal, they asked me to join them to see the Smothers Brothers—John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, and Peter Lawford. I’d never been to the Troubadour. The Smothers Brothers were coming on, and everybody said, “John, be quiet.” They start the show, and he turned to me and said, “They’re fucking boring.” And I went, “Sh-h-h!” The manager came up and said, “John, come on. No one would do this to you. Please.” The manager walks away, and John says, “Pam, c’mon, let’s sing!” I went, “No, John, please don’t sing! I’m the only black person in this whole club. I cannot do this.” So he started singing, and the manager comes up again, and, next thing you know, chairs were thrown, legs and fists were flying, and I’m in the middle of it. I had to fight my way out of there.
Part of what I love about movies like “Foxy Brown” and “Coffy” is their sense of freedom. They were doing things they couldn’t have done in movies just a few years earlier: sex, drugs, violence. But it’s interesting to see how different people responded at the time. There were some black critics who thought they were perpetuating stereotypes of drug dealers and pimps.
I kept telling them, “Where do you think we get them from? Those aren’t stereotypes. We get them from reality. We’d like to address them and correct them, if possible.” It’s, like, when a woman takes off her earrings and her shoes, she’s going to whoop your behind. So that’s in my movies, O.K.?
Certain cultures understand that. And other cultures think it’s exploitation: “We don’t fight! We’re conservative black people—we don’t do that!” The hell you don’t. Black exploitation was labelled by two black advertising executives at American International Pictures. That was the only way they could tell people it’s black jargon, black music, black culture. It wasn’t negative, because it would stay in a movie theatre almost eight weeks, more than any other movie. Before I had done my movies, there were maybe twenty male blaxploitation movies, but they didn’t call them blaxploitation because they weren’t so sexy.
Like “Shaft” and “Super Fly.”
Fred Williamson, Jim Kelly, and Isaac Hayes and all the other actors—they did a lot of movies with even more gore and sex and drugs. But when I walked in a man’s shoes, now I’m exploiting women? No one fights for us. She has to fight for herself.
When you and Quentin Tarantino were promoting “Jackie Brown,” he said that one thing he loved about your movies was that you didn’t have an equivalent in white cinema. There was no white-girl action hero, whereas the men of blaxploitation movies were usually compared to white counterparts. So you were a true original.
It’s true. My mom on the base had a lot of white women friends, and they weren’t allowed to speak back to their husbands like a black woman would. They were, like, “God, I wish I could say that to my husband. I wish I could take my earrings off and my shoes and throw them.” So there were cultural differences. Then they become a market. You can see a lot of movies today that have blaxploitation, but they won’t call it that. They’re in newer cars and more expensive mansions, and I don’t know if the sexuality is as raw.
Your look onscreen was also groundbreaking. You wore an Afro at the same time that Angela Davis did. What impact do you think that had culturally?
Well, I was poorer, so I had the cheap Afro. Other people had it more refined. They could get it coiffed. The blouse was mine, the jeans were mine. I wore a lot of my own stuff. I just had a different way of approaching Hollywood—it wasn’t the grandiose glamour. Roger Corman said, “Your energy is perfect. You haven’t been ruined by the business.”
I was reading a piece about you from 1975, in New York, and you were talking about your ambitions and what you wanted to do next.
You said, “I think I’d rather just make movies for black people. You know, just be satisfied with what I’m doing. But I can’t. I’m too ambitious. I want all the acclaim.” Why did you decide to move away from blaxploitation?
They wanted me to continue, and I said, “The story is over. There’s so much more. There’s Mary Fields
, the first black female stagecoach driver, from the mail route in Montana. I want to play her.” The studio said no one would believe there was a black female stagecoach driver—even though it’s in the books. They said Bond girls are more interesting, and bikinis. The needs of Hollywood are different than what my needs are.
Today, after I saw “Bombshell
,” I said, “Oh, my God, this is what I went through.” It’s different now, it’s covert, but at least we’re filming it. It’s not being hidden.
You have this story about Sammy Davis, Jr., which now feels like a #MeToo story, although this was way before anyone ever used that term. Essentially, he was hitting on you in front of his wife, Altovise, at a dinner party, and you had to get Liza Minnelli to help you escape.
It’s true. Altovise and Liza helped me. I hid in the bathroom, and Sammy came out looking for me. And Liza and [her husband] Jack Haley, Jr., pulled up their burgundy Rolls-Royce, and they would signal for me to run out and jump into the back seat of the car, and she’d hide me with her fur, and they’d drive me out of there. I just thought it was inappropriate. I was very uncomfortable. And I didn’t want to hurt him. I didn’t want him to touch me and have me snap.
So many people who are younger than forty first got to know you through “Jackie Brown.” We’re talking a few days after the Oscars, and I was reminded that you were not nominated for that movie. And, of course, you go back and look at the list, and it’s an #OscarsSoWhite year, although that phrase wasn’t in existence then.
I wonder why they have to frame that like “it’s so white,” when it’s art.
How did you interpret that at the time?
I don’t interpret art.
But you were nominated for a Golden Globe, and then it was twenty white actors for the Oscars. Samuel L. Jackson also wasn’t nominated, but your white co-star, Robert Forster, was.
I don’t understand the voting process or the voting body. It could be one vote. I will never know. Art isn’t color. I felt that “Parasite
” would win. It scared me to death, and I loved it.
At the same time, this year there were performances by Jennifer Lopez and Lupita Nyong’o that weren’t nominated. People saw that as a bellwether for how Hollywood is doing in terms of inclusion. How do you think the industry is doing?
I think it’s doing great. If you look at “Black Panther,” it was stunning. I just did a Marvel animation called “Moon Girl and her Demon Dragon,” and I played this grandma who’s a superhero, and my granddaughter has inherited superhero powers, and I want to teach her how to take care of humanity. So, as far as getting diverse work, I’m getting offers.
Your life story is being developed as a bio-pic. Who you would want to play you?
Oh! I don’t know who could play me—who can sing and play drums and do martial arts? It can be an unknown. I really don’t know who’s going to bring it.
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