Karen Allen Is Wonder Woman

The actress, currently starring in the film adaptation of Joan Anderson'sYear by the Sea, calls textiles her "first ecstasy."

Her name isn’t Diana Prince and she has no indestructible bracelets, boomerang tiara, or Lasso of Truth at her disposal, but Joan Anderson is no less a Wonder Woman. After chronicling her transformation from a supportive wife and mother who’d achieved only modest success as a writer into a New York Times bestselling author and motivational speaker in her moving memoir Year by the Sea, she became a beacon, spirit guide, and hero to countless others on the road to reinvention.

Director Alexander Janko’s film adaptation brings Anderson’s inspiring story to an even wider audience, with actress Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) in the title role. SF Weekly spoke to Allen about playing the celebrated author, her own hidden superpower, and why actresses like Wonder Woman’s Gal Gadot may need to carve out new career paths for themselves after 50.

What drew you to the role of Joan Anderson?
I didn’t really know anything about Joan Anderson until I was sent this script two-and-a-half years ago. I read the script and just loved her journey. I went immediately to a bookstore and bought and read her book and felt there was a real courage, honesty, and appealing approach to trying to come to terms with some deep feelings that she was having a loss of confidence, a loss of feeling, like she had lost her voice as a writer.

She had been immersed in 25 years of caretaking of children, a household, and a husband who had been very career oriented. And I just thought it’s a beautiful journey of a woman trying to turn the attention toward herself and finding her authentic self. I felt immediately in support of that journey and knew I wanted to do the film, and then it was just a matter of who they were going to ask to do it, in the end. Fortunately, they offered it to me.

There are some interesting parallels between you two. You both relocated to Massachusetts and nurtured your creative passions. Joan Anderson went off to Cape Cod and wrote, and you, a Fashion Institute of Technology alumnus, launched a textile studio and a shop, Karen Allen Fiber Arts, both in Great Barrington, Mass.  
Textiles are something I’ve loved since I was a child. I called it my first ecstasy. When I was a kid, it would just thrill me to no end to stare at Navajo rugs or beautiful embroidered things in a museum, store, or gallery. So I’ve always had this in the back of my mind, of wanting to participate in the designing of things that are made.  So I was a  hand-knitter for many years, and then I went over to working with Japanese knitting machines, which are the cleverest little machines and difficult to use, and it took me a long time to get comfortable with them. But they became a big part of my life.

So I started a little design studio and opened a store not long after that, something I had never imagined I’d do. What I discovered was that not only could I put my own little line there, but also I could go out into the world and bring in every designer I had ever loved’s work into this one place and make it a kind of great celebration of design from my perspective. That’s been a little passion project that has continued on this side of my life as I’ve gone about doing other things.

Still from Year by the Sea (Real Women Make Waves)

With the immense success of Wonder Woman, 2017 has certainly become the year of the superheroine. Joan Anderson is a superhero in her own right, in that she leaves everything she knows behind in order to become the woman she wants to be.
It’s a good parallel, because Joan Anderson is a Wonder Woman. She’s somebody who very boldly struck out to take this time for herself and to say, “My future, my inner well-being is important to me, and I have this deep yearning to discover who I could be.” She’s standing there at 55 and looking into the next 25 years of her life, perhaps, and thinking, “Who do I want to be? How can I create a life for myself now, after spending 20 to 25 years raising a family? How can I give that time back to myself and have a pathway forward that’s exciting and interesting and full of love and real substance?” That’s a Wonder Woman for me. There’s a real gift in that and the courage it takes to do that, and I really admire her enormously.

I’ve admired you in Raiders of the Lost Ark, opposite Harrison Ford, Starman, opposite Jeff Bridges, and Scrooged, opposite Bill Murray. As your male co stars aged, they’ve managed to maintain superstar status. It isn’t the same for actresses, though.
It’s funny, because when I made the decision to be an actor, I thought, this is the kind of work or career that can span a lifetime. There’s always gotta be roles for people going up right up to the end of your life, because the world is full of people of all ages. But I’m finding it’s very tough. There are very few good scripts written for women in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. So it’s a little tragic. I know a lot of women who are wonderful actresses and want to work, but there just doesn’t seem to be as much out there for us to do.

So when a film like this comes along, you’re almost jumping up and down with the hope you’re going to do it, and I feel like in the last few years, I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve gotten some really interesting offbeat sort of roles in some indie films. But in terms of films that have been generated from studios or from the larger independent companies, I don’t get to see them very often.

This movie is, in part, about women discovering who they are beyond the roles that they play, i.e. those of girlfriend, wife, mother, or career woman.  As an actress, who are you beyond the roles you play?
I think, for me, it’s a lifelong journey. I continue to ask that question, because I find the question of identity, which gets touched on this film is a fascinating one. I’ve looked at it from so many different angles my whole life. As an actor, I’ve had this sort of privilege of stepping into other people’s shoes and circumstances, and then it’s over and you’re back to yourself. What I try to do, which is a lifelong challenge, is kind of strip away the shoulds and shouldn’ts and not let society, culture, parents, or bosses, or our desire to be liked or please other people be things that create our identity. When you strip everything away, I think the human spirit is good, generous, loving, and joyful, and we have to fight to get back to that.

Year by the Sea, starring Karen Allen, is now playing at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinemas, the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, and at the Summerfield Cinemas in Santa Rosa.

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