By Lois Armstrong
August 22, 1977 12:00 PM

Down in the piny woods country of Texas where actress Sissy Spacek grew up, they’ve got a noisome species of insect called no-see-em’s. You can only hear ’em and helplessly slap at the sound. When Sissy got to Hollywood, that was the sort of movies she played in. There was an audible buzz from the artsy critics (enormously favorable, in fact), but the public at large never saw ’em. It’s only been in the last months that Spacek finally broke the box office barrier in one of the industry’s three accepted exotic locales. Spacek’s wasn’t outer space or underwater—it was high school. The movie was Carrie, and it is destined to be a chiller classic for all time. This summer, nine months after premiere, it’s still messing up traffic outside drive-ins in the sticks, and United Artists will re-release it downtown this Halloween. In Carrie, Sissy plays the tormented student whose fundamentalist zealot mother (Piper Laurie) never told her about menstruation until it first happened to her embarrassingly in the girls’ locker room. Carrie wreaked her revenge—telekinetically—on classmates and mom. Orcas come and go, but the menarche is always with us.

Likewise, it appears, Spacek. Carrie won her the National Society of Film Critics Best Actress prize and an Academy Award nomination. Plus a headliner’s slot (rerun last weekend) on NBC’s Saturday Night, in which she delivered the mock Oscar acceptance speech she never needed (Faye Dunaway won), thanking those responsible for “my short climb to the top.”

It has, indeed, been miraculously short. Now 27, Sissy first starred in Badlands, director Terrence Malick’s stunning 1974 re-creation of the mass murders of Charles Starkweather. That led her into Robert Altman’s stock company, with which she has played the topless, hustling housekeeper in Welcome to L.A. (“the city of one-night stands”) and the juvenile Texan who desperately assimilates the personality of Shelly Duvall in Three Women. Concludes Altman: “Sissy’s as good an actress as I’ve ever seen work.”

Yet, curiously, this woman-child superstar really hasn’t worked for a year in front of the camera—with a couple of exceptions. One was Saturday Night—the delectable figure notwithstanding, she delivered the definitive spoof of Amy Carter. The other is a series of poses she’s doing for an artist still photographer in which she plays filling station grease monkey, short-order cook and Chinese dockworker. She’s also magnanimously modeling for a bust by a sculptress friend, Margaret Sanders Huenergardt, daughter of the chicken biggie, Col. Harland Sanders.

“It ain’t easy these days to find a good project,” sighs Spacek, who has turned down any number of recent roles that “weren’t going to be stretches for me. I don’t want to live my life to be a movie star. That’s a trap. Movie star is not a position in life.” Then she adds: “I keep telling myself, ‘Sissy, life is not staying king of the mountain. You’ve just got to continue to grow and live your life purely.’ ” That fierce purity is probably baffling if not galling to other, lesser actresses in the business, which is almost all of them. Possibly her rivals’ only revenge is the thought that her fierce integrity (well, maybe it’s the sun) produces uncontrollable freckles.

“I have little battles with myself,” Sissy concedes. “I want to be indulgent but then I’m not as happy. I find that when I’m pushing myself, testing myself, that’s when I’m happiest. It’s like a reward system. If I have more than I desire, it’s hard for me to enjoy.” Among the tests she imposes on herself are TM, fasting and rigorous backpacking. She’s also into pressing flowers, photography, scratching out her own “eentsy-teensy” pen-and-ink drawings and—in hopes of doing a 1940s musical—daily tap dancing lessons.

It was all that ingenuousness, creativity and compulsion that enticed her eventual husband, movie art director Jack Fisk, now 31. He recalls that at their first meeting on the set of Badlands, “Sissy was the star, and she walked around with curlers in her hair—I fell in love with her dedication.” Though they’d “never planned to get married,” the two succumbed three years ago in Santa Monica after passing their last prenuptial hour at a nearby A&W root beer stand. They were wed in jeans, with their witness a since-deceased dog, whose pawprint legitimized their license. (She wears a thin gold ring on her middle left finger—”because I didn’t want to do the traditional thing”—and refuses to be called Mrs. Fisk. Their official name is Spacek-Fisk.)

