Karen Allen has an amazing laugh, and to hear it in person is to be transported to a steamy desert tent where her Marion Ravenwood is trading drinks with Indiana Jones’s half-charming rival, a flirty French archeologist named Belloq. It’s big and fun, and you’d volunteer to be dragged behind a speeding German truck for the chance to hear it again. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Allen played a feisty, tough-as-nails beauty whose first romantic encounter with Indy had ended in Rick Blaine level heartbreak — for her. The second time around, they teamed up to find the lost ark of the covenant before Belloq and the Nazis, and she proved to be Indy’s equal in every way.
But although Indiana Jones returned for two more blockbuster adventures in the 1980s, Marion was not in the picture. In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a prequel, Indy romanced a shrieking blonde showgirl (Kate Capshaw), and in The Last Crusade, he jousted with a blonde Austrian scholar (Alison Doody). Blondes are supposed to have more fun, but neither character connected with Indy — or audiences — like Marion. Fans voiced their preference whenever new Indy 4 rumors surfaced, and when she finally returned for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, she was the same gal that we’d all fallen in love with 27 years before. She was almost delightful enough for us to overlook the nuked fridge and the swinging monkeys. (Almost.)
With today’s release of Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures on Blu-ray — and the digitally remastered Raiders of the Lost Ark still in select theaters — Allen sat down with Entertainment Weekly to discuss her role in the franchise, why she never expected to return, and why her kiss would’ve never, ever put Indy to sleep.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The first time we meet Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark, she’s going shot for shot with a burly Nepalese drunk before Indiana Jones walks back in to her life. It was impossible not to adore her from that moment on.
KAREN ALLEN: It’s a great introduction. That’s the only scene I read at first. They gave me that scene to audition with. No one was allowed to read the script. So until they told me they wanted me, that was really all I knew about the role — that one scene. But that was enough that I was totally intrigued and wanted to do it. Whatever this story was, this was going to be a fantastic character to play.
See, that I find fascinating because that scene has such strong echoes of Casablanca that I wonder if you weren’t a little surprised when you finally learned the whole picture, what with the lost ark and pits of snakes and so forth.
It’s funny that you say Casablanca because I got it in my head that we were making Casablanca — a version of Casablanca. And I didn’t really see the more high-spirited hijinks aspect of the film, really, even when I read the screenplay. I saw it slightly in a different light, because, time period wise, I just missed that era of the Saturday afternoon matinees that Steven and Phil Kaufman, and George Lucas, and Larry Kasdan had such vivid memories of as young boys. I think I had a different movie in my own head than the movie that we ended up making, but I think the movie we ended up making was probably better than the movie I had in my head.
Now who was Indiana Jones when you came aboard?
When I said yes, there was no Indiana Jones. Tom Selleck fell out because of his commitment to Magnum. I guess simultaneously they were meeting with actresses to play Marion, because I flew to California with John Shea and we auditioned together. And then Steve asked me to stay longer in Los Angeles and then he brought in Tim Matheson, and I read with Tim.
That audition clip is on the new Blu-ray.
With me auditioning with Tim? I’ve never seen it. [Laughter] That would be interesting to see — cringe, cringe. [Laughter]
It’s difficult to imagine anyone else as Indiana with hindsight.
Maybe Harrison had always been in their minds. You’d have to ask them, but they already knew they were going to do another Star Wars; the second had just come out and he was so identified as Han Solo that maybe there was some thought that it wouldn’t be great to have him play both these characters. But in the end, they changed their mind about that. So I think I’d known I was going to do the movie a couple of weeks before Harrison came into the picture.
I think you might be only female character in Raiders with a line of dialog, so I imagine you were often the lone woman in this boys’ club of a movie. How did you deal with that?
Well, Animal House was certainly a big boys’ club too. And even though I didn’t have much experience in films, I think at that point I rather enjoyed that. I grew up with all women — two sisters and my mom. My dad was part of the family, certainly, but it felt like a female-dominant home. I think I quite enjoyed being in a much more masculine world somehow than the world I had grown up in. So I don’t remember being that daunted by that. Maybe there’s a tomboy part of me that felt equally at home with the guys, you know?
Did you feel as if you had to prove yourself to them in some way?
I think I definitely felt like a fish out of water, but it had more to do with my inexperience as an actor in front of the camera. In Animal House, most of us had never done a film before, so I was with a bunch of New York actors, most of whom had come out of the theater. It was easy to be part of that ensemble because no one knew more than the other person. I had done a couple of other films but they were very much about relationships between people. They took place in a much more ordinary environment. But this was a really big film. It was set in this really mysterious world, in a time that was not my time at all. I think I was intimidated by my own lack of experience. I think I was nervous that I didn’t know how to work, as an actor in a film of this sort: being aware of the camera at all times and working with the camera was a whole new skill set. Harrison was naturally quite good at it, having done the two Star Wars film.
NEXT PAGE: What scene in Raiders did Allen ask to change?
