Nancy Allen broke out in the 1976 with her memorable role in Brian De Palma's CARRIE (1976). She was a charming, naturalistic, beautiful presence in high-profile films such as Spielberg's 1941 (1979), Robert Zemeckis's debut I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND (1978), and a further three films with De Palma (whom she also married in 1979) - HOME MOVIES (1980), DRESSED TO KILL (1980), and BLOW OUT (1981). Her career has also seen her work on such cult favorites as ROBOCOP (1987) and its sequels, POLTERGEIST III (1988), STRANGE INVADERS (1983), THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT (1984), Paul Bartel's NOT FOR PUBLICATION (1984), Abel Ferrara's THE GLADIATOR (1986), and Steven Soderbergh's OUT OF SIGHT (1998). In the first of a two-part interview I spoke with Nancy about breaking into acting; her debut opposite Jack Nicholson in THE LAST DETAIL (1973); CARRIE and her films with De Palma; 1941; I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND; STRANGE INVADERS, and THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT. 

Part two of the interview. 

How did you get into acting? 
I was going to the High School of Performing Arts in New York, which was the school from FAME (1980). I always loved dancing, but when I got there it became sort of critical, and it took the joy out of it for me. I probably didn't have enough discipline to be a devoted dancer. Maybe I didn't want the pain, I don't really know. After a year, I left. I started going to Quintano's School for Young Professionals, which was right across the street from Carnegie Hall Rehearsal Studios, which was where I continued to study dancing. Mostly everybody who was in that school were either musicians who were touring, actors and actresses, people from the theater, or models. I met a girl in my class who said ''My mother manages teens. You'd be great for commercials.'' I said ''Do they pay you for that?'' She said ''Yes, they do!'' I said ''Great. Let me meet your mother. '' That was how I was introduced to doing something other than dance. I just assumed I would do something with dance, though I really didn't know what. I thought musical theatre, perhaps. At that point she started sending me out for television commercials, and that's where it all began.

Did you enjoy doing the TV commercials? 
I did, as long as they didn't give me a piece of paper with lines, and I could just walk in and show myself. If they gave me copy, I'd say ''Can you excuse me? I have to go to the bathroom'' and I'd leave. I got away with that for a while, but then my manager said ''What's going on?'' So I started studying acting. I was too shy to go into an acting class, so someone suggested a wonderful acting coach named Claudia Frank. She had coached Sal Mineo and people from that era. She was extraordinary. We'd read plays and we worked on my voice and diction. I didn't even realise I had any kind of a New York accent until she pointed it out to me. I started to get prepared to pick up some copy and read it. Then I was really off to the races. I feel guilty saying it, but I didn't struggle. I just started working and never really stopped. 

I'm surprised you were initially shy because you seem such a natural presence onscreen. 
I like being on set and working with a camera. It's one place I don't feel self-conscious, oddly enough. It just feels somehow natural. I'm not the first person to say this, but it's character. It's not really me. I'm the vessel to tell someone elses's story. 

Was it disconcerting appearing opposite Jack Nicholson in your first film, THE LAST DETAIL? 
I would call that a major understatement! I was so excited. I got to the set and Hal Ashby's approach was ''Do it, but throw everything out''. We would be doing an improvisation and Jack would be talking to you one minute and then, you don't even see it happening, he would just slip into this character. We did this first improvisation, and it went really well. We 'Cut', and they said ''Wow, she's really good'', and that, instead of giving me confidence, made me feel real uncomfortable and self-conscious. I literally became wooden. When you see me in the film just staring at Jack it's because that was really all I was capable of doing. Hal Ashby was the kind of director where everything would just happen. It wouldn't be the big clapperboards or anything. Everything would just sort of organically begin.

When you auditioned for CARRIE, did you also audition for STAR WARS? 
I was a freak of nature. I was not part of that initial big audition process. That was three months before I came into the equation. I had been in L.A. two and a half months and I didn't get any work. I thought ''This is a waste. I'm going to go back to New York after the holidays. This is taking too long to get my acting career going. '' I was in the steam room in the Beverly Hills Health Club for Women and I ran into a casting director from a huge commercial production house in New York, who had relocated to Los Angeles. Her name was Harriet Hellberg. She told me about this film, CARRIE. She said that she felt she had seen everyone in L.A. and that she had called my agent and he had said he didn't really have anybody! I thought ''Wow! Great agent!'' She said ''Tomorrow is the last day of casting, and you won't get the part, but why don't you pick up the script and come along? At least you can meet the director, he's this real up-and-coming guy. '' So I said ''OK'', and I was the last person on the last day to read. 

