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11:05 am
Mon April 30, 2012

Sissy Spacek's 'Extraordinary Ordinary Life'

Originally published on Mon April 30, 2012 11:45 am

When Sissy Spacek started her film career, she was told to lose her heavy Texas accent. But her famous drawl became one of her greatest assets when Terrence Malick cast her in his 1973 crime drama Badlands.

Spacek played Holly, a teenage girl from South Dakota who became an accomplice on a cross-country murder spree. The film, which also starred Martin Sheen, was narrated in Spacek's distinctive Southern voice.

How she got the role remains up for debate. Spacek says that Malick remembers auditioning one of Spacek's friends, only to become charmed by Spacek herself after she interrupted their meeting. Spacek says she remembers the story a bit differently.

"I just had a meeting and showed up at his house," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "He would give me little pieces of paper that he would pull out of his pocket. And I would unroll them, and it would have a line of dialogue on [it], and he would ask me to read them. And when I did, he would just laugh. And that was always a good sign with Terry."

Spacek was cast in the movie immediately. She details what it was like to work with Malick — as well as other directors like Robert Altman, David Lynch and Brian De Palma — in her memoir, My Extraordinary Ordinary Life, which traces the four-decade career that has seen her star in such landmark films as Coal Miner's Daughter and Carrie.

Spacek was 25 when she was cast in Carrie, a horror classic based on the Stephen King novel. She played the title character, a social outcast with telekinetic powers that surface when she's angry or upset.

At her audition, Spacek wanted to appear younger than her 25 years, so she wore a sailor dress that her mother had made for her to wear in junior high.

"I just happened to still have it with me," she says. "I took the hem out of it so I looked a little more dorkish, but I looked very young. I remember, I read the book the night before the screen test, and that was enough to really connect me with it. I woke up, didn't brush my teeth, didn't wash my face, [and I] put Vaseline in my hair so it would look dirty and unkempt."

At the screen test, the hair and makeup artists tried to take Spacek aside to redo her makeup.

"And of course, I ran to the other side of the room cowering," she says. "But you know, I think all of us have a Carrie in us somewhere — at least I think all teenagers do — so I just channeled that side of myself."


Interview Highlights

On preparing for her scenes in Carrie

"I pored over all the religious material and the Dore etching of the Bible. My husband, who was set-designing the film, had stacks of research. One of the things I noticed was how dramatic the body positions were [in the Dore etchings]. And I studied those, and I tried to either begin a scene or end the scene — or at some time during the scene — take on those biblical and very dramatic body positions. And I think that subliminally, it gave it another layer."

On twirling a baton in high school

"That was what all young girls in this area, that's what we aspired to. That was the thing to do. In my adult life, when I've told my own daughters that, they were just horrified. They played sports. But that wasn't really done back then. We were either cheerleaders or majorettes. I guess I liked the short shorts, Terry, I don't know. It seemed so important to wear those white boots with jingle taps. ... Jingle taps on the majorette boots and jingle bells on the majorette boots were an important part of a little girl growing up in the South."

On her older brother, who died of leukemia when she was a teenager

"We were very close. We were all very afraid. But I think he did have an understanding of what was at stake. ... So many young men were there at the hospital with leukemia, and they were all friends. One by one, they would die. And you begin to think, and I know he began to think, 'When is my number going to be up?' But I think more than anything, he thought his illness was making it so difficult for the family, which was so much like him to think that way — to think how it was affecting us as much as it was affecting him. We were really a tight unit."

On singing like Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter

"There's something about the way Loretta — nobody else sings like Loretta, and nobody else talks like Loretta. In fact, nobody in Kentucky sounds like Loretta. There's something that she does with her breath that's just unique, and once I captured her rhythm, the hardest part of Coal Miner's Daughter for me was giving it all up ... [and] not being Loretta. I was so funny when I was Loretta. She has such a great sense of humor."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, actress Sissy Spacek, has written a new memoir called "My Extraordinary, Ordinary Life." Like a lot of her fans, I vividly remember the first times I saw her: as the young and naive girlfriend of a serial killer in "Badlands," and as the outcast teenager who's pranked on prom night and covered with a bucket of pig blood in the film "Carrie."

