Plus, the Indiana Jones star tells EW how she avoided the pitfalls of the damsel-in-distress trope.

By Maureen Lee Lenker
June 11, 2021 at 10:30 AM EDT
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Indiana Jones may hate snakes, but Marion Ravenwood isn't a fan of monkeys.

Or, at least, the woman who plays her, Karen Allen, is not. While sitting down with EW to reminisce for the 40th anniversary of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Allen opened up about her simian costar.

Despite Marion's rather loving relationship with a capuchin monkey she and Indy (Harrison Ford) encounter in Cairo (she even jokes that it's their "baby"), Allen says the animal was challenging.

"The monkey was a very unpleasant experience," she recalls. "Here in the United States, we have Hollywood monkeys that are raised by people from a very young age, and they have trainers and they're really obedient. I don't know where that monkey came from. All I know is we were in Tunisia and that monkey had no training whatsoever."

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
Credit: CBS via Getty Images

"You had to catch that monkey in a good moment, or it was going to give you a really hard time," she continues. "It was hot there and the monkey really had no interest in being in the heat. He was not my favorite costar. I worked with another monkey one time [in Animal Behavior], and he almost hit my thumb off, so I think I'm done with monkeys."

Her offscreen distaste for her difficult scene partner aside, Allen had the time of her life making Raiders of the Lost Ark - and the fourth Indiana Jones film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull nearly 30 years later.

In advance of the 40th anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark (and its new 4k Ultra HD box set release), we got in touch with Allen to discuss everything from how she kept her cool as buckets of snakes were dumped on her head to the instrumental role she played in pulling Marion back from damsel-in-distress tendencies.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
Credit: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Our introduction to your character is iconic, but there's a line that has increasingly drawn ire over the years, which is "I was a child." At the time did that line make you raise your eyebrows at all and have your thoughts on that changed at all over the years?

KAREN ALLEN: We don't know much about what went on between them. What I thought when I read that [was] he was a student of my father's. My father was very fond of him, so there was a safety zone there. It wasn't like he was a complete stranger, and she was 16, but we don't know if they had a full out affair or romance. There was definitely something that happened between them, and he was her first crush, her first love. So, it didn't bother me at all because it's so vague. I mean, it's not like she was pregnant with his child or something [Laughs]. It didn't really phase me.

I read you developed a whole backstory for Marion. Can you tell us more about that?

I wrote it 40 years ago. At that time in my life, and I have continued to do this often, but I really do like to know, "Where did this person come from? Where were they born? Who was their mother? Where did she go to school? What was she interested in?" So I just sat down and wrote five or six pages of her history. Do I remember the specifics of it? Not so much. But it was very helpful to me at the time, and I remember giving it to [director] Steven Spielberg, and I think Steven was like, "What is this and why would you do this?" But when I work on characters, I want to be able to answer the questions that most people would know about themselves like when is your birthday. You're never going to find those things in the script. But they're important to me as I think about and develop the character.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
Credit: Everett Collection

What do you remember about that red embroidered ensemble you wore. Was it comfortable? Do you remember first impressions of it and did you have a sense it would enter the public imagination the way it has?

Deborah Nadoolman, who had worked on Animal House as well - so I knew her as a costume designer, she had done the costumes. We did them all in Los Angeles before we went over to London to shoot the film. It's a period piece, so they were very fanciful costumes, and I liked that outfit. The white dress, I developed a real negative relationship with. Marion has four or five different costumes in the course of this thing, and I really enjoyed them all but the white dress with the big bow on my butt was the one I could have done without. I would've liked to have snuck in and burned all of those dresses.

It's well-known movie lore at this point that Harrison shoots the guy with the sword because he was sick and didn't want to do the fight choreography, but what was life on the set like for you during that? On screen, you're being carted away in a basket and kidnapped - what was it like filming that and did you get sick offscreen too?

We all stayed perfectly well when we were in England, but then we got to Tunisia and we were in this little tiny town called Nefta that was right on the edge of the Sahara Desert. We discovered a couple of things. This place was inundated with flies, so every time they would put out a table of food flies would just come. They would try to cover the food, but the minute they took the covers off, flies would just cover your food. So you're a little like, "Hmm, I don't know if I really want to eat any of this food." I would usually grab a piece of bread because the flies were less interested in bread. But we discovered that they were filling bottles of water and telling us they were bottled water and they were filling them up from the tap and charging us like two bucks a bottle or something. And so, almost everybody got quite ill on the set. By the time we left Tunisia, which is where I finished the film, we had all lost like 10 or 12 pounds. We all just shrank in the course of the film.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
Credit: CBS via Getty Images

I also read you improvised the scene with Belloq (Paul Freeman) in the tent with the knife. Is that true? How did that come about?

We improvised it before the actual shooting of the scene. In the script, the scene was really about Marion seducing Belloq, and I wear the white dress the whole time. I said to Steven, "Why does she put on that white dress? Like what is the point of putting on the white dress? She's trying to escape. How is she going to be more obvious in an attempt to escape in that white dress than she is in her red pants?" There was really no answer to that question. I kept trying to say, "What is really going on in this scene?" And Paul agreed with me.

