The journey for Karen Allen to become the iconic Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark all started with a 3×5 card calling for college-aged actors to appear in an upcoming comedy later titled Animal House.
Twenty-six years old at the time, the actress had just moved from Washington, D.C., where she attended George Washington University, back to New York City to study her acting craft at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. And, “by a fluke,” as she says, Allen landed a role in what would go on to become the 1978 National Lampoon comedy classic.
Her pebble had landed in the water of Hollywood and the ripples of success began to undulate, with Allen soon thereafter nabbing roles in Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers and William Friedkin’s Cruising, starring Al Pacino. But it would be an action-adventure dreamt up by George Lucas and directed by Steven Spielberg that would make her a star.
Considered by most to be the greatest action-adventure of all time, Raiders of the Lost Ark was a blockbuster of gigantic proportions (worldwide gross of $389.9 million off an $18 million budget) and won five Oscars, the most in 1982 (including nominations for best picture and best director). It spawned three sequels (a fourth now reportedly in production), along with endless toys, clothes, posters, books, theme park rides, games and countless homages in film and television series. The Paramount jewel made Allen a household name, forever changing her life — sometimes not for the better, as she would develop agoraphobia for a time due to all the sudden, constant attention.
Now, as Raiders of the Lost Ark turns 40, Allen — along with visits from star Harrison Ford, Spielberg, Lucas and producer Frank Marshall — looks back on her time on the production with The Hollywood Reporter to share new in-depth tales about bringing Marion Ravenwood to life (with harrowing snake and burning bar stories), opening up about how, for a time, she resented the film following its massive success before embracing it, and how the beloved character forever shaped her career and life, among much more.
“I Had Truly Fallen in Love With the Character When I Did the Audition”
Auditioning for Raiders of the Lost Ark was one of the most unique (and bizarre) experiences Allen has had in her decades of making films. Her name was mentioned by several directors, including Animal House’s John Landis and Kaufman, pals of Spielberg, who was on the lookout for his Raiders female lead. Amy Irving, Debra Winger and Sean Young were also in consideration. (Young would go on to co-star with Ford in 1982’s Blade Runner.) Allen got a call to meet the Jaws director for a short introduction.
“I had my attention on Karen to be in one of my films ever since I saw her play Katy in Animal House,” says Spielberg, adding that her character “didn’t let Boon [Peter Riegert] get away with much either!” Allen did not see a script during the initial meeting. The two were merely getting a feel for one another. “We talked for maybe 10 minutes, he didn’t tell me much about the film, but I knew from what he said she was a tough character,” Allen says.
Of the character’s genesis, Lucas explains, “We had felt the need for a good foil for Indy, someone who’d give him a past. Marion was a character that was like Indy, also tough and full of spirit — clearly a match so you’d be able to tell why they got along … and why they sometimes didn’t. In creating their backstory you could also get into the story much faster, like when she punches him in the face. You know right away there’s history with those two and you jump in from there.”
Weeks after her first meeting with Spielberg, the actress was on her way to Los Angeles for screen tests opposite several actors she knew, including friend John Shea and her Animal House castmate, Tim Matheson. And then it happened.
“I don’t remember how long it was, but I got a call that they were offering me the film. They wanted me to read the script and give them an answer within two days. They had a courier bring the script, and he had to sit in my room the whole time while at the hotel. Then I had to give it back to him. That is how secretive they were, even back then! Obviously, I said yes. I had truly fallen in love with the character when I did the audition.”
The Raiders story was only believable if the adventurous archaeologist had a counterpart who could hold her own, so casting the right actress was crucial, says Marshall, the film’s producer. “Marion was feisty, smart and funny. She was an action hero in her own way,” he says. “She didn’t depend on him, but he had to depend on her.”
Allen fit the bill for the role perfectly, says Spielberg, highlighting that “Marion Ravenwood was every bit Indiana Jones’ equal. That’s the way we wrote her and that’s what Karen made a meal of.”
Although she did not realize it, the Carrollton, Illinois, native was preparing to play Marion since her youth. She left home at 17 and moved to New York City at 20 to study art and design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. After two years of study, she took a year off and traveled: six months by herself through the West Indies and then with two friends to Mexico, and through all of Central and South America. “I had a real adventurous spirit,” she says. “I was never really a girly girl.”
