Sissy’s South

On the road with the Oscar winner
Actress Sissy Spacek broke into show business forty years ago, but the Oscar-winning actress is still focused on the road ahead.

Lynne Brubaker

web-1550_0603Sissy Spacek knows where she’s going. Since breaking into show business forty years ago, she’s had a plan: Take interesting roles. Raise her family herself. Stay true to her Southern roots. Travel as much as possible. As she packs her bags to film the second season of Bloodline in the Florida Keys, she’s full of anticipation. For where she’s headed—and for how she’s getting there.

Sissy Spacek just bought an Airstream. It’s the shape of a toaster and the color of a newly minted quarter. She and her husband, production designer Jack Fisk, intend to drive all over the South in it, kicking up dust on small roads in small towns and breaking at rest stops along the way. Spacek likes rest stops. The nice ones, at least. Ones with plenty of grass and trees and picnic benches, like the kind she finds all over Tennessee. “If you’re a road traveler, there are some of the most beautiful rest stops in that part of the country,” she says in her soft East Texas drawl.

Spacek, sixty-five, considers herself something of an authority on road travel. Her two daughters are grown, but when they were young, she and Fisk would pack them in the car and drive around Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. It exposed their girls to the ways other people lived, people who didn’t grow up on sprawling Virginia farms and whose mothers hadn’t won Academy Awards. Now that their daughters live in Texas, Spacek and Fisk drive from Virginia to visit them, breaking the trip across several days and varying the routes to keep things interesting. “We’re definitely motorers,” Spacek says. When they look in the rearview mirror nowadays, they see their two dogs, not two car seats carrying little girls. Things change, but at least the road remains a constant.

Spacek and Fisk will soon take their Airstream on its maiden voyage, drawing a line from central Virginia to Islamorada, Florida, where Spacek will film the second season of Bloodline. In the Netflix original series, she plays Sally Rayburn, the matriarch of a respected Florida Keys family and head of the clan’s upscale hotel, the Rayburn House. The premise sounds idyllic, but after the sun slips into the Atlantic, Sally Rayburn’s family and business aren’t nearly as picture-perfect as they seem.

The show, from the creators of Damages, has received critical acclaim, earning Emmy nominations for cast members Kyle Chandler and Ben Mendelsohn. So strong were the reviews, within a month of the show’s release, it was renewed for a second season. Spacek is ready to get started on it again. She misses the Keys, a place she calls “paradise.” Before she took the role, she had never been there, and she assumed that because the tropical islands are scattered along the southernmost tip of the country, the culture there would be, well, Southern. But she found it to be something else entirely. “It’s like a different world,” she says. “It’s really for people who are trying to get away. When you’re down there, it’s about fishing and water and boating and good food and snorkeling.”

“It’s like a different world,” she says. “It’s really for people who are trying to get away. When you’re down there, it’s about fishing and water and boating and good food and snorkeling.”

In the seven months Spacek spent filming in the Keys last year, she sampled all of the above. She was a regular at Pierre’s, a waterfront mansion-turned-restaurant in Islamorada. “I just adore it,” she says of the French eatery. “It’s elegantly casual with spectacular food and views.” Across the street at the Moorings, a famed luxury resort that stands in for the Rayburn House, she liked to sit in the shade beneath the abundant coconut palms, eyes closed, wearing a wide-brimmed hat. (Spacek’s creamy skin and strawberry-blond hair do not a sun worshipper make.)

One day she visited Dolphins Plus in Key Largo, where she swam with the 400-pound creatures and wondered why in the world she’d never tried something like that before. “It’s kind of a spiritual experience,” she says. “You really connect with the dolphins in a way you just can’t believe.”

But perhaps her favorite memory was a dinner that taught her that fresh-caught lobster and lobster from a tank don’t even taste like the same food. She was at the home of her neighbors, a husband and wife; the husband liked to dive for lobster while the wife knew how to cook them perfectly. Spacek can still close her eyes and taste them. “That,” she says, “was the best. I had never tasted lobster that fresh—it was like nothing else.”

There were obvious reasons for Spacek to do Bloodline. Television is the new cinema. The show’s creators—Todd A. Kessler, Daniel Zelman, and Glenn Kessler—are whip-smart. The cast is superb. But her explanation is more personal: “I was looking to explore my seventh decade.”

And indeed, she chose something quite different to delve into. Instead of holding an entire movie script in her hands, Spacek receives it an episode at a time. Instead of shooting scenes out of order, she shoots them in sequence. Because at any moment, the creators could decide they want to change course. Bring in a new character. Kill someone off. “You’re kind of flying by the seat of your pants,” Spacek says. “We’re just like everybody else, trying to figure out what’s going to happen.”

In a way, the unpredictable environment mirrors her own life. No one, least of all she, dreamed a tomboy from Quitman, Texas, would become one of the most iconic Southern actresses of our time. Raised by an agriculturist father and a typist mother, Spacek believed she couldn’t act after failing to land even a supporting role in her school play. Still, she was drawn to the stage, so she refocused her sights on becoming a musician. She learned how to play the guitar and began to write songs, performing them at local pageants and parties. She might have stayed in Texas her whole life, playing at barbecues and county fairs, had her brother Robbie not been diagnosed with leukemia. He was a high-school junior; she was a sixteen-year-old sophomore. She worshipped him.

In a moment, life became an endless series of hospital rooms and drives back and forth between Quitman and Houston, where Robbie was treated at MD Anderson. After months of upheaval, Spacek’s parents bought her a standby plane ticket to visit her cousin, the actor Rip Torn, in New York City. The vacation, they reasoned, would provide their daughter with some much-needed distraction. For two days in the summer of 1967, Spacek waited in the Dallas airport for a seat to open up. When at last the attendants called her name, the five-foot-two teenager picked up her nearly four-foot guitar and boarded the plane for her first-ever flight. Maybe she was on her way to being discovered.

