Joan Allen: Why I had to say yes

Joan Allen tells Matt Wolf why she jumped at the chance to spout iambic pentameters in Sally Potter's latest take on love
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The Independent Culture

"I just feel very fortunate that I've got to do interesting things with talented people," she says during a stopover in London, a city she has come to know pretty well in recent years. For the Mike Binder film The Upside of Anger, co-starring Kevin Costner, for which she has won rave reviews across the Atlantic, Allen lived in Notting Hill and was driven every day to Hampstead, which was substituting on screen for, of all places, suburban Detroit. Sally Potter's film Yes, which opened in the UK last week, found the actress taking up residence in the East End. And yet, she laughs, "I still can't get my bearings here."

The more immediate question is whether filmgoers will find their bearings as regards Yes, a movie told not just in verse but in rhymed iambic pentameter. As one might expect from the director of Orlando and The Man Who Cried, Potter's movie is a love story but of a particularly rarefied, high-flown kind, and it also registers as a none-too-veiled political commentary.

Whatever one's reaction, it's hard not to respond to the burnished intensity of co-star Simon Abkarian, an Armenian-Lebanese actor who was in fact cast in The Man Who Cried but cut from the finished feature. And, especially, to the unforced luminosity of Allen, here playing an American scientist based in London who finds refuge from a chilly marriage to an English diplomat (Sam Neill at his most severe) in an affair with the Lebanese refugee played by Abkarian.

The two principals go only by the names She and He. It can't be easy acting archetypes - characters who, Allen acknowledges, "represent, I suppose, the Eastern and Western worlds, though I don't want to sound pretentious or anything". What's important, she says, is Potter's interest in bridging different cultures and merging the political and the personal at a time when too few movies choose that route. "I was really drawn to Sally's material because of that question of how we really talk to each other; how do we try to understand." Potter began writing the script of Yes on 12 September 2001, a date that resonates throughout the finished film. Says Allen: "Somebody said to Sally that it was the first therapeutic response to 9/11 because we are all sharing a dialogue. It's not just one person talking while the other listens."

Allen's capacity for listening - for a restraint that tends to gather force throughout a film - can often make her the quiet centre of a noisy movie. She got the first of her three Oscar nominations a decade ago for playing Pat Nixon, wife of the disgraced American president, in the Oliver Stone biopic Nixon, and was nominated again the following year for her role in Nicholas Hytner's film version of The Crucible. "On film, I like work that is more introverted," she tells me, citing Robert Duvall's low-key contribution to The Godfather as the sort of acting she admires. To that extent, her contribution to Yes is as remarkable for what goes unspoken as for the language that Allen gets to speak, not least a scene in which colour visibly drains from her face.

Nixon wasn't Allen's first big-screen splash. In 1986, she played Brian Cox's blind victim in Manhunter, the first of the Hannibal Lecter movies, while she was Jeff Bridges' wife in the little-seen but much-admired Francis Ford Coppola film Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988). A later biopic, When the Sky Falls (2000), cast Allen as a semi-fictionalised version of the murdered Irish journalist Veronica Guerin. "It was very hard to understand her character," says Allen, reflecting on a film about a crusading woman and mother who dared to invade the Irish underworld. "People would go, 'Why did she do this?', and I was like, 'Because she did'. You wouldn't be asking that if she had been a man."

Still, her range of acting opportunities over the years seems even now to come as something of a surprise to Allen, who, by her own admission, grew up "a gal from a little-horse Illinois town surrounded by cornfields". The youngest of four children, Allen had never before been to New York when she first worked at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in the early 1980s in CP Taylor's play And A Nightingale Sang. That production was part of the widening reach of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago, where Allen acted alongside then-unknowns John Malkovich and Gary Sinise while working as a secretary to pay the rent.

Allen soon began appearing on Broadway, winning a 1988 Tony Award for her role in Lanford Wilson's Burn This, and a nomination the next year for Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles. But she hasn't done a Broadway play since 1989, the dual result of raising a daughter, Sadie, who is now 11, and her shifting attitude toward that medium. "I'm just not as interested in doing the same thing every night; I used to love it, but it just doesn't interest me the way it used to," she says.

Besides, it's not as if Allen has much time to miss the theatre, as she ricochets between high-profile films such as Face/Off and The Contender (which brought her a third Oscar nod, her first for Best Actress) and art-house fare like Yes. Still to come is a film, Pushers Needed, written and directed by the Irish actor Jimmy Smallhorne, about four working-class Dublin women who take a visit to Lourdes with their local church. (Brenda Blethyn is among the others.) "It's called Pushers Needed because we push the wheelchairs of the crippled," says Allen, laughing at the misconception that the film might have anything to do with drugs. Another adventure for an actress who by now is used to them? Allen smiles and nods. "I haven't done much world travelling, I have to say," she is quick to comment, "but I have been to Lourdes." Filmgoers keeping a keen eye on this fine actress will give thanks for that.

'Yes' is on limited release; Matt Wolf is London theatre critic for 'Variety'