Sissy Spacek’s Long Walk Home

Whether she’s on-screen or off, the Academy Award-winning actress is still a small-town Texas girl at heart.

“C’mon in,” says Sissy Spacek. “I want you to meet my tribe.” Sissy is standing in the doorway of her suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, where she and her family are staying while she is working on a romantic comedy called Hard Promises with William L. Petersen. She looks immaculately casual, dressed in an unpressed denim shirt, a pair of blue-jean cutoffs, and tasseled loafers stuffed with bulky white cotton socks. Her thick strawberry-blond hair is pulled back in a loose ponytail, and her proud face—the wide jaw, the cool blue eyes, the petite nose, the pale and freckled skin—is scrubbed clean. She isn’t wearing a dab of makeup. Yet she has such poise and self-confidence that it would be impossible not to realize that she’s somebody special, even if you didn’t know that she is a small-town East Texas girl who has made herself into an Academy Award-winning movie star.

Her turquoise charm bracelet jingles loudly as she bends down and scoops up the youngest member of her family, Madison, a chunky, dark-haired two-year-old girl. Madison hasn’t had a nap and is rolling around on the carpet, crying for her mother. “Madison and I slept nose-to-nose last night,” says Sissy. “Both of us are pretty grumpy.”

“This is my husband, Jack Fisk,” she says. The man seated on the couch is bearded, with dark features like Madison’s, but he’s quieter, shaggier, and infinitely more content. A Hollywood director, he looks properly ethereal and self-contained, like the subject of an Edward Hopper painting. Beside him sits their eight-year-old daughter, Schuyler, whose face, long and framed by her bright yellow hair, is the picture of misery: Her roller blades and skateboard are packed away, and she is doomed to an afternoon of boredom in the hotel room. “It’ll be okay, Schuyler,” coaxes her father, sweetly. “We’ll find something fun to do. I promise.”

The hotel room is cluttered with children’s books, toys, and clothes. Next to the window is a table piled high with the leftovers of a room-service lunch—a half-eaten cheeseburger, a bowl of soup, several glasses of apple juice. This family knows how to make itself at home on the road. While Sissy has been in Austin making Hard Promises , Jack has been in Houston directing a cable-TV movie about the life of Earl Rodgers, a famous Los Angeles criminal attorney who defended Clarence Darrow. “Sissy and I both like working in Texas,” says Jack. “It’s home for Sissy. Somehow we can handle more chaos here.”

Sissy and Madison are wrestling on the floor when suddenly a familiar stink hits Sissy in the face. “Jack,” she wails, “Madison’s got a dirty diaper.” Sissy and Jack have been married for sixteen years, long enough to communicate in gestures and cryptic phrases. This time the message is, It’s your turn. Jack lifts himself off the couch to take charge of their children while Sissy raises her arm to give me the high sign. “Let’s get out of here,” she says, with a shimmer of exuberance. “We can talk in the bar.”

I’ve been a Sissy Spacek fan since 1974, when I saw her in Badlands. Sissy plays an empty-headed teenager who is so bored by her hometown that she leaves to join Martin Sheen on a murder spree. I grew up in a small town in East Texas and could identify with wanting to escape. I knew that Sissy understood that longing, for she first left Quitman, a town of less than two thousand people halfway between Dallas and the Louisiana border, when she was seventeen. Sissy narrated Badlands, and her voice—low, twangy, so peculiar to our place and time—reminded me of home. She sounded like everybody I ever grew up with. Besides, I liked seeing her name on the movie credits. You don’t get any more authentically Texan than being a boy named Bubba or a girl named Sissy.

Some actresses succeed because they capture the glamour of Hollywood. But Sissy succeeds because she isn’t seduced by it. Acting is her job, and she works hard at it, but her family is her life. Whether she’s on-screen or off, she is still a country girl at heart. She is at her best portraying people like herself—ordinary people who wind up living extraordinary lives. In 1981 she won an Oscar for her portrayal of Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter . When I asked Tommy Lee Jones, her costar in that film and another Texan, what makes Sissy special, he thought for a long time and finally said, “Sissy is always Sissy.”

Her story is not one of those Hollywood magical moments of early discovery and instant stardom but of hard work and attention to details. In eighteen years, she has made seventeen movies. She has gone from playing pathetic teenagers such as the title character in Carrie to complex grown-up women such as Nita in Raggedy Man , and in the process she has joined Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange at the top of her profession. She has been nominated for an Academy Award five times. On the set, Sissy is absorbed with the technical side of the business, overpreparing for her parts, insisting on more rehearsals. The more elusive and complex the technical problem, the more fun she has. Sometimes her obsession with details can create conflicts with other actors. During the shooting of The Long Walk Home , her current film about the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, Sissy insisted on knowing where every coffee cup would be placed in every scene, while her costar, Whoopi Goldberg, demanded spontaneity. “It was like mixing oil and water,” says Richard Pearce, the director, “but the mix works.”

But a major reason for her success is that Sissy has resolved the dilemma that faces every Texan of ambition: Whether to stay here and remain part of the culture, or rebel and leave. Sissy found a third alternative—she left, but she took her roots with her.

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