She won an Oscar for her portrayal of Loretta Lynn in the 1980 film "Coalminer's Daughter." More recently, Sissy Spacek played a lobbyist in the HBO series "Big Love" and the mother of a racist young woman in the film "The Help."

Spacek's memoir describes growing up in a small town in Texas, trying and failing to make it as a singer in New York, and then breaking into movies. She met her husband while making the 1973 film "Badlands." They now live in the Blue Mountains in Virginia. Let's start with a clip from "Badlands." Spacek plays a teenager in a small South Dakota town.

She doesn't speak much, but she narrates the story of how she fell under the spell of a handsome young rebel named Kit, played by Martin Sheen, and became his accomplice in a killing spree. Here's part of her narration early in the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BADLANDS")

SISSY SPACEK: (As Holly) Kit went to work in the feed lot while I carried on with my studies. Little by little, we fell in love. As I'd never been popular in school and didn't have a lot of personality, I was surprised that he took such a liking to me, especially when he could have had any other girl in town if he'd given it half a try.

(As Holly) He said that I was grand, though, that he wasn't interested in me for sex, and that coming from him this was a compliment. He'd never met a 15-year-old girl who behaved more like a grownup and wasn't giggly. He didn't care what anybody else thought. I looked good to him, and whatever I did was OK, and if I didn't have a lot to say, well, that was OK, too.

GROSS: Sissy Spacek, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's really a pleasure to have you back on the show, and congratulations on the memoir.

SPACEK: Thank you.

GROSS: The voiceover narration that we just heard from "Badlands" was actually recorded in the bedroom of the director, Terrence Malick.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I was really surprised to read that. Was it hard to get into character, like, in somebody's house?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPACEK: No, it was actually after we'd shot the film, and there were blankets. He had nailed blankets up on every wall. He was such an old friend by that time, and, you know, everything we did on that film was a little different than on a lot of films. We were all so new at it. We didn't know it was supposed to be done in a recording studio.

GROSS: Now, you were told when you were getting started in show business that you should lose your Texas accent and come back when you were older, but your youth and your Texas accent were just what was needed for this role. How were you cast in it?

SPACEK: Well, there are a couple of stories that are circulating. Terry tells me that he was really meeting with a girlfriend of mine, and I was waiting in the car. And after an hour or so of her being inside, I knocked on the door. And I don't remember that, but it was in a big, old house that he had rented from George Segal, where he was meeting with all the actors - and a big empty house, actually.

He would give me little pieces of paper that he would pull out of his pocket and hand them to me, and I would unroll them, and he'd have a line of dialogue. He'd have something written on them. And he would ask me to read them. And when I did, he would just laugh. And that was always a good sign with Terry: If something made him laugh, it meant he liked it.

GROSS: That was during the audition, or during the shoot?

SPACEK: During the audition. You know, from the moment we met, he cast me in the movie, just immediately. And I know it's because we had a - so many shared life experiences growing up in Texas and - in the '50s, and that was our first really strong connection. And as I - each time I would meet with him, he would give me more pages. And suddenly, Holly had strawberry-blonde hair.

And then one day we were talking, and I told him I could twirl a baton. And the next time I saw the script, Holly was a strawberry blonde that twirled a baton. So he really gave me ownership, and he asked me many questions about Holly. And it was the first time that I ever had the opportunity to be that much a part of the building of a character. And it was thrilling.

GROSS: It was such a life-changing movie for you, because it was your first starring role. And also, you fell in love with Jack Fisk, who was the set designer for that film and went on to become a very famous production designer in movies. And you've been married for many years since.

When you started falling in love on this movie, did you try to keep it a secret from others, or did everybody else know?

SPACEK: You know, I don't think we tried to keep it a secret, but - and most everyone knew. Terry didn't know, but Terry was so focused on the film. My first date with Jack was - he asked me to take the boat home, a little rowboat down the river to - back to the hotel, or the motel where the whole crew was staying.

And he had built this wonderful treehouse out among the cottonwoods, and it was just the most magical place. And I thought, oh, this is a great idea. No one has ever asked me to take a boat anywhere. So the whole crew left, knowing that we were going to take this boat trip about 10 miles back to the motel.

And then a huge storm came, lightning and thunder and torrential rains, and the boat sank about 100 yards down the river, and the crew members were really nervous, because the storm was so big. They sent out search parties for us, and, of course, we were so much in love we were dodging the headlights.

