Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen on Finding Empathy in 'Starman'

Starman-Karen Allen, Jeff Bridges-Still-Photofest-H 2018
Columbia Pictures/Photofest
The stars look at the challenges behind John Carpenter's 1984 sci-fi film, including the scene Bridges rehearsed naked to get right.

One of the most remarkable things about Starman, the classic 1984 sci fi/romantic drama, is the way that actors Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen simultaneously perform for and against each other as their respective characters. Bridges plays an unnamed extraterrestrial who takes on the physical appearance of Scott, the dead husband of Allen’s distraught widow Jenny Hayden. Together, she drives him cross-country to rendezvous with his fellow aliens (if he doesn’t arrive in time, he will die).

Bridges’s character doesn’t understand the implications or consequences of his actions while Allen’s heroine doesn’t know how to shield him from her understandably flummoxed emotions (it’s not every day that an alien appears to you in the guise of your dead husband). Both actors are, in that sense, delivering double performances: first acting as their characters and then acting for their characters.

Bridges and Allen are thankfully both aware of how much their chemistry contributed to the success of Starman, a John-Carpenter-helmed project that they both have very fond memories of. The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Bridges and Allen about working together on Starman in time for Shout Factory’s new Starman Blu-ray (which debuted this past Tuesday).

Getting Into Character

Karen Allen: My preparation for the role for the most part had to do with filling in Jenny’s history with her husband. So I knew how profound it was for her to see him again in the flesh even under the strange circumstances of the story. I felt that was the element that overcame Jenny’s fear and drove the story forward for her.

Jeff Bridges: Part of my process in preparing for roles is: the first thing I do is I look inside myself, trying to figure out which elements of myself coincide with the character. I often feel like a stranger in a strange land. Or maybe not often … I have had that experience of feeling out of my element, which is certainly Starman’s situation. And when you … identify certain aspects like that of yourself and then you can magnify them — or things that don’t coincide with the character — you’ve got to kick [those traits] to the curb. So that’s kind of the beginning place.

Then I looked around at my surroundings. My kids were all very young at that time, so I watched how they moved, and were learning to walk, and all those kinds of things.

Then, the next step I do is: I think about people I know that kind of remind me of the character. And I ask myself: “Who would I not be surprised to find out is actually an alien?” I looked through my phone book and I came across a friend — a good friend, but at the time, we were acquaintances. I knew him and I really admired his dancing, a fella by the name of Russell Clark. Russell was really an interesting, interesting guy.

I thought: “If I can just crack that phone booth scene” — the one where Starman’s ... turning into Jenny Hayden’s husband. I thought: “If I can work on that and get that down, then it’ll just be a process of me becoming more and more human as I go on through the film.” So I was really interested in cracking that first scene, and I asked Russell if he would work with me in preparing for that scene.

He did, and ... the scene was … I’m naked, you know? I have a fond memory of being in my office, in one corner of my office, naked, preparing for that scene and working it up! And my wife came in, knocking on the door and opening the door. And she saw me in the corner naked, kind of writhing around. She just smiled! I can see her expression now. She just shut the door. “An Actor Prepares,” you know?

On Researching the Voyager II Recordings (featured in the film):

Bridges: I don't know how accurate [the film’s version of the Voyager II recordings are], but I thought that scene was amazing. As a side point that came to my mind: I think during that time also, I was hanging out with John Lilly. He’s the guy who invented the isolation tank. He does a lot of work with dolphins as well [Editor’s note: John Lilly died away in 2001]. He works in interspecies communication. It always seemed so odd to me that [people] were thinking about extraterrestrials and those kinds of things and communication with aliens. And here we have, living on our planet, beings that have brains larger than ours in the same way that ours are larger than chimpanzees. And they live in the ocean, they have no possessions, so you go: “Why aren’t we spending more energy trying to communicate with those guys who live right there with us?”

On the Nature of Acting and the Concept of Acting Naturally

Allen: We did rehearse a bit, but I think both Jeff and I liked to rehearse on camera for this film. It felt from the very beginning that there was an easy and wonderful connection, as actors and friends, between us. The complexity of Jenny’s confusion — between being drawn to Starman, because he essentially has become Scott, and the frightening moments when it’s so clear that he is not Scott — is certainly the center of her character in the first half of the film. Later, something in her perception dissolves and she falls in love with the being that only looks like Scott but is clearly not.

Bridges: A movie’s cast is a bit like a club: it’s almost like you spend little lifetimes together, little incarnations that you’re experiencing together. So there are different approaches on how to spend those lifetimes together. There are some actors who only want you to call them by their characters’ name and don’t really want to engage you or get to know you on a personal level. I’ve worked with actors like that and there are many roads to Rome.

Still, that’s not my style, though you can get great performances that way. I want to really engage with the people I work with and get to know them. I think that really informs the work because you create a relaxation with each other, and out of that relaxation, this thing that you’re talking about, the kind of effortlessness comes out, I think. And Karen, I believe, works that same way. Very gregarious, nice, friendly, open, kind. She generates that sort of energy. And when you get two people doing that to each other on purpose, you relax with each other. That thing that you’re talking about is something I really aspire to, where you don’t see the effort. Karen is a good example of an actor that does that.

