Pam Grier is telling an audience of 350 Midwesterners about how long she takes to orgasm. In fact, she’s explaining it in great detail, during an onstage Q&A at the Tallgrass Film Festival in Wichita, Kansas, where she’s accepting their most prestigious honor, the Ad Astra Award. “When you’re young, you can have an orgasm in a couple of minutes,” she says, as the crowd roars. “Two times, maybe, in an hour or so. You try to have an orgasm at my age? It’s seven hours! It’s gonna hurt, to your teeth! All day, I have to rest. I’m not a cougar! Leave me alone!”
How’d she get from explaining her current projects to describing her orgasms? Well, every conversation with Pam Grier is a journey. The 69-year-old star of Jackie Brown, Foxy Brown, and Coffy has been a legend and an icon for so long, given so many interviews, received so many accolades, that the mere act of being Pam Grier is a performance — so when she gives one of those interviews, or gets one of those awards, she performs. If she doesn’t feel like answering a question, or is tired of that question, she’ll change subjects; that subject will bring up a name, which will prompt a story of its own, which will steer into additional detours and cul-de-sacs. It makes talking with her an anything-goes proposition, which is appropriate; you get the same sense when you’re watching her act, so electric is her chemistry and confidence. You feel like she could take you anywhere. And she usually does.
So I knew I’d probably overprepared when I brought ten questions to our 30-minute interview. I was right — I had time for four. She spent 20 minutes answering the first one.
It wasn’t that she avoided answering it. I wanted to know how she felt about Jackie Brown becoming her signature role, since Tallgrass was screening that film as part of her awards gala, when they presumably would’ve run Foxy Brown or Coffy a few years back. She eventually got there, and as we took the odyssey toward that answer, she’d occasionally remind me that she was clear on the destination (“Jackie Brown was basically the extension of all those other characters …” “Jackie Brown was an extension of having to be forceful …”), even when we’d wandered as far afield as talking about Daniel Craig’s baby-carrier photo (“Did you see James Bond with his baby? And some were criticizing him, I said are you kidding me? Upside your head!”), or her theories on self-defense (“A woman has only three strikes to render someone immobile”).
But it’s the kind of question that allows her to take a wide overview, and talk about what it took to get her to that kind of a career-defining role, the culmination of a series of characters where “in all of them, the subtexts are a part of me.” And it’s important to put her work in context, as she does; after all, when she was playing Foxy Brown and Coffy, most of the female roles in “blaxploitation” movies like Shaft or Super Fly or Sweet Sweetback were in service to men. Her characters were tough, and strong, and at the center of their own stories.
“It was the beginning of the women’s movement,” she explains. “Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan, they would be at the political conventions and setting the place on fire. Women were going, I’ve never heard these women speak. Where have they been? Where did they learn this from? And many women had educations but weren’t allowed to speak of it or use it or practice it until the wars. And when the Vietnam War happened, a lot of women, they didn’t have a husband that came home to take care of the house. So they had to get out and use what they had.”
For Grier, who began in Hollywood not as an actor but as a film-school hopeful working the reception desk at American International Pictures, that meant shrugging and saying, “What the hell,” when producer Roger Corman and director Jack Hill offered her supporting roles in a series of women-in-prison movies like The Big Bird Cage and The Big Doll House. The shoots were low-budget nightmares; Grier didn’t even have a proper stuntwoman (“They had a little four-foot Filipino guy with an Afro wig, and they put him [in] chocolate make-up. And I went, Really? He’s got hair on his chest!”).
Even after she made — and stole — those films, she didn’t see it as a career. “I had made enough money for tuition for at least two years,” she recalls, “and I was ready to go to film school. I was ready to just make films and not act, because I didn’t feel that I was attractive enough. I didn’t have the perfect Diahann Carroll look; I have craziness happening on my face and body, lanky basketball arms that’ll reach across the room. I just felt I wasn’t Annette Funicello!”
But audiences disagreed. The roles got bigger, and so did the grosses. “Our films stayed in the theater so long!” she laughs. “Back in the day they had big, big, big theaters, just one, that were out of the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. And our black films stayed in the theaters for long periods of time, maybe instead of one week would stay you know for two, three weeks — I remember one of my friends, Jack Silverman of the Silverman Theaters, who said, ‘Pam, your movies are so popular, white moviemakers are going to get mad at you because they’re staying over and over and over again.’ And so out of that necessity came genius; they started creating the multi-theater complex, where you could have a black film, a Western, a Disney Mary Poppins, Asian films.”
Yet in spite of the fact that Grier was the total package — she could act, she could do any genre, the camera loved her, and she had an audience — mainstream filmmakers couldn’t see a woman of color as a movie star. It’s an ongoing struggle, but it’s at least a possibility for contemporary heirs apparent like Taraji P. Henson or Tessa Thompson. I asked Grier if she ever wishes she had maybe been born a little later, when crossing over would’ve been easier. “No, not at all,” she says immediately, and explains that there were opportunities — just none that she was interested in.
“I remember the meeting for Octopussy, you know, James Bond,” she laughs. “The role was like, I just walk around in a bikini. When I read this script I said, ‘Is that it?’ And I didn’t mean to insult Cubby Broccoli and everybody who was there at MGM meeting me. But I said, you know, I’m bringing a huge audience, and they’re going to want their money back. They’re not going to find you. They’re going to find me. So I’ll pass.”
Eventually, the good role found her. When Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino’s custom-made Pam Grier vehicle, was released in 1997, advance word was that it would do for Grier what Pulp Fiction did for John Travolta; it turned that ‘70s fave into a studio star again, commanding $20 million a picture. Grier’s work was brilliant, but those paycheck roles didn’t follow. She wasn’t surprised.
“No, no, that’s a man, that’s totally different,” she shrugs. “I kinda knew that, because I know the business. They were surprised, Oh my god, it’s Quentin’s female side of the brain, but I said, it’s not going to change because men have a different dynamic. Men like going to see men.” Patriarchy in Hollywood was a fact of life she’d long made peace with. “It is what it is,” she says. “But it is changing. Because the audience is changing.”
And she’s happy about other changes that are rippling through the industry. “My #MeToo has been three times,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I had a sexual attack when I was six years old. I had it again at 18, and then in Los Angeles when I was 20 … I realized there was this patriarchal element in our society, where a woman’s body and their mind was man’s domain.” But the movement she mentioned, and the gender parity pushed by Time’s Up, has her hopeful about long-lasting, systemic change in the industry. “Absolutely, they will change,” she says. “Because it’s a culture. It’s a deep-rooted culture.”
In the meantime, she’s working. “I’ve already done a lot of action and I still plan on doing some more,” she tells me. “There are scripts being written, I have no idea if I— hey, if I wake up breathing and have a good day, I hope I can fulfill all these dreams.” She just wrapped a feature called Poms with Diane Keaton and Jacki Weaver, as well as Bless This Mess, a Fox pilot for Lake Bell and Liz Meriwether. “All comedies,” she says, proudly. “I’m a funny bitch!”
And she’s made a happy discovery about working at her age. “I’m getting better roles because I have more weight on me,” she confesses, semi-conspiratorially. “When I’m really skinny, 117, a size 4? Oh my God, it’s, ‘You’re too pretty.’ So I put on some weight, and I’m like, So what it is, bitch? Come on now. So I’m getting the better roles with weight on, because I look more like I represent our humanity, a real humanity. Women’s humanity.”