We would hide in the wet ditches when we would see headlights. And we finally made it back late that night. And we were dripping wet and just exhilarated, and we walked into the dining room where Terry was having tea and working on the script. And he looked up at us, gave us a beatific smile and said: How was the boat trip?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPACEK: So, you know, he had never been worried. He thought it was just - you know, when he finally heard about it, he thought it was wonderful. Everyone else had fallen to pieces, but we made it back.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sissy Spacek, and she has a new memoir called "My Extraordinary, Ordinary Life." Let's talk about another film that made you famous, and this is "Carrie." And you were 25 when you got the role, even though Carrie is a high school student, a very lonely high school student who's frequently bullied.

She has telekinetic powers. She has a mother who's a religious zealot, who's obsessed with sexual sin and punishment. Tell us how you dressed for this audition, to make it clear that even though you were 25, you could be a convincing high school student.

SPACEK: Well, I wore a little sailor dress that my mother had had made for me when I was in about seventh grade, and I just happened to still have it with me. I'd been to New York and I'd been to Los Angeles, and I still had this little sailor dress. That tells you something about me.

GROSS: And it still fit, or was it too small?

SPACEK: Oh, yeah, it still fit. But I took the hem out of it. I remember that. So it was a little more - I looked a little more dorkish.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPACEK: But I looked very young. I tried to - I remember, I read the book again the night before the screen test, and that was enough to really connect me with it. And I woke up, I didn't brush my teeth. I didn't wash my face. I put Vaseline in my hair. And I went...

GROSS: Why did you put Vaseline in your hair?

SPACEK: Just so it would look dirty, and I would look a little unkempt and sorry for myself.

GROSS: And then?

SPACEK: I just - I think all of us have a Carrie in us somewhere, certainly most teenagers do. And so I just channeled that side of myself.

GROSS: Well, let's hope we don't have a Carrie's mother in us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPACEK: Let's hope not. Piper Laurie was so amazing. I - she really gave that character something.

GROSS: I want to play a clip with you and her. And, you know, in the beginning of the movie, you're in the shower after gym class, and it's a very lyrical scene and lovely music. And suddenly, there's blood between your legs. And you don't understand what menstruation is, and this is like the first time you've started menstruating, and you're just in a panic seeing the blood.

And you start screaming. And then, you know, all the girls are, like, laughing at you. And then you go home, and you tell your mother, played by Piper Laurie, what's happened and that the kids were laughing at you and that, you know, you want to know: How come you never told me about this?

And this is just a really, like, frightening scene. You know, Piper Laurie, as your mother, picks up this book and starts reading from a chapter called "The Sins of Women." And then she starts, like, hitting you on the head with it. And what we hear at the end of this scene is your mother dragging you into a closet and locking you up in it as punishment.

So here's the scene with my guest, Sissy Spacek, and Piper Laurie in "Carrie."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CARRIE")

PIPER LAURIE: (As Margaret White) The raven was called sin.

SPACEK: (As Carrie) Why didn't you tell me, mama?

LAURIE: (As Margaret) Say it.

SPACEK: (As Carrie) No.

LAURIE: (As Margaret) The raven was called sin.

SPACEK: (As Carrie) And the raven was called sin.

LAURIE: (As Margaret) And the first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse.

SPACEK: (As Carrie) I didn't sin, mama.

LAURIE: (As Margaret) Say it.

SPACEK: (As Carrie) I didn't sin, mama.

LAURIE: (As Margaret) The first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse.

SPACEK: (As Carrie) And the first sin was intercourse. Mama, I was so scared. I thought I was dying. And the girls, they all laughed at me and threw things at me, mama.

LAURIE: (As Margaret) And he was weak. Say it.

SPACEK: (As Carrie) No, mama.

LAURIE: (As Margaret) He was weak. He was weak.

SPACEK: (As Carrie) No. No.

LAURIE: (As Margaret) He was weak. Say it.

SPACEK: (As Carrie) No, mama.

LAURIE: (As Margaret) Say it.

SPACEK: (As Carrie) He was weak. He was weak.

LAURIE: (As Margaret) And the Lord visited him with a curse. The curse was the curse of blood.

SPACEK: (As Carrie) You should have told me, mama. You should have told me.

