Todd Heisler/New York Times/Redux
Pam Grier can still put up a fight. Every morning, on the Colorado ranch she shares with her three dogs, the 61-year-old actress rolls out of bed at 5 a.m. to get in her daily workout. "As a cancer survivor, I cannot be undisciplined," she says. "I have to drink pure water, eat well and exercise."
It's been nearly 40 years since Grier rose to fame as the sexy, shotgun-wielding star of blaxploitation flicks such as Coffy and Foxy Brown. She has appeared in dozens of movies (Jackie Brown) as well as on stage (Fool for Love) and television (Smallville), and in a groundbreaking cable series (The L Word). Her recent best-selling memoir, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, covers her influential career and makes public, for the first time, the details of the sexual abuse and racial prejudice she suffered as a child. We recently caught up with Grier to talk about her glory days as a female action hero, why she never married, and her plans to turn her "loneliness into laughter."
Q: Your memoir stages your life so far in three acts. What are your plans for an encore?
A: [Laughs]. Well, an artist never retires so I will continue to be an actor, whether it's in theater, television, film. I've written two screenplays. Foxy [her memoir] is being considered as a film by various companies, and I have book tours and signings through March of next year. I'm also working on behalf of literacy, trying to get people to read to seniors, not only my book but others too. I'm working with farmers to get solar-powered greenhouses built that are supported by the government so that in the winter they can grow organic foods for the farmers markets in the city.
Q: Next year you're starring in the big Hollywood comedy Larry Crowne, with Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks. You play Roberts' bff [best friend forever].
A: In the film, I support Julia and we are professors at a city college, where Tom Hanks goes to reinvent himself after losing his job. The character I play is an independent, modern woman. She's well-read and political. She defines herself, like I do, by her energy, not by her age.
Q: This is your 40th year as an actress.
A: Oh my god! Yeah, 1970 is when I got my SAG [Screen Actors Guild] card.
Q: To what do you attribute your longevity?
A: I think it's my passion for the work, and developing my craft and not being afraid to be silly. It's not about fame or money for me. I'll do regional theater for $300 a week. And I do low-budget movies like Jawbreaker for first-time directors.
Q: Your name is synonymous with blaxploitation. Can you talk about the impact movies like Coffy and Foxy Brown had when they opened?
A: It was the first time audiences got to see a black woman who could be fun and dangerous and physical as well as a leader. I think men liked that, and women enjoyed seeing images of what they could be on screen. Psychologically and politically it really ruled.
My film Black Mama, White Mama set the tone, and then Coffy gave me the platform to show what I'd learned about courage growing up. I'd been traumatized as a little girl and I was able to draw on that experience to reenact scenes of abuse and pain realistically. People said, how could she have her clothes ripped off in a scene? I wanted to show what women had been going through in society, and I thought maybe if I humanized it, people would stop hurting and oppressing women.
Q: Was it cathartic to blow away ruthless pimps and corrupt cops on screen?
A: No, not really because it was just fantasy. But still the movies resonated with people in the community. There were cultural, psychological and political elements to what I was doing and I had a lot of support. Conservative men, however, didn't want me to shoot a gun or take charge. They had issues with me being a strong alpha woman. They wanted women to be feminine; you know, "Let the man do it." I said, "Well, if the man isn't there, a woman can stand up for herself." That's how I was brought up.
My mom was the model for Coffy, and my aunt was Foxy Brown. In my neighborhood, women would take a skillet and beat the you-know-what out of you if you tried to take their purse. They weren't going to stand there and scream, "Oh my god! He took my purse!" It was more like, "Oh my god! He tried to take my purse and there he is, down on the ground in a heap. You don't take my last $3 when I have five kids to feed!"
Q: You've been a model for self-asserting women for so long that readers of your memoir were shocked to learn of the terrible things that happened to you, how you were raped by two boys when you were only 6, taunted at school and subjected to racism on a regular basis. Even people close to you hadn't known some of the things you revealed in the book. How did they react when they read about it?
A: Many have been reaching out, sending letters and notes. My mom told me just yesterday that people are coming to her saying, "We didn't know those things had happened to Pammy." Many of the women who read Foxy couldn't handle the first rape in the book, and then a second and then the attempted third! The third was the scariest. Even though nothing happened, it was a fight. It was a physical battle, where I was afraid that I could be killed.
