Sissy Spacek on Boldly Going Where She’s Never Gone Before

·10 min read
Rebecca Cabage/AP
Rebecca Cabage/AP

Sissy Spacek has done it all over the course of her celebrated 50-year career—except travel to space. That all changes with Night Sky, a new Amazon series (May 20) that marks her first foray into science fiction.

Holden Miller’s out-of-this-world eight-part saga stars Spacek as Irene York, a retired teacher who lives with her devoted husband Franklin (J.K. Simmons) in their long-time home in Farnsworth, Illinois. Still mourning the years-earlier loss of their only son, as well as trying to maintain a relationship with their granddaughter Denise (Kiah McKirnan), Irene and Franklin are spending their golden years in tranquil, bittersweet peace and quiet, although theirs isn’t just any old retirement, due to their amazing secret: hidden beneath their work shed is a strange metal door that leads to an even more perplexing chamber. When they enter this area and stand in the right spot, they’re literally beamed up to the far reaches of the galaxy—specifically, a room that looks out on an alien landscape.

The couple’s habitual visits to this intergalactic locale are a balm for Irene’s aching heart, and they provide her with an unexpected chance at healing when, during one trip, she discovers a young man named Jude (Chai Hansen) in the room. The Yorks’ relationship with the enigmatic Jude, as well as the concurrent mission embarked upon by Sandra (Julieta Zylberberg) and her daughter Toni (Rocío Hernández)—who protect a similar portal located in the church near their remote Argentina home—forms the backbone of Night Sky, which spins a mysterious yarn about covert warring factions, divine prophesies, and extraterrestrial civilizations. For all that intriguing insanity, however, the show proves a surprisingly restrained affair, one rooted in grief and regret over choices (and failures) that can’t be undone, as well as in the fear, sorrow and indignities that are common to growing old and, with it, the realization that the end of the road is drawing near.

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Those larger themes are superbly embodied by Irene, whom Spacek imbues with a depth of conflicted pain and unease that elevates the material above its genre trappings. It’s a trick that the actress has been pulling off for decades, be it in Terrence Malick’s Badlands (her breakthrough), Brian De Palma’s Carrie (her most iconic performance), Michael Apted’s The Coal Miner’s Daughter (which earned her a Best Actress Oscar) or the more recent The Old Man & the Gun (opposite Robert Redford, in his cinematic swan song). Still as lively and effervescent as always, not to mention capable of expressing a wellspring of complex and desolate emotions, Spacek remains one of the medium’s legitimate greats, and her presence helps make Night Sky an alternately beguiling and solemn sci-fi effort with its feet planted firmly on Earthly ground.

Coming on the heels of additional small-screen turns in Bloodline, Castle Rock and Homecoming, it’s yet another triumph for the indefatigable star, and ahead of its premiere, we chatted with her about tackling her final sci-fi frontier, addressing old age and loss through fantastical means, and the Carrie fandom that never dies.

This is your first science-fiction project. Why now?

I met with the showrunners, the writers, the creators, and I read the script, and I was nervous about it! But because of that glorious relationship between Irene, my character, and Franklin, I just decided to jump on board, even though I know nothing about sci-fi. I am the girl who did Carrie, so I thought, okay, I jumped into that and it was a good experience. It was a great experience doing this, and I recently saw the entire show, in eight hours straight, and it just flew by. So, I’m relieved. [laughs]

Were your nerves because you hadn’t done sci-fi before?

I’m an actor who uses things from my own life. I thought, there’s nothing in my life that I can compare this to. It’s not like taking a flight to New York. But then, I think there was nothing for Irene in her life that made her understand. You know, you can’t prepare for that. So, it was ordinary people in an extraordinary circumstance, and I had the most wonderful actor to share that experience with—J.K. Simmons—who is just phenomenal.

How did you develop your rapport with J.K. Simmons? Do you work on it beforehand, or is it just something that—fingers crossed—has to come naturally?

[Crossing her fingers] You know, you prepare and rehearse on your own. We had to hit the floor running, but we’re used to that. We’re actors, and that’s what we have to do. But he’s so experienced and he’s so talented, and he did years of theater. I’ve never done theater; I walked across a stage once, but… [laughs] It was just chemistry. It was just this wonderful gift, and we had so much fun together. And I’ve been in a half-century relationship, and he’s been in a long relationship as well, and that made us understand that you can love somebody from the bottom of your heart but still want to pinch their head off sometimes. [laughs] It’s such a kind of deep and abiding love, after you’ve survived so many things.

