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ALLEN, JOAN: THE CONTENDER

THE EVERYWOMAN VICE PRESIDENT
In The Contender, she plays a US Senator nominated for Vice President, but in life Joan Allen is a very private, non-political person with a 6 year old daughter. And an Oscar nomination. Jenny Cooney Carrillo asks Allen about her life and career.

Itís the stuff that Hollywood legends are made of. Four years ago, when The Contender writer/director Rod Lurie was still a struggling film critic, he presented an award to actress Joan Allen for her supporting role in Pleasantville, on behalf of the LA Film Criticís Association, and proclaimed; "I should write a movie for Joan because I know that if sheís in it, it will be good." A grateful Allen politely urged him on, but was shocked some months later when she actually received his script.

In The Contender, the 44-year-old actress plays Laine Hanson, a U.S. Senator caught in a sex scandal when enemies conspire against her nomination to succeed the deceased vice-president. But Rod Lurie knew what he was talking about and his directorial debut not only launches his directing career Ė heís currently directing Robert Redford in a follow-up he wrote Ė but Joan Allen won a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination for her part.

Despite an incredible career with movies like Nixon, The Ice Storm, Pleasantville and The Crucible, is this really the first time youíve carried a movie?
I think so. I think the other roles you could pretty much put into more of a supporting performance category but this is the most central role that Iíve had in my career, I believe. Rod Lurie wrote it for me and I knew that going into it obviously, so I felt a lot of confidence from him that he really wrote it with me in mind and emphasised my strengths as an actress. But itís quite an ensemble film if you really look at Jeffís role and Garyís role, both of which feature prominently, so I felt like the pressure was off a bit because of that.

Do you have the same kind of unshakable convictions as your character?
I donít think I could probably withstand what she does. I think I have convictions, definitely, and they are quite strong but I donít think Joan Allen could do what Laine Hanson did. I think I would crumble and try and fight back in a different way. But thatís what is great about being an actor. You get to do things that you might never dream of being able to do in your own life.

One point the movie makes is the double standard for what is OK for a man to get away with and what may be acceptable for a woman. What is your feeling on that issue?
I think Iím actually rather sheltered in that regard because I get to do what I want to do and I donít live in a corporate world where I have to be a woman going into an office every day and dealing with harassment and double standards and things like that. I guess what Iíve come to realise more and more is that weíre just different. But I think it is probably less acceptable for a woman to get away with potential promiscuity on a public level without getting analysed and judged more than a man. Clinton was taken to task for his actions but I wonder how a woman would have been treated and whether sheíd have stayed in office in that situation.

What is your own relationship with politics?
Iím not political. I donít really like to talk about it much. I am liberal, Iím a registered Democrat but I certainly donít articulate about it and that was one of the reasons why I wanted to do the role because I thought it would be really fun to see if I could pull off playing a Senator.

In the movie your character deals with the intrusion into her personal life in a big way. Do you have any problems with that as a well-known actress?
So far I havenít. I live in New York and thatís a cool place. I take the bus. I take the subway, I take my daughter to school. It really hasnít intruded into my life although I get recognised a little. I donít have journalists trying to dig things up about me so thatís nice. The most I get is people walking up to me saying ĎI love your workí and thatís the kind of intrusion I can handle!

What was the biggest challenge about this role?
I really wanted to make sure she didnít come off too self-righteous. She has a very strong stance about what she believes in but I wanted it to come from her heart. Itís just who she is and itís how she would conduct her life if it was in less visible circumstances too. So I wanted to make her very human and I would have to keep asking Rod, Ďam I making her sound holier than thouí? because I didnít want her to come off that way.

Iíve known Rod Lurie for years as a fellow journalist. What was he like to work with as a first-time director?
Heís actually directed a short film that had won awards so he had some experience, but I found him to be really assured because he knew what he wanted. It would be more frightening if he was somebody who was unclear about what he wanted and was relying on the cinematographer or somebody else to set up his shots. From the very beginning, Rod was very clear about how he wanted the film to look. I was really impressed.

Everybody agrees you are a great actress but nobody knows much about you. Do you separate your career from your marriage and motherhood?
I do separate them quite a bit actually. Even if I do two films a year, Iím unemployed a lot of the time and I have a six-year-old daughter who Iím crazy about and I love being involved with her life; so as hard as it is, Iím happy I get time off to be with her. When I did the movie, When the Sky Falls, we shot in Ireland and I had to be away for two months and my husband took care of her in New York. So I didnít see her for two months but then I didnít work for a year before that so I got to pick her up at pre-school every day. When Iím not working I live a very normal life and I am a private person by nature. I donít go to a lot of industry events, although Iím happy to support films that I am a part of, but I just hang out with my family and thatís what makes me happy.

Published March 22, 2001

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