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Pam Grier on season 2 of 'Them: The Scare' and Black representation in Hollywood

(SOUNDBITE OF JOE TEX SONG, "I GOTCHA")

JOE TEX: (Vocalizing) I gotcha. Uh-huh, uh...

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Season two of "Them: The Scare" is now on Prime Video. This season takes us to 1991 Los Angeles, where LAPD homicide detective Dawn Reeve catches a heart-piercing, head-wrenching case - a foster home mother, murdered in an especially gruesome fashion.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THEM: THE SCARE")

DEBORAH AYORINDE: (As Dawn Reeve) Victims' right leg has been broken, bent backward. Complex fractures in play.

SIMON: But as Detective Reeve may close in on cracking the case, someone or something seems to be coming for Detective Reeve and her family. "Them: The Scare" stars Deborah Ayorinde as Detective Reeve, Luke James, Jeremy Bobb. And the cast also includes a legend. Pam Grier plays Athena, Dawn Reeve's mother.

Pam Grier, possibly the first female action star in Hollywood history, star of - "Coffy," "Foxy Brown," "Women In Cages," "Scream Blacula Scream," "Friday Foster," "Jackie Brown" and so many more - joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

PAM GRIER: Thank you for including me on your show and platform. It means a lot to me.

SIMON: Why did you want to play Athena Reeve?

GRIER: A very complex woman with many, many complex emotions. She survived from the civil rights movement. And then the women's movement. And I am taking care of my daughter, the detective Dawn Reeve, and her son, my grandson. And I have a secret - a dark family secret - that it could be hurting me. And now I've got these paranormal events in my life happening in my home.

SIMON: I'm getting the chills just to hear you describe it (laughter).

GRIER: Yeah. You watch this show, you're going to have to lock the door and turn on the lights.

SIMON: Tell us about the importance of the setting - LA in the early '90s and the distrust of the LAPD that many people in Black and Asian communities had.

GRIER: There was a lawlessness, an arrogance of power being taken for no reason. When I was shooting in Los Angeles, a series called "Linc's," driving from the hotel down the main short drag to the studio, and I was stopped by LAPD. And I had rollers in my hair. I was going to be late for work, and they wouldn't let me use my phone to call the stage manager to let them know I'm coming. I'm just being stopped. And at 4 a.m. in the morning, I hadn't done anything. And then they tried to provoke me. And they tore my car up, pulled everything out - everything - dumped all my groceries, my bag, my purse - everything. And I just let them do it. Go ahead.

SIMON: I never heard this story.

GRIER: No, it wasn't public. I didn't want to talk about it. And I felt so vulnerable. And they did it, and they said, OK, you can go now.

SIMON: Did playing this role bring some of that back?

GRIER: I guess I have this deep capacity for various levels of emotion and things that you are tested with. And I use it in my work. And in this series, that's what's required of me.

SIMON: You partly grew up on a sugar beet farm?

GRIER: That was my great-grandmother's ranch in Cheyenne, Wyo. And she was a single mom and had a hotel for the Blacks and Asians in the area. And we would go visit her. She had a cabin that had one room and a slate slab and a hole in it, and underneath it was water basin and a stool. And we would prime the well and the pump it to get water out of it. And people said, where are you from? That's a long story.

And that potbellied stove and a outhouse, and the outhouse had a rope connected from the outhouse to the cabin and from the outhouse to the barn. So if there was a snowstorm or sandstorm in Wyoming, you could find your way back if you fell.

And I know in "Hateful 8," Quentin Tarantino wrote that rope in a scene, but for Sam Jackson, from the stagecoach depot. It had a rope from the depot to the outhouse and from the outhouse to the barn.

SIMON: Yeah. Look, I know you've told the story a million times, but may I ask you for the million-and-oneth (ph)? You were answering the phones - I guess that's a job that doesn't exist anymore...

GRIER: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...At American International Pictures, when what happened?

GRIER: That was one of my jobs, was as a receptionist when I came out to California to get into film school. And I could take, you know, classes in between 'cause I needed tuition. But I also didn't think of being an actress 'cause I'm tall. And a lot of the actors aren't as tall as I am. They could put their head on my shoulder, instead of me putting my head on their shoulder.

SIMON: Well, that's why they have - like, Alan Ladd used to stand on - you know, boxes and that sort of stuff.

GRIER: Hey, you remember Alan Ladd. You went there. But for me, I didn't think of beauty and being attractive. So I just, you know, was going to be a cameraperson or crew. And that's where I felt comfortable. It was nongender. I just wanted to get into film school, and I got that opportunity through Roger Korman. And the agent in the APA said, you know, I have a producer down the street. He's looking for an oddball woman, and you fit the character.

SIMON: Oh.

GRIER: And let me walk you down there and meet him. And he was enamored by the fact that I walked in there with Timberland boots and Levis. And he was the first person that thought I was unique, and I could bring something fresh. And that's the long story short.

SIMON: I have to ask, are things better for Black women in film today, in part, because of your extraordinary success?

GRIER: I believe so. There's more images and a sensibility of women in general because women can be classic; they can be beautiful, erotic, pretty, conservative. They have different abilities and sensibilities.

SIMON: Well, and that raises another question I have. You are in this new season of "Them: The Scare." You have done so much. You have meant so much to so many people. Is there a role or a character you'd really like to play now for a project ahead?

GRIER: There's so many (laughter). Just one?

SIMON: Oh, five or six, whatever you want to mention.

GRIER: Well, there's Stagecoach Mary. Gary Cooper wrote about her - he was on the cover of Ebony Magazine in 1962 - about a woman who - Black woman who drove a stagecoach for the mail route in Montana, which is where he was from.

I love that Western world. And I think the inclusiveness of women in that time would be, you know, a great sounding board to show the differences in their ideals and their ability. You know, it could be fun. I still have it on the boards. I'd like to do that.

SIMON: When you get it done, come back whenever, OK?

GRIER: You know I'm going to come back. I got whole lots of things to say. The journey has been so rewarding. And to be able to portray humanity and be vulnerable and take the knocks and cry and be afraid - I'm very lucky.

SIMON: Pam Grier. By the way, the new season of "Them: The Scare," on Prime Video now, and she's an important part of it. Thank you so much for being with us.

GRIER: Thank you for your invitation. It's been extraordinary. I've enjoyed it very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.