Having pioneered ’70s-era blaxploitation films, Pam Grier’s embodiment of badassery established that girls could kick just as much butt as boys. Her roles in “Coffy,” “Foxy Brown” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” – and later on “The L Word” – made her a trailblazer, an icon and an inspiration.
So what in the world is a legend doing talking to me from a barn in Colorado?
“Everyone is under the assumption that I live in a palace overlooking Malibu or something, or that I’m in New York in a penthouse, but not at all,” says Grier, 64.
Not even close, actually. Grier dwells on a secluded homestead in Colorado with horses, dogs, turkeys and chickens – but she won’t be later this month.
The actress gets back to her urban roots to host a retrospective Feb. 21-22 at the Redford Theatre in Detroit, which was the first stop on a promotional tour for her 1971 film “The Big Doll House” that brought her to the Fisher Theatre. It’s been an enduring love affair ever since. “I’m coming to Detroit to help with the rebuilding of it,” Grier says. “It’s the fabric of our nation and a beautiful city. I can’t wait.”
What have you been up to?
Between my charities, my work and trying to continue protecting myself from my curiosity, I’ve been busy! When I’m not working, I’m training and riding horses.
And raising chickens.
George Orwell’s “animal farm” – it’s here.
It’s so great you’re keeping busy.
I’ve always done that. My grandfather was the first feminist in my life who wanted me and all the girls to hunt, fish, drive and bring the boat in – to be self-sufficient.
Is that why you’re so drawn to strong female personas?
That trajectory was guided by circumstance. I had been a military brat and I studied martial arts, but I was also part of the women’s movement – a global movement of being self-sufficient and not being oppressed.
You’ve been a symbol of black female and even lesbian empowerment throughout your career.
I had to do “The L Word.” I got tired of hearing rumors. I didn’t know about the lesbian community. I didn’t know about the discriminatory practices in the workplace, in society, that they couldn’t adopt children – it’s just unfair.
I’m a black woman so I can’t understand or know how they feel, but I’ve been profiled and marginalized. I lived through the Jim Crow period growing up. I couldn’t go to ballet school, couldn’t go to gymnastics school, couldn’t take riding lessons, but yet I learned on my grandfather’s draft horse how to ride a horse and jump fences and trees – but they wouldn’t let me take riding lessons. It was heartbreaking. My mom used to break down and cry in the car. It was so painful.
So we just made up our own entertainment at home, like tying a rope in the tree between the house and the garage and jumping off the roof like Tarzan. Oh did we have so much fun growing up.
You’ve always been a badass then, haven’t you?
Well, it’s just that I love the freedom – the freedom of seeing what your body can do.
Regarding the prejudice you experienced as a child, what do you notice about the progress we’ve made?
We’ve got an inclusion. Our evolution has come. For me to be able to return to Detroit and meet the people who’ve supported my career for 45 years – I was there this summer for the Global Automotive Summit hosted by Rainbow PUSH to meet all these women executives and see what they’re doing in the automotive field. As I was telling them about recycling fuels and that I drive a big truck that pulls the horses’ trailer, one girl said, “Really?” and I said, “Yeah! I’m not gonna marginalize my life because I’m afraid of a big truck. No – I get in that sucker and we’re gone!”
In “Sheba, Baby” they allowed me to have the first personal watercraft. Kawasaki hadn’t had it in movies yet and they wanted to put it in my movie “Sheba, Baby” because I had such great success as an action actress. Shit, I drove my horses up in a horse trailer when I did “The L Word” – to Canada! Road trip! There was a lot of beer drinking. We had a ball. Life’s too short. At my age, I still ski and snowboard. I look for fresh powder at 8 o’clock in the morning. I wanna be first in the line. Yes, I’m a Shred Betty. Come on and join the old lady!
“The L Word” has had such significance in the gay community. What do you think is the show’s lasting impact?
It’s in 23 countries (that are) very oppressive countries politically. I signed thousands of autographs at some of the conventions in England for women from Russia, Czech Republic, Argentina, Australia, China, all over the world. To see them, to see their faces, they could be my daughters.