LAURIE: (As Margaret) Oh, Lord. Help the sinning woman see the sin of her days and ways. Show her that if she had remained sinless, the curse of blood would never have come on her. She may have been tempted by the Antichrist. She may have committed the sin of lustful thoughts.

SPACEK: (As Carrie) No, mama.

LAURIE: (As Margaret) Oh, don't lie to me, Carietta. Don't you know by now I can see inside you? I can see the sin, as surely as God can.

SPACEK: (As Carrie) Let me go, mama. You're hurting me.

LAURIE: (As Margaret) We'll pray. We'll pray, woman.

SPACEK: (As Carrie) No. Stop, momma. No.

GROSS: That's my guest, Sissy Spacek, with Piper Laurie as her mother in a great scene from "Carrie." And that's Sissy Spacek at the end, banging on the closet door that her mother's just locked her in.

SPACEK: Oh, my God. That's so disturbing.

GROSS: Isn't it disturbing? Yeah, I know.

SPACEK: Oh, my gosh.

GROSS: But it sounds like a duet. It almost sounds like music the way you two are doing your parts together.

SPACEK: She was - playing scenes with her and playing scenes with other actors is really like a dance. And we just both came in prepared, and then - and we just - it just became real for us. And, you know, I pored over all the religious material and the Dore etchings of the Bible.

Actually, my husband, who was designing the film, had stacks of research. And when I went through it, I found a book of all of the Dore etchings of the plates of the Bible. And one of the things I noticed was how dramatic and melodramatic the body positions were.

And I studied those, and I tried to either begin a scene, end the scene or at some time during the scene take on those biblical and very dramatic body positions. And I think that, subliminally, you know, it gave it another layer.

Also, I think, you know, the thing about Carrie was she just - she didn't care about her telekinesis. She didn't care about that. She just wanted to be normal. But she didn't know how to be. She didn't have any - she didn't - obviously didn't have any help at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPACEK: And she was an abused child. But, you know, I - we shot in a soundstage at Culver City Studios in Los Angeles. And, you know, it's a huge, dark, cavernous building. And I was always lurking. You know, all the cast was having fun together, and I was, you know, lurking in the catacombs and the dark corners, the dark recesses of this building, kind of licking my wounds. And that was the time in my career where I stayed in character. And, you know, it was, like, I was really hamming it up.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sissy Spacek, and she has a new memoir called "My Extraordinary, Ordinary Life." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is actress Sissy Spacek. She's written a new memoir called "My Extraordinary, Ordinary Life." When we left off, we were talking about her starring role in the 1976 film "Carrie."

So in the final scene - and if you haven't seen "Carrie" and you intend on seeing it soon, tune out for a couple of seconds.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: In the final scene, after you've been, you know, dead and laid to rest, the Amy Irving character comes to visit your grave. And there's this beautiful music playing, and suddenly, like, your hand shoots out from beneath the earth. And everybody in the audience, like, screams or jumps. And you insisted - you know, the director, Brian De Palma, suggested getting, you know, like a stuntperson, a body double to do that part, just like the hand coming out of the grave.

But you insisted that, like, it be your hand and that you be buried. When you see the film with other people - as I suspect, but maybe you haven't done - are you glad it's your hand when you see people's reaction to that scene?

SPACEK: Oh, absolutely. I laughed, you know, about that, that I do all my own foot and hand work, and always have.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPACEK: But, you know, I used to go to - when I was in New York, and "Carrie" came out, I would go to theaters just for the last five minutes of the film to watch everyone jump out of their chairs. Because if you know it's coming - you know, the film ends about - as Brian said, about eight times. And so you're - people are all relaxed. The music is really beautiful and relaxing, and all of a sudden that comes up, and people just go crazy.

Although, you know, my favorite scene in the film is the one where Carrie's mother is impaled with the kitchen utensils. That, I think, is one of the most wonderful and unique scenes. And it was done, back then, she was rigged, and all of those kitchen utensils were sticking out of her. They were - you know, there was a - she was wearing a harness, and it was very...

GROSS: Let me just explain that, you know, what happens is your mother stabs you in the back with this big butcher knife, and then she makes a cross with the knife. And then using your telekinetic powers, you summon all the knives in the kitchen to kind of rise up and float over and stab her. So she's impaled with all the kitchen knives through your telekinetic powers. So, obviously...

