interview by Douglas Eby
Athena Massey has a presence on screen and in person that is both confident and elegant. It seems fitting she should bear the name of a warrior goddess.
She says her parents both claim to have given her the name: "My mother was fascinated with mythology and wanted her daughter to be wiser than she was, but she also didn't realize how much similarity I have to the actual goddess. In college I took a basic mythology course, and I'd always heard myths here and there growing up about Athena being a weaver and a warrior, but when I studied I found out she was known as the light-eyed goddess (I have blue eyes), and she also played a flute, and I played a flute in elementary for 3 or 4 years.
"And I'm definitely the warrior part - I grew up a little tomboy. I even got suspended my senior year of high school for beating up a wrestler; not all girls can say that! Along with all my sports: being interested in street hockey, boxing, kickboxing - those aren't your typical girl sports. So I've always been quite the little fighter."
Massey has enjoyed the physical training she's done for films: "The way it got started was landing the role of Lana in VIRTUAL COMBAT; prior to that I'd had no martial arts experience. I met with the fight coordinator, and I caught on really quickly because I am athletic, especially in the more masculine sports. The training was a great workout for me, and as a woman I think it's great self-defense.
"I had such an adrenaline rush out of it that after I finished the film I immediately went to a health club and signed up for kickboxing lessons, which I did religiously for a few months, then I landed another role in CYBERTRACKER 2, where again I was doing my own stunts, and I just loved it.
"But after that, other projects came along that required other training; I like to do a lot of research, and I train my body according to what my next job is. The following one, I didn't eat food for five days, getting into looking like I'd been starving."
Focused on becoming a good actor, Massey has made a series of career choices aimed at getting herself seen. "When I decided I wanted to be an actress," she notes, "I started with print work, and even when I was just modeling I was taking photography courses at Santa Monica College because, one, I love photography and I've always been fascinated with all different forms of art - but also I thought that as a model it would help me to do a better job if I knew the other side of the camera, so I knew what an f-stop is, what something overexposed is, what underexposed is - I want to know all the technical aspects.
"I love to learn things, and I think it's going to make me a better model. Just like now in acting: when I was working on RED SHOE DIARIES, Zalman King told me I could come to the set and be an apprentice and learn about directing, and immediately lights went off in my head, and I said I'd love to.
"Just to watch what directors do, and trying to get into their head and learn from their side. I find it fascinating, plus it's going to help me as an actress."
Technical aspects of filmmaking hold a strong interest for Massey, and she feels that knowing as much as she can about the process of filmmaking will help her grow as an actor: "I've always had the philosophy of knowing what all the positions are, or the responsibilities of the different team members.
"Working on a film is the same as when I played softball when I was younger: I learned all the positions, learned infield and outfield, everything, then found the one where I was strongest, the one you'll predominantly play.
"In terms of filmmaking I'm still a baby, I'm still learning everything, definitely. My first feature, I think, was OUT FOR JUSTICE with Steven Seagal, in 1990. It was just one scene, but I was just happy to be on set for two weeks, to pay for my SAG card, which I couldn't have afforded.
"To be in a major budget film and meet everyone and see everything that was going on, it's a learning experience. As with most small roles, most of it ended up on the floor of the editing room."
Prior to doing UNDERCOVER COP, Massey says, she had never even heard the term "erotic thriller" and wasn't sure what she was in for: "I had been playing characters that were sweet, innocent, naive, the cheerleader, the girl-next-door.
"Nudity was something that had never even entered in as far as auditions or anything, because I was playing much younger parts, and that was something that was expected of a leading lady.
"I was actually in an agency and always complaining 'I want to go out as a leading lady; I'm tired of talking with my voice much higher, and putting little pigtails in my hair, blah blah blah' - and they kept saying, no, no, you're an ingenue and it's best you play as young as possible until you get older.
"But I was getting so frustrated spending all day with fourteen year olds, and I was so determined to be seen as a woman, so I was bringing pictures of me in sexy dresses, and saying 'Look, I have a woman's body, and a woman's voice - send me out on auditions as a woman.'
