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How Karen Allen Has Lived Her Life on Her Own Terms


“The unexamined life is the wasted life.”
Joan Anderson, author of  “A Year by the Sea”



Karen Allen

Life just keeps getting fuller for actress Karen Allen. At 64 she plays the lead role in the new film “Year by the Sea, and later this year she will direct her first film—a project she’s wanted to do for more than 40 years.

Allen took some time out to share her thoughts about her role in Year by the Sea and to reflect on how she managed to find balance between raising her son, pursuing an acting career, and attaining personal fulfillment.

The first time I saw Karen Allen onscreen was in 1981 in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I was captivated. She played Marion, the hard-drinking, independent, feisty leading lady who needs no rescuing by the film’s hero, Harrison Ford (or any other man, for that matter).

“ You’re gonna get more than you bargained for! I’m your goddamned partner!”

The character she played wasn’t like any kind of leading lady I had ever seen on-screen before.  She was a total Badass. She was cool, smart, brave, and beautiful, and she wasn’t afraid to say what she really felt.  She was the first female film hero I could relate to as a teenage girl, and the character she created made an indelible impression on me.

Off-screen, I found the real-life Karen Allen to be equally as impressive. She has chosen a path anchored in what she values most, rather than the values imposed on her by fans, Hollywood, or the giant pressure-filled money machine that drives it.

One of the things I felt very strongly about as a young actor was the power of the word “no.” People try to pressure you to do stuff that you don’t think is very interesting, or you think, “Well, I don’t like the way this woman is being portrayed in this film.”  I don’t know exactly where I got the confidence to feel that way, but I felt it very early on.

With this confidence, Allen built an extremely successful film acting career, starring in not only Raiders of the Lost Ark but a myriad of other high-profile Hollywood films like Animal House, Star Man, Until September and many more. 

At age 38 she gave birth to her son, Nicholas, and found herself at a crossroads.

Until then I had been really very focused on my own life, and my world turned when I became a mother. I began to re-assess what my priorities were and what I wanted them to be.

When Nicolas was young, Allen continued to act in films and theater, but focused more on supporting roles. She turned down work that took her away from her home in New York for long periods of time or required demanding hours on the stage or on set.

When you’re up there on that screen, people identify with you and there are certain expectations about what you should or shouldn’t be doing with your life.  I felt like I had to justify the fact that my screen career wasn’t the center of my life at that point.

When Nicholas turned 6, she and her husband, actor Kale Browne, divorced and Allen became a single parent.  She decided to move to her country home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to give Nicholas a better quality of life. 

I didn’t really have a support system, so I had to go into some problem-solving mode and think, “How am I going to structure my life in a way that not only supports my own creative world but also the world of my son as he grows?”

Allen began to teach acting as an adjunct professor at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, and also became involved with the Berkshire Theater Group, acting and directing in productions.  Later, she started her own textile company, Karen Allen Fiber Arts.

As an actor, you’re always waiting for people to say “Oh yes! Here’s a role for you.” I needed to do something where I wasn’t waiting for someone to give me permission to be creative . . . where I was creating something that I could do on my own terms.

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  • Andrea April 14, 2016 at 7:50 am

    Wonderful and inspiring article Paige! I always enjoy your women of invention essays. Please continue to share them !