When Sissy Spacek was a little girl in Quitman, Tex., she would rush home from school clutching book-club order forms. "I wanted to order the books about Clara Barton, Helen Keller and Joan of Arc," she remembers. "I've always been attracted to women in adverse situations who find strength within themselves."
Now, instead of studying book-club catalogues, Spacek looks for such women in film scripts. So far, she has located quite a few: Loretta Lynn in "Coal Miner's Daughter"; Beth Horman in "Missing"; the telephone operator in "Raggedy Man"; the farmer's wife in "The River"; Marie Ragghianti in "Marie."
"Violets Are Blue," directed by her husband Jack Fisk and due early this year, is a slight departure for her. She plays a woman who returns to her hometown after spending many years away. She meets up with her high school sweetheart and discovers that her feelings for him haven't changed. However, he is married. Kevin Kline and Bonnie Bedelia co-star.
"'Violets Are Blue' is an adult love story,' Spacek says. "It's a very textured, thoughtful picture. I play 'the other woman.' It's a really different role for me. I'm not earth mother. I'm a beautiful 35-year-old unmarried career woman, a real hip yuppie type."
Spacek has played against her all-American innocent look before. In Alan Rudolph's "Welcome to L.A.," she was a housekeeper who liked to vacuum topless. In "Heartbeat," she was the sophisticated companion of two Beat Generation heroes--Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady.
"I'm interested in any kind of character with dimensions," she emphasizes. "If it's a 'cupcake' role, I would be interested in how the character came to be like that."
Spacek smiles her little-girl smile. Wearing a crisp white blouse buttoned up to the neck and no makeup, she looks more like a choir girl than a four-time Oscar nominee. (She won for "Coal Miner's Daughter.")
"I guess I have been on a soapbox a bit," she says, referring to the political content of "Missing," "The River" and "Marie." "If you're going to toss and turn about things, it might as well be about something significant.
"When you get older, you start to feel like saying a few things. Certainly after having a child you have a bigger stake. I'm interested in pictures that promote positive ideals. There was a time when those kind of pictures got a bad rap."
Spacek is 35 and the mother of a 3-year-old daughter, Schuyler. The mother's and daughter's haircut and color are identical, but Spacek does have a few gray hairs nestling among the red-blond.
In the recent "Marie," Spacek found a role that eminently suited her desire to portray strength under adversity. "Marie" was the true story of what happened to Marie Ragghianti, a young woman who accepted a political appointment in the Tennessee state government, then blew the whistle on the corruption she found in the Statehouse.
Because she had been in Tennessee filming "Coal Miner's Daughter" in 1979, Spacek knew all about the scandal. In fact, she once tried to develop her own movie on the episode, based on a story she optioned from a secretary who had been involved.
"In the interim," Spacek says, "I had a baby, and then Peter Maas wrote his book, 'Marie: A True Story.' The Movie God was looking out for me. I knew too much not to make that film." Two days after "Marie" was completed, she began shooting "Violets Are Blue."
In December, Spacek and Anne Bancroft start rehearsals for the film version of Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning play " 'night, Mother." Spacek's company will executive-produce with Aaron Spelling. After that Spacek would like to play Babe in the film version of Beth Henley's play "Crimes of the Heart."
"I expected to slow down when I became a mother," she says, "but I've speeded up. They say, 'If you want something done, ask a busy woman.' I've been tireder and done more things since I had Schuyler. But I've gotten more fulfillment and been more involved in my community and home. I'm much more out of myself."
Spacek, Fisk and their daughter live on a farm in Virginia. "I get so wound up in my life there that it tends to put things in perspective," she observes. "My life has stayed pretty balanced, probably because of my family.
"I've realized I need to structure my life, so I see things in perspective. That's why I prefer to travel with my husband and my daughter. After an interview I'll go hug Schuyler. That way, I know who I am. So when I'm not at home in a wonderful peaceful environment where it's easy to be on an even keel, I have a home base. It's that human connection.
"It's hard for actresses who are out there alone and have nothing to ground them. If you're really sensitive--a quality you need for your work--you're going to float off unless you have someone to hold onto your feet and tell you you're OK. I guess you could always try a big rock!"