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?