Homemade

Even after 26 movies and six Oscar nominations, I'm still the same fearless little girl from East Texas.

February 2003By Comments

I’VE ALWAYS HAD A DEEP sense of pride about being a Texan, and I remember thinking as a little kid, “Oh, how lucky I am to be born in Texas, in this little town, in this house, with these parents, and with Ed and Robbie as my brothers.” Quitman was a wonderful place to grow up—it was the center of my universe, my brier patch. There wasn’t a lot of outside interference—no satellite TV, no Internet. There was a picture show, but it closed when I was about six.

In a little town, everybody’s kind of pulling for you; it’s hard to fail in an environment like that. So as a kid, I got to explore and do a lot of different things and find what I was best at and what I enjoyed. I feel like the basis of me is tied so closely to my childhood. It’s that little kid that ran around barefoot in Quitman and just knew no fears, knew no strangers, rode her bike everywhere, rode her horse everywhere. It was an idyllic life, where the summers were long and I had enormous freedom and incredible security. We traveled a lot too, all over Texas, and I got a real good sense of my roots. My mother was from down in the Rio Grande Valley and my father was from Granger, in Central Texas, and everyone there spoke Czech. When we visited, we were the “Spah-chek” family.

I started singing at talent shows and church functions in Quitman when I was around five or six. It was something creative that I was pretty good at, and people seemed to want to listen. I can’t tell you how many Rotarians I entertained—just me and my guitar, mostly folk music and old standards like “Copper Kettle.” I was also starting to write my own songs. You know, I never thought, “I’m going to learn to play guitar so I can get out of here.” But then, in 1967, a friend invited me to go along with her to New York, and I flew up for the summer after my junior year. I was lucky—my cousin was Rip Torn and his wife was Geraldine Page, and I stayed with them and saw a side of the city most seventeen-year-olds never dreamed of.

It was a great time to be in New York. I think I arrived in a little flowered suit and little patent leather shoes, and of course I had my two guitars. I didn’t go anywhere without my guitars. Both Rip and Geraldine were in plays, on Broadway and off, and they took me everywhere with them. They were artists, and I can remember being included in many evenings with their artist and actor friends, and they’d be talking about creative things I knew nothing about but that were just so exciting. By August, when I went back to Texas, I was into moccasins and bell-bottoms and out of the little flowered suit.

My parents wanted me to go to the University of Texas, and I was planning on it, but my brother Robbie was very ill with leukemia and he died in September. That changed everything for me. All these plans we had made for college, it was almost like they were made for somebody else. I had changed; what I wanted had changed. So when I was accepted at UT the next year I went for about a week and I actually went through rush, but college just wasn’t for me. I wanted a piece of what I had experienced in New York. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if I had stayed in Austin. There was such an amazing music scene—Janis Joplin, Threadgill’s. I wonder sometimes if I would have stuck with music. Or would I have been a baton-twirling teacher? I’ll never know.

That winter I moved to New York and started playing at clubs in Greenwich Village in my moccasins and bell-bottoms. I also jammed with my musician friends in Washington Square Park, hanging out and waiting for a glimpse of Bob Dylan. I fell in with a bunch of young musicians at the Brill Building and started doing background vocals and studio work. I sang on the soundtrack for one of Andy Warhol’s films, which I never saw, called Lonesome Cowboys and was an extra in his Andy Warhol’s Trash, but I think my scene was cut. I also met these guys who ran Roulette Records and recorded two songs for them. They had a gimmick and a song and they needed a girl. They even had a name: Rainbo. The song was “John, You Went Too Far This Time,” a commentary on John Lennon’s nude album cover. I can’t tell you how long it took to live that one down. There was a lot of stuff happening in New York, and in some ways I was more a witness than a participant. I just didn’t seem quite as weird as everyone else. I was pretty normal. I mean, I loved my parents.

Around 1970 I met a guy who eventually became my manager. He suggested that I study acting and start auditioning for things, so I started classes at the Strasberg Institute. I remember feeling like an impostor because everyone else in class seemed very dramatic and really into it. I was a little self-conscious about the acting exercises, thinking I was too well-adjusted. I just didn’t know how to be a teacup. Someone even told me that if I didn’t lose the Texas accent I might as well take the next plane back home.

The funny thing is, my Texanness is what got me noticed. I met a young director named Terrence Malick, who’s from Waco, and we just clicked. He cast me in his movie Badlands, and that was when things really began, when I was actually working with artists. And not just Terry. I also met Jack Fisk, who was the film’s art director. Suddenly I was part of a group of artists, and acting felt like what I had experienced making music. It wasn’t about being a star; it was about being a part of this thing, this living thing that was happening. It was a true collaboration.

From then on I thought, “Well, if I never make another film, I’ve already had more than most people.” I became choosier about the roles I took. Before Badlands, I was just caught up in the excitement, thinking, “Wow, look! My face is forty feet high and that freckle is two feet wide.”

In 1976 I did Carrie. I love Carrie, but when I sent the script to my parents, they called me, rather alarmed, and asked, “Honey, are you sure this is a film you want to do?” I have to say it’s astonishing to realize how the movie has become such a part of the fabric of American teenage life. It’s like a rite of passage. It’s kind of mind-boggling, a film that we thought, “Okay, if this doesn’t work, we will never work again.” But, you know, fear can be very motivating.

I finally got a chance to combine the two things I love to do most in Coal Miner’s Daughter—act and sing. Loretta Lynn wanted me for the role even though she’d never seen me act. She flipped through a stack of eight-by-ten glossies, and when she got to mine, she said, “That’s who I want. That’s Loretta.” She is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever known. When I met her I was desperate to do the film. We’ve become close friends and we laugh a lot together. She’s convinced we were twins in another life. That movie eventually led to Hangin’ Up My Heart, a country album I made in 1983 with Rodney Crowell. The whole time I was in the studio I was pregnant with my first daughter, Schuyler. After she was born, juggling a film career and a new baby and music—something had to go. That was music.

After I made Crimes of the Heart, in 1986, I had my second daughter, Madison, and I stopped acting for a while too, for about four years. I just got lost in the sweet young lives of my girls. Maybe it’s because of the way I was raised, but I wanted to give them some of what I had had—a creek to play in, a screen door to slam, neighbors who knew their names. And I didn’t want to miss any of it. I wanted to be there with them, changing their diapers and showing them how to ride a horse. I really wasn’t worried about working. I just trusted that the good roles would still come. And they did. I feel almost guilty that I have been able to live on a farm in Virginia and have this wonderful life with my family and continue to have a career in Hollywood.

When I look back on my career, the high points haven’t had to do with celebrity but with the whole process of filmmaking, of all those people working together toward a common goal. That’s what I love most: the collaboration. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s never dull. I think the most difficult years for me were after Coal Miner’s Daughter, when I was doing the movies with the biggest budgets . That king-of-the-mountain syndrome can really take all the fun out of things. But with the smaller films, like Raggedy Man, The Long Walk Home, Straight Story, Badlands, and In the Bedroom, it’s not about the deal and it’s not about the package; it’s about trying to honor the material.

I don’t have any movies in the can right now, but I have some things on the horizon that I’m excited about. I’m not in New York or Los Angeles hobnobbing at parties and making deals. That’s just not the way I’ve chosen to do it. In some ways, I guess I’m still a lot like that little girl in Quitman, running around barefoot and riding horses. I hope it all continues until I’m too old to remember my lines. And then maybe I’ll just start writing them on my arms or on other actors’ foreheads.

Sissy Spacek, 53, won the Oscar for best actress in 1981’s Coal Miner’s Daughter. She lives in Virginia.

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