“The Way the Scene Was Written, She Didn’t Have That Strength of Purpose”
For Allen, the Raiders of the Lost Ark production was arduous but also pure joy. For the most part, Marion Ravenwood was all right there on the page and Allen delighted in bringing the tenacious, spirited character to life. “It was empowering,” Allen marvels. And because of that confidence, Allen diligently persuaded Spielberg to change an instance the actress said did not feel right.
“A scene I really didn’t like was where I am captured and in the tent and Paul Freeman as [René] Belloq comes in and brings a dress,” Allen begins. “The scene as it was originally written was much more about me trying to seduce Belloq in order to escape. And from the very beginning, I thought, ‘No. If we really think that even for a moment she really would sleep with him in order to escape, then the love story between her and Indiana really didn’t have much power.’ The way the scene was written, she didn’t have that strength of purpose.”
Allen took her concerns to Spielberg, who for the most part wanted to stick to the script. However, he said if Allen could come up with something better, then that is what they would shoot. “Paul Freeman and I at lunch would improvise. And out of that came that scene in which I try to drink Belloq under the table. The seduction part then is only a ruse. The little piece I also added is she puts the dress on in order to hide the knife under her clothing. It gave the character a kind of integrity and a real sense of loyalty and love to Indiana Jones. I always felt that at the heart of it is this young girl who fell madly in love with him and has never been able to get over him.”
Allen possessed a robust screen personality, Spielberg noting that she “used it to make Indy blink … more than once. She challenged Indy’s eminent domain all through the story — and did it without the use of a bullwhip.”
Good storytelling requires strong characters regardless of genre or gender, Lucas says, using Star Wars as a reference point. “From my own work, Leia was always meant to be a leader. She was smart, in the moment and looking at the big picture. She was in charge of things and a Rebel leader from the get-go. Luke was fresh off the farm and Han was a dubious character from what she could tell at that point. Marion didn’t have the same vantage point, but she was just as tough, too. She ran her life and business and bossed folks around with the best of them. They were different characters but shared the same strengths.”
“There Were a Few People on the Set Who Were Bitten by the Pythons”
Among the most memorable for Allen (and audiences) is the scene when Indiana and Marion are trapped in the Well of the Souls, which took eight straight days to film. “It was a challenging section of the film to make for me,” she says, specifying that falling dust and debris was constantly going into her eyes and down her throat. “And the whole section was much longer and drawn out, but it was just too much. Once you see 20 mummy faces and snakes coming out of their eyes and mouths — a little goes a long way.”
Ford remembers Allen as a trooper, who was ready for anything the audacious production threw at them. “Karen is so much fun to work with,” Ford says. “She’s wonderfully funny, inventive and talented. She brings energy to the work. She’s not fussy in any way. The character she played was a very brave character, and she had to be brave to do it.”
Allen was allowed to do a small portion of her stunts, such as snippets of Marion falling into the catacombs. But, for the most part, her stunt double Wendy Leech handled the big action moments. “Karen was like a real-life Marion. She would try anything. When we had scenes of action, she wanted to do it. And we let her do things up to the point where it was safe,” Marshall says.
Marion was complicated and had several layers, which Lucas says was essential for the story. “That strength of character was important to me and will always be a part of Karen’s creative legacy as well,” Lucas says. “Marion wasn’t one-dimensional, she was relatable, determined and vulnerable. She had what people called moxie. She and Indy rescued each other. … Just keep them both away from snakes.”
As for those snakes, having grown up for a while in the countryside, Allen said she was fine with them — but not so much the tarantulas in the opening, a day she was happy to not be on the call sheet. But the actress says she was unfazed by the throngs of slithering reptiles in the Well of the Souls. Still, she has several shiver-inducing anecdotes about that week of production.
“The cobras were handled in a very special way,” Allen vividly reminisces. “And there was an ambulance just outside the set and a nurse who had antivenom. Often there was plexiglass between us and them. Still, there were a few people on the set who were bitten by the pythons, which aren’t poisonous — but it is a nasty bite. No one was in terrible danger with the pythons — unless you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think it was our first assistant director who was trying to protect someone else who got bitten by one.”
Perhaps even more dangerous than the Well of the Souls catacombs scene was Marion’s introduction as the owner of a bar in Nepal, which catches fire during a shootout for her medallion (the headpiece to the Staff of Ra).
