Sissy Spacek – No regrets

September 2001 By Philip Berk

Sissy Spacek is a survivor.

In over a quarter of a century of writing celebrity interviews, I have never written a story about her.

Even more baffling, David Thomson’s Encyclopedia of Film — the bible of who’s who in world cinema — makes no mention of her.

And yet she’s won three Golden Globe awards — the latest for In the Bedroom — and seems a cinch to win her second Oscar come March.

Why is it that people take Sissy for granted?

Could it be because she’s never pursued celebrity?

Or is it because she preferred living the quiet life in Virginia with her husband Jack Fisk, an acclaimed art director in his own right, whom she married when they worked together on Raggedy Man, which he directed.

They’ve been a couple for over twenty years now, have two daughters, the elder Schuyler, a promising actress, is starring opposite Tom Hanks’s son in the just released Orange County.

How’s this for coincidences.

It was Tom who handed her her Golden Globe at last month’s awards ceremony, and there in the audience was her first costar Martin Sheen, also a presenter.

They played the ingenuous killers in Terrence Mallick’s  Badlands.

After that, she played the title role in Brian DaPalma’s Carrie, which earned her the National Society of Film Critics award as best actress —  and her first Oscar nomination

Two years later, her portrayal of Loretta Lynn in Coalminer’s Daughter won her every award in the book, including the Oscar.

And she was on a roll. 

Successive nominations (for Missing, The River, and Crimes of the Heart) followed, even a second Golden Globe award

But then fifteen fallow years.

Supporting roles in features, leads in indifferent TV movies

But now she’s back, better than ever, in In the bedroom.

Her role as a mother unable to cope with the loss of her only son, is winning her even more acclaim than Coalminer’s Daughter.

Those lean years must have been very discouraging.

How did she cope?

“Very easily. I’ve long accepted the fact that you can’t stay king of the mountain all the time. As you get more grown up (older?)  the parts become fewer and fewer. Besides, most of the artists I really respect  aren’t doing this to stay king of the mountain. And you must remember the industry runs in cycles for people. When you’re successful offers pick up, and when you haven’t worked in a while the offers slow down. It’s quite obvious that not enough films are made  for everybody to be working all the time. You have to take your resting periods. I decided some years back I wasn’t going to worry about it. I have a wonderful life. I have two children who keep me busy. 

“Paul Newman once said,  ‘The films you don’t do are just as important to your career  as the ones you do.’ and I believe the ones I’m supposed to do will come to me. I’m not going to worry about the other ones because they don’t belong to me. It’s not a competition. I’ve had more than my share; so I don’t fret about it. My advice to young actors is enjoy the time when you’re not working, and save your money.”

Was there one role that she truly wanted and didn’t get?

“I’ve worked too hard to ever allow myself to think that way. I’ve always wanted to be happy for people when they get a role. I’ve tried not to think of this as competition. There was however one time where I was sure I could do a particular role, but I was told by my agent that the director didn’t want me, so I was going to show him! But when I went in, I was so horrible, I convinced him he was right. 

“But overall I feel I’ve gotten all the roles I deserved.”

Was she surprised when Todd Field, the first time director called and asked her to play the mother in In the Bedroom?

“I was honored just to be a part of it. Todd is so bright, he’s so kind,  so patient and generous; it was a joy to work with him.”

Was she equally surprised by its success?

“Wasn’t everybody?”

It must have been a stroke of good fortune when just two weeks before shooting began Tim Wilkerson came in to replace Robert Forster?

“That was the movie God smiling on us. But I’m kind of a fatalist. I’ve always felt that things work out the way they’re supposed to.”

In the Bedroom is a story of missed opportunities — the failure of parents to prevent a terrible tragedy from happening in their lives.

As a parent how far would she go to protect her children?

“My mother used to say, ‘Honey, I’d fight a buzz saw for you,’ but I never got it until I had children. I can’t  remember any specific thing where I had to throw myself in front of a train for them. But I’ve sort of constructed my life as though we’ve parked the wagon train in a circle around our children, which is why we went to Virginia. I guess everything I do is designed to protect them.”

She and her husband  bought a Virginia horse ranch in l978 where they raised the kids the way she was raised.  She grew up in a small Texas town called Quitman, although she has some show biz roots. Her first cousin is actor Rip Torn who was married to the Academy Award winning Broadway actress Geraldine Page. 