Was it a fun movie to make, working with a cast mostly around the same age? 
I can't even tell you how much fun we had. We were all really close. Everybody was starting out. We all supported each other, even when we weren't shooting. We would come in and watch, and hang out, and we would all go to dailies. We had a fantastic time. John Travolta and I especially. We thought we were hilarious because everybody was always laughing at what we did. It surprised me that everybody hated my character when the movie came out. I just thought it was really funny. Sissy kept herself apart from the cast until the prom scene so that she could feel the isolation of the character, so we didn't really get to know her until then. She's just a lovely, lovely person. I love her.

Did you find it hard at all to play such a bitch in the movie? 
It was so much fun. The only tricky part was that a week before we started shooting, Brian got all of the cast together. It was sort of on the lowdown because there was no money to pay for rehearsals. It was like ''If you want to come, I'm going to be doing rehearsals. '' Almost everyone came. We played all these kinds of theater games. We had to elect a Class President, and each person had to campaign as their character. I was this shy person so I didn't really talk to anybody. I would just come in and do my thing. Nobody liked me, and nobody really talked to me for at least two weeks of shooting. They just thought I was this bitchy girl. Once we all connected, it was okay. Playing that kind of character with absolutely no consequences is kind of a great thing. You get to go to places that hopefully you don't go to in your life, and explore the dark side, which we all have. As Jung says, we all have that shadow side. Teenagers are so black and white anyway – ''I love you, I hate you. '' It was a lot of fun, and doing it especially with John and P.J. Soles was a lot of fun. Being bad together was really fun. 

Did you feel like you had an instant connection with John Travolta? 
Oh, absolutely. I actually rehearsed with Michael Talbot, who played another role in the picture. Brian had us test with everybody. I had never seen John in Welcome Back Kotter, but the moment he walked in I thought ''Oh, this guy is getting the part. I'm done. I'm not getting the role. Whoever he rehearses with is going to get the part. '' But we sat down and it was effortless. When we actually started working together, we really had a magical chemistry. 

You made four films with Brian De Palma. What was it that impressed you the most about him as a filmmaker? 
Well obviously his visual style is astounding. I love the way he tells a story in that way. I also like that he rehearses. Very rarely do you get to rehearse on films in my experience. He is miserable on the set, but he does seem to like the actors a little bit! 

Did you feel especially challenged on the films you did with Brian? 
Yes, I would say so. I love that feeling of stepping into something that I am excited about but also a little scared if I can deliver or not - particularly with Sally in BLOW OUT. On DRESSED TO KILL he wrote that character for me so I think it really played to a lot of my strengths. He knew me, and it was a little easier to slip into. I never expected to play the character in BLOW OUT. Originally the two lead characters were written to be older and more cynical. They weren't as young as John and I. I wasn't sure what to do with Sally at first because I didn't really like her. She just seemed like such a loser and a victim, so I had to try and find a way to fall in love with her to find some things that I liked, and to give her some hope, because she was so hopeless. I came up with that little dream of ''Oh, maybe I'll do make-up in movies. '' You know she's never going to. She's just a loser behind the counter. I did fall in love with her in the end, actually. 

Which roles are you the most proudest of in your career? 
Sally certainly. ROBOCOP. It's a trifle, but I did like the character I played in I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND. That was fun. That was Robert Zemeckis's first movie. 

What was the experience of making that film like? 
The way I heard of it was Brian was visiting California and he had read the script. He said ''It's not for me, but there are four really good parts for girls in it. You might look into this. '' So I had an audition at Universal and as I was going down the hall I bumped into this tall, young, geeky guy with glasses. I thought he was a gofer or somebody. He said ''Oh, Nancy Allen. I loved you in CARRIE. '' I said ''Thank you so much!'' I signed in at the audition room and when they called me in, the same guy introduced himself as Robert Zemeckis. I said ''You're the director?!'' I did the audition, and he gave me direction, and it was clear that this guy was very good. You could tell right away that he really knew what he wanted, and knew how to ask for it. He set up a week of rehearsals with the cast, and I remember asking him how we were going to do it, and he said ''Well what did you guys do on CARRIE? Should we just start reading the script? '' I said ''Sure, we could do that!'' It was so much fun. There wasn't a lot of time. This was a fast-moving movie. We didn't have a big budget. Bob knew how to tweak something to make it even better. The only time things slowed down a little bit was when Steven Spielberg would visit the set and there was another director saying ''Hey, why don't you try this?'' It was a little frustrating for Bob, but there was no question he was fantastic. We laughed our way from beginning to end on that film. 

