As mere mortals, we’ve yet to develop the capacity to invent a word to adequately sum up the sheer badassery of one Pam Grier. Since she first graced big screens with her presence in the early 1970s, Ms. Grier has been defining and redefining the archetype of the strong female hero. She is an absolute living legend of the blaxploitation era of American cinema starring in some of the genre’s most memorable titles, including Coffy and Foxy Brown.
It was her work in this genre that brought her to the attention, and indeed earned her the overwhelming adoration, of director Quentin Tarantino. Having just completed his masterpiece Pulp Fiction in 1994, Quentin was lining up his next picture based on the novel Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard. When the idea came to him to cast Pam Grier as his lead, Tarantino revamped the entire script; even changing the lead character’s name, and indeed the title itself, to pay loving tribute to her. Jackie Brown was born.
This week, Jackie Brown hits Blu-ray for the first time. We were fortunate enough to catch up with Grier to talk about the film, her career, and whether she had plans to collaborate with Tarantino again. We tried very hard to contain our fanboy crush.
Movies: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. I’m a big fan of yours so I’m thrilled to have this opportunity.
Pam Grier: Well thank you and thanks to Blu-ray. I guess we made the cut, huh? There are so many films that won’t go to Blu-ray.
Movies: That’s true.
Grier: Are you into Blu-ray or are you too much of a classic?
Movies: Oh I love the transfers done for Blu-ray releases, and the transfer on Jackie Brown is absolutely gorgeous. I wish they would do the same with some of your previous films as well. I’d love to see how those look in high def.
Grier: Wouldn’t it be great? They might make the cut. MGM has the catalogue and they’re very progressive so I’m sure they are gearing up for that.
Movies: We’ll we’re waiting with bated breath for those. But getting back to Jackie Brown, that character is an homage to your legacy as an icon of blaxploitation. As someone who is a huge fan of the genre, I’ve always wondered how its biggest stars felt about it given that it was considered a controversial genre.
Grier: Well it’s interesting because the ones who thought it most controversial at the time were the conservatives who didn’t want me to walk in their shoes and be an equal. (In a sweetly coy voice) They were afraid I might take their jobs away and castrate them. But I just wanted to be an equal. I wanted to stand side-by-side and I wasn’t going to walk behind them, or in front of them for that matter. I just wanted us all to do things together. It wasn’t the liberal artists, it was the conservatives. The term blaxploitation was actually coined by American International Pictures, my production company, by their advertising division, so that people would know that it was going to be a cultural action genre. But with things like black cats and black magic, the word black was seen as a negative. It was very convoluted.
Movies: You’re absolutely right. But the flipside of that is it was great to see a badass female hero kicking ass and taking names in the early 70s.
Grier: Well didn’t they already do that in everyone’s community?
Movies: In real life, sure. But we weren’t seeing it much on film back then. You really were a pioneer. And obviously Quentin recognized this as well. He’s also a big fan of cult and exploitation films and idolizes its stars.
Grier: You mean forty years later, these films still have a cult?
Movies: They definitely still have their legion of fans. I mean here in Austin, at the Alamo Drafthouse, these films are sacred to us. We love them. Can you tell me a little about how you and Quentin came together on Jackie Brown?
Grier: He had been writing it and I didn’t know. I bumped into him on the street in Hollywood. My friends said, “that’s Quentin Tarantino.” And I was incredulously like, “yeah, right.” But we called him over and he said, “I’m writing a film for you.” I didn’t believe him. He had just come off a big hit with Pulp Fiction. But then six months later it showed up at my door. I opened the envelope and there was this script written by Quentin called Jackie Brown based on the novel Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard. I just froze. It was so extraordinary; he kept his promise. It was and incredible, amazing script and I loved it. When I called him and told him I loved the script it had been three weeks and he said he was going to move on to something else if I didn’t like it. I asked him what role I was going to play. I thought he wanted me for the Bridget Fonda character, the dope ho. He said, “no, you’re going to play Jackie Brown, that’s my version of Foxy Brown.” I was so humbled by it, that someone would invest two years of their time to write something like that for me.
Movies: And what a great film he wrote for you; the ensemble cast, the story. It draws you in immediately. One of the things that gives the film so much heart and sort of anchors it emotionally is Jackie’s relationship with Max Cherry (played by Robert Forster in the film). Can you talk a little bit about working with him and developing that onscreen chemistry?
Grier: Robert was a very generous actor. At first I thought that he would never go for Jackie because she would scare him to death. I didn’t think he’d be able to handle her; he’d be washing her lingerie and dishes forever. But he is such a great actor; so generous and sensitive. He was so focused on what he did. He was amazing. We had a great intimacy within the scene, which sometimes you don’t have. Sometimes that intimacy is manufactured because the actors don’t care. But he was very generous and it was wonderful working with him; very memorable.
Movies: There are so many great moments between the two of you. There’s that scene wherein he’s asking you why you don’t upgrade your record collection to CD and you talk about the unparalleled quality of vinyl and how older things don’t go out of style. You have this complex crime film going on around you, but it’s grounded by these little moments we spend with you two. It’s really terrific.
Grier: Isn’t it? I love that authentic dialogue that Quentin writes that rolls off the tongue. It comes from someplace that’s just grounded.
