EXCLUSIVE: RoboCop's Nancy Allen on the original's epic cast chemistry, the remake, and Verhoeven vs. Kershner

As part of our rowdy RoboCop Week celebration, Blastr scored a date with the revered 1987 film’s most radiant co-star, the glamorously golden-tressed Nancy Allen.

Allen’s tough take on one of Detroit’s finest, Officer Anne Lewis, opposite Peter Weller’s Alex Murphy, advanced the curve of feminine action heroes in a male-dominated arena. She was the only major actor in all three Robo films, released from 1987 to 1993, and worked with a trio of talented directors, Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Basic Instinct), Irvin Kershner (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back) and Fred Dekker (Monster Squad).

Semi-retired from acting, Allen is now executive director of WeSpark, a cancer support center in California. Here she takes us back to the excellent ‘80s, sharing memories of her time on RoboCop learning to shoot guns, co-star chemistry with Weller and that notoriously bad boyish haircut.

 

1987's RoboCop is now a certified geek classic. Surprising, or not?

Allen: I'm not surprised and am truly blown away by the love it gets. It makes me feel good. I hadn't seen the movie since it first came out and watched it again at the 25th-anniversary screening and realized how good and innovative and ahead of its time it was. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would have the wide appeal it does today. Paul was able to bring so much soul and humanity. It's stood the test of time and really is an iconic piece of filmmaking. Paul took the time to get exactly the right people and the right crew. When they started creating the production, we had a pretty small budget. I think it was around $11 million. Paul wanted the same production designer who did Blade Runner. Our producer, Jon Davison, said he could have a great production designer or a great robo-suit. Paul took the suit.

Looking back at the first movie, what do you remember most about the Texas shooting locations?

Allen: There was a tremendous camaraderie between us all. It was hot, and they had to bring in blowers for poor Peter's suit that they literally put together with screwdrivers. God knows, he was the most disciplined person I know. There was a terrific spirit and very little waiting around. Paul kept it constantly moving, and it created this certain energy. And because of the way it was simply lit and they used a Steadicam hybrid, we had tremendous freedom in our movement. Texas was great; we had wonderful restaurants, and Peter knew where to eat, and we had lots of fun in off-hours.

This was Paul Verhoeven's American film debut. What was your on-set relationship like with the high-energy director?

Allen: I loved working with Paul. He knows what he wants and has a certain structured vision. In my first reading, he said to try a line differently, and I came back and asked him if that was it, and he said, "No, but it was very interesting." He loves working with actors and loves shooting, and it created an incredible energy. He's very intuitive and knows subtlety in filmmaking, those human moments, something he can connect and not forget about it.


Do you have any issues with the RoboCop remake? Will you go see it?

Allen: I don't think you remake iconic films. Ours was created out of an extraordinary script with the right director and an amazing cast. Jon believed in the script and an exceptional movie was made. I'm troubled by studios who take a perfect piece and try to milk more money off it. How can this new script be as great as Neumeier's and Miner's original? If I were a director, I wouldn't touch an iconic director's work. It would be insane. To quote Paul Verhoeven about the new film, he said, "It's very depressing, I should be dead." I'm sure I'll see it, but I won't go to the premiere. There's such a lack of imagination anymore in Hollywood. Remember, Orion made RoboCop and you had great studio support and control and executives like Mike Medavoy who absolutely loved movies.

Was there ever the rumor of a cameo in the reboot for you?

Allen: Only from fans and people who hoped, but no, never from the filmmakers themselves.

What were the different directorial styles of Verhoeven, Kershner and Dekker?

Allen: Verhoeven was a dream come true. Inspirational, brilliant, and I was so sad when it ended. He knew exactly what he wanted and always got it. Working with Kershner was the worst experience of my life. He took what was a good script and massacred it. He treated me disgracefully, and I think he ruined the movie and was borderline abusive to me. So every day was about overcoming that and putting a smile on my face and being a good little soldier. He didn't like me and wanted to recast me, but the studio wouldn't let him, so I guess he wasn't happy about that and made it known on a daily basis. It's only recently that I've been able to talk about it. Fred Dekker was a nice enough person. I was on the film a very short time. I knew I was being killed off, so I was very reluctant to do the third film. But there was such a huge established fan base that I felt an obligation to finish the job. It was a quick in-and-out job, and my exposure was minimal. The script was awful. It wasn't RoboCop. Fred did the best he could.

