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Role Recall: Sissy Spacek on that 'orgasmic' death scene in 'Carrie,' singing along with Loretta Lynn, and playing hard to get with Robert Redford

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Sissy Spacek and Robert Redford star in The Old Man & the Gun. (Photo: Eric Zachanowich/20th Century Fox Film Corp., courtesy of Everett Collection)

The Old Man & the Gun marks Robert Redford’s retirement from acting after more than 50 years in the business. Or maybe it doesn’t. Either way, Redford’s co-star in director David Lowery’s pleasantly ramshackle crime caper, Sissy Spacek, wants you to know that she’s not going anywhere. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment recently, the 68-year-old star of such stone-cold cinematic classics as Badlands, Carrie, and Hot Rod (yes, Hot Rod) made it clear that retirement couldn’t be further from her mind. But when she does decide to pack it in, Spacek already has a director in mind for her swan song: “I’m gonna call David right up,” she jokes.

Lowery certainly deserves credit for the bright idea to pair Redford and Spacek for the first time in their legendary careers. Loosely based on true events, The Old Man & the Gun — playing in theaters now — casts the former Sundance Kid as another charismatic real-life outlaw, Forrest Tucker, a dapper bank robber who was still committing crimes (and escaping from prisons) well into his 70s. (Tucker passed away in 2004 at the age of 83.) Spacek plays Tucker’s love interest, Jewel, and the duo’s easygoing romantic chemistry is key to the movie’s appeal. The actress notes that she didn’t have to work too hard to be attracted to her co-star. “When I was blushing, I was really blushing,” she says, laughing. “David came over to me at one point during the scene where Jewel and Forrest meet and whispered in my ear: ‘Remember, it’s not Robert Redford — it’s Forrest Tucker; play a little harder to get!'”

Flirting with Robert Redford is just Spacek’s latest career highlight. In Yahoo Entertainment’s new Role Recall, she reflects on Piper Laurie’s “orgasmic” death scene from Carrie, strumming guitars with Loretta Lynn for Coal Miner’s Daughter, and why we can thank Paul Thomas Anderson for her presence in Hot Rod.

Badlands (1973)

Spacek’s breakthrough film launched two other major careers: actor Martin Sheen and director Terrence Malick. Released five years after Bonnie & Clyde, Badlands told a superficially similar story of two young outlaw lovers on the run, but the style of the two films couldn’t be more different. Over the years, Malick has cultivated a reputation for a free-flowing approach to filmmaking that frustrates some actors, but Spacek says she flourished under his direction, on-camera and off. 

Spacek and Martin Sheen had breakout roles in Terrence Malick’s first film, Badlands (Photo: Everett Collection)

If Terrence had said, “Hey, Sissy — now you’re gonna jump off that building and fly,” I would’ve gone, “OK.” And I’m sure I would have flown! He changed the course of my career and my life, because I met my husband, [Oscar-nominated production designer] Jack Fisk, on that film, so I’m eternally grateful to Terry. You could tell when a scene was going well, because you’d hear him giggling behind the camera. Sometimes he would talk to us as we were shooting and tell us to move a certain way, but he mostly went with what was going on in the moment. He made me feel like a filmmaker, like I was part of the process. What my husband says about Terry is that he’s a philosopher, and it’s so true. He’s such a deep, deep individual and shares a point of view with people. I learned that I had to be very careful about choosing a film after Badlands, because it gave me a yardstick by which to measure other projects. It was a critical success and not really a commercial success, but I remember thinking that didn’t matter. If I’d never made another film, Badlands would have been enough.

Carrie (1976)

Badlands may not have been a top-grossing film at the time, but Brian De Palma’s beloved adaptation of Stephen King’s blockbuster novel proved to be a box-office smash with serious staying power: four decades later, Carrie is still grossing out moviegoers. Spacek’s performance as the repressed title character brought her the first of her six Oscar nominations. She’s matched scene-for-scene by fellow Oscar nominee Piper Laurie, who plays one of the all-time great maternal monsters, Margaret White, and enjoys one of the all-time great movie death scenes.  