I'm very candid in the memoir, and what's interesting is that many men are buying the book and coming to the signings and revealing their circumstances of abuse. In every city there's at least one. I've also heard from men who say, "I wanted to read your memoir because I have a daughter and I want to make sure she doesn't suffer like you did." To have that, if it's just one or a thousand, it would make my life worth living, make every moment I survived worth it.
Q: You also write about being diagnosed in 1988 with cancer, which is in remission now. What got you through that difficult period?
A: Bill Moyers.
Q: Bill Moyers?
A: I saw this documentary Healing and the Mind With Bill Moyers, and it saved my life. I was at my rented house in the Valley [San Fernando Valley] one night, contemplating what my process was going to be, when it came on PBS. Moyers was visiting shamans and witch doctors and practitioners of wellness all over the world. One episode was in China, where this woman had a malignant tumor on her back, which flattens out after weeks of therapy with acupuncture and pressure and herbs and meditation. The cancer was gone and that was my sign. Literally, that night I said I would seek Eastern medicine.
I know where every Chinatown in every city is in this country. So I know where I can get herb teas and dong guai and all kinds of other roots and things I'm supposed to have as a woman to balance my chi. All I know is I followed the spiritual advice I got, and I feel much better today.
Q: Did having cancer change you?
A: It taught me a lot. It taught about how close I came to death, and how far I can go in life. When I go to the herb shops I see women in their 80s and 90s who look fantastic. Their skin is smooth. A lot of women think that after menopause you won't care about being sexually intimate with a man. I don't know if that's true or not, but I know for many women, including myself, we don't know we had it. All we know is, we good to go!
Q: You achieved sex symbol status during the '70s. Do men still chase after you?
A: I'm not ready to date right now because of a relationship that ended horribly after eight years. But yes, men of various ages are still attracted to me. Forty-five-year-old men and some as young as 35 are great to be with and date and see movies and discuss politics. I think my interests are varied, so that will always give me a great selection, if you will. I like going to museums, concerts, opera, rock-climbing, riding horses into the hills, going to the classic car shows, or just digging someone out of a ditch with my John Deere tractor.
One of my favorite shows is TLC's Say Yes to the Dress. I love watching these women buy beautiful dresses for their weddings. That's something I always wanted to have. I believe in the ceremony to celebrate the mindset of marriage. As a little girl, you dream of the wedding dress and veil, and you picture all your friends and family there. I hope I'm not 80 [laughs] when it happens, but who knows what I'll be like then.
Q: In your 20s you came close to exchanging vows with NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. One of the reasons it didn't happen is because Kareem converted to Islam. At the time, you thought the religion was "oppressive to women."
A: Islam is a monolithic community; there are fundamentalists, conservatives, liberals, and at the time Kareem couldn't give me an idea of where we'd be as a couple. I'm a child of the women's movement. I know I need an education. I know I might need a job, if something happens to him. I would be giving up a lot.… I was hoping he could give me more information, which he could not. And I asked for more time, which he didn't give me. I said give me more time and, possibly, we would've been married.
Q: You also dated comedians like Richard Pryor and Freddie Prinze. In your book you talk about your desire to do comedy. Can we expect to see you in one anytime soon?
A: I hope so. I've written a television comedy series that we'd like to get on the air. It's a modern-day All in the Family, with an interracial cast. It's about two half-sisters — one black, one white — who move back home to live with their mother in these harsh economic times. I was hoping to get Cybill Shepherd to play my sister, and I want Cloris Leachman to play the mom. She's a child of the '70s, a frolicking Gloria Steinem-type character. Fast-forward to today and her two grown daughters have come home to roost. We've got the whole dynamic of family, race and politics to deal with.
Q: Sounds like something our readers might like to see.
A: [Laughs]. Absolutely. I have a dream that I can bring some funny that I learned from Freddie and Richard, and all my mentors. I'm still kicking. I'm still dreaming. I'm still writing. And if I can turn all of my tears and sorrow and loneliness into laughter to share with others, I'm for it. I'm there.