Joan Allen: ‘Acting’s like tennis. You bring your game’

Adulterous housewives, CIA bosses – Joan Allen has played them all with consummate skill. Now, in Stephen King adaptation Lisey’s Story, she’s turned her hand to visceral horror

In some ways, Joan Allen is like an American Gary Oldman; wait, stay with it. She looks so different from one role to the next that she’s way beyond mercurial, further towards intangible – like a spirit slipping into a role more than a flesh-and-blood actor. Or maybe this is just acting at its most rarefied. One of the late 70s founders of Steppenwolf, the legendary Chicago theatre troupe that most famously launched John Malkovich, her early career was edgy, ensemble work, with an activist’s purity of purpose. “We’d have to write these applications to get arts grants, and people would say ‘What is your mission statement?’,” she remembers as she Zooms from Connecticut. “Well, what were we? A group of like-minded people who wanted to do strong visceral theatre and had a similar sensibility and sense of humour. We saw the pinnacle of our job as to tell whatever story we were telling to the best of our ability.” This was married, certainly in Allen’s mind, with a craftsmanlike lack of pretension. “It’s like tennis. You come in, and you bring your game. The better you play, the better your partner plays, the better your opponent plays.”

Although Steppenwolf were multi-award-winning and there was no shortage of mainstream theatre success – Allen won a Tony in 1988 for Burn This, in her Broadway debut – you can still get a whiff of how uncomfortable the ensemble was with the idea of Hollywood, especially as Malkovich’s star started to rise. “At that time, there really was a concern, if we do go out and do other work, will this still be the most important thing in our lives? Is it more important to stay in Chicago and do it for local audiences?”

Joan Allen won a Tony for her stage performance opposite John Malkovich in Burn This.
Steppenwolf purpose … Joan Allen won a Tony for her stage performance opposite John Malkovich in Burn This. Photograph: Michael Brosilow

In fact, her markedly undramatic professional personality – she’s thought of as the ultimate un-diva – she put down more to her childhood, in the 50s and 60s, her father a gas-station owner, her mother looking after four children. “Not to be corny, I grew up in the Midwest, there’s a stereotypical way of being: no nonsense, don’t feel sorry for yourself. If you can do it yourself, don’t ask somebody else to do it. I was raised with a very strong work ethic. You’re not better than anyone else. You really need to be kind to people. These homilies. I would feel uncomfortable being any other way.”

What ported her to films, in the end, was something quite simple – she had a daughter in 1994 with her then husband, the actor Peter Friedman, and continuing in theatre would have made her miss every bedtime. “I knew I was only going to have one child, and I thought, ‘This is my one shot. Do I really want to be out every night from six till 11?’” She will not be drawn on whether there’s a particular maternal penalty meted on actors, a mixture of practicalities and atmosphere; what it’s like to work in theatre, which can never accommodate you as a whole person with a life, because, well, it just can’t. Allen resists the polemic as steadfastly as she does the tantrum or the elaborate trailer request: the “you’re not better than anyone else” part of her upbringing jumps off the page.

Pure fear … Allen with Julianne Moore in Lisey’s Story.
Pure fear … Allen with Julianne Moore in Lisey’s Story. Photograph: Apple TV+

Instead, she turned to film, although we’re here to discuss Lisey’s Story, a new Apple TV mini-series from the renowned Chilean director Pablo Larraín. Adapted from the Stephen King novel of the same name, it has a fascinating, quite old-school horror sensibility, clues delicately laid juxtaposed against moments of unbelievable gore. At one point I actually sprang out of my chair, it was so gruesome. Allen locates its distinctiveness with the director: “I haven’t done a lot of episodic or serial television, but traditionally you have a different director for every episode, and the person who holds the overarching vision is the showrunner.” She sounds quite winning and naive, in her early experiences of the box set – she’d be asking to call the director to check on a mood, and they’d be looking at her quizzically, like “What’s he got to do with it?” “We had the luxury of having Pablo, but it also meant we shot all eight episodes as if it were one big film.”

