Woody Allen, Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood and Patricia Clarkson – Willing to Do Whatever Works
by Jay S. Jacobs
Originally posted on June 19, 2009.
It’s a pretty well known fact in the entertainment world that legendary filmmaker Woody Allen hates movie promotion. He almost never does publicity junkets for his films, which is why his last minute decision to participate in a press conference to promote his latest film – the comedy Whatever Works – was such huge news and recently drew dozens of media outlets to a conference room at New York’s famous Regency Hotel.
The most pleasant surprise of the whole thing was that the notoriously shy writer/director not only showed up but took the lead. His film’s stars enthusiastically answered their questions, but mostly sat back and let Allen speak about his career and his film.
Whatever Works is an important film for Allen in a few ways. The movie was filmed in Allen’s hometown of New York, his first time in several years after a few films made in Europe. Following a couple of his most respected dramas (Match Point and Vicki Cristina Barcelona), the former stand-up is returning to his lighter comic roots. He is also working with a very buzz-worthy cast – but then again Woody Allen has never had trouble luring top-flight acting talent.
Three of those cast members accompanied Allen at the press conference. The film’s star is comedian-turned TV star Larry David, who co-created the sitcom Seinfeld and is about to do his seventh season on HBO’s hit comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm. Also there were respected young actress Evan Rachel Wood (Once & Again, The Wrestler) and acclaimed character actress Patricia Clarkson (The Station Agent, Good Night & Good Luck) who was also in Allen’s last film, Vicki Cristina Barcelona.
This is your first time working with Woody Allen, a living legend, I believe. What for you was the biggest surprise working with him?
Larry David: Well, no. It’s not my first time.
It isn’t? What was?
Larry David: I had two very small parts in Radio Days and the other was New York Stories. Very, very small.
Okay, I was going to ask you if you ever felt that you were Woody’s stand in, if you ever had to resist the urge to play Woody with the lines and the rhythm.
Larry David: It’s funny; we were just talking about that. But I never considered for a second that I would be playing him. I know it’s the part that would normally see him play, but I never considered that I would play him, nor would he want me to play him, and it just wasn’t an issue at all. There was only one moment in the movie, I remember, I was having trouble with a line and I said “Come, how do you want me to do it? Just do it and I’ll do it like you.” And so he went “the Western WORLD” (everyone laughs). And so I did that the next take, but he didn’t use that line.
Evan Rachel Wood: It’s burned in my memory.
Woody Allen: I have to interject this, that is not a part that I could have played even I was younger, I could not have played this part, because… I had originally conceived this thing many years ago for Zero Mostel… and Larry is able to do this kind of sardonic, sarcastic, vitriolic humor and get away with it because there’s something obviously built into him, that audiences like. Groucho Marx had this, they were never offended by Groucho. They were offended if he didn’t insult them, he told me once. Larry has this thing where he can get away with that. If I was to do that I wouldn’t be as graceful at it and you would think that I was nasty. If I was insulting people and proclaiming my own genius and saying that people were cretins, you would not like me. Certain people can get away with it and he’s one that can. Not something that I would do, because when Zero died, I never thought for one minute of doing the part myself, “Oh, well I’ve got a good script here, and why can’t I do it. I can handle this.” I never thought that. I put it in the drawer and were it not for an imminent possible actors’ strike I never would have taken it out of the drawer even to look at. I was trying to think: who could do this? It never would have occurred to me that I could do it, and then Juliet Taylor, my casting director, thought that Larry could do it. I agreed completely that it would be like mother’s milk to him. Did you want to speak?
Evan Rachel Wood: No. I mean, I can’t really say that I was surprised by anything because I don’t really like to have any preconceived notions. I just like to experience on my own, no matter what. But, I was just amazed. I got a whole new respect for comedians in general. I mean, I knew it was going to be difficult and a challenge, but it was like running a marathon every day. It was just whole new territory for me and I’m just glad that he had the faith in me to offer me the part without even seeing an audition.
This is actually a question for Evan but also Patricia’s character has a little bit of this. With Melodie can be played very broad, you could go a million different ways with her and I wondered what it was, was it in the script already to sort of rein her in or was that your instincts or where did you feel you were going to far. Any of you can answer this question.
Evan Rachel Wood: I think that’s where Woody was great about giving me the freedom to go as far as I wanted and me trusting him to tell me when to reel it in. But funny enough… broad was actually the word that he told me all the time.
Patricia Clarkson: I think the beautiful thing about Woody is that, reasons I’ll never figure out, he has created trust in us. It’s a beautiful freedom he gives you as an actor which, I think, makes you a better actor. He gives you confidence to go large and wide and trust that you will actually be employed again after you’ve seen the film. So yes, I think he actually trusted that we could really stretch it big and still remain truthful.
Mr. Allen do you have anything to say about that praise that you just got?
Woody Allen: Well, you know, people have always asked me over the years about performances in my movies. They think I’m being facetious when I say this, but I’m not – I hire great people and then I get out of their way. They were great before they met me. They’re great in my movie. And they’re great in the movies after me. You know, I just don’t want to mess them up and then tell them that they’re free to go. If they’re doing something that I notice is egregiously wrong for some reason – which rarely happens, it does happen, but very rarely – so then I’ll say something to them. I’ll say “You know, this needs to be more grim or this needs to be a little louder or quieter” or something, but that’s it. If you read the script, they understand it, they get it. That’s why they take the job, and they do it. Afterwards you look great as a director, but the truth is, if you hire the right people… You know, Evan I had seen very briefly in some things and she was obviously… (to her) and I’m not saying this because you’re here… she was great. I thought “God, this girl is wonderful.” I didn’t know she could do a southern accent. She said to me “Yes I could do one.” But she did not want to do it and show me. I just assumed I’ve seen her in other movies and she’s not going to take the job and make a fool of herself. When she came to the set, the first time I heard the accent she was doing was when we shot her. I never heard her in rehearsal. There was no rehearsal. I never heard it in conversation or the wardrobe test. She just came and did it. Ed Begley, Jr. didn’t even know that he was supposed to be doing the southern accent. We were on the set and he was surprised. I got panicky for a second. He said “okay” and he made some kind of mental adjustment and he was just great.
This is for each of you, what do you do when you have panic attacks, if you have them?
Larry David: I can’t really say in a G-rated press conference.
Evan Rachel Wood: What do I do? I don’t know.
Woody Allen: Did you ask a dirty question?
In your film one of the characters watches Fred Astaire films to calm himself. What do you do to calm yourself?
Woody Allen: Oh. It’s perfectly a benign question. Yes, I can speak for myself in this; I do exactly that kind of thing. You know, you turn on something in television. With me, it would probably be a ball game or something. Something that’s calming, where there’s no sense of conflict. If I was to turn on a movie, I’d be full of self-loathing and think “Oh God! I make these movies and there’s so many great ones” and I couldn’t do that. But I could turn on a ball game and be very placid.
Patricia Clarkson: Actually I’m a news junkie so, even though there’s a lot of conflict, I do like it. It calms me for some reason. I find it soothing. I love watching the news. I watch it 24/7.
Evan Rachel Wood: That’s funny. I actually do the same thing, because it makes me laugh. I think if you watch the news long enough it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen – because it just makes no sense. They just have the most ridiculous stories and there’s the weirdest stuff happening and it’ll calm me down because it’s so ridiculous.
Larry David: I generally stay with the panic. I embrace the panic. I know there’s no getting out of it. Even if I turned on a ball game, it wouldn’t make a difference to me. I would still hear that sick psychotic voice going on in my head and there’s nothing I could do.
Woody Allen: It’s perfect casting.