Joan Allen sort of snuck up on America when it wasn't looking. She may be blessed with a timeless beauty and talent to spare, but it took moviegoers awhile to catch on that she was something special. It started with poignant turns as the understanding spouse in Tucker: The Man and his Dream and Searching for Bobby Fischer—performances that seemed to define the term "supporting actor." The plots may have been about her husband, her son, or both, but Allen managed to take on the role of caretaker without veering into cliché or blending into the background. She was rewarded with more dynamic spousal roles in The Ice Storm, Nixon, and Face/Off—yes, she was the wife, but make no mistake, these were just as much her stories as the boys'. It's her self-discovery that changes the sepia-toned world of Pleasantville, it's her pain the audience hopes will be vindicated in The Crucible. Without her assured engaging presence, all these films would be missing something vital. Few female actors can stand toe to toe with the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Daniel Day-Lewis. But Allen not only matched her co-stars, she frequently outshone them. And she did it all without raising her voice.
The last time Allen headlined a film, it was the underrated drama The Contender, in which she played a senator who might end up as the first female vice president. Written and directed by critic-turned-filmmaker Rod Lurie, The Contender allowed Allen to be intelligent, sexy, and—a quality rarely seen onscreen, particularly in political thrillers—honorable. It was a bravura performance that should have won the actor an Oscar; instead, voters were more comfortable rewarding a "feminist" Julia Roberts in a push-up bra for Erin Brockovich.
Allen took time off to raise her daughter, appearing only in the TV movie The Mists of Avalon and considering other projects, before coming back with a vengeance in the past year. She brings a degree of class to 2004's enjoyable soap opera The Notebook and action sequel The Bourne Supremacy. This year has seen the release of three spectacular but wildly different performances from Allen. In director Campbell Scott's little-seen Off the Map, Allen plays a free-spirited wife coping with her husband's crippling depression. She did a complete 180 for her fierce portrayal of a scorned, alcoholic housewife in Mike Binder's tragicomedy The Upside of Anger. Her portrayal of Terry Wolfmeyer would be far more horrifying were it not balanced with a dark sense of humor and a palpable vulnerability. Recognizing the humor in tricky situations, Allen says, "Sometimes when you're behaving that badly, it can become funny because it's just so inappropriate."
Allen currently stars in Yes, the new film from Sally Potter written entirely in iambic pentameter. Allen portrays She, a dissatisfied scientist who begins a passionate affair with He, a Middle Eastern exile living in London, played by Simon Abkarian. It's a challenging film for the actor—and not just because of the prose. While being unfaithful to her husband, She must open herself to falling in love with someone outside her upper-class society. Allen is luminous in the role, at the top of her game. She has never been or looked better.
Back Stage West: Were you intimidated at making a modern movie in iambic pentameter?
Joan Allen: When I first read it, I was working on The Notebook at the time, and it's very hard for me to read something else when I'm working on something. But I managed to read it, and I was a little, like, "Holy cow." I was initially intimidated but once I met Sally and started working on it, it was great. We had a lot of rehearsal, actually. A lot of people have told me they don't even realize it's in verse. That's what's so cool about it.
BSW: Even though the dialogue is all in verse, the film feels very natural. How did you keep the situations grounded in reality?
Allen: Sally's whole intention about it was, she felt that the ideas she was talking about would not be served by prose. She was a songwriter and lyricist; she's done many different things in her life. All of her films are first written in verse. But then she usually chucks it and writes it in prose. She'd done a lot of films that were very visual and very sparse in terms of the words, so she felt it was time to do something that had a lot of words in it. She felt the ideas that were being put out were of such a weight that poetry helped to make them land without being preachy. It just adds a layer of depth to it without pounding people over the head. So that was really her original impetus. So what we did is, when she came here and ended up casting me, there was a show on Broadway running called Def Poetry Jam, and it was all these street poets. We went to see it—she, myself, and Simon Abkarian. She said, "This is much more what I'm thinking of, rather than Shakespeare. I don't want it to sound all flowery. Think more Eminem." I think that frame of reference made it a lot more realistic. She wanted it to be incredibly conversational.
BSW: So did you listen to Eminem to prepare for the role?
Allen: I did listen to a little bit.
BSW: While most female actors complain about a dearth of roles in their 30s you seem busier than ever with three movies out this year alone. What's the secret to such longevity?
Allen: It's one of those things—it's so hard to say why. We shot Off the Map two and a half, maybe 3, years ago. Campbell had been trying to get it off the ground for a long time. That was him being in my camp. Then meeting with Sally and having the chemistry be really right between Simon and myself. Upside of Anger was written for me. There are things you sometimes don't really have much control over.
BSW: Do you still have to audition?
