A three-time Academy Award nominee for Nixon, The Crucible, and The Contender, Joan Allen began as one of the earliest members—at John Malkovich's invitation—of the legendary Steppenwolf Theatre Company (an acomplished stage actress, she also holds a Tony Award). Allen's films include Searching for Bobby Fischer, The Ice Storm, Face/Off, Pleasantville, and The Bourne Supremacy. In 2005, critics sat to attention once more as Allen headlined three films: Off the Map, The Upside of Anger, and Sally Potter's Yes. At the 48th San Francisco International Film Festival, Allen collected an award for Lifetime Achievement in Acting. Allen discussed her career with me at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel on April 29, 2005.
Groucho: So, since this is the occasion of a lifetime-achievement award—your being in town—it's a good opportunity for nostalgia. So I'd like to begin by traveling back to 1977, when you joined up with Steppenwolf.
Joan Allen: Mm-hm.
G: Back then, you were still in the church basement, right?
JA: Mm-hm. Mm-hm.
G: What was the company like then, and what did it give you as an actor in the long term?
JA: Oh, it was thrilling. It was just thrilling. I mean, everybody was very young, and you know, we all had day jobs so we could pay our rent and then did the theatre at night. And had our own theatre space—even though it was small. And we did all—we all cleaned the toilets and acted in the plays and built the sets and all that stuff. I mean, it's what you—it was a dream come true for me to be that age and doing all that stuff, with incredibly talented people. So it meant the world to me.
G: As you moved into film, which film experience taught you the most about working in front of the camera?
JA: Wow. They all taught me for a while. And it took me a while 'cause I had done so much theatre that working in film—I was kind of like—the first several—four or five years—I was kind of like—"Ahh! Ah. Aah! I'm not getting this! How do you hit your mark and do this and have—", you know?" Because in the theatre, you know, the curtain goes up, you have the emotional whole arc of the experience, you're in control. (Stands and demonstrates.) If you stand here in one scene, and here the next night—but from here to here on camera can make or break you, depending on how close, you know—it's all about focus and math and all that stuff. So it took me quite awhile; so for the first four or five years, I really was just, like, watching. And, like, "How do film actors do it?" I've watched, in particular, Jeff Bridges on Tucker. I was like, "My God, how does he do it?" And I think really the film that it really kind of coalesced the most for me was Ethan Fromme. And that was in the early '90's—like '90, '91 or something like that. And for some reason, it was like the part was big enough, I'd had enough experience, I felt like I could take the time to talk to the director about the character and stuff. So it was around then.
G: Let's talk about YES, which I think is the best of three great roles you've had this year. How were you approached for the film, and what was your first thought when you read the script?
JA: When I first read it, I was a little intimidated by the verse, but I thought what she was trying to achieve was amazing. And I knew her work and respected her deeply. So then, when we actually met, I knew she was looking for the right "She"—she had her "He"—and that the chemistry was crucial. And if it wasn't the right chemistry, it shouldn't be me; she should cast somebody else. So, fortunately, we spent time together, she came to my home, she and I read scenes, she put me on tape—you know, with her little camera. She videoed me. And then we called Simon in Paris, and we read a scene or two over the phone, over the speakerphone. She taped me [in] my apartment while he was on the phone. And then she felt optimistic enough that he should come to New York, so we could read together. And he did, we met again at my apartment, we read, it seemed to work, and she put stuff on tape. And then, I'll never forget, when she went home, back to her hotel—we were all meeting that night to go to a Broadway show called Def Poetry Jam, which she said was much more what she was trying to do with the verse, rather than Shakespeare. She said it's—"Think much more Eminem than Shakespeare." And she said, "I think we should go see this play together." And then I'll never forget when I met—I was at the theatre first, and Sally walked up in one of her gorgeous, beautiful coats, long coats, and she just had her arms out, like this, and she grabbed me and she said, "Will you do this? Will you do this movie?"...It was because she had gone home and looked at the tape, after. And I was like, "Yeah, I'd love to do it." So it was a process of a few days at least, of working together.
G: You mentioned the verse, and you have experience with classical theatre, so I'm sure verse wasn't alien to you.
JA: No, I never had done it before.
G: You had never done—?
JA: Never done Shakespeare.
G: ...Just contemporary classics?
