Sissy Spacek: ‘Hollywood Gobbles Up Actresses Like a Piranha’

Sissy Spacek: 'Hollywood Gobbles Up Actresses Like a Piranha'

At a Seattle Film Festival tribute, Sissy Spacek talks about problems young actresses face, why she didn't want to play "Coal Miner's Daughter" and what she thinks of Jessica Chastain

“Hollywood is like a piranha,” legendary actress Sissy Spacek told a crowd at the Seattle Film Festival on Thursday night, comparing her time as a leading lady to the challenges facing young actresses today.

“Hollywood gobbles up young actresses now,” the 64-year-old actress said at a tribute to her work, during an interview with Time critic Richard Corliss. “Hollywood is like a piranha. They don’t give you breathing room. You don’t have time to let your career breathe.

“I had plenty of time to breathe,” she said. “Years, sometimes.” 

Dana Nabaldian, Getty Images

Speaking to a full audience at the Cinema Uptown, Spacek told delicious anecdotes about her start in New York as a singer — living with a motorcycle-riding Rip Torn —  and working on iconic movies like “Badlands” with some of the leading directors of the past half-century, including Terrence Malick, Robert Altman and David Lynch.

Born in Texas, Spacek was a rambunctious kid, who had a high-school drama teacher who thought she showed little promise. So after high school she headed to New York to pursue a career as a singer.

She stayed with her cousin Torn who was married to Geraldine Page (postbox: “Torn-Page”), who she described as driving a motorcycle in Manhattan with Page on the back, and a metal chain wrapped around his waist.

“I wanted to be Joni Mitchell,” she recalled. She ended up singing a novelty hit, “John You Went Too Far This Time,” about John Lennon breaking up the Beatles.

That was 1970. In 1972 she met Malick, and made her first feature and his, “Badlands,” a brooding tale set on the South Dakota landscape starring Spacek and Martin Sheen as ill-fated lovers on a murderous journey.

Here are some of her reflections from a two-hour talk:

On “Badlands”:

It was the first time I realized that film could be art. I became a filmmaker on that picture. And I fell in love with Jack (Fisk, a set designer, her husband). Terry would give me tiny pieces of paper to read, and I’d read them and he’d laugh. They cast me first, and then Martin Sheen read for the part. Terry said, "I’m just doing this as a favor to the agent. He’s too old. He’s not right." (But when he read for the role) Martin was Kit Carruthers.

On Hollywood and actresses:

Hollywood gobbles up young actresses now. Hollywood is like a piranha. They don’t give you breathing room. You don’t have time to let your career breathe.

On “Carrie”:

Brian de Palma didn’t like me. We were friends. I was auditioning for “Carrie,” and I called him and said, "Tomorrow is the screen test, but I’ve got a commercial." He said, "Do the commercial." I didn’t.

On “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” for which she won the Best Actress Oscar:

Loretta Lynn was going on all the talks shows saying I was going to player her in the movie. I had a crazy idea not to do any more country roles … I did not want to do “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” So I’d gone to see (Loretta) in concert to meet her and to ask her to stop saying I would play her. As soon as I met her I was so blown away I could hardly speak. I wanted to play her so badly.

On David Lynch:

When I first met David Lynch he was living in the stables of the American Film Institute … He’d work all night and have his crew lock him in during the day  and he’d sleep.

On her generation:

Glenn Close, Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Sally Field … There was endless talent around my age. But we didn’t feel were were competing with each other. We all got the films we were right for. I always felt I was competing to be the best I could be.

On her talent:

I’m not Meryl Streep. My God — she’s the greatest actor that ever lived. It’s sad that ordinary actors like me are compared to her. Jessica Chastain is my favorite young actress, I adore her.

On acting:

Actors don’t work alone. My performance has everything to do with other actors in the scene, the director, the cinematographer. That’s what I live for. In the scene, you become lost in that person. We’re trying to capture reality. I compare it to a train. You see it coming, you’re getting up to speed, you’re running alongside, and when the train comes, if you’re lucky you jump on. If you’re not ready, the train will hit you, and kill you. We live for those times when we are swept away in that magic.