Allen: I haven't auditioned for quite a while now. Actually, for Sally's film, it was sort of an audition. This was about two years ago, and I hadn't auditioned before that since The Ice Storm in the mid-90s. But Sally did have me read with her. She came to my apartment and taped me with a little handheld camera. We called Simon in Paris and read a scene or two over the intercom, and then they flew him to New York. As you can tell by having seen the movie, if you don't have that relationship, you don't have a movie. So it was really important for it to work, and I knew that. I said, "If it's not right, you shouldn't cast me." Fortunately, it was. He was already cast. She started writing it on Sept. 12, 2001. She wrote it as a short film and cast Simon in it—he had had a small part in The Man Who Cried that actually ended up on the cutting room floor. But she remembered him, and so, when she was doing this short film, she contacted him and had him do the part of He. I don't remember the actress who did She—it was a well-known English actress. The short film worked, and she started expanding it into a full-length feature.
BSW: You seem to move between small films like Yes and big-budget blockbusters like Bourne Supremacy fairly easily. Do you make a conscious decision to balance the indies with the mainstream fare?
Allen: You try to. To me, it's such an unpredictable business, and you have little control over it, unless you're going to produce your own things or you're a superstar. I like bouncing back and forth. I have an 11-year-old daughter; I want her to be able to go to college. So when I get to do The Bourne Supremacy, of course I will. But that was also a case of Paul Greengrass being a phenomenal director. It's a very entertaining spy film, very satisfying.
BSW: Not unlike Face/Off, which transcends the genre.
Allen: You know, I watched Face/Off a year ago with my daughter, and I hadn't seen it in years. I was, like, "This is really good."
BSW: In a film like that, how do you take the traditional wife role and create a character who doesn't just blend into the background?
Allen: I don't know, I just try to do my job. I have to say John Woo on Face/Off was such a dear man. His films are almost like ballets, and he's such a gentle, sweet man who so wanted the family to work in the story. If the family doesn't work, nobody would care. He just cared so deeply that the audience care about this family and everything get straightened out.
BSW: Do you prepare differently for a role in, say, Yes, as opposed to a big action film?
Allen: It depends. Everything is just kind of unique. With Face/Off, there wasn't all that much to delve into. Oddly enough, The Bourne Supremacy was one of the hardest roles I had ever done, because it was not very emotional and I found it very hard to memorize the lines. They were changing the script every day, and it was much more challenging than I ever dreamed it would be. And it made me realize how much I base my memorization on emotional cues. To play someone who's just barking orders and spewing statistics a lot of the time, I found it really, really challenging. [Bourne co-star] Brian Cox and I talked about it, and he said it's like walking on the edge of a razor. He said, "There's no fat in these movies. It's incredibly lean, and you just have to go and deliver." It was actually a really cool learning experience.
BSW: You've been so busy onscreen, when was the last time you did theatre?
Allen: It was in 1990, called Earthly Possessions. I did it at Steppenwolf in Chicago. Prior to that, I had done The Heidi Chronicles and Burn This in the late '80s, but that was the last time.
BSW: How did you initially become involved with Steppenwolf?
Allen: I went to college with John Malkovich at Eastern Illinois University. When I came as a freshman, he was a junior. He spent his senior year at Illinois State University where he met all the graduating seniors who would form Steppenwolf. They asked him into the company. They graduated, started the company, and I visited John as a friend. After the company had been in existence for a year they asked me to come and do a play that summer. I did, and they asked me to join the company.
BSW: Do you miss doing theatre?
Allen: No. I don't, I really don't. I think maybe doing two incredibly long Broadway runs playing very emotional characters, I'm not as interested in doing the same thing every night. The part I like the most is the moment of creation with the director and other actors. The audience is kind of gravy. Although, the other night I read some letters at the New York Public Library with Philip Seymour Hoffman—we were reading love letters between Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin and others. It was kind of nice having people out there responding; I haven't had that feeling in a while. But I tend to like that moment more, creating on the subtlety of film, and not having to do it over and over again.
BSW: What were the benefits to you as an actor being in a theatre company?
Allen: They were tremendous. I would not be where I am today if I had not had Steppenwolf to support me, to provide a working atmosphere of really talented people who were secure. None of us were out hitting the pavement, trying to get in other shows. We picked our seasons, so in September you knew you were going to be in play one, three, and five of the season. In your early 20s to have that much security as an actor is so rare. We weren't making any money, we all had day jobs—I was a secretary—but I didn't have to go try to get cast, stick my picture in casting director doors. I don't think I would have really known how to do that. Plus, I think just learning by doing it over and over again was incredibly beneficial.
BSW: Was it there you made your professional acting debut?
