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netribution > features > interview with joan allen > page one

Rod Lurie's The Contender was released over here last week but it is known to most who either have or haven't seen it as being a great film with an atrocious final 20 minutes. Apart from this damning summary the film has depth and subtlety and a great cast that includes Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges and a three time Oscar nominee for supporting roles in the lead, Joan Allen. Her first high profile lead role has come in her 40's but when you inspect her filmography and the kind of talent connected with each you begin to understand how female casting works in this industry.
She's no stranger to British male leads either, look at her performances opposite Daniel Day Lewis in The Crucible or as Anthony Hopkins' devoted stalwart in Nixon. Mark Stephenson spoke to this veteran actress, in experience but not in age, about her career, politics, feminism in film and Rod Lurie giving her a crack against the men.

| by marc stephenson |

| in london |

Your Oscar nomination for The Contender is your third. You must have started to wonder what you had to do to win one.
Well it was the first time in the leading category, so that kind of set it apart from the other ones. But it is an honour to be acknowledged and recognised so that part of it is very flattering.

Nevertheless, is there a feeling of frustration? It seemed to me this year that however good or otherwise Julia Roberts' performance was, people had decided that it was her party and no one was going to be allowed to ruin it.
There seemed to be a fair amount of press regarding that, and maybe in some ways it sort of took the pressure off me. I actually enjoyed it all very much.

This is the first year your husband has accompanied you to the ceremony.
Yes, we have a 7-year-old and so in the past he's stayed at home with our daughter. It happened to fall during her Spring break so she was able to come to Los Angeles with us. She's older now and it's not as disruptive to just like yank her off and say, 'Okay, now you're coming and you may be with a strange babysitter or whatever'. So it was nice that he was able to come this year."

I hear that you didn't bother going to the party afterwards because you decided you'd have to queue for too long. That to me shows a nice groundedness. There are people who would literally kill to get into these things.
I tried to get into the Vanity Fair party but by that point I had been going for like 14 hours - which maybe many of the people had as well - and I also had to leave get back to New York the next day, with my daughter, and I had about two-hours packing still to do. My agent wasn't on the list and we were stopped, and they weren't allowing my agent to come in. So I said to my husband, 'We'll go in for maybe 10 or 15 minutes, because I don't want to leave him out on the sidewalk'. And so once we got up there I saw another enormous press line, and it was going to take like another half an hour just to get inside the door. I said, 'I can't do anymore than this...' I went to the Governor's Ball, which was very nice, and I meant I didn't have to leave my agent stranded out on the street."

What sort of people were there?
Everybody goes there. It's a dinner that's right next to the auditorium. It's hard to tell if it's a set up tent or what the area is, but everybody goes and has dinner there. Everybody was there, but the Vanity Fair party is the one that people want to get into.

Let's talk about how The Contender came about.
Rod Lurie was a film critic for many years. He used to have a radio call-in film show on Saturday mornings in Los Angeles, and I live in New York so I'd never heard his programme. But it became very popular and my agent and publicist live in Los Angeles and they said, 'He keeps talking about you on his film programme on Saturday mornings. Even if it's not your film that's opening he keeps bringing your name up, because he really respects and admires your work'. Then he presented me with the Supporting Actress award at the LA Film Critics Awards, for Pleasantville. I was seated at my table and he said something at the podium, like, 'I should write something for Joan Allen because if she's in it I know the film will be good'. I thanked him for that, and my agent said 'Well go ahead and write one' and he did. A few months later I had it and I responded positively to it, and we ended up actually filming it."

When he said that he should write a screenplay for you, did you think it was just an off-the-cuff remark and probably nothing would come of it?
Yeah, I didn't take it as read. I didn't know him so I had what I sort of call 'healthy scepticism'. [Laughs] I liked him very much but I didn't know whether it would actually come to pass.

Did you know what kind of role he had in mind for you or even the kind of film he was thinking about?
No, I had no idea.

Did you think that if he did indeed write something for you, this might be a chance to escape the kind of wife and mother roles you had been playing? Were you at this point feeling like you were becoming typecast?
It was something that sort of happened in retrospect. Nixon, The Crucible and The Ice Storm happened very quickly. In like 18 months I went boom, boom, boom. Of those parts, labelled 'wife parts', they were very interesting characters and they were very complex, and they each had incredibly talented people attached to them and working on them. So it was really only in retrospect that I felt I would like to try and do something different. I got to play Veronica Guerin in When the Sky Falls, right before The Contender, and so it was refreshing to read Rod's script and be able to go, 'Ah, she's not married to the politician, she is the politician'. That made me feel great.

You must have felt that playing Veronica Guerin would break the mould. Sadly, though, it did not really get seen very much.
No, it was much smaller scale but the experience of making it was an excellent one for me, and I learned a lot in the process of doing that.