I remember Stephen King was a wet-behind-the-ears kid when he showed up on set. We’ve sent word back and forth to each other over the years, but we don’t see each other. I think we owe each other a lot; I’ve always been honored to be in the first film of his first book. And Piper was just the sweetest little flower. She had this strength and this depth, and I just adored working with her. A funny thing happened during [Margaret’s death scene]: We were at Culver City Studios shooting that. There was no CGI back then, so Piper wore this harness under her nightgown. All the kitchen utensils were on wires, and the wires started on her body. They would pull a wire and each utensil would go [flying]. Some would spin and some just went straight. Then they flipped the film, ran it backward and took out all the wires. It was such a beautiful and orgasmic thing, and all the more powerful because it felt real. They don’t have time for that now; it’s always, “We’ll do it in post.”

Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

Singers don’t often get the chance to pick the actor they want playing them in their biopic. That wasn’t the case for country music legend Loretta Lynn, who made it clear that she wanted Spacek — and only Spacek — to play her on the big screen. The actress herself balked at first, but Lynn refused to take no for an answer. Eventually, Spacek relented — a decision that resulted in a memorable Oscar-night victory.

Loretta would go on Johnny Carson all the time saying, “Sissy Spacek is gonna play me!” I was very reticent about it, [because] I was going to be doing another film that had the same start date. I went to see Loretta at a show in New Orleans, and I was going to tell her, “I’m very sorry, you’re a wonderful person and a great singer, but I’m not doing this.” We missed the whole show because we were late, but she came out the back door in this flaming-red dress, and she was so mad because the drums had been too loud. She was ragging on her band, and I was just dumbstruck. I thought, “I have to play this woman!” And I’m so grateful that I did, because we’re still very close.

Loretta was the one who said, “She’s gotta sing the songs,” so I thought, “OK, now I gotta learn them.” I remember my husband would shut all the doors when I was rehearsing and my dog would howl — it was really not pretty. But I worked closely with Loretta. We stayed at a hotel in Nashville for about a week. We’d put the sheet music on lampshades with safety pins and we’d have our guitars, so we’d be walking around the room from one lampshade to another singing these songs. I got to work with her producer, Owen Bradley, God rest his soul. [Bradley passed away in 1998.] He’d change the key a little bit, because my voice wasn’t quite as high as hers. One day I said to him, “Owen, I can’t do this song — I don’t have vibrato in my voice.” And he said, “Loretta didn’t have vibrato anyway! She would just hold her hand up, and when she’d hold that note, she’d shake her hand!” Like a fool, I believed him, but it worked. [Laughs]

Michael Apted [the director] was born in England in a coal-mining community, so he was plugged into that world. He didn’t have these preconceived ideas about what country people are like. We had a lot of mountain people in the film, because we shot on location. People don’t get to do that anymore. Loretta’s mother was played by a wonderful, well-known mountain singer named Phyllis Boyens, who has passed away also. We had such a great cast; Tommy Lee Jones was unbelievable, and [rock star] Levon Helm — oh, my God! He’d never acted before in his life.

‘night Mother (1986)

Spacek starred in two theatrical plays turned movies in 1986, Crimes of the Heart and ‘night Mother. The former brought her another Oscar nomination, but the latter is arguably a richer dramatic piece. A chamber drama set over one long evening, ‘night Mother casts Spacek as a suicidal woman who spends her final hours in the company of her mother, played by one of her acting idols, Anne Bancroft.

Anne Bancroft and Spacek in the film version of ‘night Mother. (Photo: Universal/courtesy of Everett Collection)

It was thrilling for me to work with Anne because she had that same fire and strength. She did a Southern accent to match my accent, because at the time I didn’t know how in the hell to do anything but what I do! I loved working with her so much. As a kid, I watched The Miracle Worker over and over and was so moved by that film. Anne and Patty Duke — those performances affect a person so deeply. We shot ‘night Mother in sequence, so it builds emotionally. By the end we were like, “We gotta get out of here!” I remember that we had been on this sound stage for weeks and weeks, and it was so dark and depressing. Then all of a sudden, a stage door opened and all this light shined in. I looked over, and there was my 3-year-old daughter, with her sweet, cherubic face. Everyone was like, “Oh, life!”