G: Well, Simon said that he followed your lead in terms of the verse. How did you approach it, and is the trick just to play against it?
JA: After talking with Sally, I knew she wanted it to be very conversational. And that the emotional life is what really mattered. And so, you know, that's just how I—I played it for real.
G: Did you make yourself a copy of the script that wasn't in verse, to eliminate the—
JA: No. The verse became incredibly easy very quickly in rehearsal. I mean, Simon, God! I don't know; it was his first English-language film. He was amazing. Amazing! I can't imagine if someone had thrown me into, you know, it was like—. I know a little bit of Spanish, but even that, you know, it's like, "Okay, now you're gonna do a rhyming Spanish movie"? You know? He was incredible. Boy, I don't know how he did it.
G: You have a very intense relationship in the movie. How did you develop a trust between you that would support that kind of work?
JA: You just—well, some of it...you can't control. Some of it, you kind of know when the person opens the door. I'll never forget when I opened my door and saw him. I was kind of like, "I've got a really good feeling." People are very sensitive that way, you know, actually. I think we all kind of get beads on people, but in a very short period of time. And some of them are correct. I just read this amazing book called Blink, which is kind of about thin-slicing and, you know, how we assess people in the blink of an eye and what the good points of that are and what the pitfall of that are. And so I got an immediate good feeling from him. I knew he'd done a lot of theatre, so I thought, "He's really a team player." And there was just, you know—it seemed like the right kind of attraction could happen, and then through working and getting to rehearse as much as we were able to rehearse—with Sally, who is a great facilitator for all of that.
G: In your mind, what first draws "She" to "He," and what does "He" offer to her?
JA: Again, I think it's maybe one of those moments where you see somebody, you know, and you don't even really know why, but there's an attraction or something. I think he makes her laugh, at this dinner where she's having a horrible time. And I think she's probably—felt a little bit sort of—she's hurt by, you know, what's going on with her husband and kind of like "What the heck?", you know, a little bit? And I think he's beautiful and open and poetic and very different from her buttoned-up, you know, English husband that she's been with for a long time.
G: The scene, towards the end of the film, with your character's aunt, seems purely spontaneous. How did you maintain that intensity? Of course, it had been rehearsed, and I'm sure done many times before the camera.
JA: I hadn't done it—I really hadn't rehearsed that very much. Simon and I had a lot of rehearsal, but we didn't have the other cast members for rehearsal, so—and again, that was a really emotional scene that I wanted to—. I wasn't quite sure how Sally was going to shoot it, how much Sheila [Hancock] was going to be saying—the aunt was going to be saying—and we shot it kind of different ways. But we shot it fairly well into the schedule, so the character had been through a lot. You know, I had sort of done it, and I knew the way Sally talked about—. She's lost every—she's lost her husband, and she's lost "He" and then, you know, she's on the—yeah, she's virtually lost "He," and then she loses her aunt. It's just so much, so—
G: Yeah. It's the moment for a profound release.
JA: Profound. Yeah. Yeah, mm-hm.
G: She's really a woman, a wife, and a scientist trying to get outside of the world that she's built for herself, isn't she?
JA: Mmm. Yeah, I guess she is. You know, I guess she is searching. I think all the characters are searching for something, you know. Meaning, God, a place in the world. And she's done this work...and is very good at [it]—for many, many years, and is that all there is? You know, she hasn't had children. I think all the characters are sort of on a quest, a sort of journey.
G: What brought you to the attention of Oliver Stone for Nixon?
JA: Well, Oliver did, um—I'll never forget, Oliver had a huge casting call, which I guess he kinda does. He doesn't tell anybody the project that it is. He just wants to see every actor that's around. And it happened to be in Los Angeles, which—I don't live there; I live in New York—but I was in Los Angeles for another reason, and so I went in for this huge cattle call where he was seeing, like, every actor. Just coming in and saying, "Hey, how ya doing?" And so he looked at me, and he...talked, he asked me a few questions about where I grew up or something, and then he said, "You know, I might be doing a film that might have a character that you might be right for." It was like, "Cool. Okay." And so my agent said, "Well, there's a rumor he wants to do Nixon. You know, that's what the rumor sort of is." And so I was going, "Wow. I can kind of see that." And then, like a month or two went by, and I got this call, and he said, "Would you fly out to"—I was back in New York at that point—"Would you fly out to Los Angeles to meet with Oliver Stone and an unnamed actor? And the rumor is it's either Jack Nicholson or Warren Beatty, at Oliver's office." So I was like, "Okay." And so I got the script beforehand, just when I was getting on the plane, and flew out. And it was Warren Beatty. And we had a meeting that went on for four or five hours. And I hadn't acted in many, many months. I was a mother, and I'd just had—you know, my baby was—she was like a little over a year old. So they just basically talked—the two of them.