If that first scene with Indiana immediately and brilliantly establishes their rapport, the scene on the ship, where an exasperated Marion kisses Indiana on all the places that his aching body doesn’t hurt, is a lovely, tender moment. What do you remember about filming that sequence?
Well, I remember being very, very disappointed that in the script, he falls asleep. I was like, “Really?” [Laughs] “He’s really going to fall asleep here? After all we’ve been through.” And I think I may have even said, “Can we change that?” Years later, after they asked me to do Crystal Skull, I went back and watched Raiders a couple of times to reconnect to those two characters. And I was watching that scene, and all of a sudden I realized Marion wakes up in the bed by herself [the next morning] and she reaches back and pulls her nightgown off the top of the bed. Which I had completely forgotten about, and I thought, “Oh, they probably did have their romantic moment.” I had remembered it as being this moment that didn’t happen, when in fact it didn’t happen on screen. But then Steven had made sure that in that very first beat, we see that I grab my nightgown off of the top of the bed.
And that romantic moment is crucial, it turns out, because when Marion resurfaces in Crystal Skull, she and Indiana have a grown son. As you two fall back into your old relationship, Indy has a line that I know nerd-fans like myself loved: “There were a few [women]. They all had the same problem. They weren’t you, honey.” It was a nod to all the fans who pined for your return to the franchise.
I’ve heard that a lot. People were so mad at me for not being in those films, but it really had nothing to do with me. When they first asked me to do the [first] film, they said, “This is the plan. The plan is we’re going to do three films. You’re in the first one. Whoever plays Indiana Jones will be in all three. They are going to go backwards in time, and you haven’t seen him for 10 years when your character meets him in Raiders, so you won’t be in those films.” At the time, I remember thinking, “Fantastic.” Because to me it was just a film I was doing. I didn’t know it would become this incredible, celebrated, beloved film. At the time, I thought, “Well, isn’t that great,” because as an actor you’re a little afraid of sequels. You’re not sure that you want to have to do a film. At least at that time in my life, I loved the idea of being able to pick and choose what I wanted to do at any given moment. Of course, then it became such a huge success and then you think, “Oohhhhh.” [Laughter] “I don’t get to be in the next two?” But I never expected to be. And no one even approached me as though they were even thinking about it. I never thought about it one way or the other. But between the third and the fourth, there were all these rumors, and people would call me on the phone and say, “I was just reading this piece in the Chicago Times and Steven Spielberg dropped a hint that maybe you’re going to be in the next Indiana Jones.” Rumors came and went, came and went. So I did have it in the back of my mind: “Wouldn’t that be great? Wouldn’t that be fun?” But when Steven called me to say they had a script, I really hadn’t heard anything about or thought about it for a couple of years. I thought it was maybe something they were thinking about, but then they decided, “Nah.” So it was really quite surprising to me to find out they had a script and that they had put my character into it.
Did it feel much different to be making an Indiana Jones movie again?
It was really wonderful to be with Steven Spielberg again for a second time. We’ve already kind of gotten to know each other, and now they’ve made the choice to bring my character back and write such a beautiful storyline for me, in the sense that Indy and I have a child together that he didn’t know about, and then for them to bring our lives together at the end of the film — it was so touching. I remember sitting in Steven Spielberg’s apartment in New York reading the script, and I was really like tearing up when I got to that part. I thought, “You’re kidding, really? That’s so beautiful.” I had no idea what the storyline was going to be when I sat down to read the script. I think I probably thought that I would be a part of some new adventure; I’d come back into his life in some way that would be interesting, you know. But never, in my wildest dreams, did I think that they would marry us.
Steven and George were so specific when they first hired you for Raiders, in terms of your commitment for future films. How did that conversation go this time around. Might Marion be back for another adventure?
We didn’t really talk about whether there would be another one. But during interviews for Crystal Skull, reporters were always asking Steven, “Why did you wait so long?” And he said, “Well, because I really had no intention of doing a fourth one, but people just wouldn’t let it go.” He said, “I can’t tell you how often people were saying to me, ‘Aren’t you going to do another one? Aren’t you going to do another one?'” And finally, he just said, “Okay! I’ll do another one!” So I think he kind of feels the same way about the fifth one. Do people want to see a fifth one, and can they come up with a story that they really feel excited about. That’s the criteria. They would love to do another one, but they don’t want to do it just to do it.
The best thing about Crystal Skull to a lot of fans was the opportunity to celebrate your performance as Marion Ravenwood. Have you always sensed that goodwill?
All those years, people gave me incredible feedback about loving the character, and [asked] why wasn’t I in the other films and things like that. But I remember the moment that they announced that I was in the [new] film — it was at Comic-Con — this report came back that there was this huge response and people were like clapping and screaming, and I was like, “Really?” I was quite stunned by that. I’m always sort of surprised. We went to the IMAX [screening of Raiders] the other night and we walked in and the entire audience stood up and clapped. That always comes as a great surprise.