SPACEK: And a couple of carrot peelers.

GROSS: Yes, OK. Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So that's the scene that you're describing.

SPACEK: Yes. And it was interesting, because they shot it backwards, and then they reversed the film. So they started - when we were shooting it, they started in her body, and then were pulled out on wires to, you know, to the counter where the potato peeler was and to the drawer where the knives were. And, you know, it's certainly not the way they do special effects now, but it just holds up so beautifully.

GROSS: So you grew up in a small town in Texas. Your father was the agricultural agent. Your mother worked in the courthouse, in the abstract office. Would you describe the town?

SPACEK: There were 1,237 people. It was an agricultural center. It was the county seat of Wood County. A beautiful, big courthouse was built there. You know, the town was built around that courthouse. It was a courthouse square, with all the storefronts built around the courthouse.

We had - we didn't have much. We had probably three or four churches, two cafes, a dry goods store, a hardware store, a funeral home, a - two drugstores, actually, and a couple of gas stations. We didn't have much, but we had everything we needed. And it was a fabulous place to grow up.

I was - on the Quitman stage, I was a big fish in a little pond.

GROSS: Quitman is the name of the town.

SPACEK: Yes.

GROSS: So you decided you wanted to perform when you were, I think, around six, after seeing a little performance at a brick schoolhouse in Coke, Texas, which, at the time, had a population of 25 people. So after making that decision that you wanted to be in show business, you took baton-twirling lessons, tap lessons. What did it mean to you to be able to twirl a baton with the marching band when you were in school?

SPACEK: Oh, that was - that's what all young girls in this area, that's what we aspired to. That was the thing to do. Now, you know, when I've - in my adult life, when I've told my own daughters that, they were just horrified. You know, they played sports. But that - you know, that wasn't really done back then.

So we - you know, we were either cheerleaders or majorettes. And I guess I liked the short shorts, Terry. I don't know. It seemed so important to wear those - you know, there's so much just to wear those white boots with jingle taps.

When I did "Crimes of the Heart" with Beth Henley, she presented - at the first day of filming, she presented to Diane Keaton and Jessica Lange and I a long, red ribbon sewn in a circle with tiny, little jingle bells all around it. And that was significant to her, because all little - and it was significant to me, because all little girls would have these jingle bells sewn into their petticoats when they were little.

So jingle taps in the majorette boots and jingle bells on our petticoats were an important part of a little girl growing up in the South.

GROSS: Yet you were a tomboy.

SPACEK: Yet I was a tomboy, yeah. But that was probably - I was probably a tomboy more because I had brothers who I idolized than any other reason, and they - you know, for many years, we all shared a room. And so I only had one tiny, little corner for dolls and, you know, girly things.

So they were my playmates. And I grew up climbing trees and building forts and getting hit in the head with baseballs and, you know, trying to ride my bicycle after them, you know, going to the dump and going to the football stadium the morning after the ballgames and looking for things that had dropped out of people's pockets.

I got to do a lot of boy things. They made a man out of me, Terry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Sissy Spacek will be back in the second half of the show. Her new memoir is called "My Extraordinary, Ordinary Life." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Sissy Spacek. She's written a new memoir called "My Extraordinary Ordinary Life." It's about growing up in a small town in Texas, going to New York with the hopes of a music career and ending up making movies. She became famous for her performances in "Badlands," "Carrie" and "Coal Miner's Daughter" and more recently was in the HBO series "Big Love" and the film "The Help."

When you were around 17, as you were getting really serious about a performing career, your older brother Robbie was diagnosed with leukemia. Your father took a leave of absence from his job. You stayed in town, but your parents rented an apartment in Houston to be near the hospital where your parents thought your brother would get the best care. When your brother was this sick and he gave eventually die of the leukemia, did you know how to talk with him about his sickness, about the fear that you and he probably shared about his mortality? I think it's hard for anybody to talk about that. But when you're 17, I don't know that yet have a language for that.

SPACEK: We were very close. And we were all very afraid. But I think he did have an understanding of what was at stake. Because, you know, he was at and MD Anderson Hospital - which is a wonderful hospital. And so many young men - teenagers and early 20s - were there at the hospital with leukemia, and one by one - you know, they were all friends. They all became close friends, we all were. But one by one, they would die. And, you know, you begin to think, you know, and I know he began to think, when is my number going to be up? But I think more than anything, he felt his illness was making it so difficult for the family, which was so much like him to think that way - to think of how it was affecting us as much as how it was affecting him because we are really a tight unit - my family, so...

