If you’re a fan of Indiana Jones, you probably recognize Karen Allen. She played Harrison Ford’s OG love interest in two of the franchise’s four movies, including the very first film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. While she became well-known for her iconic role and has worked steadily ever since, Karen Allen is not your typical Hollywood actress. Here we take a deep dive into her interesting life and career.
Karen Allen was born in Carrollton, Illinois, on October 5th, 1961. When she was 17, she traveled to New York City to study textile and clothing design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. After that, she attended George Washington University in Washington D.C., where she got bitten by the acting bug. She became heavily involved in theater, and eventually returned to New York City to hone her craft at the acclaimed Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute.
“I have to say the Strasberg Institute as an actor had the most profound effect on me,” Allen told the Institute in a 2011 talk. “And I would say the tools that I learned studying here have been the most valuable tools that I to this day bring to the work. Both in the theatre and in film.”
Despite her accomplished resume in theater, Allen is best-known for playing Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first of the Indiana Jones movies. The film was a blockbuster hit when it was first released in 1981 and continues to be an action-adventure staple to this day. Nabbing the part changed the course of Allen’s career and catapulted her to a new level of success.
“It’s quite shocking in a way to be in a film that gets that much attention,” the actress said in a 2019 interview with Crypticrock.com. “In a way it really does shift the axis of your life for a little while. There is suddenly this feeling that you’re a part of something much larger than yourself. The experience of making it was great. I had done, I think, 3 feature films at that point, all of which to some extent were smaller films, and much more shot on location.”
One of the reasons Marion Ravenwood was such a beloved character—and one of the reasons Allen loved playing her—was because of her tough, independent nature, which was rare in female action-adventure roles at the time. When she’s first seen in Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, she’s playing (and winning!) a drinking contest against a big, burly Nepalese man.
“It’s a great introduction,” Allen says of the famous scene. “That’s the only scene I read at first. They gave me that scene to audition with. No one was allowed to read the script. So until they told me they wanted me, that was really all I knew about the role — that one scene. But that was enough that I was totally intrigued and wanted to do it. Whatever this story was, this was going to be a fantastic character to play.”
While Allen didn’t appear in the next two Indy installments, she reprised the role of Marion Ravenwood in the Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull —which came out 28 years after the original. Fans of the franchise were thrilled to have the character back, much to Allen’s surprise.
“All those years, people gave me incredible feedback about loving the character, and [asked] why wasn’t I in the other films and things like that,” she told Entertainment Weekly in 2012. “But I remember the moment that they announced that I was in the [new] film — it was at Comic-Con — this report came back that there was this huge response and people were like clapping and screaming, and I was like, 'Really?' I was quite stunned by that. I’m always sort of surprised. We went to the IMAX [screening of Raiders] the other night and we walked in and the entire audience stood up and clapped. That always comes as a great surprise.”
While playing Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark was Allen’s breakout movie role, she made her film debut three years earlier in the comedy classic, Animal House. Allen credits that film with kickstarting her movie career and paving the way to her career-defining role. In a 2018 interview with Connecticut Magazine she said:
“Until I did Animal House, I had never met an actor who had ever been in a film. I had never been on a set before. And it was true for a lot of us. For that whole group of actors, it created a possibility of working in films. Had I not been cast it would have taken years for me to be able to move into the film world. All of a sudden we were all very much in vogue. We were all very much in demand.”
Allen continues to appear on stage and in films, and recently made her directorial debut with the 2017 movie A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud.
She also didn’t let her time at the Fashion Institute of Technology go to waste—the Indiana Jones actress has her own line of gorgeous cashmere knits and runs a textile shop in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.