‘Hey there! How are you!” hollers Sissy Spacek, as if she has just come across an old friend in the shopping mall. We’ve never met; I’m half an hour late for our video meeting and in a cold sweat. She is totally chilled and chuckles kindly at my incompetence.
Spacek has been one of my favourite actors for half a century. From the off, she starred in a series of fabulous films made by great directors: as 15-year-old Holly, who goes on a killing spree with her boyfriend in Terrence Malick’s brilliant debut Badlands; as the manipulative identity thief Pinky Rose in Robert Altman’s 3 Women; as blood-soaked Carrie in Brian De Palma’s classic adaptation of the Stephen King novel; as the country singer Loretta Lynn in Michael Apted’s Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Spacek, 72, is a one-off. However creepy the characters she played in the early days, she endowed them with an otherwordly innocence. Carrie may be more famous for its ghoulishness, but the luminous purity she bring to the part is what makes it so memorable. Spacek plays Carrie with an almost religious sense of rapture. When her classmate Tommy reads a poem he pretends to have written, Carrie declares with dreamy awe that it is “beautiful”. In so many of her films, Spacek’s characters marvel at the beauty of life.
We see it again in her new Amazon series Night Sky, where her character spends night after night staring at the stars in wonderment. The series’ premise could not be more preposterous. A secret chamber in the back yard gives Irene York (Spacek) and her husband, Franklin (JK Simmons), access to a deserted planet. What makes it so compelling is the acting – Spacek is kindly and fragile, while Simmons is cantankerous but loving as a couple trying to come to terms with the suicide of their son many years previously.
“That was an interesting experiment,” Spacek says. “I’d never done sci-fi and that frightened me because I thought: ‘What do I have in my life that gives me anything to understand what she’s experiencing with that thing in the back yard?’” So what did you draw on? “Well, I don’t know.” She giggles, perplexed. “The thing that drew me to it was that wonderful relationship with her husband. That’s the thing that grounds it. You don’t often come across roles like that. So I thought: OK, well, I’ll figure out the sci-fi part later.” Spacek still speaks with a Texas twang – “my” is “mah”, “I” is “ah”. It’s a lovely, buoyant voice that ramps up her already turbocharged enthusiasm.
Spacek has always looked for common ground with her characters. Once she finds it, she buries herself in them. It’s not quite method acting, but it doesn’t make for the most relaxed of working lives. When she played a suicidal daughter in 1986’s ’night Mother, she felt she had to be in despair to do justice to the part. She found it draining, she says, not least because of her naturally sunny disposition. “If I was in a film that called for a very intense emotional scene in the afternoon, I’d get to the set and be in that mood all morning. I’d carry that misery around with me all day. When I worked with Jack Lemmon – what a great man! – he said to me: ‘You know, you should ease up on yourself. It’s either going to happen or it’s not, so don’t give everything over to the misery before you’re even there. You’ll wear yourself out.’ That was some of the best advice I ever got.” She looks up to the heavens. “So thank you, Jack Lemmon.”
And you became less intense? She laughs. “I pretty much stayed as intense as ever. I am intense. Everything is to me extremely important. Every beat.” She stops to think. Actually, she says, over time, she did begin to heed Lemmon’s advice, because she realised working that way was unsustainable. “I would hear his voice. I trust myself more now not to have to hang on to whatever emotion.”
Spacek has a tendency to belittle her achievements. She says she worked like that in the first place because she attended Lee Strasberg’s Theatre and Film Institute for only a few months and dismisses herself as a “one-trick pony”. While she learned about “sense memory” exercises, she didn’t have time to master other techniques. “I’m certainly not the best actor in the world, or the most inventive, or the most schooled, but we all just work out our own little process – what works for us. I tell young actors to trust themselves, because acting is just how to unlock what’s inside of you.” Night Sky is not the first time she has played somebody who has lost a child. In Todd Field’s In the Bedroom, she played the mother of a young man killed by his lover’s ex-husband. As always, she drew on lived experience to make the part as real possible. In this case, it was an experience that defined her life. At the age of 17, her 18-year-old brother, Robbie, died of leukaemia. She adored Robbie and losing him was shattering. But somehow she managed to turn it into a positive. In the past, she has said that his death became the inspiration for her career.
