The woman who has been hailed as Texas’ greatest movie actress has sustained a four-decade long career detailed in her new memoir, My Extraordinary Ordinary Life. Postcards Magazine got to enjoy a visit with this Academy Award winning actress because part of my extraordinary, ordinary life was to grow up with the knowledge that my first babysitter was none other than…you guessed it, Sissy Spacek. Sissy and I were both born in Quitman, Texas, but she is the only one that has a sign proclaiming it as you drive into town!
Sissy has always been a part of our family history and conversation because my dad, Lanier Stevens of Madisonville, taught Sissy to play the guitar when she was a teenager. I remember the phone call he received from Sissy when she was shooting the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter telling him that she was going to get to use her guitar playing skills on screen. Not only did she play the guitar in that movie, but she showed off her tremendous vocal talent by singing all of the songs required for her portrayal of Country Music star Loretta Lynn. It was fun for all of us when she was received Hollywood’s highest honor, the Academy Award, for that role.
We joined Sissy in Austin a few weeks ago and had the privilege to sit down with her for a few minutes and talk about her book and her connection to Texas.
What inspired you to write your book?
The opportunity presented itself, and I can still remember vividly everything I did in my childhood! Because we come from a family with a long tradition of storytelling, I wanted to get down all these stories for my girls.
In your book, you talk at length about your Texas upbringing. Is there one thing that you find you go back to over and over that was the most important?
No, not really. I don’t think there’s one thing that was the most important. I think my family was the most important. You know, I could have grown up in a little town and it had been very different had it not been for my parents. They were what made my childhood extraordinary.
True. I took organ lessons – my mother wanted me to learn to play, that was part of a young girl’s “education” …. musical training. I wanted to play the guitar, so I decided to order one from Sears & Roebuck and had it shipped to the house. I had saved up my allowance for a long time and my mom or dad came into the room, I can’t remember which, and said, “Sissy’s got a really large box from Sears & Roebuck. What’s that?” I thought, “That’s my Silvertone guitar!”
My dad was talking to your dad about giving my brother Ed banjo lessons. My dad had been a really fine baritone guitar player and four string banjo player in a dance orchestra. That’s how he put himself through college—that, and mucking stalls! And so my dad had this banjo (which I have now, and it’s wonderful) and he talked to Lanier because someone had suggested that Lanier could teach my brother. I would sit in the room when he was teaching him the banjo, but I wanted to play guitar and got Lanier to teach me.
As I thought about and read about all the characters that you’ve played, one thing that I wondered is what character do you feel is most like you in your real life? Have you played one that you feel like is really kind of “me”?
They’re all parts of me, but none of them are me. But they are all parts of me.
I wouldn’t want anyone to play Sissy Spacek…(Laughing) That would be horrifying! Oh my gosh, because then someone is interpreting YOU!
In Badlands, that was very much like me…the innocence and naïveté…the little girl twirling in the front yard. And kind of stepping into something that was “bigger than her” that she wasn’t really ready for…I think I was naïve like that and had lived a very protected life. So that part of that character, the first part of that character, was very much me. But then – it went somewhere else! (Pause – thinking) I certainly wasn’t like Carrie! And not really like Coal Miner’s Daughter either – I had a different kind of childhood. I had the chance to grow up before I went out into the world.
You weren’t a mother at 14.
Exactly! Or a grandmother at 26. So there’s a lot of me in many of them. In Raggedy Man, I used my mom and I think that is a really sweet movie. I don’t know…what do you think?
I said that? (Laughing) I wasn’t like that character, but I was like the description of her that Beth Henley gave me when I asked her to tell me about the character. Beth said, “Well, she’s the kind of person that has a dinner party and has a wonderful centerpiece and a new dress and the house looks great, but she forgot to put the roast in the oven!” That’s when I said, “That’s me!” I have that daffiness, and I don’t like to cook. Other than that, that’s where it stops! I’ve never shot my husband or stuck my head in the oven or tried to hang myself!
When you hear someone say “Texas” what’s your first thought?
I wondered if it still would be.
Oh yes, once a Texan, always a Texan. My husband Jack says that when we cross the state line my accent changes – everything about me changes!
I have a daughter who lives here, and all my family is in Austin so I’m back often… really often and you never know. We love the farm (in Virginia), so I don’t think we’ll ever leave the farm—but if I lived anywhere else, it would be in Texas.
If you could choose only one role that you think you would like to be most remembered for, what would it be?
Badlands. I don’t know…Badlands, Carrie and Coal Miner’s Daughter; they are all memorable for different reasons.
One of the things you mention in your book is that there are probably only a few people who have your country album, “Hangin’ Up My Heart.” Well, I’m one of those and, in fact, still have it on cassette. I am probably one of the few people in the world who still owns a cassette player!
Oh my gosh! So you’d say Coal Miner’s Daughter?
I would – I loved it.
Well you know, the great thing about that movie was that I got very close to Loretta; we have a lifelong friendship.
Yes, and when I went off to work, I dragged my girls with me! We loaded up the dogs and the bicycles and the grandparents and everybody and just went off. Everything but the kitchen sink, and then almost that too! That’s why my girls wanted to get in the business because they were exposed to the actual work of making films not the Hollywood party aspect of it. When Schuyler moved to Los Angeles and Madison went to school they took their Virginia values…correction Virginia/Texas values with them…because that’s from whence my values came.
I do have a newspaper clipping to send you from the Quitman newspaper that’s a photo of Lanier Stevens and his guitar students.
I remember that! We were probably all wearing matching yellow shirts. I’m so excited to get to meet you. I love your dad so much. He’s the reason that I’m sitting here talking to you—because I had that opportunity to learn how to play guitar, and that was instrumental in preparing me for this.
(Laughing) I have a little anxiety at night sometimes that maybe I exposed too much, but I am excited about it so thank you!
I think it really shows how real you are, and I loved that and certainly think people connect with that.
Real she is. There’s no pretension. There’s no air of superiority or fame. Sissy is Sissy. She is gracious and kind. She is talented, and she’s a Texan. And she has truly had an Extraordinary Ordinary Life.