Did you get cast in Spielberg's 1941 from working on that film? 
Well every single person I knew was cast in that movie! I was on vacation with my brother and his friend in Maui. We didn't have a phone. It was a vacation rental. I didn't even tell my agent where I was staying. He hunted me down and he said ''Steven Spielberg wants to see you for 1941.'' I said ''Well, I'm in Hawaii. I'm not leaving here! He's going to have to wait. '' I got back from vacation, and I met with Steven and he took me around the incredible miniature sets they were already shooting at MGM. We went and sat in his trailer and talked. Brian and I were seeing each other at the time, or we might have been on a break-up, and we had gone out many times socially with Steven. He said ''You know, it's a funny thing. Because I know you, I wasn't thinking of you for the film. It was almost like I was discounting you. But I don't even need to read you. This part is you. '' I started crying, and he said ''Oh, don't cry. '' He didn't really like that too much. It was very exciting to be part of that movie. 

Compared to the actual film, how chaotic was the shoot? 
The original script was amazing. It did keep developing as Steven would run into people and cast them in a part, and then they'd have to rewrite the script. We literally went through every color known to man on the script pages, and finally people just threw their scripts away. You'd go to the set to find out what you were doing that day. Everybody was on set almost every day. We were like hostages! What started out as fourteen weeks became six months. When we were shooting on Hollywood Boulevard we did nightshoots for six or seven weeks. You'd come in and you'd have to get into the whole rigmarole of the hair and the make-up, and then Steven would say ''You're not going to be working tonight'', because he knew he'd be shooting other things. If we hadn't all really enjoyed each other, I think it would have been a difficult experience. Almost everyone was injured on the film, and the major stunt scenes had to be done two or three times. 

What are your fondest memories of making STRANGE INVADERS? 
My fondest memory of STRANGE INVADERS was reading the script, which was fantastic. Bill Condon is an amazing writer and should have directed the movie. I don't have a lot of fond memories about making it. The shoot was very challenging because of the director (Michael Laughlin). It's hard to even apply that word to him. He really was awful. Let me back that up with some evidence. I said to him ''Please, we really need to rehearse. '' So Paul Le Mat and I went over to the director's house and we were sitting there a minute and he said ''I'll be right back. '' He came back with a blue blazer and said ''Do you think this will look good for the first day of shooting?'' I looked at Paul and said ''We are in big trouble. '' We managed to get through it but I do think that the film was so good on paper, and any humour that survived was really a miracle because he really was humorless. He had a little bit of a visual style but he was such a pretentious ass. He really didn't get it, and I think the best thing that came out of it was that I met and got to know Bill Condon, who was extraordinary. You could read the way the script was written that this guy was a director.

I did love Wally Shawn. I thought he was absolutely adorable. I had a lot of fun with him. Fiona Lewis was hilarious. I remember when we were shooting the first scene when she comes to the door and says ''Avon calling!'' It was like 10:30 in the morning, and she said ''Do you want a sip?'' I took a sip and it was vodka and orange juice. I said ''Fiona! There's vodka in here!'' She said ''Well, darling, it's cocktail hour somewhere!'' 

Yes it was! I really liked Stewart Raffill, the director, who refers to himself as The Biggest Director in the Business – by that he means he's 6' 8''! That was a fun shoot, but it was tough when we were in Salt Lake. It was really really cold there. We had the wind coming over from Nevada, which is just over the border. Those nights and days were a little challenging but I liked working with Michael Pare, and Bobby Di Cicco I had known from two other films. 

The 70s is seen as a Golden Age of filmmaking. Did you feel at the time that it was special? 
You know it's a funny thing. In the last year or two, doing interviews like this, you reflect. You get older, and I look back and I think ''What an extraordinary period it was. '' It really was a New Age of filmmaking, a different style of filmmaking. Obviously the director as auteur period was there . I have to pinch myself when I remember those times ... Just sitting around at a restaurant or at Steven's funky little house in Laurel Canyon, and there's guys just sitting around talking about this movie and that movie and what they liked. All of us just hanging out. We were really in the thick of it, but everybody was young then and we had no idea how important it all was. I had grown up loving movies, so this was a dream come true that I didn't know I had until I was living it. It was such a great education for me. It was like being in Film School to hear Steven and others discuss and take apart old films and current films and talk about directors. I learned a lot going forward about how to look at a movie, and how to read a script. Everything was really magical and it's so different now. It feels like all the interesting work is happening in television now. Have you seen The Knick? I think it's absolutely amazing. 

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.

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