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Crafting a career, a life

After taking time to raise her son, Karen Allen is back on the big screen in the small film 'Drinkers'

Karen Allen, besides being an actress and a mother, has also started her own line of knitwear designs and a shop in Great Barrington to sell them. Karen Allen, besides being an actress and a mother, has also started her own line of knitwear designs and a shop in Great Barrington to sell them. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / March 25, 2011

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MONTEREY — At the bottom of an icy driveway off an unpaved road in the Berkshires, Karen Allen stands in her doorway, smiling broadly. She is 59, and she is luminous.

Behind chic rectangular glasses that she’s managed to hang on to for six months — “That’s almost a record,’’ she laughs — her face is unmistakably that of sweet, pretty Katy from “Animal House,’’ the 1978 hit that propelled Allen to fame in her movie debut.

She leads the way into the house, a renovated and expanded centuries-old barn, her home since 1988. She raised her son here, taking a step back from Hollywood to do so. Stardom in a string of major releases, including “Raiders of the Lost Ark,’’ “Shoot the Moon,’’ “Starman,’’ and “Scrooged,’’ was replaced by a more bucolic existence: less acting, more knitting. So much more knitting, in fact, that she has a line of her own designs and a shop in Great Barrington to sell them.

Tracy Chapman is playing over the speakers when Allen ducks into the kitchen to make coffee and tea, emerging a few minutes later with a tray. She settles in front of the wide stone fireplace, where a blaze is crackling.

“You know, I don’t really understand a suburban environment,’’ she says. “I want to be out in the woods, I want to be where it’s wild, I want to wake up and hear birds, I want to walk outside and see a gaggle of turkeys bouncing across my lawn — I want to be someplace like that — or I want to be right in the middle of an urban environment.

“But that in-between purgatory of the suburbs,’’ she adds, laughing, “I just don’t relate to it.’’

She is talking about suburbia because of her new movie, “White Irish Drinkers,’’ an independent film opening today. Written and directed by John Gray, it’s set in 1975 Brooklyn. The common denominator — the reason Allen is thinking of her distaste for the suburbs, where she spent a chunk of her childhood in Maryland — is the feeling of being stuck.

In the film, she plays Margaret, an emotionally beaten-down working-class woman whose husband is a violent drunk and whose young-adult sons, she fears, are on the wrong path. All four of them are trapped in the stifling griminess of their lives.

Allen first came on the filmmakers’ radar after her agent read the script and contacted their casting director. The actress was more interested in working now that her son was grown, the agent said, and the part might appeal to her.

“We said, ‘Yeah, right,’ ’’ Gray recalls by phone. “I never believed she’d want to do a movie so small and unprepossessing. It was very, very low-budget.’’

But the no-frills nature of the shoot, lacking even trailers for bathroom breaks, left Allen unfazed.

“She was game,’’ Gray says. “She just wanted to do the work.’’

Her performance, in his estimation, is “incredibly brave,’’ involving a physical transformation that conceals her beauty. “She wanted to look as dowdy and as worn down by her life as she could,’’ he says.

The project is a reunion of sorts for Allen and her “Animal House’’ boyfriend, Peter Riegert, who plays the financially desperate owner of a scruffy movie theater. His involvement in the project was part of what drew her to it.

As for the Berkshires, she was lured there by the stage. While her film career blossomed in the 1980s, she was also working at the Berkshire Theatre Festival and at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where the legendary artistic director Nikos Psacharopoulos and the company won her heart. “It felt kind of like this acting family I had always yearned for,’’ she says.

In the spring of 1983, after rupturing a vocal cord during a brief Broadway run of a William Gibson play, “Monday After the Miracle,’’ she headed again to western Massachusetts to recover under the care of vocal coach and Shakespeare & Company cofounder Kristin Linklater. Allen spent hours each day riding her bike through the countryside, humming her way back to health.

“Really, that was my big falling in love with the Berkshires,’’ she says. “I hummed — hmm-hm-hm-hmm — and went all over the Berkshires.’’

As she speaks, a mottled, long-haired cat named Pumpkin lolls in a patch of sunlight on a round wooden table, purring loudly. Luna, a black-and-white cat with tiny ears, reclines on an ottoman upholstered in a suns-and-moons pattern, mewing commands to be stroked.

It’s a fairly quiet life, and to a great degree Allen has chosen it. She has never warmed to Los Angeles, for example, because it’s not a place where she feels creative.

“It might be because it’s suburban. It might be because it’s sort of a company town. I feel like when I’m there, people tend to define me by my profession, and I don’t necessarily like being defined by my profession,’’ she says. “A lot of times when I’ve been offered film series and stuff, if they shoot in Los Angeles, I lose interest.’’

There is also the fact that Hollywood is a business that’s kindest to young actors. For performers, and most markedly for the women among them, aging almost inevitably means less work.

“It happens to all actors eventually,’’ Allen says. “It just happens to actresses sooner.’’

Her own priorities changed, too, she says, after she and her husband, television actor Kale Browne, split up in the 1990s. Their only child, Nick, now 20, was 6 at the time, and the family had been living in both Massachusetts and New York.

“I think my first and most primary consideration was ‘What is gonna be a good environment for my son to grow up in?’ ’’ Allen says. “And I really felt this would be a better environment for him . . . than New York City.’’

Through his elementary school years, they tried both places. But when they left New York for Massachusetts as her son was entering seventh grade, Allen was determined to spend the next six years being firmly rooted. She knew she had to find something to keep herself not just occupied but stimulated. Ideally, she would also be able to make some money doing it.

So she listened to a secret longing and returned to textiles, which is what she’d studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York, before a performance by Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish Theatre Laboratory propelled her into acting. After a quick detour back to FIT in 2002 to study machine knitting, she founded a knitwear design studio called Karen Allen Fiber Arts, in Great Barrington.

Allen, who reprised her “Raiders of the Lost Ark’’ role in the 2008 sequel, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,’’ says acting and textile design share little creative common ground.

“For me it’s kind of a counterbalance, because acting is such a collaborative thing. And because it’s collaborative, you’re often waiting for all of the elements of a particular project to come together,’’ she says. “After years and years of being an actor who is waiting for these collaborations, it became clear to me that just creatively, I needed something else to be passionate about that was more completely in my own sphere.’’

Her artistic pursuits in western Massachusetts are not limited to knitting. She teaches acting at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, and this summer she’s directing Michael Weller’s “Moonchildren’’ at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. Her one stipulation about that assignment was that she be allowed to cast her ex-husband, now a close friend, who performed in her production of the play at Simon’s Rock.

Their son, meanwhile, has left New England. Recently graduated from the French Culinary Institute in New York, he’s embarking on an internship at the famous Copenhagen restaurant Noma: the sort of auspicious coming of age that Allen’s character in “White Irish Drinkers’’ would never dream could be her son’s.

As Nick gets ready to leave the country, her happiness for him mixes with longing for the little boy he used to be. Recently, she was thinking of the snowy winter days when they would curl up on the couch with a big bowl of popcorn and watch all the “Star Wars’’ movies.

When she told him so, he calmly reassured her: “I sometimes watch movies on a Saturday afternoon. We could still do that together.’’

Allen laughs. “So you miss all those things, but you want nothing more than to see them have a passion for something and move out into the world and create their own life. There’s nothing more satisfying. When you see them doing that, you feel like you’ve done your job.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.