Karen Allen has been a part of our movie-going lives since 1978, when "Animal House" rocketed her from acting student to every college boy's crush, a precursor for the "Indiana Jones" mania that was just three years later. She solidified her geek goddess status in "Starman" and became a family-friendly favorite with the holiday staple "Scrooged."
The business woman and conqueror of screen and stage will make a rare public appearance for her fan following this weekend, when she is among the special guests signing autographs Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the Steel City Con.
Ms. Allen, 61, makes her home in Massachusetts, where she has a studio and shop selling handmade cashmere clothing and accessories and where she's close to the New York theater scene. Her trip to the Monroeville Convention Center brings her close to where she attended third- and fourth-grade as part of her well-traveled childhood -- in Castle Shannon and Bridgeville, circa the early 1960s.
"I have very clear memories of Castle Shannon," she said by phone on Tuesday. "It was a very kind of magical time. I remember there being tons of snow, and we used to tie our boots on. We walked a mile to school, and it was way up this incredible hill. And then we could sit on our lunch boxes and ride home. I have those kind of memories. I remember it was a time when there was still corporal punishment in schools ... and if you misbehaved you had to go to the basement and get whacked with this board."
She laughed a hearty laugh. "These are just my little memories. The things that were fun and the things you were afraid of, that's what sticks in my head."
The blue-eyed actress with a sunny disposition returned to the "Indiana Jones" franchise for 2008's "Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull" after more serious roles in "In the Bedroom" and "The Perfect Storm." Recently, she has been concentrating on her theater work as an actress and director, which creates another "six degrees of separation" scenario in Pittsburgh.
In October, Ms. Allen starred in an off-Broadway production of Jon Fosse's "A Summer's Day," directed by Sarah Cameron Sunde -- who happens to be in Pittsburgh directing Mr. Fosse's "Dream of Autumn" for a Quantum Theatre opening this weekend. (See story, Page W-16).
"It was too interesting a piece of work for me to not do," the actress said of "A Summer's Day," which received a rave from The New York Times' make-or-break critic Ben Brantley, who wrote, "The play's central character, played by Ms. Allen and by Samantha Soule as her younger self, brings to mind one of those lost, lovely ladies in Pre-Raphaelite paintings and Tennyson poems, gazing out windows in futile search of lovers who will never return."
After her Pittsburgh excursion, Ms. Allen has two directing projects waiting: William Mastrosimone's psychological thriller "Extremities" (she starred in the play's 1983 off-Broadway run) for The Berkshire Theatre Group, and a return to Rattlestick and the Cherry Lane Theater for the dark comedy "Asheville" by Lucy Thurber.
Ms. Allen talked more about how her life has changed since she greeted Harrison Ford with the line: "Indiana Jones. I always knew some day you'd come walking back through my door."
Q: You have so much you are balancing -- how would you describe your career right now?
A: I think of myself first and foremost as an actor-director, because I'm directing a lot these days. And then [the fiberarts] is something I've been doing my whole life. I started as a child and I went to [the Fashion Institute of Technology] to study this when I was 17. Then I went back on the technical side working with the Japanese knitting machines in the early 2000s, so it's been a lifelong process. I think of it more as a hobby in a way, although there are two businesses involved in it. It was something I got very involved in when I was raising my son in the years when it was difficult to travel. I didn't want to pull him out of six months of seventh grade -- that wouldn't be fair. ... I put my acting and directing work on the back burner. Now he's grown and out in the world, and I can move a little more freely through these different things I enjoy doing.
Q: What happened to your role in the movie "I Am Number Four," which was shot in the Pittsburgh area?
A: It was so brief. They got this very funny idea that they were going to have me play this character who, in a funny sort of way, you don't really know who she is; she just kind of appears. I said to [director] DJ Caruso and to [producer] Steven Spielberg, I don't know how much sense this makes. But I went and we had fun with it. In the end they cut it out because they said it was so confusing. [Laughs.] People didn't know who my character was or what role I was really playing in the story. I think it's on the DVD as cut scenes.
Q: Do you attend pop culture events like the Steel City Con often?
A: I haven't done one for maybe three years, when I went to Australia to do one mostly because I wanted to bring my sister, I thought it would be a great trip for us. I've done a few here and there, but I generally don't have time to do them. My agent called me up, and since I've subscripted myself to doing all theater this year, I thought [coming to the Steel City Con] would be a fun diversion.
Q: There also are the big conventions like Comic-Con in San Diego that draw more than 100,000 genre fans ...
A: I'm a little crowd-phobic. If you want to put me in hell, put me in a crowd of 100,000 people, I will start to panic. I won't go to big concerts; I won't go to sports arenas, ever. It's a little bit for me to overcome to be in a big crowd.
Q: When you are approached by fans, do they lean toward "Raiders" or "Starman" or "Animal House"?
A: Certainly the "Indiana Jones" films have a lot of fans. That's a certain kind of group. "Starman" has a huge following of fans, and Animal House" certainly, and "Scrooged" because it's become a Christmas classic. It's a fairly broad group. The people who come to these shows, it seems to me, it's for the blockbuster type of films that appeal to a large crowd, the ones that stand the test of time and the ones you want to show your kids. 'Indiana Jones' is a film like that. I'm meeting 10-year-olds who are seeing the film for the first time, and their grandfather or father is showing it to them. There are films that get passed down generation to generation; those are the films that make people want to show up.
Q: Do women say they admire your strong characters from "Raiders" or "Starman," where you may be in a flimsy dress and heels at times, but you are the one getting the job done?
A: They do. Marion, when we meet her, she's drinking men under the table. It's such a great introduction to a character in a film. Everyone, including me when I read the script, you get a huge kick out of that. We don't get to see enough women who are running a bar in Nepal and drinking men under the table to make a living. That's just a character that's so much fun to play and so much fun to watch. It hasn't been the body of my work; I've played a lot of broken people as well -- I've played alcoholics, people who were deaf and blind, I played someone about to have a lobotomy because of such difficult circumstances, I played a serial killer not long ago. But a few of the films I've done have those kind of characters at their center; I guess those are often the ones I get remembered for, and that's nice.
Q: Your career seems to be go back and forth in a lot of different directions. Have all the different paths you've taken surprised you?
A: I'm often the person in the background, working to make things happen, so I'm less surprised by it than one would think [laughs]. I'm endlessly hopeful that I can make things work out in a certain way.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960.