Stories from “Jackie Brown”: An Interview with Pam Grier and Robert Forster
How one movie (and one devoted filmmaker) resuscitated two careers.
Clad in a retro stewardess uniform, Pam Grier’s entrance in Jackie Brown (1997) introduced the kick-ass star of Foxy Brown (1974) and Friday Foster (1975) to the modern world. At the same time, Robert Forster, the almost-star of the late ‘60s turned exploitation film stalwart (see Alligator (1980) and Vigilante (1982)), brought to Quentin Tarantino’s movie the understated authority that marked his genre pictures. They had never worked together before Tarantino cast them in Jackie Brown, but they came to the film with one thing in common: They were both talented actors with compelling screen personalities who had gone out of fashion in Hollywood. Three years earlier, Tarantino revived the faltering career of one-time superstar John Travolta with Pulp Fiction (1994). Why not give the same boost to both Grier and Forster in his follow-up?
In 2007 I had the great pleasure of interviewing both of them in conjunction with the tenth anniversary of Jackie Brown. Here are highlights from the interview.
Sean Axmaker: How did the part in Jackie Brown come your way?
Pam Grier: I met him [Quentin Tarantino] on the street in Hollywood. He says [in a breathless, superfast patter], "HeyPam, howareyou, hey, I'm writingamovieforyou." And I'm like, yeah right, the genius who wrote Pulp Fiction is writing a movie for me. Sure. And he says, "No, when I finish writing it I'm going to send it to you." Six months later it shows up and I literally... my breath stopped. I read the note, it says, "Read it and please call me."
I'm thinking, Okay, it's the Bridget Fonda role, it can't be the Jackie Brown—that's the lead. And I call him and he says, "Ohhh, didjyalikeit? Whatyathink, whatyathink? I wrote it for you." Oh yeah, you know, you wrote a little role for me. Great, thank you. "So which role am I looking at?" And he says, "Jackie Brown." And I go, "Jackie Brown?" And he says, "Yeah, you're gonna play Jackie Brown. I wrote it for you...You don't like it?" (laughs) I was in shock. It was absolutely remarkable that someone would do that for you.
Robert Forster: I had auditioned for Reservoir Dogs. I thought I was going to get it so it came as a big surprise when I walked out of that audition thinking that I had just hit it out of the park, and then Quentin comes out after me and says, "Look, this isn't going to work. I'm going to give this part to the guy I dedicated the script to [Editor's Note: the role went to Lawrence Tierney], but I won't forget you."
Years had gone by and I ran into him in a coffee shop. By then my career was really, really dead and we blah-blah’d for a few minutes and then six months later he showed up at the same coffee shop with a script in his hands and handed it to me. When I read it I could hardly believe that he had me in mind for Max Cherry except that nothing else made any sense, so when I asked him about it he said, "Yes, it's Max Cherry that I wrote for you." That's when I said to him, "I'm sure they're not going to let you hire me." He said, "I hire anybody I want." And that's when I realized I was going to get another shot at a career.
Tell me about working with Tarantino on your characters.
Grier: I had read "Rum Punch" and as we started to analyze the character, it was all there. He would say, "As you're reading it, you are going to ask questions." And he would answer them. And then he would give you an idea of how he's going to shoot it, because not everything is in the written word with him. Often it's beats, moods, music, so you have to be on point with him. You've explored every mood, every intention, every subtext of the character, so you could go either way and have some flexibility to really breath into the role—so he had prepared, as he was writing, who she was, where she had been, where she was, and where she was going, so you could live it and breath it.
Forster: We talked about a lot of stuff. I had a few episodes of Banyon (on 16mm film) and he said "I want to see those." We watched those Banyon episodes, we read the script of Jackie Brown, he read all the parts and I read Max Cherry and then I read a different part and he read everything. We had a lot of conversations and at the end of that I said, "Look, I understand the part of Max Cherry. I don't understand the part of the convict." He said, "Don't worry, you're going to make a good Max Cherry." And that's when I believed I had a great role and a good shot.
What is it like on the set during shooting?
Grier: You are liberated; you are just free to fill up the scene. We rehearsed two weeks to prepare ourselves for his style, prepare ourselves for his craft, and we would collaborate, all of us together. It was extraordinary, how he works with you and makes it so that your heart is beating through your chest. That's what he does to you when you work with him.
What did getting cast in Jackie Brown do for your career?
Forster: It brought it back. I had no career, my career was dead. I had no agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing. And eventually, as I say, I ran into Quentin in a coffee shop and this guy gave me a gift the size of which cannot be exaggerated: He gave me a career back and the last fourteen years have been fabulous.
Watch Now: Pam Grier and Robert Forster in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. “hunkiness”