Pam Grier reflects on her most iconic roles, from Coffy to Jackie Brown
Pam Grier isn't afraid to tell it like it is.
The icon, who rose to fame in 1970s Blaxploitation films and cemented her legacy in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, paved the way for Black actresses and representation on screen as the "first female action hero." Indeed, Grier herself says that the success of her films led to the invention of the multiplex because her flicks were keeping mainstream pictures from hitting movie screens.
"The audience saw themselves in the leads and the characters and that expanded the marketplace," she tells EW. "Sometimes you just have to do it — build it and they will come."
Everett Collection Pam Grier
Grier's life is so rich that she told her story in the most recent season of TCM's The Plot Thickens podcast, which debuted last fall and just dropped a bonus episode on Feb. 7 that digs into the rise and fall of Blaxploitation films and the ways in which Grier transcended the genre that shot her to fame.
For her part, the actress credits her success to her ability to rise above the various traumas she's endured, which she says still inform her acting choices today. "I have a high tolerance to physical and mental pain, but there are films that I turn down that I know I cannot take and revisit a traumatic experience," Grier, 73, says. "It might win me that Oscar, but I'm not here for awards. I'm here to have people think and reconsider their thoughts and judgments."
Anyone who's spent time with Grier will find she's a gregarious woman, full of stories, reminiscences, and a willingness to speak truth to power. In celebration of the culmination of The Plot Thickens and her remarkable career, EW got her to open up about everything from the action sequences of Coffy and Foxy Brown to working with Paul Newman in Fort Apache, the Bronx to finding a career renaissance via the work of Tarantino for our latest Role Call.
<em>The Big Doll House</em> (1971)
Pam Grier had no acting experience when she was hired to play an inmate in a female prison in this Roger Corman production. "Roger Corman said, 'Can you read?' and I said, 'I'm a college student. I can read,'" she remembers. "He says, 'No, can you read a script?' I say, 'I've never seen a script before.'"
Grier was reluctant to accept the role since she was working multiple jobs to save up to attend film school at UCLA, but Corman convinced her the movie would be a more lucrative payday and suggested that she read The Actor Prepares by Konstantin Stanislavski. She read it cover to cover and still uses those methods in her acting today.
They shot The Big Doll House in the Philippines, and Grier was dismayed to find her stunt double looked nothing like her. "My stuntman was a Filipino man covered in Max Factor chocolate makeup with a piece of carpet on his head for an Afro wig — and he came up to my waist," she says. "I learned Tagalog just to be able to figure out what they were saying. But I could pick him up and throw him across the room."
Though Grier gained notice for her debut in The Big Doll House, it was Coffy that shot her to international fame. Grier stars as the title character, a nurse who embarks on a crusade of vigilante justice against inner-city drug dealers after her sister becomes their latest victim. The poster alone became iconic. "They made me look good," she says of the one-sheet. "They gave me a six pack."
Grier brought a lot of herself and her own ideas to Coffy, particularly her distinctive Afro and the concept of hiding razor blades in her hair. "Nobody could do nothing with it," she says of her hair. "[I told the producers,] 'Just leave it alone. I'll shampoo it, pick it out, and there we go.' I showed them how to cut it and how to match shots out of sequence. But by the time we got to the end of the movie, it's this big — we just patted it down and went with it."
<em>Foxy Brown</em> (1974)
Foxy Brown took the Coffy formula and doubled down, having Grier once again play a female vigilante out for revenge in the urban landscape of vice and crime. But this time she based the character on her aunt. "Foxy was strategically more radical and aggressive," says Grier. "I wanted to show that side of womanhood. My aunt basically was a Foxy Brown — she rode a Harley, she wanted to be an architect, and she was beautiful. She was way ahead of her time."
One of the film's most memorable moments is when Foxy presents the villain's girlfriend with his genitals in a jar, after she castrates him. Grier remembers it was a very DIY effect. "You'd scream when you saw it, but it wasn't anything — not even chitlins or pig's feet or anything like that," she reveals. "It was more of like a slinky covered in silly putty. But it was the implication of it."