GROSS: During the summer while he was in the hospital you went to New York to spend the summer with your cousin, Rip Torn, who at the time was living with Geraldine Page and they were both, you know, great actors working on the Broadway stage. So you're getting exposed to this just incredibly magical stuff - getting access to backstage on Broadway and, you know, you're writing letters to your brother, sharing some of this with him and then he writes you this like heartbreaking letter. Would you read it for us? Would you be comfortable reading it?

SPACEK: I'll try. You know, he and I had big plans of going to New York together when he got well. We had plans of him coming there and us sharing that experience. But I'll try to get through this as best I can.

(Reading) Dear Sissy, how's my little sister doing? My temperature is still not just right. It goes up and down every day, so we don't know what's happening. The treatment still hasn't worked so they're just waiting to see what is happening on that problem too. They'll have to give me another treatment and I'm kind of scared because it hasn't worked and I want to get out of the hospital and come see you, Sissy. I really miss you and I'm worried about my counts. If I can get out, but the way it looks now I'll probably be here a month or so because of the treatment not working. I'm really worried, Sissy, because I haven't seen anybody, just hospital people since you left and that's been a long time.

(Reading) I want to get out of this place and I can't stand being in this place not seeing any kids or friends. It's terrible. You and Ed are doing just great, probably both have what you want for the rest of your life, but I was the black sheep getting sick and everything. I feel like I will never get to do anything like you are doing, just stay with mother and dad probably for the rest of my life. How long that is, probably not long. I just hope that you and Ed don't get anything wrong like me and have to ruin your whole life. I don't know what I'm going to do, Sissy. I can't be with mother and dad all my life. I'm so much of a problem, now that I have leukemia and I just hope that I'll be cured some day. That's all I wanted in life, is to be healthy - nothing else. Love, Rob. Write me every day, really, Sissy. Please.

And I did.

GROSS: Did you feel guilty at all, being in New York and being exposed to these fantastic new things while your brother was so sick?

SPACEK: Oh yeah. Of course. I, you know, I felt guilty because I wasn't sick. I felt guilty because it wasn't me. I think we all did, because Robbie was really a special person. He was the middle child and he was just, there was something really extraordinary about him. He was an old soul and he was so handsome. He got really lucky in the looks department. You know, I was freckled and always sunburned, and he was olive complexion with blond hair - curly blond hair and he was just a beautiful, beautiful boy.

I remember watching him shave when he was just first shaving when he was about 14, 15 years old, and I'd watch him and think I wish, I wanted to be him. I wanted to be him because he was - there was an ease that he had that was actually very much like my mother. For them life was, they just seemed to understand things, what was important in life.

GROSS: Your brother died in September of 1967. And you write, rather than making my parents overprotective, I think my brother's death made them more willing to let me go. And you write: For me the grief was almost like rocket fuel, it made me fearless and I lost interest in trivial things.

It's interesting that you think your brother's death made your parents less protective, as opposed to more. Why do you think that was their reaction - that why do you think they were more willing to let you go to New York instead of going to college, and pursue your acting career instead of your studies?

SPACEK: I think that, you know, I talked to my both parents about it years later. And they said, you know, you, we all have this false security in thinking and believing that we can protect our children. And when it comes down to it, you really can't. I think when they realized that you don't know how long you're going to be on this plane of existence and you need to - they didn't want to stand in the way. They didn't want to overprotective me because we had lost Robbie. They wanted me to live the life that I felt that I needed to live and they didn't want to stand in my way. And it wasn't that they just thought all, just go on out and, you know, follow your bliss. They supported me while I was in New York and we talked regularly. And, you know, I sent them scripts to read. They weren't so sure about "Carrier," but...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPACEK: ...let me make that decision. And for me, I think once you experience something like that, that's so, you know it's a matter of life and death, you're not as afraid. If you live through - you live through that and you survive it, it made me think I wasn't afraid of anything.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sissy Spacek and she has a new memoir called "My Extraordinary Ordinary Life." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sissy Spacek and she has a new memoir called "My Extraordinary Ordinary Life."

