LOS ANGELES – Pam Grier says she got a role in the rural-themed “Bless This Mess” because “I smelled the part.”
A farmer in Colorado for years, the one-time action star says agriculture is the constant, Hollywood is the exception. “People don’t know that because they always see me dressed up and cleaned up for roles.”
Now, Grier says, the ABC sitcom will let fans discover the “real” Pam, the one who worries about ordering hay, feeding chickens and getting enough time to go fishing.
“Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming – those are my roots, where my people are from,” the North Carolina native insists. “The Asians and the blacks lived in my grandmama’s hotel while they worked on the railroad. Everyone had bull serum they could trade.”
To pay for college (and get away from working three jobs), Grier agreed to do acting jobs. Director Roger Corman, she says, had to call her mother and promise he wouldn’t fire her so she could quit the other jobs. “My mama was serious. I was living in my aunt’s garage and I needed to make tuition.”
To bring a degree of authenticity to her work, Corman gave Grier a copy of “The Actor Prepares,” by Konstantin Stanislavski. The Stanislavski method suggests actors become their characters by bringing life experience to the roles.
“Once I read it I realized how important the actor is to humanity,” Grier says. Roles in a host of blaxploitation made her the first African-American female to headline an action film. “Coffy,” “Foxy Brown” and “Sheba, Baby” brought stardom.
That first piece of advice, though, stuck. To audition, “I’ll come a thousand miles off book in a snowstorm,” Grier says. “What’s important is that first impression. Do I look like the character? Usually, I do and I get the job right away. That’s Stanislavski.”
When she went in to see the producers of “Bless This Mess,” a comedy about an urban couple moving to a small town in Nebraska, the 69-year-old had leather gloves in her back pocket. “I was covered in dust and I smelled the part. When I was sitting in the lobby of the studio, everybody said, ‘Who’s that?’ I literally came off the farm.”
Now, Grier is helping creators Lake Bell and Elizabeth Meriwether capture the “authenticity” of rural America.
“Comedy is just honesty,” she says. “You don’t think anybody thinks it’s funny and, oh my god, it is. How we laugh at our pain is so important. I wake up laughing. That’s how I get through the day.”
An icon among fans of 1970s action films, Grier has weathered many storms, including stage-four cervical cancer. She had several long-term relationships, too, and has been credited with inspiring a number of contemporary filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino, who cast her in “Jackie Brown.”
“I raised the bar of the B movie and now it’s edgy,” she says. “That’s surprising. But I’m surprised every day. I’m a cancer survivor. I’m surprised I’m here.”
While working on the sitcom (in which she plays a multi-tasker who also serves as the county sheriff), Grier is working on a film version of her autobiography, “Foxy: My Life in Three Acts.”
“I want to meet with Spike Lee because he captured the ‘70s so richly in ‘BlacKkKlansman,’” she says. “We did ‘Crooklyn’ together and I think he understands me. We’re meeting with a lot of folks. I hope everything falls into place.”
Life, Grier says, has a way of settling personal dust storms. “Nobody cares what your age is,” she says. “If you bring the work, if you bring the passion, that’s what people respond to. If you’re afraid, they’ll notice.”
Considering Grier has gotten substantial roles in films and television, it’d be easy to think those first two acts were the best.
No, she says, “the third act is the best because I have experience…and I’ve survived a lot.”
"Bless This Mess" airs April 16 on ABC.