You're now baptized into the legacy of classic sci-fi films. What was your first interest or entry point into the genre?

Allen: I think my first awareness was seeing a movie called The Bad Seed. The Exorcist and 13 Ghosts were terrifying for me. And classic sci-fi like Forbidden Planet, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Day the Earth Stood Still are ones that always come to mind. I loved Twilight Zone, too. Repulsion. What I liked about the genre is that you can take your fantasies to limitless possibilities. I also saw Psycho and The Birds and loved them.


Stephanie Zimbalist was originally cast as Officer Lewis but bowed out due to scheduling conflicts. What were your thoughts after reading the smart, ultra-violent screenplay?

Allen: When I first read the script I asked my agent if they were going to change the title. It was a terrible title but I couldn't put the script down. It was riveting. I felt it was really my role after I read it. I did my first screen test and knew inside it was mine. When I was told I got the part, I was thrilled.

One of your Hollywood trademarks was your abundance of long blond hair. How hard was it for you to cut it short, to desexualize the character per Verhoeven's wishes?

Allen: Initially, I didn't really care. It was about the role. I so connected to the character when I read the script. It's funny, because there's a moment in the script when Lewis' hair cascades down after she takes her helmet off. But Paul wanted it cut, so I cut it and then he wanted it shorter and shorter. So I ended up with like seven or eight different hairstyles. It was hideous, but it was right for that character. And there was hardly any makeup, so it was all about the story and creating this environment and not the beauty and the gloss. Paul never wanted any hint of sexuality or potential of a relationship with Peter. Personally, I feel there was something there, not love, but something present that carried over when he became a cyborg.


Your Officer Lewis further enforced the notion that pretty women can play tough, feminine characters. Were you aware of its inspirational potential to women when filming?

Allen: Probably not back then, but of course now I see how important it was, and especially significant for me. Once you're perceived a certain way in Hollywood you can't read for roles that don't fit that type. The irony is that it was very confusing for people used to seeing me in more glamorous, sexy roles. All the fan mail I received and people I still hear from say it was very important for them to see me in such a strong woman role.

What type of martial arts or police skills did you study to prepare?

Allen: I was very lucky and went to the police academy to work with Steve Estrada, who trained recruits. The most fun was going out on the target range and shooting guns. That I really enjoyed! I'd never held a gun before, but I overcame it. To embrace it and not be afraid was very empowering. We had some great fight scenes choreographed for RoboCop 2, but Kershner was such a miserable human being, he didn't want to bother with most of it.

Do you have any RoboCop memorabilia in your home or office?

Allen: The only thing I do have was given to me by the whole Robo-Assembly Team. I was awarded one of their special crew jackets with my name on it, which is probably my prize possession from the film. I was very honored, and it's a very cool jacket.


You and Peter Weller share a birthday. Do you two stay in touch?

Allen: We just exchanged emails recently, but don't get to see each other a lot. He's pretty busy and has a lovely wife and brand-new baby. We do shoot each other happy-birthday greetings every year.

Your father was a New York police lieutenant. What advice, if any, did he give you in playing a law enforcement agent?

Allen: Well, he was very proud of me doing that role and something nice we shared with each other. During filming, Peter and I were chasing bad guys and wanted me to give him my gun. I didn't think it was correct. I called my dad to ask if that was right and he said yes. I was so mad I was wrong!

What did you think about what happened to the RoboCop franchise – going from this hyper-real, wickedly funny, ultra-violent, R-rated film to cartoons, comic books and kids' toys?

Allen: It's unfortunate, but the good news is that it never tarnished the original. It still stands up. The more you try to bastardize something, the brighter the light shines on how wonderful the original piece is.

What was it like seeing yourself in RoboCop: The Animated Series and comic books?

Allen: It was crazy. I sure wish I had royalties from all that. But I didn't. And that's okay. It would be nice, but it's still really fun to see.

Do you have any favorite lines from the franchise?

Allen: Of course, "Murphy, it's you," that's a great line. And when Peter says, "Patience, Lewis, we're only human." Kurt had some good lines, too.

What do you hope viewers past, present and future will take from your work in RoboCop?

Allen: I guess for people to see how innovative it was for its day. I'd hope that when you watch a piece like this, you'll keep dreaming, and that it would inspire you to see how far out you can take your imagination and go for it. Certainly not the hairstyles!