In the Bedroom (2001)

The breakout hit at the 2001 edition of the Sundance Film Festival, Todd Field’s directorial debut about a pair of parents (Spacek and Tom Wilkinson) mourning the murder of their adult son (Nick Stahl) went on to be a big awards season player. The movie earned five nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and another Best Actress nod for Spacek.

Tom Wilkinson and Spacek both received Oscar nominations for the hit independent film  In the Bedroom. (Photo: Courtesy of Everett Collection)

We had no money to make that film. No money! We didn’t even have a makeup trailer until I put my foot down. I said, “We can’t be wasting time going back to base camp.” But it was great. It was like Mickey Rooney’s old line, “Let’s put on a show!” Everybody did everything, which is something I learned from Martin Sheen on Badlands. If cable needs to be rolled, you gotta help roll the cable! And Tom Wilkinson is such a brilliant actor. We were doing this scene where we’re fighting after our son has been killed. We go from room to room all through the house. Three hours in, and I hardly had a voice anymore, but his was all coming from his solar plexus. He could have blown me out of the room, but he didn’t. He was kind. I just wish that Todd Field [the director] made more movies; we were so lucky to have him work on the film. If you asked him a question, he’d give you all day to answer that specific question. He’s a real artist, and very literary.

Hot Rod (2007)

This relentlessly silly — and totally hilarious — cult comedy classic from the Lonely Island team of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer is the last place you’d expect to see a major-league dramatic actress like Spacek. And that’s precisely the reason why her casting is so inspired, along with the choice of Ian McShane as her onscreen husband.   

Ian McShane and Spacek play onscreen husband and wife in the cult comedy Hot Rod. (Photo: Paramount/Courtesy of Everett Collection)

My husband, Jack, had worked on There Will Be Blood with Paul Thomas Anderson, and Paul called him to say, “This is not a film that Sissy would ordinarily do, but they want to offer it to you, and they know you’ll never see the script unless we get to you. These guys are great — you should do it.” And when Paul Thomas Anderson talks, you listen! So that’s why I did it, and now I’m friends with all these young, cool guys with crazy names like Akiva, Jorma, and Andy. I loved working with Ian McShane. Just the contrast of the two of us was hilarious: the meanest man in the world, and the silliest woman. Lorne Michaels produced the movie, and I had hosted Saturday Night Live in 1977; I have a photograph from him in a silver frame that has “Stay Cool” engraved on it. And I hear “Cool beans” from people all the time. It’s not what I expected, but it’s fabulous. At a certain point, you just have to go for the gusto.

The Old Man & the Gun (2018)

Forrest Tucker and his Over-the-Hill-Gang committed many of their late-career robberies during the ’80s, so Spacek was already familiar with their exploits. But as the film itself promises in the opening credits, this is only a ‘mostly true story.” Jewel’s romance with Forrest represents one of the biggest departures from the historical record, but it results in some of the movie’s best scenes, including a moment in which Forrest tries to give Jewel a taste of breaking the law by escorting her out of a jewelry store with an expensive bracelet on her wrist. But she finds a way to make an honest man out of him instead…temporarily, anyway. 

I remember hearing about the Over-the-Hill-Gang on television and chuckling about them like everyone did. So when David [Lowery, the director] told me about the movie, I started doing research, but I didn’t find anything about Jewel. That’s the “mostly true” part! Jewel was the name of one of his wives, who he abandoned, so we had to figure out how she fit in [to this story]. There was a time where David wondered if she should go on the run with Forrest, but then I was like, “She’s not gonna sleep in a car.” In Badlands, I went off with Martin Sheen, but not now — I’ve learned my lesson! [Laughs] But I think Jewel beats Forrest at his own game. That’s what I love about that scene in the jewelry store. She takes him back [after walking out with the bracelet], and he’s like, “Oh sorry, I walked out of here with this bracelet.” Then the checkout girl goes, “Do you want it?” And she just looks at him, and he says, “Yeah, I’ll take it.” So then he’s gotta open up his wallet and pay for it! Yeah … he’s met his match.

The Old Man & the Gun is playing in theaters now.

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