So when you decided not to go to college but to just go to New York and try to have a career in show business, what you were initially seeking was a music career. You played guitar. You wrote songs. You sang songs. What exactly were you hoping for?

SPACEK: Oh, I think I wanted to be Joni Mitchell.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. We got that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So one of the things you did was sing a few songs for the Andy Warhol film "Lonesome Cowboys." What did you make of the Andy Warhol circle, the Factory People?

SPACEK: Well, you know, I didn't get to experience too much of the Andy Warhols - of that Factory. You know, we were just in the recording studio doing the music.

GROSS: OK.

SPACEK: I think I was an extra that ended up on the cutting room floor in some bar scene in that movie or some other.

GROSS: OK.

SPACEK: And I remember thinking gosh, there's a lot of standing around and waiting around doing this. I think I'll stick to music.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So you try to get a recording contract. You recorded a couple of things. Nothing happened with them. But then you recorded a song called - and this was not your song. This was a song you were given, and it was called "John, You've Gone Too Far This Time," and it was a response to the nude photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono on the cover of John Lennon's album "Two Virgins." And instead of it being recorded under the name Sissy Spacek, you were given the name Rainbo, spelled R-a-i-n-b-o. What...

SPACEK: Isn't that clever?

GROSS: Very clever.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I'm going to actually play a little bit of this song and then we'll talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHN, YOU'VE GONE TOO FAR THIS TIME")

SPACEK: (Singing) Everything you asked of me, I did, John. From holding hands to living in a sunlight submarine. And you were something special when you said, John, that you had more disciples than the man who was too green. John, I love you. But you went too far this time.

GROSS: So that's Sissy Spacek from very, very early in her career. So what did you make of this song when you sang it? Did you think this is a really good song and I certainly agree with the sentiment, John, you went too far this time?

SPACEK: Oh, you know, I don't even think I thought of it. It was a time in the music business with 1650 Broadway and 1619 Broadway, the Brill building, and they called it the Bubblegum Factory, that time. You know, labels would get an idea for a song, they had the name for Rainbo. All they needed was a girl and I don't remember that I made a dime on it. Maybe I made 25 bucks for singing it, but...

GROSS: Are you glad that your own name wasn't on this recording?

SPACEK: Well, actually, I thought it was an interesting recording. What I'm glad is that it didn't really, it didn't continue or I would be Rainbo here talking to you now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What a thought. What a thought. So...

SPACEK: But it was a great experience for me because after that I was like, up until that point I was like well, what am I going to think of this a stage name. And after that I thought OK, I think Sissy Spacek will be just fine.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So you never made it as a singer but you turned to acting and you certainly made it as an actor. And you're singing especially paid off in your acting career when you played Loretta Lynn in "Coal Miner's Daughter," a role which you were initially reluctant to take. Why were you reluctant to take it?

SPACEK: Well, because Loretta had looked, she'd been brought a stack of 8 x 10 glossies by the studios, and they said go through these, these are some of the young actresses that we were thinking might be good to play you. And she got to me and she said that's the coal miner's daughter. And she did not, she had never seen any of my work. I asked her, why, what, you know, what was it about it? She said I don't know. I just had a feeling. And Loretta's like that. But she was going on - she was so amazing. And she was on "The Johnny Carson Show" several times a month and also on "Merv Griffin." She was just a favorite guest. She was so darling when she was on these shows and so entertaining. Everybody loved her. And she would always say well, little Sissy Spacek. She's going to play me. And I'd be watching the show and I'd, you know, when you're young you like to think - you like to believe that you have some control over your destiny. As an older person I realize now that that is not the case at all. But at that time I believed that, and so when I heard this woman saying that I was going be like now just a minute. I don't, I haven't met you. I haven't made a decision about what I'm going to do. So that was why. That was why. But then I met her and everything changed.

GROSS: So let's hear a little bit of you singing, as Loretta Lynn in the movie - the title song, "Coal Miner's Daughter."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER")

SPACEK: (as Loretta Lynn) (Singing) Well, I was born'd a coal miner's daughter, in a cabin, on a hill in Butcher Holler. We were poor, but we had love. That's the one thing my daddy made sure of. He shoveled coal to make a poor man's dollar. Daddy loved and raised eight kids on a miner's pay. Mommy scrubbed our clothes on a washboard every day. Well, I've seen her fingers bleed. To complain, there was no need. She'd smile in Mommy's understanding way. In the summertime...