Allen: It was. I went right from college into Steppenwolf, and I had to pinch myself. I was, like, "I'm the luckiest person in the world." I started doing theatre in high school and did a lot in college, but I grew so much at Steppenwolf. I always feel like I'm a late bloomer in life. I still feel that way. I'm the last of my friends to get a cell phone, I'm the last one to decide to have a kid, I'm always a work in progress, sort of. So when I came to Steppenwolf, there was Laurie Metcalf and a wonderful actress named Moira Harris who's married to Gary Sinise, and they were sort of the stars. They all had gone to college together, they knew each other, and they were so good. I felt like I really needed to watch and catch up. It took me some time to get up to speed; it was my first time doing comedy. Laurie Metcalf is the best comedian in the whole world, she is so amazing and funny, and I would just watch her. Sometimes I would do scenes with her and just learn from being with her.
BSW: How did you make the transition from stage to film and television?
Allen: What happened was, we were in Chicago doing our thing. The company stayed together for a long time because there was no television or film work to pull people away. Films come there, but they don't usually pluck actors out of Chicago. At least, not then.
The first play that came to New York was True West with John [Malkovich] and Gary [Sinise], and it was a huge sensation. After that, producers started coming to Chicago. I was in the second play that came to New York, called And a Nightingale Sang. That's how I came to New York. An agent came to the show. He's still my agent to this day—a wonderful guy named Brian Mann [at ICM]. He started sending me out for TV and film, and I was in my late 20s. I was old for film, you know what I mean? But that's when I started working in film.
BSW: Do you think you could have stayed at Steppenwolf doing theatre for the rest of your life and been happy?
Allen: No. It was a fascinating time because when True West went to New York we'd have these long, long meetings, and some people would say it was going to be the death of the company. Gary Sinise kept saying, "Man, we have to let the world know about Steppenwolf, we gotta break out and we gotta do this." I think the theatre has stayed together as long as it has because people went out and did other things. I think, for me, if I had stayed there, it would have been stunting eventually in some way for me.
BSW: You've managed to find great women's roles on film, yet Yes marks your first collaboration with a female director. Was there a difference working with a woman?
Allen: Yes, there was. Now, I have to take into consideration that Sally is such an extraordinary human being; there's really nobody I've ever met that's like her. She really is an artist: She writes her own music, she writes her scripts, she takes absolutely everything in and has an incredible visual sense. So she was really off the charts; she would look at everything on the set. She said, "There's not going to be one shot of you, Joan, that's not beautiful." She would literally come and place the blanket on me and adjust it and be right there until it was perfect. There was an incredible Earth Mother feel.
On something like The Contender, Rod was very present and there. But I remember one point when my costumes weren't coming together, I said, "My character doesn't even have a closet." All the suits were the same. He said, "What do you mean? What are you talking about?" But he also wrote a great part for me, and we had a great dialogue about how to pull it off.
BSW: What do you think makes a good director?
Allen: For me, the main thing is creating an atmosphere where you feel safe. That's key. You feel safe and you feel nurtured. Then you feel that you can try, fail, experiment, and you know a director is there for you. I've never really worked with a director that I just hated, which I feel really fortunate about. But some are better at it than others. For instance, Paul Greengrass has a heart the size of this room. When I'd be struggling with my lines, he would be like, "Joan, what can I do? I hate seeing you like this." He was so, so lovely. When you feel that sense of safety, then you can go and do your stuff. I could not work with a director who was a screamer or who berated actors. Some directors might lose it from time to time, but it's a hell of a job. It's really hard and exhausting to direct a film; I don't know how they do it. But I could not take consistent abuse. I worked once with a director who didn't communicate well. I don't think he was mean; he just wasn't good at communicating. It was at a point in my film career where I was still trying to find my legs, and he would do 30 takes of the simplest thing because he didn't know how to say to the actor what to do, he would just wait until he saw it. And that builds a tremendous amount of insecurity in me. I think I would deal with it differently today than I did then, but what I did was back off and stew in my trailer and hope for the best. That was a learning curve for me, too.
BSW: How did the performance turn out?
Allen: I think it's okay. I'm not hypercritical of my performances but medium critical. I always kind of see things that I should have done differently. I like to watch myself. I like to watch playback on the set. Jeff Bridges sort of taught me that it can be a really good tool to do your next take better. It's almost like I see somebody else. The first time I see a film, when it's put together, it's a little strange because I'm thinking of the day, and do I still remember the lines and what's going on and all that stuff. By the second time, it's almost, like, "Wow, that's not even me." It's like it's someone else.
BSW: Is there anything in particular that has helped you persevere over the years? Anything you would want to share with the new generation of actors?
Allen: I think if you're fortunate to have a good family and friends, and if you can, find a way—even if it's in a little storefront somewhere or a workshop or a class—to just be able to work and do it, I think that's the way to go. And I think it's important to live your life, because by living your life, even unbeknownst to you, you're storing away things for your acting and your work. Actors are all sponges, and when you squeeze a certain area, it's funny, and when you squeeze another area it's poignant…. We're all just absorbing life and then sort of trying to put it back out there again in a controlled, technical way to tell a story. BSW