Does living away from Hollywood keep her grounded?

“The relationships we have with people we love, children particularly, is what keeps us grounded are. They don’t care who the heck you are, which is a good thing. As a mother, I can say that no matter what you do, your role as parent is always foremost in your mind.”

Is she the type of parent who counsels her children? 

“There’s a scene in In the Bedroom where I have this lovely conversation with my son. I ask him a few simple questions, and he goes completely berserk. ‘Mom!’ — I notice that with kids. You tiptoe. You’re careful to avoid a topic, and they nail you for it.”

Did she encourage Schuyler to go into acting?

“Somebody asked me once, ‘Do you give her advise?’ and I answered, ‘She doesn’t listen to me any more than your children listen to you.’ I did encourage her to do theatre, which she loved. I wanted to make sure she was making the choice for the right reasons.  I think she’s very fortunate because she has a better idea of what it’s all about than someone who’s never been exposed to theatre. She knows there really is no such thing as glamour. She knows that when Mom comes  home, she does all the chores that moms are supposed to do and happily.”

Such as?

“I set the alarm, I get up and make breakfast. I make the beds and get my (younger) daughter to school. After that until 3:15 my time is my own. I tend to the most unimportant things first.”

Is she still an outdoors type?

“If you mean riding horses, I don’t do much of that any more. I always see my career flash before my eyes when I’m doing those jumps, so I’ve stopped doing that. But I love my home. I love to water my flowers, sweep off my porch, fluff up my beds. Nobody can make a bed like I can! I remember once my mother said this to me —  at the time I was this snippy twentysomething and I had told her, ‘Oh, well, mother, you never had a career.’ ‘Well, honey, I’ve had a career. I’m a homemaker.’  It was then that I realized it was a full time job.

“I have been blessed with a career and a real normal life as well. When I was a girl, my mother’s friends would stop by in the morning on the way back from taking their kids to school. They’d have a quick cup of coffee. My girl friends and I do the same but instead of koffeeclatches, we take power walks. Sometimes if we’re solving all the problems of the world, we call them church walks. We try to talk about ideas not people.” 

Does she have a special fondness for the character she plays in In the Bedroom?

“I  do because losing a child is every parent’s nightmare. I sympathize with her. She’s a very reserved woman, well educated from a good family. She settles in a small town with her husband. When I first saw the film, I thought, geez she’s not very sympathetic. She builds a wall around her because her grief is so huge. It’s too private a grief to share. She can’t even share it with her husband. She’s so filled with guilt and anger, so wrapped up in her grief, you can’t even approach her. But now I realize grief is a very strange emotion.”

Could she imagine herself in that situation?

“I don’t think it’s  possible. No parent wants to go there. Losing a child is an unconsolable grief. No parent should ever outlive a child. It’s just horrible. I’ve often asked myself, will she survive? And I’ve come to the conclusion that  she won’t. She’s probably going to move away. He’ll stay there  — the husband. He’ll keep his practice and have a semblance of life, but she’ll move away to some place where she can drink herself to death probably. I don’t think you can be involved in something like that and ever survive.”

Is Ruth justified in blaming her husband?

“Of course not. She blames her husband because he’s there. You always hurt the one you love. She feels like hurting someone and he’s there. She was just so angry and had no outlet for that rage, and she could not forgive.”

In the final analysis how does she see her? 

“I see her as a good person, who just didn’t have coping skills. And I can identify with that. Somebody says something to me, I won’t know how to respond. But an hour later I’ve got it all figured out. I know exactly what I should’ve said.”

Were they right to take justice into their own hands?

“I think any parent will understand what they did. The absurdity of what happened in the courtroom when justice was not served,  I can understand how people can get so frustrated they go off the deep end. You just want to tear someone limb from limb. Do I think what they did was right? Philosophically no. Do I think it’s going to make them feel better? Probably for a little while, but not for long. They’re in a deep dark hole. 

“But this is not a film that answers questions. It poses them.”

Footnote: David Thomson apologized for his omission and included her in his NEW Biographical Dictionary of Film published in 2004.

6 thoughts on “Sissy Spacek – No regrets”

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