What do they say to you?
They absolutely hug me and adore me and bring me bootlegged copies of “Jackie Brown” and all my movies – and I say, “Where do you get them?!” They say, “You don’t want to know.”
That gratitude must feel rewarding.
It is – because it’s for womanhood first. We’re women first. I don’t care what they do in their bedroom or whom they wanna procreate with – it’s none of my business. And it’s natural. Everyone has a natural instinct to be attracted to either the same or the opposite (sex), it’s given to you – and if it’s a choice, that is your choice. But who tells you who you should procreate with or have a family with, or how you can live and not live? You might as well go back to Jim Crow.
When you did “The L Word,” did you have any epiphanies about your own sexuality?
That I’m boringly straight! Everyone said, “Well, did the girls do anything that you were appalled by?” and I said, “No, are you kidding me?!” And so many people said, “Well, won’t you turn gay if you’re around them?” And I said, “Like you’ll turn black if you’re around me? And I’ll turn into a horse if I’m around my horses?”
I learned so much, and I support the gay community and I’m wholeheartedly glad it’s changing. It’s fabulous to see. And you know what – I don’t have gaydar. There are people around me who are gay and I don’t know it. I was like, “Oh, really? You’re gay? So what.”
Even after doing the show you don’t have gaydar?
Even after doing “The L World” I still don’t have gaydar. It’s not something that you look for unless you’re gay. When you’re straight, you’re not looking for that. I look for old, straight, sweaty men. Sweaty stankin’ men! (Laughs)
Even when I had to kiss Janina (Gavankar), this beautiful Persian, it was like kissing – I’m not gonna say, “Hey, it’s like kissing my dog or like kissing my mom or kissing a lamp,” but I wasn’t turned on, so I said, “Ah, guess I’m straight.”
To know that some actresses who were hired to do “The L Word” couldn’t kiss other actresses so they were released – because they couldn’t kiss a woman in a scene! – I wanted to talk to them, but they wouldn’t talk about it. There are actresses and actors who won’t kiss actors of another race. You know, not all actors are liberals and inclusive. There are a lot of white males who won’t kiss a black woman. A lot of people bring politics and religion to work, and I was surprised that some of the most highly trained actresses would not kiss some of the female actresses on our show who were straight, and some were gay, but they wouldn’t kiss them.
It almost goes without saying that you’re the queen of badassery.
Well, I did bring a voice to women’s sexuality – and without a sports bra.
What do you think of the opportunities for women in film these days?
It’s fabulous – because men aren’t afraid. Men who run the studios and do the hiring and developing and banking, women are moving into that as well and it’s great to see. It’s great to see them feel comfortable. “Coffy” was written for a white woman, but there were none who could do stunts or handle a gun, but (I could) thanks to my feminist grandfather, Daddy Ray.
When my parents divorced, my mom took me to a hardware store to figure out how to fix and repair her home – and keep it. We walked into the hardware store, and it wasn’t like a Home Depot today, but it was mesmerizing to see how you build a home. Plumbing, electrical, drywall, tools – oh my god, we can do this?! Bob Vila of “This Old House” – he was my hero.
Which actresses currently portraying fierce female characters stand out to you? Michelle Rodriguez? Angelina Jolie?
Oh, Michelle – my goodness! We worked on a film in New York with Adrien Brody and she’s fantastic. She’s like my little daughter. I can’t wait to work with her. Even Meryl Streep. I thought she was fantastic in “August: Osage County.” I thought she was whooping Julia Roberts’ ass. That was a whoop ass scene! Angelina Jolie – love her work. And lemme tell you what Beyonce did at her sold-out concert in Vancouver. I was sitting in the front row – this was probably 2006 or ’07 – and she saw me in the audience and stopped her concert to pay me homage for giving her confidence to be an independent woman. She stopped her concert for that. I didn’t want her to see the tears trickling down my face, but that was so humbling and so wonderful.
The Pam Grier Film Festival. Feb. 21-22. The Redford Theatre. 17360 Lahser Road, Detroit. http://www.redfordtheatre.com.