In The Help, Spacek played Mrs. Walters opposite Bryce Dallas Howard and Octavia Spencer.
In The Help, Spacek played Mrs. Walters opposite Bryce Dallas Howard and Octavia Spencer.

In New York, Rip Torn introduced his precocious cousin to his circle of Broadway friends. A Tony Award nominee for his role in 1959’s Sweet Bird of Youth, he got Spacek an audition at William Morris. The executives there didn’t mince words: She needed to go home, lose her accent, and return when she was older.

That blow wasn’t nearly as gutting as the one that soon followed: Her brother’s condition was worsening. A distraught Spacek immediately flew home. Within weeks, he was gone.

In her memoir, My Extraordinary Ordinary Life, Spacek writes of feeling shocked, suffocated, lost. She also writes of that little-discussed seed that grief can sometimes sow: motivation. “It was almost like rocket fuel,” she writes. “I was fearless.” She finished high school, placated her parents by enrolling at the University of Texas, and flew back to New York before ever moving into her dorm. There was no time to waste, she decided. She was going to make it big.

It didn’t happen overnight. Or even over months. Spacek played at bars and sang in subway stations for years, hoping to catch the eye of someone who’d sign her to a record deal. She finally landed an agent, and to her surprise, he suggested she give acting a try. Though she still doubted her abilities, Spacek enrolled at the famed Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute and began auditioning for roles, guitar always in hand—just in case.

Spacek transformed into a young Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter.
Spacek transformed into a young Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter.

In 1972, she got her first break: a credited role in Prime Cut with Gene Hackman. To her delight, she discovered she wasn’t half bad at acting. Her next film was Terrence Malick’s Badlands, where she met a tall, longhaired man who introduced himself as the film’s art director. Two years later, in 1974, Jack Fisk became her husband. Badlands was a hit with critics, but most Americans didn’t know Spacek’s name until she landed the title role in Stephen King’s horror classic Carrie. After the film’s release, Spacek was nominated for an Academy Award, and Newsweek put her on its cover as one of Hollywood’s “new actresses.” Sissy Spacek had arrived.

Perhaps no one took greater notice of Spacek’s skyrocketing career than country superstar Loretta Lynn. At concerts, she began telling fans that Spacek was going to play her in a movie. She repeated as much to Johnny Carson during an appearance on The Tonight Show. But there was a problem: Lynn had never met Spacek, and Spacek was trying to stay away from roles that would typecast her as “country.”

But Lynn was relentless, and the project’s top brass begged Spacek to consider it. After months of saying no, Spacek finally said yes. So long as the movie wouldn’t rely on Southern stereotypes. And so long as she could sing every song live. This was not going to be a corny film—she owed both Lynn and herself that.

Once her conditions were met, Spacek began shadowing Lynn to learn her body language and accent. The two holed up in Nashville together, singing and playing the guitar and even writing music. During one of Lynn’s performances at the Grand Ole Opry, she invited Spacek to join her on stage for a duet. So nervous was Spacek, she swears she has no recollection of what they sang.

What Spacek does recall is the way Nashville embraced her. She was a young woman daring to play a living legend, and Music City cheered her on. To this day, Spacek claims Nashville as her own. “I started out as a musician, so that was just an amazing time,” she says. “During filming, I got to perform at the Ryman and the Grand Ole Opry and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge—all the places I’d heard of all my life. Nashville really rolled out the red carpet for us.”

Coal Miner’s Daughter was an instant classic, earning Spacek both an Oscar and a Golden Globe. It also won her new fans in the country music world. After the film’s release, Spacek received a now-legendary telegram from Dolly Parton: “Dear Sissy, I hope you make millions of dollars from Coal Miner’s Daughter so that you can get a boob job and do the Dolly Parton story.”

Spacek celebrates with Lynn after her Oscar win.
Spacek celebrates with Lynn after her Oscar win.

Spacek likes the South. She likes the way people entertain in their backyards and smile when they say hello and believe with all their hearts that the kind of barbecue they make is the very last word on barbecue. She likes learning the history of the places she visits, even when the history isn’t entirely pretty. She likes seeing how places have evolved. Most of all, she likes sitting outside at night and just listening. “Nature is my church,” she says. “The wind in the trees and the bugs and the frogs. All those things are comfort to me. Nature is really big and loud the farther south you get.”

Spacek has filmed a number of movies in the South over the years, most memorably The Long Walk Home and The Help. She shot the former in Montgomery, Alabama, playing a well-to-do homemaker during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. “It’s a beautiful city, but it’s got deep wounds,” she says. She remembers the people there as being supportive of the film, and she often returns to visit close friends who live there. “It’s a fabulous place,” she says.

She’s equally smitten with Greenwood, Mississippi, where she filmed The Help. During production, she stayed at the Alluvian Hotel (“it’s the hotel in Greenwood,” she says) and ate shrimp at Giardina’s next door, which has a series of small dining rooms that were created during Prohibition so people could imbibe “and not be carried off to the clinker,” Spacek says.

After living much of her life in the South, filming all over the region, and crisscrossing its byways on countless road trips, Spacek has come to regard the place as her “briar patch.” Long ago, she attempted to disentangle herself from it; now she happily plays among its thorns. “It’s just a rich, pungent, and beautiful place.”

Spacek likes beautiful places. She’ll be seeing a new set of them soon, when she and Fisk and their dogs pile into an Airstream bound for Florida. She’s not sure yet how many days they’ll spend getting there, or the towns they’ll explore along the way. All she knows is there’s an open road ahead of her, and she’s still eager for the journey.