I ask her what she meant by that. “Well, I was very young and already I had a deep well of experience to use, as I use all things that have happened to me in my life.” She says the pain she felt when Robbie died was so intense that it has never left her. “I can always depend on it. So it’s like I didn’t lose him. It’s like he shared my career. It’s been like rocket fuel. It made me braver.” Because you had already experienced the worst life can throw at you, so there was nothing to be frightened of? “Yes, that’s exactly it. You wonder why the world doesn’t stop and it’s very sobering. You don’t just get grief; it’s like cold water in your face. You want to say to the world: don’t you know what just happened?
“The loss of my brother was so fresh and so recent when I began to work that it was all there. The irony is that it’s still there. It’s been just a great …” She exhales loudly, struggling for an appropriate word. “A great gift,” she says, eventually. So you reclaimed him through your work? “Exactly. He’s very alive in my heart and in my mind. So that’s been a real special thing.”
Mary Elizabeth Spacek was born on Christmas Day 1949 in Quitman, Texas. Her family were well established – her paternal grandfather was the mayor of Granger, Texas, her father a county agricultural agent and her mother a typist at the county courthouse. Her two older brothers called her Sissy and that is how it stayed.
Spacek’s childhood was idyllic. She fished with her brothers, rode a horse called Buck, went barefoot throughout the summer, watched matinees at the local picture house and performed in talent contests from the age of six. It all came to an end when Robbie, an outstanding athlete, became ill. At 17, she spent the summer with the actor Rip Torn and his wife, Geraldine Paige, in New York to “get out from under” the unfolding family tragedy. Spacek had planned to go to the University of Texas, but Robbie’s death changed everything. After finishing high school, she returned to New York in the hope of becoming a great folk singer.
It didn’t quite work out. In 1968, under the nom de plume Rainbo, she recorded a hilarious single called John You Went Too Far This Time, declaring her love for John Lennon while berating him for posing nude with Yoko on the Two Virgins album sleeve. She also sang with a group called Moose and the Pelicans, who released a likable version of She’s a Rebel. When she was dropped by her record label, she turned to acting. Within a few months of starting at Lee Strasberg, she had been cast by Malick in Badlands, where she met her husband, Jack Fisk, the film’s production designer.
With Badlands, she says, she discovered just what was possible in movies. “It was when I realised film can be art. And I was working with people – Terrence Malick, Jack Fisk, Martin Sheen [who played her boyfriend, Kit]– who had such passion. Their passion for their work ignited something in me. I had all that experience growing up, good and painful and joyous, and now I had a place to put it.” Spacek looked so different from most Hollywood starlets – red-haired, ferociously freckled, short, slight and childlike. She seemed feral one minute, serenely beautiful the next. Badlands taught her how little you had to do or say in films to make an impression. Often she expressed more with those huge blue eyes than with her words.
She lights up when she talks about Badlands. But, to be fair, she lights up when she talks about so many of her movies. In Coal Miner’s Daughter, she got to sing Lynn’s songs and won a gold disc for the soundtrack. “When we decided to go with Michael Apted, someone said to me: ‘Why did you decide to go with an Englishman?’ Well, he grew up in a coal-mining community and he didn’t bring any of the country cliches that are so prevalent. And gosh, what a great artist. You know, it’s all about the director.”
Despite winning the best actress Oscar for Coal Miner’s Daughter, it was Carrie that made her most famous. Even now, she says, teenagers show her their Carrie tattoos. “Who knew that Carrie would be around like 100 years later? Every year a new generation of young people see it.” As much as anything, Carrie is about the pain of adolescence. “So many kids feel tortured when they’re in middle school and high school. Bullied and misunderstood. Stephen King hit a nerve with that. It’s a universal story.”
Although 26-year-old Spacek was playing a schoolgirl in Carrie, she had already been working for eight years. Did she feel much older than the characters she played? Yes and no, she says. “I had maturity because of what I had lived through already, but I’ve always been connected to the inner child. I just am.” I can still see that inner child today, I say. She beams. “You think so? As a person, I do. I’m excited about people, I’m excited about work, I’m excited about children. I’m pretty passionate. I don’t feel lukewarm about things. I’m either all in or not at all.”