JA: And I kind of sat and listened. And we never did read any scenes. It turned out, obviously, that Warren Beatty didn't do it, you know—Anthony Hopkins did. So then, like a month or so later, they put me on tape. He put me on tape, and then he cast me.
G: And, I know you have a great respect for Oliver Stone, but he does have a reputation for bullying his actors at times. Was there anything—how did you respond to his process as a director?
JA: Quite well. There were a couple things that I found a little strange. I mean, he wanted me to wear make-up to rehearsal. And I really didn't wear very much in life, and I found that a little strange. But I think it helped him to see more clearly. So I'd have to go in to have a make-up session before we'd have rehearsal. It was kind of strange. But I think he really, because of the—maybe whatever phase he was in his life. Somebody said he was in a Buddhist phase—I don't know—when we did Nixon. And because of the subject matter, you know, that was—. Anthony Hopkins is a very disciplined, contained guy, that Oliver was very, well—he was very disciplined and actually was quite interested in trying to sort of figure out the relationship of Pat and Dick, which is pretty mysterious.
G: Let's talk about how you're seen as an actor. Do you think—how do your think casting directors and directors see you? And what about you would you like to be seen more?
JA: Well, I think I've been seen and that's, you know—. Recently, between Off the Map, Upside of Anger, and YES, you know, I've gotten to break out and do some different, more interesting sort of things. Sort of the strong anchor: you know, wife, sort of is how I'm kind of seen, have been seen, and so hopefully with these other films, it will kind of dissipate that.
G: The dimension to these films that I thought really came out was that, in many of your films, the intensity of drama is such that you tend to be very high-strung—that you never are allowed to relax. And when I saw Off the Map, it was very interesting to see—though there are moments in all of these films that challenge the characters—you were able to really relax on screen—
G: As a part of the character.
JA: Yeah. That meant a lot to me, to play somebody who is that earthy and that together in that kind of almost, you know, hippie, Indian, sort of...trying—I could fix a car. I loved that aspect of the character a lot.
G: Getting back to YES for a minute, I read that you weren't allowed to go to Cuba—is that right?
G: How was that handled?
JA: Well, we managed. I mean, I probably could have gone, but then I would have potentially gotten—. My lawyer said..."If you get on a plane to go to Cuba, I will stand at the airport with my arms out" because I would have potentially—. He said, "What could well happen is that four, five, six months later, you'll get a letter from the government saying, 'Were you in Cuba? What were you doing? Here is a $250,000 fine for being in Cuba.'" Because that was happening to Oliver Stone, because he had done this documentary on Castro. It happened to Ry Cooder for the Buena Vista Social Club. They were getting these incredible fines put on them. And so it became clear that I couldn't—you know, it was like, "I-I can't go." Which really disappointed me 'cause we thought that I was going to be able to go since it was an English production. We thought that I would be able to go through that way. But Bush really clamped down; I think there was some sort of incident where some people got killed on a boat or something, right when we were shooting this, and it became clear that...my lawyer did a lot of investigating into it, and he just said, "You can't go." So my stuff was shot in the Dominican Republic.
G: And this film deals with so many universal themes, politics being one of them. What, for you, most resonated about the script? Was there an aspect that really grabbed your attention more than another?
JA: (Pause.) A lot, but—. (Pause.) It really was—to me, it was about there are no bad guys. But—. (Pause.) It was really about compassion and understanding and what prejudices are and what belief is and, you know, sort of what God is. But it really is about, to me, more than anything, for me, was about trying to be open and trying to listen. Trying to really hear another person, another thought, and not make a rash sort of assumption about what that person is all about.
[Click to read Groucho's reviews of YES and YES: Screenplay and Notes and interviews with Sally Potter and Simon Abkarian. To read more about Yes, including Potter's blog (with her description of her San Francisco stay), check out http://www.yesthemovie.com.]