"So when I changed agencies - this is probably my fault - but I made sure when I first walked into the new agency I was wearing the shortest skirt I could get, the lowest top, and I was ballsy and strong. Then I was constantly going out as the seductress, the mistress, the sex kitten and I went 'Oh, no, what did I do?' I went from one extreme to the next. Now, I'm trying to do a variety of roles to avoid being stereotyped."
But, Massey did find doing UNDERCOVER COP a valuable experience: "I learned what an erotic thriller meant," she says, "I learned all the things that looked horrible in a love scene, I learned there are a lot more questions I should definitely ask prior to committing to a project.
"Since then, I have been offered several erotic thrillers which I passed on. That's not the direction I want to go in. Had I known everything that I know now, I most likely would not have done it. I think it's more difficult for a woman than a man to do a film like that and not get stereotyped.
"I love roles where the woman is strong, where she's independent, and I don't have any problem with nudity, to me it's beautiful - we're born that way - when it's shot beautifully and tastefully. But one person's interpretation of beautiful can be totally different than someone else's.
"I thought SLIVER and 9 1/2 WEEKS were sexy and erotic, and I would have done either of those films. I think it's harder within a lower budget film for it to be as beautiful, because you're up against time restraints, budget restraints, so many things that affect the quality when you don't have the money."
Referring to the video of UNDERCOVER, Massey points out she has more than a casual familiarity with handguns: "The .38 Special you see me holding on the box cover is my personal gun. I do go to target practice; I have a certificate from Paxton Quigley - I've taken her gun safety course. I've shot .22, 9 mm, .357 magnum, .38 Special, .45 - I've even shot a Desert Eagle, the Israeli Military weapon you have to hold with both hands.
"Fire comes out the end, and it sounds like a cannon; it's the largest handgun, and I wanted to shoot it just for the experience. I definitely agree that knowledge about guns is very important.
"There are so many times when there's a billboard or advertising for a movie, or even box art on a video cover and I see this person, usually a woman, has not been taught how to hold a gun right, and I think why wasn't she taught on the set?
"For example in the UNDERCOVER flyer, there's a shot of me holding a gun, and you see my finger is not on the trigger. Never put your finger on the trigger until you're ready to pull it, that's safety number one that you're taught.
"After the photo session, they realized they needed a shot of me in a police uniform, so they just dressed another girl up in it, and superimposed my face on her body - but she's holding the gun wrong, and her finger is on the trigger. I was upset with this, because it was portraying me as a typical woman who doesn't even know how to hold a gun. When I do a role, for example if I'm playing a lawyer, I would want a real lawyer watching me to believe I could actually be that lawyer."
For now at least, Massey is committed to using her talents in front of the camera: "I'm still focused on my acting, and I see getting more knowledge about the director's and producer's point of view as helping me be a stronger actor. I'd rather concentrate on one thing, rather than spreading myself out so thin - I'd rather be great at one thing. I've got a big trail ahead of me.
"To me, acting is the same as if you decided to be a doctor: you have a set amount of college, then so many years of med school; it's the same thing - you need to get all of the training, you learn your skills, you invest in your schools, whatever it may be.
"I spend a lot of money in private coaching for auditions, and for a specific project; I'm in scene study regularly, I've taken voice production, cold reading, I work with dialect coaches when I need to, I listen to actor training tapes at home.
"When I was in RED SHOE DIARIES it was set in the thirties, so I went out and bought big band music and listened to it for a whole month prior to doing the show. I think your studying should never end. That always says to me that right when the project is ending, you go 'Now I get it! Shoot, it's over but now it's clicking for me.'
"I think even Michelle Pfeiffer had said that when she was doing all of her work for CATWOMAN, that toward the end of it she really felt the sense of her character, and by then the shoot was over. But I love acting, even with all the frustration and rejection."
Massey will also be appearing in a photography book by Douglas Kirkland called "Body Language" - which she notes is "a series of beautiful nudes that have been computer manipulated, merging different pictures. This is an example of the kind of nudity I like to do. It's a beautiful piece of artwork. And he was wonderful to work with."
[edited version published in Femme Fatales, 1996]
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image from official site: http://www.athenamassey.com
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