Interview: Foxy! Pam Grier Remembers ‘My Life in Three Acts’

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CHICAGO – Pam Grier has a strong, peaceful aura. After inventing the female action hero in her early 1970s hits “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown,” Grier has navigated her life through optimistic success. She was in Chicago for a book signing at Borders State Street, promoting ‘Foxy: My Life in Three Acts.”

Pam Grier was born in North Carolina, and despite some difficult and exploitative circumstances in her early development, managed to go to college and move to Los Angeles. She was discovered working as a secretary for American International Pictures, which led to some early 1970s women-in-prison films (”The Big Bird Cage”).

It was shortly thereafter that the big break came with two decade-defining films, “Coffy” [1973] and “Foxy Brown” [1974]. Part of the so-called “blaxploitation” period, Grier’s roles were different simply because she became the first woman lead in an action movie. With her beauty and overt sexuality, she re-imagined the ideal hero, by sticking it to a society and culture that had rejected both African Americans and women.

Pam Grier at Borders Books State Street, Chicago, for her new book ‘Foxy: My Life in Three Acts,' June 11, 2010
Pam Grier at Borders Books State Street, Chicago, for her new book
‘Foxy: My Life in Three Acts,’ June 11, 2010
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for HollywoodChicago.com

Grier found success after that legendary period by playing character parts in films such as “Fort Apache The Bronx” [1981] and “Above the Law” [1988]. She made a spectacular return to a lead role in Quentin Tarantino’s underrated “Jackie Brown” [1997] and has subsequently found a different audience playing the character of Kit in the Showtime series, “The L Word.”

HollywoodChicago.com got to sit down with Pam Grier right before her book signing at Borders State Street in Chicago, as she described her loves, career and destiny through her new book, “Foxy: My Life in Three Acts.” Joe Arce of HollywoodChicago.com is the photographer.

HollywoodChicago.com: What essential truth about your life did you most want to reveal in the writing of your memoir?

Pam Grier: That I survived cancer. And I’m still in remission. And tomorrow is not given. The fact that I was given a second chance makes me more intense about living life.

HC: Is that the life lesson you want to project to the universe in this memoir?

PG: Among many. And the fact that Richard Pryor thought I was very funny. We were a couple after we did ‘Greased Lightning’ [1977] and he thought my influence on him, as he indulged in drugs, could help him. He was afraid he wouldn’t be funny if he was sober. He wanted to see what it would be like.He laughed when I put his injured horse in the back of my Jaguar to take to the vet. He thought I was crazier than he was. And guess what? I am. [laughs]

HC: Given some of the more unsavory events that happened to in regard to men, how difficult was it to trust and connect to them later in life?

PG: Not too difficult, because as I matured I began to understand through counseling. That’s why I thought if I revealed a lot of information today, then people would know that there is so much more counseling today – social workers, church, hospitals or just the community that can be the lifeline – which is what I had. Because I am able to distance myself from issues, as we all do for self preservation. It’s not denial, it’s not repressing emotion, you can get it out and you’re able to connect to other people. Because of the spirituality that came out of it, that is what has given me the strength.

I’m not afraid of men. I love them. The little critters. Who else can do the chores and wash the car? They are the hunter-gatherers, I want them to hunt and gather. Be the best men they can be.

HC: You were celebrated for your openness, toughness and sexuality in your early films.

PG: I still am today. I’m going to be 80 years old in a halter top and platform shoes. [laughs] I can hear it now [singing] ‘Can’t get enough…of that funky stuff…’

HC: How were you able to open up that side of you given the early difficulties you had with expressing your womanhood in your earlier years?

PG: I didn’t have a lot of difficulty, so one would assume I drank a lot. [laughs] Sure I had trauma and molestation, that’s why I drink. No, I drink because it tastes good. [laughs].

Anyway, I’m a character actor and I play characters. For example, playing Charlotte in ‘Fort Apache the Bronx.’ I went to Avenue A through B, C and D, I would see people indulging and shooting up drugs. As I did my research on 9th and 10th Avenues, I observed the working girls servicing their clients on the street. Which traumatized me because that was the reality, the actuality. I started to understand the sociological aspect of what goes on in that part of society. And with my character study for Charlotte I was able to put her on as a cloak, and take her off and leave her in a dark closet and lock her up at night. That’s what you do as a character actor.

