19 Apr 19
The Denver Post
Actress Pam Grier, who still lives in Colorado, is co-starring in a new ABC sitcom called “Bless This Mess,” that is premiering this month. Grier sits for a portrait at Voodoo Doughnuts, where a picture of her from the 70’s hangs on the wall, on April 10 in Denver. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)
When thieves walked out of Voodoo Doughnut last fall with a black-velvet portrait of 1970s icon Pam Grier, they likely didn’t imagine it would draw the real thing to the shop.
Hours before a spring blizzard last week, Grier, 69, was dancing in the pink-hued storefront on East Colfax Avenue. She asked an employee to play Lil Nas X’s inescapable twang-rap hit “Old Country Road,” her favorite song of the moment, and obliged requests for selfies next to a box of custom-made doughnuts.
“This is so sweet,” she said, smiling in her turquoise-accented cowboy hat, fringe jacket and tight-fitting jeans. The doughnuts depicted the things that brought Grier here for an interview on this weekday morning, and back into the national media this month: her new ABC sitcom, “Bless This Mess,” and Voodoo’s custom-made painting of Grier, which depicts her in her sex-symbol heyday with an afro, crop-top and stylishly oversized belt.
Grier remains so beloved by cinephiles and pop-culture obsessives that the theft (and mysterious reappearance last month) of the portrait made national news. It doesn’t hurt that she also has a new movie with Diane Keaton, “Poms,” releasing nationally on May 10.
A portrait of Actress Pam Grier during the 1970s hangs on the wall at Voodoo Doughnuts on April 10 in Denver. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)
“It seems like ever since I’ve taken my Spanx off, all these people are showing up,” Grier said, though it was not clear whether she was being literal or figurative about her return to the spotlight on the cusp of 70. “All these old boyfriends are showing up. I’m like ‘Woah, wait a minute! Yes, I’m single. But do they like dirt?’ ”
Grier, a globe-trotting Air Force brat whose parents settled in Denver, is a rancher of sorts. She attended Smiley Middle School, East High, and what’s now called Metropolitan State University before heading to Hollywood in 1967. There, she gained fame as a lethal hottie in blaxploitation hits such as “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown” and, more than two decades later, Quentin Tarantino’s legacy-polishing “Jackie Brown” (1997), which updated Grier’s status with notes about her groundbreaking presence as a black, female action star.
Through her dozens of movies, TV shows and voiceover roles, Grier has continued to live in Colorado — currently on a ranch in Franktown, southeast of Denver in Douglas County. For more than two decades, she has taken care of rescued horses and immersed herself in small-town life. She’s a fixture at area rodeos, but also helps out with local volunteer projects — including cleaning up trash at national parks and donating safety equipment to local law enforcement — and entertaining guests who are tickled that she knows her way around a John Deere catalog as well as a screenplay.
As it turns out, that’s exactly the character she’s playing on “Bless This Mess,” which co-stars Lake Bell and Dax Shepard as New York City transplants who have inherited a run-down Nebraska farm. It’s part “Schitt’s Creek,” part “Money Pit” and all delicious, fish-out-of-water awkwardness.
With Grier’s PR person assuring me the portrait-theft wasn’t a guerilla marketing stunt (“Why would we do it so far out from the premiere?”) we sat down to chat about Grier’s new sitcom — which premiered April 16 on ABC — and what keeps her motivated and happy.
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Q: You’ve been in more than 50 movies and nearly as many TV shows. What lured you back to sitcoms?
A: I’ve always admired (“Bless This Mess” creator) Lake Bell’s work and knew she was a part of the indie filmmaking crowd, and I love to support indie films. She’s not just an actress but a writer and a director, and I love her energy. She called up my agent and said, “I hear Pam lives on a ranch and has horses.” And my agent said, “Yeah, she really lives this role,” which is true since I work with a lot of people in Elizabeth and Kiowa and help out with sanctuaries and animal adoption.
Q: And that’s similar to your character on the show, Constance, who owns a hardware store but is also the local sheriff and theater director. Was Constance written with you in mind?
A: When Lake posed this project for me they didn’t really have a script. But they had this idea that it’s inclusive, and it’s contemporary. Who really knows the land? And I kind of fit that. I learned that from my relatives, from going to Daddy Ray’s farm in Wyoming. We’d go up there and go fishing and it was just so calm and such a retreat.
Q: Do you always have to leave Colorado to work?
A: I bring a lot of production work here, a lot of video and voice work, to places like Postmodern Company and Rocky Mountain Recorders. But I fly a lot, too. I’m going to Germany tomorrow for a comic convention.
Q: It’s set in Nebraska, but where was “Bless This Mess” filmed?
A: It’s shot in Santa Clarita (Calif.) because there’s no way they could have done it in Nebraska. I have friends there and they said, “Are you shooting here? You may not make it.” We’ll do some exterior shots there in the spring, when the weather’s nice, but it’s too harsh year-round to do what we need. They were freezing in Santa Clarita when it was in the low 60s!
Q: Besides Lake and Dax Shepard you’re working with Ed Begley Jr. Did you know any of your co-stars before this?
A: No, but I know some real-life versions of (their characters) — these New Yorkers who feed off us country folk. Ed’s character, Rudy, is a hometown wizard. He gravitates to my character, Constance, because she knows everyone’s business. If someone needs something from my hardware store and they don’t have the money, they make me a pie. That’s how it’s always been.
Q: There’s an idealism in this notion of returning to the country from urban life. But is it realistic?
A: I do see this migration back to the farm of young people with blue and fuschia dreadlocks these days. They come out to Elizabeth to buy chicks and eggs and goat milk. They’re realizing, “Oh my gosh, right under my feet, the grass was greener.” And they’re bringing their educations and they’re learning what organic really means. You see, the farmers, for me, are the real heroes of the day.
