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It's Just How He Works

No audition, a partial script, little feedback. Four pros tell Woody Allen what it's like to act for him.

August 12, 2001|JOHN CLARK | John Clark is a regular contributor to Calendar

Acting in a Woody Allen movie is a nice gig as long as you don't mind not being told what the movie is about, except in the most general terms, or how your character is supposed to act, except what's on the page. In other words, it's a leap of faith--but it's one that many actors will gladly take.

Ironically, even after that leap is made, Allen's actors often are still in the dark, as the principal cast members of his newest film, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," demonstrate when they sit down in a midtown Manhattan hotel conference room to discuss the experience. They are: Helen Hunt, Dan Aykroyd, Elizabeth Berkley and David Ogden Stiers (Charlize Theron is absent).

Set in 1940s New York, "Jade Scorpion" is about an insurance investigator (Allen) battling an efficiency expert (Hunt) while trying to solve a series of jewel robberies. Aykroyd plays his boss, who's having an affair with Hunt's character; Berkley is the office squeeze; Theron is a rich vamp; and Stiers is a hypnotist who gets people to do what they are capable of doing anyway--falling in love, committing larceny. The DreamWorks release opens Aug. 24.

The actors dither amusingly as they assume their seats around the table. It's almost as if they need a director to tell them where to sit. They are an eclectic group. There's Hunt, an Emmy-and Oscar-winning pro and diligent acting student; Aykroyd, a "Saturday Night Live" alumnus who's thrilled to be working with the master; Berkley, a neophyte trying to carve out a serious acting career; and Stiers, a character actor and, unlike the others, an Allen veteran (he's been in five of his films).

Allen is here too, but unlike his colleagues, he knew exactly what was going on. At first reluctantly and then with increasing zeal, Allen explains himself, sometimes making jokes but seldom laughing at them. After all, we're still an audience.

Question: This is an opportunity to tell everyone what it's like to work with Mr. Allen.

Woody Allen: That's not what this is about, right?

Q: It's one question.

Allen: But you have questions? OK, because I can't sit through that. [Everyone laughs uncertainly.]

Q: What's the audition process?

Allen: I don't think anyone here was auditioned. Everyone was just hired.

Dan Aykroyd: I got a letter, and it said, "I've got a part, and I've written this material. It may be something you want to do, it may not be something you want to do." At that point I felt like calling and saying, "Yeah, send me the next one, Woody. I don't know about this."

Q: Why did you send him a letter?

Aykroyd: Because he knows I read.

Allen: I think what happened was somebody called and ascertained that he was available and open to it if he liked it. And so I sent him the part with a letter explaining how the part fits into the movie.

Aykroyd: But the tone of the letter was, "I'd love to do something with you someday, maybe this is not the piece." Now, anything the man would write I would do, so he didn't factor that in.

Allen: That's funny, because we're sitting there like this [fingers crossed] hoping that. That's the way it is when you're casting and send a part or script to anybody that you want for it. You sit there hoping that they're going to like it. You always tell them that they shouldn't feel obliged or shy about saying, "I hate this and I don't want to do it." It doesn't mean that you'll never ask them to do anything.

Aykroyd: Those who haven't had the opportunity would love to do it.

Allen: Some. There have been a number of times where people would say, "I would do anything to be in your movies," and then when I finally have something for them, they want their full salary, they want $10 million or $20 million, and they won't budge off that. And I say, "The whole movie doesn't cost that." So it isn't that everyone is out there champing at the bit.

Aykroyd: Did you get a letter, Helen?

Helen Hunt: I got a similar note with the script.

David Ogden Stiers: You got a script?

Hunt: Whatever. The series of pages that I got that happen to add up to a good portion of the script. [She laughs sheepishly.]

Allen: I think Helen got a whole script because her part was so big in the movie.

Hunt: We had quite a thing to map out, you and I, this relationship in the movie, so if I hadn't read it, I think it would have been to the detriment of the film. But I do remember sitting around one day with all of these people at the Rainbow Room and everybody was trying to guess who did it, and I just kind of looked at my shoes and started coughing.

Aykroyd: I still don't know.

Q: So why do you keep other people in the dark about what's going on in the rest of the movie?

Allen: It's not keeping them in the dark. There's no reason that they even want to read 120 pages when they appear in 30 or 40 of them or whatever. Usually if you sent the whole script to certain actors or actresses, they'd appreciate it if you highlighted [laugh of recognition from the others].

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