Coleen Gray Interview

Actress Coleen Gray first got her start in Hollywood in Henry Hathaway’s KISS OF DEATH (1947).  She has also appeared in Edmund Goulding’s NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947) as well as in Howard Hawks’s RED RIVER (1949).

JUSTIN BOZUNG:   Take me back to 1956….How did you come to work with Stanley Kubrick on THE KILLING (1956)?

COLEEN GRAY:   Well, everyone is dead now that can verify this….But I was told by a few people that knew Stanley well that Stanley was looking for a “Coleen Gray” type for THE KILLING, and someone said to him, “Well how about we get Coleen Gray?”    Either Stanley or James B. Harris called my agent and that was it.  

JUSTIN BOZUNG:  Do you Stanley had seen your work in KISS OF DEATH (1947) or NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947)?

COLEEN GRAY:  Yes, he had.

JUSTIN BOZUNG:  Did you have to audition for the role of ‘Fay’ for Stanley?

COLEEN GRAY:  No, I didn’t.

JUSTIN BOZUNG:  Had you been familiar with Stanley’s work?  Had you seen his two previous films FEAR & DESIRE (1953) or KILLER’S KISS (1954)?

COLEEN GRAY:   I wasn’t familiar with the name “Stanley Kubrick” at the time but I had certainly seen his film KILLER’S KISS.   I wasn’t familiar with his name simply because I was busy at the time working and I didn’t always pay attention to what was going on in Hollywood because I had a life of my own to live.   I found out from my agent that Stanley Kubrick was a hot-shot young director that was loaded with talent, so I picked up the newspaper and saw that KILLER’S KISS was showing in Ingelwood as a second feature with the Katherine Hepburn picture SUMMERTIME. This was in 1955.   I thought that SUMMERTIME was a lovely film, but I noticed that when it was over how not one person in the theater applauded for it.   Then this startling black-and-white picture came on the screen with the name Stanley Kubrick on it.  I was so impressed by KILLER’S KISS.  And at the end of the picture everyone in the audience gave it applause.   I told Stanley about this when I met him for the first time and he was very grateful about it, but you could tell that he was also very shy.

The first time I met Stanley…I noticed his appearance.   He was dressed almost incognito.  He wore what I called then “Clodhoppers”.  These were boots that they would wear on the farm I grew up on in Nebraska.   He had curly hair, and olive skin and dark eyes.  He was very quiet.  He was small I noticed, in fact I think that I was taller than he was.  He was soft spoken.  He didn’t say much while we were shooting the picture.    The part of Fay was a small part, but I was thrilled to get it.   The role was really like a book-end part.   I had been out of work around then for a short time so when they offered my agent the role I took it.

JUSTIN BOZUNG:   Did you ever read the book that the script for THE KILLING was based on by Lionel White ‘Clean Break’?

COLEEN GRAY:  I didn’t.

JUSTIN BOZUNG:  The Director Of Photography on THE KILLING was Lucien Ballard….It’s been documented that Stanley and Lucien didn’t always see eye-to-eye during the shooting of the film..Did you observe any struggle in their working relationship on set?

COLEEN GRAY:  I didn’t.    I didn’t have much work to do in the picture.  I had that scene at the beginning of the picture, then that scene at the end at the airport.    I can tell you that Lucien Ballard was a very elegant man and he came to the set every day dressed very well.   

JUSTIN BOZUNG:  Right.  In that first scene with Sterling Hayden…Was that shot on a soundstage in New York or Los Angeles?

COLEEN GRAY:  It was shot on a soundstage in Los Angeles.   What I remember most about it now is that Stanley’s wife [ Ruth Sobotka] was the set decorator.   The set had a window in it and the window shade was hanging askew.  It was hanging crooked.   But Ruth insisted that it was hanging perfect on the window.   When she would leave the set one of the crew members would go and fix it, and then when she would came back onto the set she would go over to the window shade and put as it had just been before.    I was fascinated by this because I was there on the set waiting just as Sterling was.   We watched this happen and we were standing there silently together.  I’ve never spoken to another actor on set if they didn’t talk to me first.  I do that because you never know what the other actor is doing inside of his head.  You don’t know what their thoughts are.

So we did the scene a couple of times and Stanley said, “OK. That’s it. Thank You.”  I thought to myself…What a minute !?!?  You’re the great Kubrick.  You didn’t direct me!   We did the scene in the master shot and then in the close-ups and it was all over with.   I really resented that.   I’ve always felt that I got cheated out of Kubrick’s direction.   I was really looking forward to it.   I like it when directors give me hints or direction.   I don’t consider myself to be the smartest person on the face of the Earth and there is always something that a director can suggest to improv a scene.   I just went away from that scene feeling very dissatisfied and I remember now just being so envious of actress Maria Windsor because she got direction from Stanley.

JUSTIN BOZUNG:  Did you and Sterling Hayden rehearse the scene prior to shooting?

COLEEN GRAY:   Yes, I believe we went through it once of twice beforehand.

JUSTIN BOZUNG:  There’s a wonderful desperation in Fay’s eyes in that scene.   She’s kind of self-loathing.   Had you considered Fay’s background beforehand or where she had been before Sterling Hayden’s character had gotten out of prison?

COLEEN GRAY:   Not really, but I myself, didn’t think too much of myself.   I never thought I was very pretty even though people would tell me that I was.   They would say, “How can you say that?”   Fay was very self-deprecating.   You have to have a lot of guts as well to be in love with a prisoner and stay with him.   It takes a special type of person to do that I think.

