Yes, Virginia, There Is a Sissy Spacek—She's a Local Girl Who Sings and Breathes Country
Two years ago, after she wrapped her latest film, Missing, that's what actress Sissy Spacek became: missing. After nine feature films, one Oscar (for Coal Miner's Daughter) and two Oscar nominations (Missing and Carrie), she decided it was time to pause and smell the flowers—or, more precisely, the new-mown hay on the 210-acre horse farm that she and husband Jack Fisk bought in rural northern Virginia. They sold their fashionable Topanga Canyon home and moved east. "If you live only a movie-star life you know only movie-star things," says Spacek. "I needed to live a regular life with normal people around."
Now she's back with her first professional noise since Missing, and it has an appropriate country twang. It's not a movie, but an LP, Hangin' Up My Heart, whose title alone is a slice of honky-tonk heaven. Critics love it—"good-hearted, cheery...hard to resist," wrote one—and it's also been helped up the charts by the C&W following that Spacek won doing her own singing as she portrayed country queen Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter. (Lynn and Spacek co-wrote one tune for the LP Smooth Talkin' Daddy.) Spacek, who began her career as a singer and had always wanted to record her own LP, originally flirted with rock but finally settled on country, because, she says, "One day it just dawned on me that I'm from Texas and that's what I am. I hated country music growing up, but it gets in your bone marrow, kind of like a disease."
She's also clearly succumbed to bucolic fever and, she says, the lure of ordinariness. Her neighbors are old-money Virginians who "aren't overly impressed by a lowly dumb actress." She buys her own groceries, drops off the laundry and assists in training the 25 cutting quarter horses and Thoroughbreds she and Jack raise. But her biggest kick is playing Mom to daughter Schuyler Elizabeth Fisk, who arrived 15 months ago.
"When [psychic] Jeane Dixon predicted in the summer of 1981 that I was going to have a baby girl in 1982, I had no plans to have a baby," recalls a bemused Spacek. "Besides, I was going to decide when, and not Jeane Dixon." Nonetheless, Schuyler debuted obligingly on July 8, 1982, and a clipping of the prediction is now prominently displayed in her baby book. Sadly, not long after Sissy discovered that she was pregnant, her own mother died at age 63 of cancer. "It was almost like a relay race," she says in her soft Texas drawl, "and then somebody hands you the baton."
Spacek says that coping with birth, teething and diaper rash has made other problems seem easier. "Nothing freaks me out now," she says, though that's not to say she can't be thrilled. Recently she was in a local drugstore to get a refill of her baby's vitamins. Browsing in the aisles while waiting, she heard the announcement, "Would Schuyler Fisk's mother please come to the prescription counter." "I blushed and went running back all giggly," recalls Spacek. "I wasn't Sissy Spacek, I was Schuyler Fisk's mother. I was overcome." More so than, say, by an Academy Award? "Winning an Oscar was thrilling, but it can't talk to you."
Life on the farm has also allowed Spacek, 33, and Fisk, 37, to spend more time together. They met in 1972 while filming Badlands—he designed the sets, she played a spree-killer's sweetheart—and married, cautiously, in 1974. "We never expected a lifelong relationship," confesses Sissy, who says both were skeptical about the institution of marriage. "In fact, we even opened a bank account and put $30 in it, because that's how much it cost to get divorced." But over the years the couple have surprised themselves by growing closer rather than apart. Says Spacek, "Now I think it would take something dramatic like death to end it." The couple share an agent and even managed to work together on 1981 's Raggedy Man, which Fisk directed. "The husband and wife were not allowed on the set," she says. "The director and the actress dealt with each other as professionals."
Spacek has had professional ambitions from early on. Born Mary Elizabeth on Christmas Day 1949, she grew up the daughter of an agricultural agent father and housewife mother in Quitman, Texas (pop. 1,893), 90 miles northeast of Dallas. Her two older brothers dubbed her "Sissy" and it stuck. At 17, she left the Lone Star State to study music in New York, where she landed penny-ante gigs and, in 1968 under the name Rainbo, cut a single called John, You've Gone Too Far This Time, which gently chided John Lennon for appearing nude with Yoko Ono on the jacket of the notorious Two Virgins LP. Spacek's record was less successful than Lennon's.
After a failed attempt at modeling (she is only 5'2"), she enrolled at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in New York. Her first film role was as a waifish hooker in Prime Cut with Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman in 1972. She won critical praise in her next movie, Badlands, and a best-actress nomination for her third, Carrie, in 1976.
These days she can command a salary of seven figures but says it takes a particularly inspiring role to get her away from Schuyler. "I swore to my parents that no one would ever be able to buy me," she says. Nonetheless, director Mark (On Golden Pond) Rydell convinced her to take on the role of a heroic farmwife in his upcoming The River, which recently began filming in Tennessee. "It felt like a project I could really put my heart into," says Spacek, who will co-star with Mel Gibson. "It had substance."
Still, she's looking forward to wrapping the film in December and returning to life on the farm. After all, until she moved to Virginia, says Spacek, "I thought maybe I had just dreamed up fireflies."
On Newsstands Now
- Matthew McConaughey: The Time of My Life!
- 45 Pages of Oscar!
- The Pistorius Trial: Why Did He Kill Her?
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine