Joan Allen: The Art of Decency
In the late 90’s, Joan Allen became one of Hollywood’s favorite actresses. Mostly, she played supportive wives who exist on the sidelines of the story. In this profile from the Novemeber 1997 issue of Movieline magazine, Allen admits that she was painfully shy and extremely proper and that she doesn’t see herself as cut out for showier roles.
Joan Allen, real name Joan Allen, is unlike most actresses. The daughter of a homemaker and a gas station owner from Rochelle, Illinois–population 8,000, conservative, stable and dull, a part of the oceanic Midwest–she was raised to be upright, to be just Joan, a plain saint, and the model for what a steady and enduring woman might be. At 41, she is tall, decent, wholesome. She has on a full-length, pale print shift dress, and wears not a dab of makeup. You cannot help but believe that she is happily married to actor Peter Friedman, with whom she has a three-year-old daughter.
“I was shy, very easygoing, very compliant,” she tells me of her childhood. “I loved pleasing my parents and teachers. I was a good student. I didn’t make waves. And I suppose I was a goody two-shoes. A bit nerdy.”
Yet there was obviously something else deep inside her that was none of those things, that dreamed of being attended to. Because she didn’t know how to meet boys, she says, she tried out as a cheerleader–and failed. It was only by going onstage–“in a controlled setting”–that she found a place where she could shout and scream.
It says so much for Joan Allen’s force as an actress that in college she was noticed by an eccentric, longhaired hippie who wore purple clothes, a young actor named John Malkovich. “No, there was no romance with John,” she says. “I was too much in awe of him–too afraid. I really don’t know what he saw in me.” Malkovich invited her to join the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago. “He had his enclave–of all sexual preferences. It made me extremely nervous, but I was so flattered. I couldn’t believe he was paying attention to me.”
What Malkovich saw, many others have seen since. Allen has received two Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations (for Nixon and The Crucible), she’s a Tony winner (for Burn This), and though she may not yet be a “star,” she’s very much in demand in Hollywood. Yet she means it, she is utterly sincere, when she says no, she doesn’t think she could possibly play anyone as extroverted as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Nor, she claims, could she take on Cleopatra (“No, Shakespeare just doesn’t do it for me”), or even Blanche Dubois, a role offered to her by Steppenwolf recently.
Joan Allen is as good an actress as we have, but she is still shy, self-effacing and wanting to please. (To this day she still dreams about the boy her high school voted most likely to succeed–a boy she was too timid to approach, even though she’d been voted the girl most likely to succeed.) I ask her what she knows she can do, and she whispers, “I can cry.” She knows, she tells me, that sometimes she runs pretty close to being everyone’s long-suffering wife and mother–the kind of role she played in Face/Off–where she is a little to one side, tender-eyed and pained, living in the emotional wake of an adventurous man.
But, then, you have to remember how much Joan Allen has done with what seemed like modest, plot-serving parts. Check out her blind girl in Michael Mann’s neglected Manhunter, and get the look in her eyes as she listens to the heartbeat of a sleeping tiger– then see how her strange love affair with the killer alters the line of that film. Consider how much humor and kindness she brought to the ostensibly thankless role of the wife in Tucker: The Man and His Dream. In Ethan Frome, her strict and rather chilly wife was so much more interesting than Patricia Arquette’s sweetheart. Above all, in Nixon, it was her Pat–eerily close to that real ghost–who stood for the last hope for honesty and true feeling in the White House. Then recollect the lengthy scenes of confession and forgiveness between husband and wife in The Crucible, and ask yourself whether you even looked at the esteemed Daniel Day-Lewis.
Allen is now on screen in what may be her best role–a wife again, a suffering witness, but someone spurred to action–in The Ice Storm. Next year comes Pleasantville, in which she plays the Donna Reed-ish epitome of the nice, decent mom from ’50s TV– except that this is a woman who hears (from her own daughter) what sex can be, and who then sinks into the bathtub, masturbates and feels that great American orgasm. There’s only so much that decency can take, and Joan Allen has always regarded herself as a late bloomer.
David Thomson interviewed Morgan Freeman for the May ’97 issue of Movieline.