<em>Friday Foster</em> (1975)
As a magazine photographer drawn into a political conspiracy after witnessing an assassination, Grier put a new spin on her vigilante heroines. But it also gave her the opportunity to work with another Black icon, Eartha Kitt, who played Catwoman on the original Batman TV series. "I just wanted to sit at her feet and listen to hear narratives," Grier gushes. "People who have that knowledge and wisdom, you want to learn from them. I wanted her to have my dressing room. I wanted her to have anything she wanted. She opened doors for me, and I knew I could learn from her. And I did. It was wondrous."
<em>Fort Apache, the Bronx</em> (1981)
Grier was approached to play Paul Newman's love interest, a nurse with a heroine addiction, in this tale of a police officer caught in a web of moral indifference in the Bronx neighborhood. But she wanted to play the film's antagonist, a prostitute who murders two police officers in the film's opening sequence. "I said, 'I'd rather play Charlotte, the junkie with no dialogue and I just kill and maim,'" she says with a laugh. "And they said, 'Why?' and I said, 'No, I can be a love interest at any time.'" Grier immersed herself in the world, showing up to the audition in a wig, ripped tights, and a mini-skirt.
Though they shared little screen time, she became good friends with Newman and credits him for her pivot to theater and teaching her how to be taken seriously as an actor. They were even planning to adapt and star in James Hathaway's Silence together at one time. "His eyes were stone ass blue," she says. "He'd take me to lunch on Staten Island, and we talked about a lot of things. He gave me strength. He said, 'Acting is about our humanness.' He gave me unbelievable knowledge."
<em>Miami Vice</em> (1985-1989)
In the 1980s, Grier began picking up guest star work on television when she wasn't pursuing opportunities in the theater. Most notably, she recurred as Tubbs' girlfriend, Valerie Gordon, an NYPD officer, on Miami Vice. "Philip Michael Thomas' birthday is the same day as mine," she notes. "But I wanted to work with a very aggressive, radical director and producer, Michael Mann. He was cutting edge."
<em>Jackie Brown</em> (1997)
Grier earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Jackie Brown, a flight attendant who is caught smuggling money. Quentin Tarantino adapted Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch specifically for Grier as an homage to her Blaxpoitation films. She says the experience was both the most rewarding and difficult of her life.
Though she credits years of theater for preparing her for Tarantino's unique two-week rehearsal process, she still was perpetually exhausted throughout the production. "She has to speak fast with Sam Jackson's Ordell," she explains, as an example. "I said, 'I don't know how I'm going to speak that fast with Sam Jackson, walking down the steps, not looking at the steps. I'm going to kill myself!' I said, 'Quentin, I'm going to fall. Can we just finish with me lying down there on the steps saying I can't keep up with this man?' He talks so fast!"
Grier admits the role terrified her, but that she took it to avoid atrophying as an actor. "I was ready to work with Quentin and give him what he needed," she reflects. "He only uses one or two takes. When he works you and you feel it, and you're in the groove, man, it just flies."
<em>The L Word</em> (2004-2009)
Grier featured in 70 episodes of the long-running Showtime series about the lives and loves of a close-knit group of lesbian women. While playing Kit Porter, half-sister to Jennifer Beals' Bette, Grier created her own backstory for their childhood. "When I wrote my character's history, it was that when we would be together as siblings, we were up in the attic playing roles with costumes," shares Grier. "And Bette always wanted to be the man and had this aura of being very masculine and dominant. And I knew that she was different, and I wanted to make her happy and safe."
Grier wasn't available to appear on the show's 2019 follow-up The L Word: Generation Q due to prior commitments, but she is eager to return to that world — as a screenwriter. "I have a film that I wanted to write about The L Word girls," she says. "I had written a story that I ran by [creator Kathy Greenberg]. It's a two-and-a-half-hour movie, not a series. So I might get that done."
Grier signed onto this comedy about a group of women who form a cheer squad at their retirement community solely for the opportunity to work with Diane Keaton. "I was doing Bless This Mess, and I said, 'I can't do two projects at a time. It will be exhausting,'" she explains. "But then I said, 'I'll sleep at lunchtime. I've got to work with Diane Keaton.' Because I wanted to ask her, 'What was it like when Al Pacino smacked you across the face [in The Godfather: Part II] and you fell off his sofa and you couldn't talk anymore? Did you want to hit him back?' Because if it was me, I would've slapped the holy s--- out of him. We'd still be rocking and rolling in that room!"