GROSS: My guest is Sissy Spacek. That's an excerpt from the film "Coal Miner's Daughter," where she played Loretta Lynn. And Sissy Spacek has a new memoir called "My Extraordinary Ordinary Life." How much did you have to change your style of singing to sound like Loretta Lynn?

SPACEK: I thought that I changed it a lot and I...

GROSS: You've got that whole twangy country thing going.

SPACEK: Yeah. But there's something about the way Loretta - nobody else sings like Loretta and nobody talks like Loretta. In fact, nobody in Kentucky even sounds like Loretta. There's something she does with her breath that's just - and her accent is just unique. And once I captured her rhythm, the hardest part of "Coal Miner's Daughter" for me was giving it all up. It was not being Loretta. I was so funny when I was Loretta.

I had such a - she has such a great sense of humor. But, you know, early in my career, my brother, who was in the music business with Decca Records, took me there once when I first went to New York and set up a meeting for me. That's my brother Ed, my older brother. And so all these agents filed in - I guess they weren't agents, they were executives - they all filed in and I played my guitar and sang.

And then they listened and, you know, they nodded their heads and then they filed out and I waited. A little bit later one of them came back in and they said, you know, we have another artist that's very much like you - Loretta Lynn. And I was probably 18 at the time. I was like I do not sound like Loretta Lynn.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPACEK: And who's Loretta Lynn? But I thought that was pretty funny later in life.

GROSS: There's one more film clip I want to get in, and this is your role in the next to last season of "Big Love," the HBO series about a polygamist family in Utah. And Bill Paxton plays Bill Henrickson, the main character in the series who's a polygamist, and at this point in the series he wanted to run for the Utah state senate and make polygamy legal.

And you played a powerful corrupt lobbyist who's been at odds with Bill Henrickson ever since you met. And he's recently told someone who you've worked with, a congressman, Congressman Paley, that he knows about some of your shady practices. And so here's a scene with you and Bill Paxton.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BIG LOVE")

BILL PAXTON: (As Bill) Since you don't take me seriously I thought you might listen to him.

SPACEK: (As Marilyn) I take you seriously. I take you very seriously. Look, why don't you let me help you like I helped Paley. Forget state senator. How would you like to be a congressman in two years? How does that sound?

PAXTON: (As Bill) I told you the first day we met that I don't play those Washington games and I don't make deals with morally bankrupt vipers.

SPACEK: (As Marilyn) You know what? We're done talking about me. From here on out we're talking about you. Paley and I could crush your casino. He can sink your campaign and if you think I'm even close to being done with the Miss Margee Heffman, think again.

PAXTON: (As Bill) You have no remorse for what you've done, do you?

SPACEK: (As Marilyn) Who do you think you are? You saw my offices. You saw my guest list. I have friends. I have relationships. I am respected.

PAXTON: (As Bill) You're a common criminal.

SPACEK: (As Marilyn) You listen to me. I am not the woman you say I am.

GROSS: Now, that was Sissy Spacek and Bill Paxton, in a scene from the HBO series "Big Love." That seemed to me, like a different kind of character than I'm used to you playing; like somebody who has like, political power, and who is very assertive in the outside world like that.

SPACEK: And very buttoned-up and controlling.

GROSS: Yes, very controlling.

SPACEK: Yeah. That's what made that character so much fun for me. And the fact that, you know, I'd known - Bill and I had known each other since we were teenagers in Texas, and so it was really fun to lock horns with him. We had a blast. It was an intense experience because it's a very dialogue-driven show and that's so foreign to me and it's really like machine gun fire.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SPACEK: I loved the way it moved so quickly, and I loved the sense of family that we got shooting for - you know, I shot on the show for about a little over six months. I loved the experience, and I loved playing a character like that. You know, I felt like playing a character like that, that is so different than me, it was like trying to keep myself underwater. You know, trying to keep myself from bobbing up to the top.

You know, I was treading water all the time, to try to keep myself in that place. And I loved it.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

SPACEK: Thank you, Terry. I've enjoyed this so much.

GROSS: Sissy Spacek's new memoir is called "My Extraordinary Ordinary Life." Coming up, Milo Miles reviews a new compilation of African blues singles. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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