One of the things about acting that’s so wonderful is that it’s really about getting into other people’s shoes. Becoming other people as much as you possibly can. We can’t entirely do that, but to have that empathy … I think that’s what Starman is trying to do. I think his species had kind of evolved past human emotions, so think it was a thrill for him to get in the shoes of a human being, and feel all of those emotions: love and disappointment and all of those feelings that we all feel.

That’s also kind of what acting is. That’s what an actor does. We go into sort of a foreign place. We inhabit somebody who we aren’t.

On Working with Director John Carpenter:

Allen: Shooting Starman was challenging in that we did not shoot the film in any kind of order. So I had to make lots of notes to myself about what Jenny’s state of mind was in each scene as we shot, just so I could go back and make reference to them. John Carpenter was also very helpful in helping me stay in the right trajectory.

Bridges: I remember getting the gig. I had an interview with John the first time, and I told him that “Starman is sort of impersonating a human being. But while Starman isn’t a human being, he is very observant.” I remember that John would say, “Give me an example.”

And I said, “Well, for instance: when human beings are relaxing in a chair, we’ll often cross our legs. That feels good in a certain way. I don't know why we cross our legs, but it feels comfortable, right? Starman would notice that and he would cross his legs, but it would be for a completely different reason, you know what I mean? He wouldn’t cross it for the same reason we do, but to appear like he was normal.” Answering those types of questions was part of the fun of the whole assignment.

I think Starman, he wasn’t that body. He was something inside that body. That’s the way I consider myself sometimes: I’m more than my body. I love that line from The Little Prince: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Allen: I think, although am not sure, that the beginning scene in the film — of me watching the projected film — was one of my first scenes to shoot. I just wanted to find that delicate balance between the grief of Jenny’s loss and the wonderful memories that she has of Scott, so that there is both love and pain mingled.

Bridges: There’s something else that’s very important ... One is just the general tone that you’re creating along with the director and all the other actors and everybody in the whole company. You set a tone together; you also have to establish the reality of your characters’ situation. It all comes together in kind of a cumulative way. If Karen wasn’t looking at me the way she looked at me — and was observing me and felt about my character — the illusion for the audience that I’m from outer space wouldn’t be as complete. You know what I mean? It’s like if you’re playing a king and the other actors aren’t treating you like a king — then you’re not a king! Or if you’re an alien but not being treated like an alien. She was so brilliant at doing that, so subtle and real, that it made my character more real and was easier for the audience to suspend our imagination.

It’s a bit like playing pretend with your kid, only you’re playing with other cool kids, and you just play around, you know? You play. I’m trying to think of a specific scene. It happened so long ago. Although I could tell you one thing, that Karen made a really important contribution to my life. I’ve been taking photographs with this strange camera called the Widelux for about 40 years, and I made books for the cast and crew on these different films. Starman was the first one that I did, and I did it because Karen suggested it. ... I’ve lost most of [the photos]. But I do remember one picture that I took of Karen ... There’s a picture of her knitting, sitting in one of those director chairs. She used to knit between setups, takes.

On making the music video for “All I Have to Do is Dream”

Allen: That music video was done as a promotion for the film and was shown on MTV when Starman was theatrically released. I don’t believe anyone gave us any direction on it. We shot it about a year after finishing the film.

Bridges: How long ago was that movie? 1984? God, it’s hard to remember that particular thing. You know that John Carpenter is certainly into music, and we had that great score by Jack Nitzsche. I can’t really remember the rest. I know [Starman composer] Jack Nitzsche was part of that recording. I also remember listening to the Everly  Brothers; their tunes poured out of my older brother Beau’s room when I was growing up. He had all the Everly Brothers stuff.

Allen: Jeff and I had sung together quite a bit in our downtime when we were on the road shooting the film. So we felt quite relaxed singing together. As I remember, someone quite extraordinary produced it, but I don’t remember who it was.

Bridges: Karen was wonderful to do that [music video] with. I loved singing with her. She also plays a great harmonica, and since then I remember her visiting … when I go out with my band, she visited us once. And, after the show, we played some music together. She really can play that [harmonica]. So yeah, that was a great plus. I mean … music is something that’s dear to my heart, so the opportunity to do that was good news.

Allen: I do play harmonica and did have my harmonicas on the shoot of Starman. I started playing in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. I knew quite a few blues musicians and I loved to sing with them. I had always loved blues harp, so I taught myself by listening to some of the greats like Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, etc. I still play a bit and even played with Jeff and the guys in his band the Abiders the last time I saw him in New York a few years ago.

On Starman’s Most Enduring Qualities:

Allen: Hmm. A scene that sums up the film? I think, for me, it may be the scene where Jenny sees Starman bring the deer back to life and decides not to leave him.

Bridges: I think a line from Starman really hits home to me and has given me a lot of renewed faith in our species. Toward the end of the movie where Charlie Martin-Smith comes to me and he is for the first time — he is so wonderful in the film, too. The way he reacts to me is so, so right, you know what I mean? I mean, he was in such awe of this being. And I say to him: “You know what I like most about you people is that when things are at their worst, you are at your best.” I think that’s a wonderful thought to be left with. When I think about that line, it encourages me to rise up to meet certain challenges. Because times are certainly kind of the worst these days, I think, whether it’s the climate or other situations.