Marion truly loved Indy, and she wasn't going to seduce Belloq in this story. She wasn't going to be prone to being seduced by him, and she wasn't going to seduce him, even if it was for her own purposes of escape. Steven said, "If you can come up with a scene that is better than the scene that's there, we'll shoot that scene." So, Paul and I would sneak off to the tent at lunch, and we would improvise. He came up with this wonderful story that this liquor that he had there in the tent was his family's vineyard, and that we could start this scene out where you think that I'm trying to get him drunk, but in fact, I get drunk instead. I've put on the white dress, in order to have a way to hide this knife, and I'm just sitting there waiting for a moment to try to escape. We showed it to Steven, and he liked it, so we shot it.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
Credit: Paramount Pictures

One of the biggest centerpieces is when you and Indy get stuck in the Well of Souls with the pit of snakes. How many real snakes were you dealing with? What was that filming situation like? Any fear of getting bit?

They brought in about 6,000-7,000 snakes. The snakes were kept in these large bins, and there would be maybe several hundred snakes in a bin. They were all around the set, and there were dozens of snake wranglers looking after the snakes. They would bring these snakes and just pour them on us because in the heat of the of the lights on the set, the snakes just didn't want to be there. They wanted to go to someplace dark and cool. So, they'd have to pour the snakes literally onto us to have them at our feet by the time Steven said, "Action." We had to get used to these snakes right away. There was no time for us to get to know each other. The snakes were just suddenly a real part of it, and fortunately, I'm not particularly afraid of snakes, so it wasn't as hard as if I had a horror of snakes or something. I don't know what we would have done. I would have had to get a therapist or something. By day four or five, I was just like, "Okay, bring on the snakes." But there were some pythons that would try to bite you. Fortunately, I was always able to get away from them before they made a lunge in my direction. There was the cobras but we shot them through glass because it was very dangerous to be close to them.

Marion proves from the moment we meet her she can hold her own, but then, in that sequence it could run the risk of veering into damsel-in-distress territory. What did you do to temper that and did you push back on anything there to make sure it didn't go there?

I pushed back all the way through the film on the damsel-in-distress thing. They created this very strong character there in the beginning, but then, they were trying to have fun with putting her in all of these very dangerous situations. Often, they would write it so at moments she would become sort of helpless. I kept having to be the consistency police. I got very possessive of that character, and I felt very strongly that I wanted her to stay resourceful and strong and independent and capable of dealing. If she could live there in that bar in Nepal and find a way to drink men under the table and make a way to survive and live that way, there's not many situations that she wasn't up to.

You don't want to be a pain in the butt, but I was constantly having to remind them that this was a very strong, tough woman. That when the situation came about she never would be somebody who was helpless. She would always be looking for the solution and looking for a way to protect herself. Steven was very open to that. I don't think sometimes he would notice those things as much as I would. I would say, "Here's a moment where you're giving her nothing to do, and in that moment, there can be a sense of helplessness because she's not having an action." I was constantly looking for those moments and trying to find ways in which she could be more actively involved in things. There are little moments, like in the Well of Souls where she leaps up on to Indy's shoulders, and you don't want to take all the fun out of it. You want to create somebody who is strong but human. It's a funny little razor's edge.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
Credit: Paramount Pictures

Do you think that razor's edge and your influence and insistence on keeping Marion strong is what has made her endure as Indy's most beloved love interest?

Each one of the women that they created for each one of those films had their strengths. Alison [Doody] in the third one is actually an evil character. She's more of a villain than a heroine. And Kate [Capshaw] has a wonderful opening scene where she's dancing in this club. But Marion is an unusual character in the sense that it's pretty hard to find a better way to introduce a character than to have her knocking back shots of whiskey and across the table is a 300-pound man who is not able to keep up with her. It's hard to go up against that. Then, he walks in and she punches him in the face. They just outdid themselves writing that character.

People have thrown out names like Irene Dunne and Katharine Hepburn when it comes to who inspired Marion, but were those influences you were bringing to the table?

I'll tell you what Steven said to me when he asked me to do the role. He said to me, "I see this characters sort of like Patricia Neal in Hud." I hadn't seen it for a long time, so I went back and I watched Patricia Neil's performance in Hud, and she has this presence and strength and self-assurance. It's very different than Marion, and yet at the same time that was who he was referencing. A lot of people say that the Indy-Marion relationship is a lot like Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and the rat-a-tat-tat way in which they talk to each other has that feeling, that love-hate thing. But I took the Patricia Neal thing very much to heart. I think it gave the character - in spite of all of the action adventure - a soulfulness or grounding.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
Credit: Paramount Pictures

At the end, you're tied to this post with Harrison and closing your eyes - it's terrifying to watch now, but I can imagine with the practical effects it would be gross or perhaps tedious to film - was it?

We were really up on this post and tied to this thing. It's the one little sequence where there are some special effects which, obviously, there was nothing going on there when we were there. It was my first experience of ever doing something like this, but Steven was down on the set saying, "Okay, the Ark is opening and something really horrible is coming out of the Ark, and it's going over there, and now it's coming past here and close your eyes. Oh, it's terrible!" He just talked us through it. We had no idea what it was that we might or might not have been seeing. We had no idea what it was that we were really responding to or protecting ourselves from.

This box-set also has the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. When you first read that Indy and Marion were finally getting married, how did you react? Was it satisfying to you?

When I first read it, I wept. I was so surprised. Steven had called me to say he wanted me to be in this Indiana Jones four film, and I went to his apartment in New York to read it. And I read it, and I got to the place where we are getting married, and I just burst into tears. Somehow I really internalized this feeling that these guys were meant to be together. I was very touched by the whole thing - that they decided, in the end, to really make Marion as important a character in his life, as I felt she was in my own imagination.

Well, you are married and as far as we know, Marion isn't dead. I know you can't say much, if anything, but would you want to return for Indy 5?

Absolutely, I would want to. Yes.

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