Movies: Couldn’t agree with you more. How would you say that Jackie Brown is similar to some of the characters you’ve played in the past and how was she different? How was she bringing those qualities into new generation?
Grier: Jackie is crafty. She knows how to get herself in and out of situations with such cool. She’s up against someone who’s very dangerous and shoots first and asks questions later. I’m the same way. I jerry-rig things that break, I know how to fix things, and I prepare myself for the worst. So we have some similarities because that’s exactly what she does. As far as the other roles, she’s quite unique from anything else I’d ever done.
Movies: It’s funny you mention your own skills as a survivor and how they compare to Jackie. Obviously Foxy Brown and Coffy were also survivors and women who knew their way around firearms. I heard a rumor that you are a hunting enthusiast. Is that an interest that came from those roles or is that something you’ve always enjoyed?
Grier: That was a product of the environment in which I grew up. My family was composed of hunters and fishermen. My grandfather was an early feminist who actually wanted all the girls to be able to do everything the boys could do. He wanted them to be self-sufficient and to be the best woman they could be. So I brought that element to the screen; that confidence.
Movies: And it definitely shows through, but it’s fascinating to hear the origins of that confidence. Tell me, had you read any Elmore Leonard prior to taking the role of Jackie? How did you work yourself into that world?
Grier: I was familiar with Rum Punch and Get Shorty. Authors like Elmore Leonard and James Patterson, I always loved that really gritty—especially Elmore’s—type of storytelling. So I knew of his work, but I didn’t think that a young pop culture director would want to adapt his work and end up doing it so well. Now, Elmore and I are very close, he’s like my uncle Elmore and we speak all the time. He’s great. He has a lot of projects and he says, “you should be doing these.” But I’m always up against certain actors with stronger agents. They say, “it’s our directors, our producers, so we’re gonna use our actor.” But if he’s involved in selecting an actor he’ll say he wants me to do it. He loved the work we did on Jackie Brown. He’s an author who says, “just make it so I’ll be proud,” and I think that’s what Quentin has done for Elmore is just made him so proud of his work. Elmore was proud that someone was interested in adapting his work to film and ended up doing it so successfully.
Movies: It’s a fantastic adaptation whereas nowadays, great adaptations seem to take a backseat to tired remakes. Hollywood seems to be remake crazy right now.
Grier: (Sarcastically) Really? You mean like Catwoman 3 isn’t out yet? Is there going to be a Jackie Brown 2 & 3? Or 5,6,7?
Movies: Or prequels, or whatever other insanity they can think of?
Grier: (Laughs) Exactly.
Movies: I was wondering if you had heard anything about plans, or if anyone had contacted you about plans, to remake Foxy Brown or any of your other classic films?
Grier: Oh I hear those rumors all the time, but they are just rumors. But it’s great to still have that kind of buzz. A lot of the vintage classics that were done thirty years ago, much of the dialogue and the politic atmosphere of those films would not work today because we’ve evolved politically and socially. So how would they adapt it to be relevant to today’s society? That would be a piece of work. It would be interesting to see, but I’m just not convinced.
Movies: That makes total logical sense, but we’ve seen remakes get produced that don’t make sense culturally that are just sort of rehashed for the sake of profit.
Grier: I still don’t think they would do that with my films. We’ve evolved so much in our consciousness. If you put one subject before ten people, you have ten different perceptions. Those perceptions even fifteen years ago would each be so different from the ones created today.
Movies: Well let me ask you, I know Quentin is working Django Unchained right now. Is there any chance we might see you pop up somewhere in that film?
Grier: You might see me ride a horse in the background if I ride through the set. But no, I won’t be in his most recent project. I know you want me to be there, to go galloping through the scene.
Movies: I know you’re joking, but we would love to see you in anything. The more Pam Grier exposure we can get, the better.
Grier: Well thank you. You know I’d love to be in Johnny Depp’s The Lone Ranger with one of my horses, that would be great.
Movies: Absolutely it would, are you kidding?
Movies: Well Pam, we are extremely excited for the Blu-ray release of Jackie Brown.
Grier: We’re excited too! The Blu-ray technology is pretty amazing and it’ll be interesting to see how it springboards us into a new era of technology; whether it’s streaming movies, wearing them on our watch, or implanted in our shoulders. I’m so proud of these companies wanting to participate with this progressiveness.
Movies: And hopefully this will allow the greatness of films like Jackie Brown to endure for future generations.
Grier: And it’s global! I have films that have been seen in Finland, Russia, and the Ukraine. Jackie Brown is actually regularly bootlegged in Russia. A woman asked me to sign a copy once and I said, “where did you get this?” And she said (Russian accent), “you don’t want to know.” I didn’t pry any further because I had the fear of the KGB in the Members Only jackets standing in the corner. You remember those 80s Members Only jackets?
Movies: Those horrible jackets made of that vinyl-like slick material.
Grier: Yeah, people would go dancing on the dance floor with them and never took them off. I think they’re now in Russia and the KGB wears them as a uniform. And they also have copies of Jackie Brown signed by me.
Movies: Well at least you know they’re fans so you’re probably safe traveling over there.
Grier: Russians are big fans. I’m going to see the Kirchhoff ballet in St. Petersburg and the warm welcome they are setting up for me frightens me. I may disappear and end up in Siberia or something. They love Americans, they love our culture. So we have to do well for them.