“It wasn’t love at first sight,” drawls Sissy. “Neither of us expected the relationship to last. But we have great respect for each other as artists. While I spend time lining things up, Jack will throw them around. We both need a husband and wife to keep the soup on and the place warm and cozy. I want the house to have a heartbeat.”

It’s a modest Topanga Canyon aerie they bought two years ago, renovated with skylights, stained glass, antiques and a redwood hot tub. Their backdrop is not Beverly Hills but the Santa Monica Mountains, and this is the Bohemia, not the Bel Air, of movieland. Its honorary mayor, for example, is old radical Will (The Waltons) Geer.

Jack has gotten used to Sissy living her whacked-out roles at home as well as on the set. “Holly [of Badlands] and Carrie were great, but I couldn’t stand Wanda [of the Tennessee Williams TV movie, The Migrants],” he laughs. “She doesn’t see any of those characters as crazy. What Sissy does is give them hope.” She agrees, “You have to find a strength in them. Anyone weak would not survive.”

Unlike the rootless characters to whom she brings such sympathy, Sissy’s own strength lies in her family. “They cradle me,” she says simply. She and Jack have bought a house on a lake near the wide spot in a northeast Texas road known as Quitman (pop. 1,494), where Sissy was raised and still visits a half-dozen times a year. She was the only daughter and youngest of three children of Eddie Spacek, a retired county farm agent of Czech descent, and his wife, Virginia, whose ancestors date back to the Mayflower.

Sissy (Mary Elizabeth before being nicknamed by her brothers) spent an All-American, “full of freedom” youth rodeoing, “frog-giggin’ ” and waterskiing—Quitman’s last picture show folded in 1961. She recalls trying “to kiss my elbow because somebody told me that would change me into a boy.” But by 13, Sissy “had found out that femininity could work in my favor” and had discovered her first goal—to become a folksinger with the $14 guitar she’d bought at Sears. After Quitman High, where she was a cheerleader, majorette and homecoming queen, she set off for the Big Apple to do just that. Not knowing it was impossible, she had a tragic stimulus to succeed—Robbie, her closest brother, had just died of leukemia at 19. “The first thing I realized was that you have to live every moment as if it’s your last,” she says. “That helps me make decisions now, but it was a long time before I could assimilate what his death meant to me.” A school track star, Robbie had taught Sissy “to push until you get a second wind, and then it’s all effortless.”

While her parents “pretended” she was in college (“I didn’t want to waste four years”) and supported her, Sissy lodged with her first cousin—who just happened to be actor Rip Torn—and his wife, Geraldine Page. “I felt I had to put out a lot to achieve their excellence,” Sissy says of her distinguished landlords. Despite their encouragement, her fledgling career singing TV jingles and an even more embarrassing fling at modeling failed. Then she discovered acting. She studied for six months at the Lee Strasberg Theatrical Institute, auditioned and landed a small part as a spaced-out white slave in the 1972 movie Prime Cut with Gene Hackman. “It beats the hell out of me why I went into acting. I guess it was just supposed to be,” she still marvels.

Now she’s anxiously awaiting the delayed start of her next project, Nicolas (The Man Who Fell to Earth) Roeg’s Illusions, in which she’ll star with Art Garfunkel as young lovers in contemporary Vienna. The film has been postponed so long that she had to forgo Bob Altman’s latest epic, The Wedding, but she’s flattered that the part she was to have played is being filled by Mia Farrow.

Eventually Spacek wants to write, produce, direct, totally control her own movies. She has also been approached to cut a record, but she doesn’t “want to rush and crowd everything into one year and have it all be over with.” That seems hardly more likely than the fear of falling that sometimes nags: “I want to continually put myself out on the limb,” says the accomplished artist in a metaphor straight from a tomboyish childhood. “I feel like people will appreciate me even if I splat.”