Pam Grier on influencing feminism as the original bad-ass female action hero

A still from Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, starring Pam Grier as the titular character.

If you enjoyed Charlize Theron’s brutal turn in Mad Max: Fury Road this past summer, you can thank Pam Grier, the original bad-ass female action hero. While working as a receptionist for American International Pictures, Grier was discovered by Roger Corman in the 1970s and cast in his women-in-prison and “blaxploitation” films. But Grier is more than just an icon of that grindhouse era, and her feminist influences on filmmakers and actresses feels equally resonant today, not to mention recognizable in nearly every movie scheduled for the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s new series Beyond Badass: Female Action Heroes. Grier is an inspiring feminist both onscreen and in real life. In her memoir, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, she recounts tales of sexism and racism, and two sexual assaults in her younger days, all of which made her more determined to succeed at a time when women of colour had few opportunities to make it in showbiz.

The Globe and Mail spoke with Grier before she makes her way to Toronto to introduce a handful of her films at the retrospective.

What is it like being the original bad-ass female action hero?

Oh, you’re trying to blame me? [Laughs] But there was Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis and Betty Hutton! I grew up on that. I got picked on a lot, so I would escape by watching Rin Tin Tin and Lassie and Roy Rogers. I wasn’t wussy, but I was thin and bird-like, and I wanted to learn how to fight back because sometimes I was just thrown down the stairs for entertainment. And I wanted it to stop. It was traumatic. I grew from it and it helped me become less fearful and to be able to have confidence and show women that it’s okay to be a leader. My grandfather wanted the girls [in the family] to do everything the boys did – to hunt, fish, shoot, drive, bring the boat in. He wanted us to be self-sufficient. That formed my inner strength. I wanted to bring all of that to film. With humour.

You brought your self-sufficiency to your work, including early on when you were doing your own stunts. What was that like?

The Epper family were a superb group of stunt people and they taught me so much. But I didn’t have an African-American or woman-of-colour stunt double. So I did a few of my own.

And that ability helped you get the title role in Coffy.

Roger Corman was the real front-runner on making these films with women, and they hadn’t thought of a woman of colour until they found out that I could do martial arts. I watched martial-arts films with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, because he was a good friend of Bruce Lee’s, and I’d studied martial arts growing up on military air bases.

What were the producers’ reactions like when you said you could do your own stunts?

I don’t know if they thought I could do it until we got on location, and then they saw me go berserk! What made it more difficult was that they didn’t make sports bras back then.

You’ve worked with so many directors and actors …

Not enough, girl. Let me tell you the truth. I haven’t worked with Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg. But between Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino, I tell everyone: I’ve been to the mountaintop. When someone devotes two years of their life to write a script for you [Jackie Brown], you know, not everyone gets a script written for them. After all that, I’m good. I’m okay.

Of those you have worked with, who has inspired you or transformed your approach to acting?

There’s Ray Bradbury with Something Wicked This Way Comes. Florence Henderson [in Ladies of the House] – she and I came from parallel worlds. I learned a lot from Jennifer Beals and Ossie Davis in The L Word. And there was Michael Keaton in Jackie Brown, watching him and Samuel [L. Jackson]. I learned from them that as an actor, your body is an instrument, and you can move kinetically and speak faster, slower or rhythmically.

Your work ethic seems inspired by the feminist influences in your life.

On Twitter I found an African-American woman who was one of the first forest rangers. She’s 94 and an amazing human being. That could have been me. I came from a certain mindset of women in an era where, thanks to things like the Vietnam War, so many men didn’t come home, or came home wounded and couldn’t take care of the home. So if you were female and had a degree or trade, you got out there and used it.

You uprooted yourself while holding down three jobs to go to the Philippines and shoot these movies with Corman. And you were reading Stanislavski while on set, because you wanted to be prepared.

I was saving every dime and I was so crazy and heartbroken thanks to a third attack on my life, which nearly killed me. It’s not in [the memoir]; the editors took it out. But that’s when I changed, because I fought back. This was the ultimate decision that changed me into who I became. I’m now working on a film script about my life, and we put that third attack back in. Because that was the moment where I said, ‘You know what, I don’t give a shit about marriage, I’m so tired of men raping women and getting away with it.’ For several seconds during the attack, I went fucking crazy, all hell broke loose. I was so mad at the world. So I went back to Roger and asked, ‘Is that job still available?’ I needed to get away. He told me to read Stanislavski, and I did and grew at such magnitude. I’m so respectful of the actor. I was approaching these B-movies like it was Chekhov or Tennessee Williams. For me, it was just like theatre, and there is no take two. You’ve got to be perfect. I had to go to the other side of the world to find out who I was. I didn’t think I would survive it, but here I am talking to you.

You made an entire career out of it.

It’s been 45 years. [Laughs] And I have at least three gold watches. And an Apple watch, too.