Q: How many acres do you have on your ranch?
A: Well, it’s more of a ranchette, and I’ve been in this particular place for 26 years (with) another 13 years in the mountains before that. I don’t want to say where it is because I get stalkers and horse thieves, but it’s an hour and a half from the airport. I just wanted a place for me to rescue horses and animals, and for me to write my novels, my screenplays, my autobiography. Just to chill. Friends come and visit and bring their kids. I like to share my bounty. When I found it, the place had been abandoned for a few years and was overrun with weeds — kind of like the house Dax’s aunt leaves him on the show.
Q: I can’t think of many celebrities who live on a ranch east of Denver, closer to the plains.
A: I know the back roads, the dirt roads that go to Smoky Hill. My horse vet lives out there. My friends invite me to ride (horses) with them and we get real dusty. It’s healing for me, but it took time. I bought the place for a song, and the first week I was there my dogs peed on everything they could find. They didn’t want Cherry Hills. They wanted dilapidation and weeds. It took me two years to kill all the weeds and get the grass growing, because I cleared a lot of stuff myself and did things that my grandfather taught me to do, like putting in irrigation. So I learned a lot, because I love being out there. Sometimes I just want cereal for dinner and a beanbag and a pinball machine and I’m good to go.
Q: You have pinball machines? I’m jealous.
A: Yes I do. That’s the first piece of furniture I bought.
Q: Do you ever feel burdened by your ’70s persona?
A: I know they think I’m urban and I lay by the swimming pool, play tennis and eat chocolates, but I don’t. Lake Bell called me and asked me to meet her for this show, and I was like, “I’ve got chores!” I raked the pasture, picked up some poop, loaded some hay, cleaned up a little, and I flew (to Los Angeles) to meet her. I had my jeans on but I took my Spanx off. You don’t do farm work with Spanx on, OK? You want some badonkadonk on it. And then I smelled the part. I had my leather gloves in my back pocket. I was able to give (Bell) anecdotes of living in the country. I’m single and I don’t have any kids, so I’m mostly out there by myself.
Voodoo Doughnuts made special box of doughnuts for actress Pam Grier, who is co-starring in a new ABC sitcom called “Bless This Mess,” on April 10 in Denver. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)
Q: Did you feel welcome out there when you first bought the ranch?
A: Many people would say, “You know, my family, we didn’t know any black people before you, but you’re wonderful.” I’ve been there so long I’m kind of a fixture. Now there’s like five African-American farmers who live in the area. And there’s one who’s a cattleman — he’s an engineer by trade, but he’s also a Country-and-Western singer. I almost bought his farm. But there’s too much dirt, you know? At some point you’ve got to draw the line. How much John Deere equipment am I going to have to buy? And does it come in pink? The reps that come out to service me, they said, “For you, Ms. Grier, we will paint it pink. Any color you want!” But I like the yellow and green. I also know ten other tractor companies, so that’s impressive to a lot of guys in the bars. I can out-name them in tractors.
Q: That’s impressive by any standard.
A: Well, sometimes you have to know what’s on sale, what works, and what will stand the test of time. I don’t want to lose money when I have big work to do. I get professional help sometimes with the heavy equipment, but I assist them and I’ll learn from them. I know about hay — the first, second and third cuttings, the mixes of the hay. I talk weather and seasons and birthdays, babies, crops, chickens, chicks, turkeys, pheasant. All of it.
Q: Is there room in the show to incorporate some of your real-life experiences, since Constance is also a Jane of All Trades?
A: Constance was already kind of an image, a feeling, and I embodied it. But I said, “Please, I don’t want the show to make fun of these people. They’re the smartest, most courageous, honorable people that you’re flying over here.” I said that to Lake, because otherwise I wouldn’t be part of it. When something happens to us out there, we all pitch in. If someone throws a cigarette butt out on the road, we all have extinguishers in our vehicles and we put out the fire so it doesn’t burn 20,000 acres and people’s homes and livestock. Some say, “Oh, that’s not my problem.” Oh, yes it is! We take care of each other, and when my friends from places like Beverly Hills and Park Avenue come and visit, they find their hearts. They find themselves.
Q: Did Lake or anyone else have to convince you to join the show?
A: They did convince me, but the fact that I already loved (co-creator) Liz Meriwether (who also created “New Girl” and “Single Parents”) helped. I just liked her earthiness.
Q: The writing is really sharp, based on what I saw in the pilot.
A: It’s very dependent on that and the beats, which have to be there because it’s a single-camera and there’s no laugh track. It’ll be interesting to see the characters develop as their backstories come out — especially Rudy (Begley) and me, who are sort of mirrors of each other. We know guns and survival bunkers. But when you’re dealing with me, don’t worry about my guns. Worry about my chainsaw.
Q: Are you concerned about how the show’s going to be received in this divided climate?
A: Yes and no. You can’t be perfect, you just have to be real. And you’re going to see that on there — every tear, every laugh, every belch, every deception. But I was having this debate with one of the writers the other day. He was saying, “How are you going to get the attention of the red states?” and I said, “The red states? No one’s monolithic. There are blue states that have conservatives and moderates and fundamentalists, just like the ‘blue states.’ Most of us are purple.” Colorado has a gay governor, but I’ve seen Confederate flags on cars parked right next to me and they’ll say, “Hi, missy!” And I say, “Hi, how are you doing?” Maybe they’re not supposed to like me, but they do. There’s no debate when you’re at a rest stop on a road trip with my 90-year-old mother, who loves talking to people with license plates from different states. That’s the world I live in.