Like what?
When you do supporting roles you may work a week and then you have 4 days off. Like with Nixon, at one particular point I had 2 weeks off straight, so you are kind of in and out of work. With When the Sky Falls, every day I was working. I had dialect to do, I was playing a woman who was revered in Ireland, and in many places around the world, but particularly Ireland, and it took a lot of discipline. I would come home from the set and I would immediately open the script and look at what I was going to be doing the next day. So you had to kind of keep working, which is wonderful because you get a real sense of continuity with your character and the film.

One imagines that making The Contender must have been pretty intensive, too.
Yeah, it was. I worked a fair amount, but there are scenes that she's not in. I remember when we were in negotiations and we did the schedule, it was very important for me to be off. My daughter was going to be starting kindergarten and I wanted to be off that week because I wanted to be there at the very beginning. So when we were negotiating my contract, I said to my agent, 'I must have her first week of school off'. We were shooting in Ridgemont, Virginia, which is about an hour flying from New York City - it's not that far, really - and so I said I needed to be able to go back and forth when she was at school. So it was all arranged to make that happen.

How difficult is it to balance family life and you film career? You didn't have your daughter until you were 38; had you decided that you were going to concentrate on your career first?
I didn't want to have a child until I felt like I wanted to have one. I'd wake up in the morning and I'd ask myself, 'Would I like to have a child or would I not like to have a child?' and the answer was always 'no, no, no'. Then it's like it just sort of happens. One day you just say, 'That seems like a great idea, I'd like to do that now'. Because I waited, being a part of her life and prioritising her is very important to me. I sort of build my work schedule around her life as much as I possibly can.

Was there a sense by that point that all the other parts of your life had fallen into place?
I guess it's sort of a natural progression. I had thought at times, 'Well you may never feel like having a child' and that's cool, too. I think the most important thing is to know whether you want one or not, because I think you do a disservice to yourself, and certainly to a child, to have one and to regret it afterwards. Nobody benefits from that. I was so excited and enthused once it did happen that I really did want to have that life experience.

Going back to your character, Laine Hanson, in The Contender, when you read the screenplay, did you feel that Rod Lurie had invested with qualities which you, Joan Allen, possess?
I think to a degree, but I think he was also trying to put in things that he felt he hadn't really seen me do before. There's an athleticism and a sexiness to the character that I haven't displayed before. He mentioned to me, in particular, 'I really want you to be a jogger because I want the audience to see a physical side to you'. So he tried to put in a few things that he thought people hadn't seen me do before.

You mentioned the sexiness. During his commentary on the DVD, Rod Lurie says that he had to keep re-cutting the scene where we see you and your husband for the first time, because you were unhappy with the openness of the sexuality. Can you comment on that?
Initially when he wrote it, he wanted it to be a nude scene and he brought up a very good point. He said he was tired of these scenes where you see married couples with sheets up to here [points to her neck]; he said, 'I don't buy it, I don't believe it'. I said, 'I hear you, I know absolutely what you mean. But you'll have to cast somebody else then, because I absolutely won't do that. You have every right to have that wish'. And he said, 'Well, no, wait. We can come up with something else'. So this is what he came up with. He's very creative, very willing to collaborate, and what he needed to do was get the feeling right, so he had to work on that particular scene. We didn't have very much time to shoot that scene and it all happened very quickly, so he had to find the best way to shoot it so that all would be revealed.

There's a softness to you in the scene which I don't think we have seen before.
Yeah, I think some of the other characters I played have been a little more tightly wound and reserved.

Like Pleasantville this is another film that takes a very liberal attitude to female sexuality. Both films in a way champion a woman's right to have the same sexual freedom as men, and not be prejudiced against for it. Was that an important theme for you?
Yeah, I felt that the bathtub scene that Betty has in Pleasantville was a very important scene for the character, and it was a very important scene for me to do as an actor in terms of the character breaking through that repression. It meant a lot to me.

Rod Lurie backed you to star in The Contender when the studios were saying they wanted someone like Michelle Pfeiffer or Julia Roberts. It must be frustrating to receive the sort of acclaim you get from the critics and your peers, and not receive the backing of the people who make films happen because of the economics involved.
I do understand that there's a big economic factor involved. There's that old cliché, it's not show-art it's showbusiness. And so it didn't really surprise me that they felt that way. But what I really appreciated was Rod's adherence to wanting to cast me, and saying, 'Hey, I understand what you guys are saying but it's written for her. We'll get the money somewhere else'. So that was really Rod not caving into their particular designs and ideas: 'I wrote it for her, it's got to be her, I'll find the money somewhere else'."

It's quite a boorish attitude to want to take a script that was actually written for you and cast it with someone else.
I think that happens all the time. It's like when big musical stars do Broadway shows and then don't get to be in the movie. It's just like that.

During your research for The Contender you interviewed Senator Blanche Lincoln, of Arkansas. What insights did she give you into being a politician?
We got to spend some time with her in her office and to see how the staff all worked. Congress was in recess at the time and so she was getting ready to go back to her home state. It was helpful being in her presence, getting to see what a Senator's office looks like, how many people she has surrounding her, how she deals with them, how they take care of her. I think her experience and her temperament was very different to Laine, but she was incredibly frank in sharing about what it's like to be a politician.

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