JUSTIN BOZUNG:  Yes!  Fay is very loyal and devoted to Hayden’s character ‘Johnny Clay’….

COLEEN GRAY:  Yes, she really was.  

JUSTIN BOZUNG:  I think there is a backstory for those characters in Lionel White’s book….I believe they had known each other since they were children…

COLEEN GRAY:   There’s probably something like that in the book…

JUSTIN BOZUNG:  Their relationship also offers us, the audience, a particular moral ambiguity as well…Fay never talks about or considers the fact that what Johnny is about to do is morally wrong…

COLEEN GRAY:  Well, I don’t think she knew that he was going to rob the racetrack.   But she did wait for him all that time until he got out of prison.  I always liked her line where she says that sometimes she feels as if she was the one who was in prison all of that time waiting for him.

JUSTIN BOZUNG:   Was there a good chemistry between you and Sterling Hayden?

COLEEN GRAY:    Well, I really respected him.  We did a couple pictures together.   We didn’t have much conversation on THE KILLING when the camera wasn’t rolling.   He was a bit eccentric.   I didn’t say much to him because he was kinda in his own world, and he had gotten into some trouble in the past.  He was very liberal and he was involved in some situations  during the McCarthy era.

JUSTIN BOZUNG:  Another interesting aspect of that first scene in THE KILLING with your character and Sterling Hayden is that it is implied that the two of you had just finished making love…Seems gutsy for 1956…

COLEEN GRAY:   Yes, I think that was to be assumed.   We never discussed it though.   It was in a bedroom and that’s why he is helping me put my belt back on.

JUSTIN BOZUNG:   Yet, another interesting facet of that first scene is the moment when Fay is ready to leave and Hayden’s character goes to kiss her but oddly and quickly retreats when ‘Marvin Unger’ [Jay C. Flippen] enters the room.   It seems to me as if Kubrick was trying to imply some sort of homosexual undertones in the film…I was wondering if that was something that was ever discussed on set?

COLEEN GRAY:   I don’t recall hearing it discussed, but I have always wondered about that because in another scene between those two men in the picture,  the one asks Sterling’s character if they can “run away together”…

JUSTIN BOZUNG:  Yes!  And Hayden’s character gently caresses Unger’s check.

COLEEN GRAY:   It’s hard to know if that was Stanley’s intention with the scenes but Fay and Johnny were interrupted during the kiss in that first scene and when that happens to someone in a private moment they usually don’t go back to what there were doing before they were interrupted.

JUSTIN BOZUNG:   Did Stanley ever talk about films that he liked on the set of THE KILLING?

COLEEN GRAY:   He did talk about RASHOMON (1950), the Japanese picture, and I remember he talked about how much he admired the films of Jean Renoir and then a film called LE MILLION (1931).     The ending of THE KILLING…Where the money comes out of the suitcase at the airport…Stanley and James Harris had another ending worked out but they weren’t quite happy with it and so they came up with the idea of Sterling’s suitcase opening and the money flying off into the wind because they had seen something similar in LE MILLION.  

JUSTIN BOZUNG:  Did you spend any time with any of the other actors on the picture like Joe Turkel, Vince Edwards or Timothy Carey?

COLEEN GRAY:   I met some of the other actors but I can’t remember who now.  I do remember seeing the picture when it came out and thinking how scary Timothy Carey was in the picture.   The way he always gritted his teeth was very scary to me.

JUSTIN BOZUNG:   What about the final scene at the airport?  Was that shot on location or was that a set?

COLEEN GRAY:  We were on location for that, but I can’t remember where now.   I’m 91-years-old and I have a forgetery instead of a memory…laughing

JUSTIN BOZUNG:   I love how much anxiety you bring to Fay in that final scene….

COLEEN GRAY:  Well, Heavens Yes.

JUSTIN BOZUNG:  Was Stanley more accessible to you shooting that final scene at the airport than he had been previously?

COLEEN GRAY:   Well, I didn’t have that much to do at the airport, and so, no, he didn’t give me much direction.

JUSTIN BOZUNG:  Even though he didn’t give you much direction…Did you ever consider that he was just happy with the work you were doing?

COLEEN GRAY:   I hoped so.   When I saw the picture for the first time I couldn’t believe how great everyone was.  Surely some of those actors got direction…I know Maria Windsor did.   Elisha Cook was so wonderful in that picture.  Cookie.   

JUSTIN BOZUNG:   Did Stanley do a lot of takes for those scenes at the airport at the end of the film?

COLEEN GRAY:  Not really.  He just did a couple takes as I recall.

JUSTIN BOZUNG: How about the scene with the money going up into the wind thanks to the help of that dog…

COLEEN GRAY:  That dog was a wretch!   The great irony of the picture is how Sterling’s character is so methodical in his plan and it is all spoiled by that dog.   Sterling stood there while we were shooting that and looked so wooden.   He released that he would be going back to prison for life and my character realizes that she’ll be going with him!    We were caught.   I don’t think that Fay really knew anything about the robbery, I really don’t.

JUSTIN BOZUNG:  Do you think that Fay will stick by Johnny after he goes back to prison?

COLEEN GRAY:  I think he does.  Because she loves him, but I don’t think they’ll ever see each other again.

JUSTIN BOZUNG:  I’ve always thought it was great how Stanley shot the last two shots in THE KILLING.. We see Johnny and Fay together in a two shot, and then Stanley cuts to the same two shot but Johnny and Fay have been replaced by two police detectives.  It seems like he wanted the film’s audience to feel as if they had just been caught and were going to be arrested.

COLEEN GRAY:  I know.  Stanley was pretty clever.