Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Joan Allen

Tales of a 'Yes' Woman

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Joan Allen has experienced some very good years.

In late 1977 she joined the legendary Chicago theater group Steppenwolf, which enabled her to travel to New York for the first time. In 1986, she won her first big movie part, in Michael Mann's cult classic Manhunter. Two years later she won a Tony Award, and in following years, she earned three Oscar nominations, for Nixon (1995), The Crucible (1996) and The Contender (2000).

But 2005 may be Allen's most exciting year yet. In addition to winning the San Francisco International Film Festival's Peter J. Owens award for "brilliance, independence and integrity" in acting, she has also graduated to leading actress status, garnering enthusiastic acclaim for two new movies: The Upside of Anger and Off the Map.

This week, a third film opens, Sally Potter's Yes. In it, Allen plays an Irish-born woman married to a philandering husband (Sam Neill). She meets a Lebanese cook (Simon Abkarian) who was once a surgeon in Beirut, and begins a love affair.

Yes not only casts Allen as a romantic lead for the first time, but also offers her a new challenge: to speak her lines entirely in verse.

"It was a little scary," she says during a recent San Francisco visit. "I'd never done it, even on stage. But that was easily assuaged when I met Sally. She told me to think more Eminem than Shakespeare."

Allen found that the rhythm made memorizing easier. "There are probably still passages that if I got started, I'd be able to say. It was much easier to memorize this than what I did in The Bourne Supremacy, by light years."

Potter insisted on three weeks of rehearsal, partially because of the film's low budget but also so that Allen and Abkarian could get a handle on the language. Through talking and practicing movement, the actors really grew comfortable with one another.

Allen, 48, was thrilled to play such a romantic role, and had no hesitation or shyness going in. "There are no body parts shown," she says. "In fact, the characters don't really kiss until the very end of the movie. There's a lot of stuff going on, but there's no actual kissing. To me it's a very sexy film."

For Allen, working with the brave, intelligent Potter (Orlando, The Man Who Cried) was the experience of a lifetime. "It was really heaven, every day."

April 29, 2005

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This interview also appeared in the San Francsico Examiner.

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