Incredibly, Spacek was nominated for five Oscars between 1977 and 1986. “I went from one film to another, working with great directors. It was a wonderful time. The artists ruled in the 70s. We were making low-budget films that the studios didn’t care about, so they’d leave us to our own devices.”
She says she was lucky in another way. Because she worked with friends, and often with her husband, she was protected from abusive movie moguls. I ask what it was like to work with Harvey Weinstein in 1990 on The Long Walk Home, a film about the Montgomery bus boycott. “I was already an established actor, so I was protected in that way from him. Also, I had been warned by someone I was close to, who said be careful, and so I was. He did some things that I thought were very unsavoury, but they weren’t sexual.”
What kind of unsavoury things? “I found a project and became attached to it and I brought it to Harvey. Then, when somebody else won the Academy Award, he pulled that from me and he wanted someone else to do it. I wrote him a letter, because I was so shocked that he would lower himself to that. I had already had teeth made for the character. I’d lowered my gumline. It was a real person I was going to play.” I ask what the film was. “I’d rather not say. It never got made.” Did Weinstein reply to the letter? “No. Rather than respond to me, he just dropped the project. I didn’t want him to do that – I just wanted him to acknowledge that he’d been a real turd. He could never look at me after that at any event we were at.”
Spacek and Fisk loved their early days in Hollywood; she says they still have a foothold there. But after a while, they realised they were getting caught up in the unreality of La-La land. “We used to laugh, because whatever happened in the world we’d think: wow, that would make a good film. For me, it’s important to live a real life. An actor once told me, early on, don’t be one of those people that walks down the street and people go: ‘Oh, there’s an actor!’ You want to be a person, you want to have experiences that you can use in your work.”
So they withdrew to an 85-hectare farm in Virginia, where they raised their two daughters, bred horses and embraced the real world. “It was all about kids and animals and I wanted my children to grow up and have some freedom and not have everybody say: ‘Oh, those are Sissy Spacek’s kids.’ I wanted them to be able to grow up and make mistakes and have experiences, so its been great for all of us. My older daughter, Schuyler, is a great singer and so is my younger daughter, Madison. I really sound like a mom now, don’t I? Our daughters are doomed to the art life, I’m afraid.”
Back in Virginia, they now have only one horse left. They recently turned the farm into an art space, with the barns transformed into painting and recording studios. Although Spacek is video-calling from New York today, she and Fisk still live on the farm. She believes her life away from Hollywood and her relationship with Fisk are responsible for her success. “He understands what my motivations are and I understand his, and we always give each other the space to do what we love.” It’s time to go, but she has not quite finished saluting the legendary directors with whom she has worked. “Have I mentioned Robert Altman yet?” she asks. “Oh, my God! Robert Altman! I learned so much from him. I’d say: ‘Bob, Bob, no I didn’t do that right,’ and he’d say: ‘Once you do it, it becomes reality, so there is no right or wrong.’ I learned something different from every director.”
Then there is a shoutout for David Lynch and The Straight Story, about an elderly man’s journey across Iowa and Wisconsin on a lawn mower. “I loved working with David Lynch,” she roars. “I love that film, too!” I roar back with equal fervour. Her passion is infectious. “I used the same teeth I made for the Weinstein film,” she says. “It was a great experience – and I got to use those teeth!”
She suddenly goes quiet. “I’m having regrets about talking about Harvey, because he has got his own cross to bear and I feel I don’t need to add to it,” she says. “So if you can make that as kind as you can, I would appreciate it.”
As we wind up, I ask if she is surprised to still be acting today. “I am, but I tell young people: ‘Set goals, plan ahead how you see your career and your life.’ I loved those old 1940s movies where women like Barbara Stanwyck had these powerhouse roles. I thought: I want to be like those actors and I want to be acting when I’m older. I knew I couldn’t do everything, so I picked my roles carefully, because I didn’t want to burn myself out. I wanted to be able to survive for the long haul.” Her face breaks out into a radiant smile. “And here I am in my eighth decade, still doing it.”
Night Sky is on Amazon Prime Video from 20 May