I would get bored playing the same characters. What was fascinating about Kit on ‘The L Word,’ drunk Kit, bi-curious Kit, whatever she was, she was so complex she was fascinating. That’s why she has a large fan base, because she is unique every episode. And do I want to bring them home with me? No! My feet would hurt all the time, I would have nightmares trying to live these characters. [laughs]

Pam Grier Doing Her Thing in ‘Coffy’
Pam Grier Doing Her Thing in ‘Coffy’
Photo credit: MGM/UA Home Entertainment

HC: What was the African American filmmaking industry like during the so-called blaxploitation period of 1970-75? What were the main advantages and the main problems?

PG: That is five questions. I will start with the advantages…work. Getting people in to unions. The imagery of a woman as elite. Basically I was playing the women in my family, which was a rural and military environment. My Mom was Coffy, and was a nurse, she was always taking care of someone in the community. Foxy Brown was more sophisticated, she was more a product of the women’s liberation movement. She was equal to a man.

When I did Coffy, there were a number of black action films out there. But when a woman steps into the man’s shoes – posturing like a man, jokes about male anatomy like men talk about female anatomy, comfortable with firearms and not barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen – my god, she’s a threat. Men were really now seeing what women were asking for, and they had to prepare themselves for the sharing of equality.

Now, to talk about the type of film, black exploitation, many people felt it could be negative, like black magic or black cat. It was a term to describe the product being celebrated within the community, like the black community. I used to see a lot of martial arts films that were Asian, before they came here. They weren’t called ‘asianploitation,’ yet there was more violence, rape and kimonos flying off per frame than anything in America.

HC: Having lived from the era of Dr. King through Barack Obama, what are the main lessons that you observed white people as learning about their relationship with race, or is it still a hopeless cause?

PG: It is not a hopeless cause. We will celebrate race, it’s not a going to be a post racial community at all, we want the diversity. I don’t think people are afraid, they are saying ‘of course.’ We’re all part of a big puzzle, and we’re all little pieces, and we fit in.

With President Barack Obama, in a perfect world, would have a pill that would get rid of all our ills tomorrow. But that is not realistic. He is an attorney, he taught law. Every agenda he would like to fix today, he cannot, he has to go through every legal channel. He has raised the bar for all of us, people have read more about the constitution, about foreign policy and those are the legal entanglements that we have to make more simple. We are a contemporary society that is much more educated, the laws should be more simple. It’s a quagmire of legality.

HC: I’ve read that you don’t really like to talk about yourself. Given that you have become an icon of femininity and toughness, what element of yourself do you rarely reveal to people, and what surprises people, do you think, when they first meet you?

PG: I haven’t talked about myself in the last ten minutes. [laughs] What surprises people is that I can drive a John Deere tractor and I like fly fishing. And I make my own flies. I rescue horses and dogs.

My home is my sanctuary, it’s an old brick farmhouse. Eddie Murphy and Snoop Dog have come out for breakfast, and they drove past the house thinking, ‘that must be the caretaker’s house!’ [laughs]

HC: At what point in your life do you feel your confidence caught up with your beauty?

PG: When I was diagnosed with cancer. Because I think my beauty comes from confidence to have the right food, water, have the right amount of sex and do everything right in life.

HC: Finally, in your long career of both leading and character roles, what performance was most like you in real life and why?

PG: Little bits of me in all of them. I think the fact that I have the confidence to handle firearms, and understanding the psychology of picking up a firearm and aiming them at a human being. To understand that for me, is quite dangerous. And when I’m on camera I’m aiming a gun at someone with intent to kill, and that means a lot to me because I’m the person who wants to nurture, I don’t want to kill. It’s even hard for me to pick lettuce and know that I’m eating a living plant. But it’s all for my livelihood and my protection of the worldly universe.

Pam Grier’s new book “Foxy: My Life in Three Acts,” is now available at Borders
and wherever books are sold.

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Senior Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2010 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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