As a viewer, though, the memorable thing is the ensemble of the three sisters: Julianne Moore is Lisey, who has recently lost her husband; Jennifer Jason Leigh is Darla; Allen is Amanda, who sinks into a psychotic episode at the outset, and has an immensely powerful journey into something like pure fear. Moore, Jason Leigh and Allen often seem to be communicating through sheer telepathy that the viewer can unaccountably hear. “We’re of a similar age,” she says. “I’m definitely the oldest but we’re close enough in experience, between film and television and theatre, that I felt that we would have a language and an understanding and an approach that was simpatico. And that was true on camera and off, we have very similar lifestyles, rather low key. We got along together personally.” It’s a pure introvert’s description – on no evidence at all, I have a sense that all three of these actors are introverts – pared down, conveying more than it says; and it was introversion that brought her into acting in the first place. “I felt a sense of release and safety of expression, after being such an introverted child. I had wonderful parents who were old school in some ways. Less than positive emotions were not encouraged in my family.”

Allen’s most blockbustery film roles were as the CIA boss Pamela Landy in the Bourne films – “That’s the role where my UPS delivery driver started calling me Pam Landy” – and she speaks very highly (as everyone does, actually) of the director Paul Greengrass, but the bit she talks about the most is the charming way he fired her. “It was such a hard call for him to make, I remember him saying, ‘Joan, I’ve been thinking about it…’ and I was like, ‘Paul, it’s OK.’”

Blockbuster … as CIA handler Pamela Landy in The Bourne Ultimatum.
Blockbuster … as CIA handler Pamela Landy in The Bourne Ultimatum. Photograph: Allstar/Universal

The film that in the past she’s called her best was The Ice Storm, Ang Lee’s mesmeric 1997 masterpiece about rich dysfunctional people in 70s Connecticut. Sigourney Weaver will always have delivered the show-stopping line in that movie (“You’re boring me,” she says to the guy she’s having an affair with. “I have a husband who can bore me”) but Allen’s performance was the signature, so subtle and loaded that you felt as though you were missing some vital part of the puzzle whenever she wasn’t right there on the screen. The way she remembers it, “I saw it in a screening room in Los Angeles, and I feel like I remember the sound of the train and Tobey Maguire’s character is talking. Just at the sound of the whistle, I thought, I just know I’m going to love this movie.”

If that sounds like an absolutely typical answer – throwing the spotlight off her own performance or process, indeed, off any human performance, onto a whistle – it’s actually atypical of her to watch her films at all. She says she put Face/Off on with her daughter, and shudders: “I think she was too young. I shouldn’t have turned it on.” Pleasantville, quite a groundbreaking comedy-fantasy released to acclaim the year after The Ice Storm, is an exception, since she watched it as a favour for her friend who’s a psychoanalyst. “Actually I’m friends with his wife,” she corrects herself, as if it would be mad show-offy to pretend to be friendlier with a therapist than you actually were. “Anyway, he has a group, and they study specific films, and they wanted to do Pleasantville, so I watched that so I could go in and speak about it.”

Chromatic awakening … Allen in Pleasantville, with Tobey Maguire.
Chromatic awakening … Allen in Pleasantville, with Tobey Maguire. Photograph: New Line/Allstar

As she describes all this she looks almost physically braced for the searching questions she’s going to be asked about a role that everybody remembers for the surreal, expertly drawn contrasts as her prim character becomes chromatic by masturbating in the bath; people in psychoanalysis could ask anything. Then her relief is almost palpable, as she concludes: “It actually wasn’t as deep as I thought. They were a little bit more interested in how it was made.”

There’s very little chaff in Joan Allen’s CV. From Manhunter to Nixon, the films she’s made, and the roles she made memorable within them, speak of careful planning and intense discernment. Yet that’s not how she remembers it: she says she’s never been as selective as she is now, “because I feel like I’ve acted a lot in my life, I don’t have the same feeling, ‘If I don’t act again, I’m going to die.’ Some actors, their sense of vitality comes from that. Some actors will read the phone book aloud and feel more fulfilled, and that’s OK obviously. I don’t really have that because I’ve done it since I was 13 or 14 years old, fairly consistently. If I don’t do it frequently or regularly, I won’t feel like a shrivelled vine.”


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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