“All the things in the fire, we did together, Harrison and I,” she says. “There were no stunt people on that section. The fire was real — and it was a little perilous. We were leaping over objects and not everything went the way it was supposed to, so there were times when things were supposed to fall behind us and instead they fell in front of us. But it all went fairly well.”
“I Didn’t Know Whether to Take It Personally”
Because of Star Wars, by the time she met the 38-year-old Ford, he was already a massive star. Allen was in awe of her castmate, whom she says was a delight and a giving mentor. Still, the two actors prepared to work in different ways, which she says could be frustrating.
“The thing that was challenging for me at the time was Harrison very much worked privately,” Allen says. “He liked to work on his lines and a scene by himself in the trailer. He didn’t much like to run lines with other actors. In the beginning, I didn’t know how to take it. I didn’t know whether to take it personally. Coming out of the theater, I was so used to working with other actors and running lines. So it took me a while to make an adjustment to that. But then we got into a groove with each other. I found him so fascinating.”
Of their time on Raiders, Ford looks back warmly. “I was very pleased to have the opportunity to work with her,” he says, noting at the time that Marion, along with Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia and Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, shattered the damsel in distress-era archetype. “Those are rare women and rare characters,” Ford adds.
Having already played Han Solo twice by that time, Ford knew how to partner with the camera for big action moments, a skill Allen had to quickly learn. “I had done walk-and-talk-type films. And in that context, it behooves you to forget the camera is there, just play the scene. But in a film like Raiders, you have to be very aware of where the camera is and what it is doing,” Allen says. “There is a technique I just did not have while learning by the seat of my pants. To watch Harrison and see all the ways he was able to accomplish these things — he would do it in a very calm, very clear, very beautifully articulated way. And he was very helpful to me.”
“I Got Agoraphobic for a While”
Allen vividly recalls the first “extremely intimidating” time she saw a cut of the film. It was on the Paramount lot with Spielberg and studio executives. Allen was the only woman in the screening room.
“So that was a tough way to see the film,” Allen notes, adding she was both surprised and thrilled with the final product. “I didn’t have a context for the style of film in my head, so it was like this revelation! It was so not what I was thinking, but I really loved it. And I love the relationship that ended up on the screen between Indy and Marion.”
Paramount execs knew they had solid gold with Raiders, immediately sending Ford and Allen out on a publicly whirlwind. Not long after, the film opened — and took off like a rocket. Allen’s head was swimming.
“When a film starts to be so huge, you feel it swirling around you,” she says. “When a film gets such attention, it is just such a phenomenal change. You don’t feel like you change at all, but things change all around you.”
Of course, change is not always positive. Overnight, Allen went from a mostly anonymous New Yorker to a star who could not walk down the street without being stopped several times. That took a toll.
“I got agoraphobic for a while,” Allen says. “I had a hard time going outside my apartment. There is protection in anonymity. You’re so used to moving through the world. And then you’re in a film like Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s like all of that shifts. The fans are enthusiastic, they just want to meet you or have you sign something for them, but it’s new and different and you don’t know what’s happening.”
“I Have Had Women and Girls Come Up to Me and Say How Much Me Playing That Role Meant to Them”
For some time, Allen considered Raiders a double-edged sword. The film cemented her spot in Hollywood, but she had feared roles would be limited. And she was correct. Scripts came rolling in — all with Marion-like characters. Allen had no interest.
“Being a young actor and Raiders being my fourth film — I had this desire to distance myself,” Allen says, explaining why she went back to the theater for more than a year even though she was told by some it a massive misstep. But Allen didn’t care. The theater was her first home.
She would be back in front of the camera for John Carpenter’s science fiction romance Starman (1984), starring Jeff Bridges, who nabbed an Oscar nomination. Allen would go on to appear in such classics as Scrooged (1988) and The Sandlot (1992) and reprise Marion in 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, among her more than 60 film and television credits.
“It’s been a journey for me to be in Raiders of the Lost Ark,” says Allen. “I have come to love and appreciate that it gets passed from generation to generation. And I have had women and girls come up to me and say how much that film, and how much me playing that role, meant to them. They felt it changed the way in which they saw themselves as a woman. So, I have developed a profound sense of gratitude for how lucky I was. And now 40 years later, I am so proud to be identified with it. Not that I ever wasn’t proud, but I don’t think I appreciated it as much as I have come to appreciate it later in my life.”