Night Sky may be science fiction, but it’s highly attuned to the ups and downs of old age. Were you looking for a show that talks about that experience more directly—something that Castle Rock also did, to an extent?

Absolutely. It’s really science-fiction, but it’s grounded—the core of the show is that relationship with those two people. I hope it’ll pull the audience in, because most people are just ordinary people and so hopefully they’ll be able to relate to these two old people experiencing that. I think part of the human condition is to wonder. I remember as a little kid, going outside and looking at the stars and trying to contemplate infinity and my little head would just throb. [laughs] That’s the human condition. I just read recently, in the last twenty-four hours, that they’re growing plants from soil from the moon! So, we need the universe, we’re curious about the universe, and I think Irene is also tormented and tortured by the loss of her son and what part she might have played in that, and she’s looking for some connection with him.

Night Sky also taps into a universal fear of not fulfilling one’s dreams or solving life's mysteries. Was that another aspect of the show that spoke to you?

I’m a really contented person. I have grandchildren now—really, babies. And they’re mysterious for sure. I personally believe that what I’m supposed to learn is not out here [motioning outward] but in here [motioning inward]. But for Irene, the fact that they found that thing at the same time that they lost their son, and it’s all intertwined, she believes that maybe she’ll find him. She’s looking for the meaning, and she’s tortured.

Night Sky may deliver bombshells during its first season, but there are a lot of mysteries left unanswered. How much have you been clued into the overarching mystery?

It kind of evolved. There was a plan, they had all the scripts, but the writers were really collaborative, and the thing that was most important to me was that it meant something—at least, it meant something to Irene. Now what she finds, and what it ends up meaning, may not be what she thinks it is. I hope it is!

You’ve done a lot of TV in the last few years. Have you found that television affords more opportunities for the kind of work you want to do, versus film?

Oh, it’s putting so many wonderful actors to work. It’s a great thing. Because the whole landscape has changed. Not that I’ve ever really focused on the business aspect of filmmaking and television, but TV now is more like the ’70s were for movies. It was a revolutionary time for films, and particularly low-budget films that were director-driven. That’s when, after working with Terrence Malick, I went, “Gosh, film can be art too!” That was a real epiphany.

I think TV is great because, in order to get people out of their homes, it has to be some huge event movie. So, it’s event movies, or really low-budget films where you have to wear your own socks and do your own make-up, which is fine. [laughs] But I think it’s a real gift to have streaming TV where you have the freedom to do things. And if you work with people like we worked with on this, it’s very collaborative and fulfilling.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>J.K. Simmons and Sissy Spacek in <em>Night Sky.</em></p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Amazon Studios</div>

J.K. Simmons and Sissy Spacek in Night Sky.

Amazon Studios

You’ve teamed with many great directors, including Terrence Malick, Robert Altman, and David Lynch. Was it always important for you to seek out great directors, as a way of choosing projects? And are there any with whom you’d still like to work?

I never approached it like that. It was whatever was coming my way, [although] I’ve always had a need to be able to connect creatively with a director. Of course, it was also reading the script and seeing if there was something that I thought I could bring to a project. But I think in film it’s all about the director. The thing that’s so wonderful about film is you can step back and get an overview and go, I can do this here and there and if I forget this here I can put it in over here, and it’s got a beginning, a middle, and an end. With television, with eight episodes, if you step back too far, you may fall off the cliff. That’s a hard thing.

But we had all the episodes; it was all written before we started. Of course, we messed with it all the way through, all of us—it was such a wonderfully collaborative, creative experience. But you have different directors! Although I felt like there was pretty much a cohesiveness. I watched all eight together at the same time, and I was like [motions being blown away].

We’re discussing a genre project that’s rooted in relatable human dilemmas and emotions, and that’s also a good description of Carrie. Is that the film you’re most recognized for, and is it still fun to be so closely associated with it?

Oh yeah, because teenagers are born every day! They come along every year. And who knew?! My parents, God rest their souls, would never have believed the legs that Carrie has had. But that’s part of the human condition. As a young person, people are bullied. And even if they’re not to the extent of Carrie, it hit a chord.

I have two teenage daughters, and I can attest to the fact that it strikes a chord.

You don’t know how many young people—mostly if not all girls—have shown me tattoos! One was a beautiful one of Carrie with the roses, before the blood hits. Just beautiful. She showed it to me, and it was the most beautiful tattoo I’d ever seen. But I said to her, does your mother know, and does she blame me?

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