‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ at 40: Karen Allen on Having Snakes Dumped on Her and How Tom Selleck Almost Got Harrison Ford’s Role

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On June 12, 1981, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” immersed viewers in the intrepid undertakings of Indiana Jones — a lionhearted archaeologist who set out to find the mystifying Ark of the Covenant.

Harrison Ford portrayed the titular adventurer, while Karen Allen played the high-spirited and resilient Marion Ravenwood. Before being cast in Steven Spielberg’s film, Allen had appeared in 1978’s “National Lampoon’s Animal House” as Katy and 1980’s “A Small Circle of Friends.” Although Allen did not return for the next two “Indiana Jones” sequels (Kate Capshaw and Alison Doody filled the roles as Indy’s love interests), she returned for “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” in 2009.

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Variety spoke with Allen about Marion’s “inner strength,” some of the other actors that auditioned for the role of Indiana Jones, the budding romance between him and a teenage Marion and repeatedly having a bin full of snakes poured on her.

My father saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when it came out in theater, and then he showed it to my brother and me when we were growing up. 40 years later, how does it feel to be a part of a film that not only transcends generations but is known to many as the quintessential adventure movie?

It’s touching to hear you say that your dad introduced you to it. People tell me that quite often, and I don’t know how old you are, but you’ll probably introduce it to your children. It seems to be one of those handful of films that people really hold close to their hearts and want to share with their kids. And that’ll keep the film alive. There are very few films that I’ve worked on that have that kind of ability to move forward from generation to generation.

Raiders of the Lost Ark Karen Allen
Raiders of the Lost Ark Karen Allen

Your character, Marion Ravenwood, is this resilient woman who is unintimidated by men and is able to take care of herself when the situation demands it. How did it feel to play such a strong female character, especially when those kind of roles were more rare at the time?

Yeah, I mean, just extraordinary. When they sent me this scene from The Raven bar to audition with, I just fell in love with the character. This man who broke her heart comes in and she punches him in the jaw, I mean, it was just such a wonderful and colorful introduction to a woman. At the time, I had grown up with a lot of those beautiful 40s films. You had incredible actresses — Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Ingrid Bergman and Katharine Hepburn — who portrayed these tough, wonderful characters. And then, I don’t know what happened in the ’50s and ’60s. We kind of fell apart culturally, and women became more like objects in films. So to have a role like this come my way was just such an exciting event. I always look for characters who have that kind of inner strength because it’s just so interesting to play.

I know that you auditioned with two other actors who were up for the role of Indiana Jones, was one of those actors Tom Selleck?

Tom Selleck had been cast, and then it turned out “Magnum P.I.” got picked up. They wouldn’t let him out of his contract, and so he was heartbroken. I only know that way after the fact because I sat with him many years later and he told me how heartbroken he was. I auditioned with Tim Matheson and John Shea. John Shea and I flew from New York together on the same plane to do a screen test, and Tim Matheson was in Los Angeles but I had worked with him just a couple of years before in “Animal House,” so we were pals. I did the auditions with them and since discovered that Sam Elliot and Jeff Bridges auditioned. Other than those four, I don’t know who else auditioned for Indy but I know an awful lot of women who auditioned for Marion. I’ve read that a lot of women Steven was interested in refused to do a screen test and that was a way to eliminate people. So, I saw no harm in doing a screen test. I didn’t have a very established career at that point, so the idea of doing a screen test was thrilling to me.

I’ve read that after you received the script, you came up with a backstory for Marion to fill in some of the blanks. Did this help you get into character, and what other elements of Marion’s backstory did you envision?

I feel like there are these basic things that we all know about ourselves, it seems only right that my work as an actor is to ask those questions of a character that I don’t know very much about. Who was her mother? How old was she when they came to Nepal? Where was she born? I wrote this 40something years ago, I think I have a copy of it somewhere, but I did create a backstory for her.

Was there a romance between Indy and Marion when he was studying under Abner Ravenwood?

I don’t think that there was a major romance between them. I do think she was very much in love with him or had a crush on him. She was 16 and he was probably the first person she ever had a crush on. They may have kissed. I don’t think it was anything because my father was there and [Indy] was my father’s student. It may have been those very things that drove him out of there, that somehow there was this temptation to have a romance with Marian but she was 16. She was his mentor’s daughter and it was dangerous for him to chat in that direction, so he may just have left and broke her heart.

There’s a legendary story out there that the whole cast and crew shooting the Cairo-set scenes in Tunisia got really sick from food poisoning, except for Spielberg as he didn’t eat any of the local food that everyone else was having. Is this a true story?

It’s a true story. We were staying in a little place called Naftah, which is right on the edge of the Sahara Desert. We were shooting deeper into the Sahara, all that wonderful stuff where we’re searching for the ark. We discovered that the hotel was selling us bottles of water and charging us $2 a bottle, and they were just filling them up from the tap. Everybody got amoebas, or whatever the possibilities are when you’re drinking local water that you really shouldn’t be drinking. We were being so careful when we brushed our teeth, we had our little bottle of water. The food there was also very challenging and Steven, it was a wise decision on his part because everybody else can feel bad, but if the director feels bad, the whole thing can come to a crashing halt. So he had boxes of baked beans and Spaghetti-O’s, and he was sort of living on that because it kept him healthy. Everybody left Tunisia having dropped about 10-12 pounds.

When shooting the scene in the Well of Souls, your character faced off against an army of deadly snakes and spooky skeletons. Are you afraid of snakes?

I’m not particularly afraid of snakes. I wouldn’t want to get bitten by one or end up in a den of cobras or something, but most of the snakes that we had on the set were what are called grass snakes and they’re pretty harmless. You can put your finger right in their mouth and they won’t bite you. We had like six or eight pythons on set. They had people who watched them but sometimes there were people that got bitten by the pythons. They’re not poisonous but they have a nasty bite. The cobras had to be treated with great care because we had to have an ambulance with anti-toxins and stuff. Even if you do what’s called milking them before you work with them, they’re still very poisonous.

So how often did you interact with snakes on set?

We had snakes all over us. When they would put them onto the set, they would immediately want to turn around and go away to a dark, cool spot because of the lights and it was hot there. They would bring Harrison and I into our positions, and then the guys who were looking after the snakes would come with bins with hundreds of snakes in them and they would pour them literally on me and Harrison. They would slither down our bodies, landed at our feet and then Steven would stream the action. Because if they put the snakes down first, the snakes were gone by the time they got us there. So we had to get used to it quickly. I was happy when we were with the snakes, it was challenging to work with all of those elements but I’ve never really done anything quite like that before.

Just as you created a backstory for Marion, did you ever imagine what life looked like for her and Indy after getting married, and if so, is this a story you’d be interested in exploring in the future?

I have thought about what would our world be like after they got married and what they both end up doing. I was imagining they would settle down somewhere, he would go back to working as a professor and they would have some semblance of the life that we first meet them when he splits his time between those two worlds. She and he might go off on adventures but they would also have some semblance of domestic life, and their son would be a part of it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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