In Woody Allen’s newest film, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, the viewer is once again transported into a familiar universe of neuroses, whip-smart one-liners, ruminations on aging, death and dying, and dimbulb femmes fatale who hover somewhere in between being hookers, trophy wives and actresses. The line is fine in Allen’s universe sometimes, but as per his usual custom, he writes multiple interesting roles for women to play once again, adding four more indelible creations to the already-astounding roster of unique women that we have looked at in great depth all week in this Performer Spotlight series.
Veteran stage and screen performer Gemma Jones (Sense and Sensibility, Bridget Jones’s Diary) turns in a career-best performance as the skittish Helena, an emotionally-bruised woman searching for supernatural answers in a practical world, after being dumped by her husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) [it would be amazing to finally see her nominated for the Oscar]. “The feedback’s been really good,” said Jones during our chat following an exclusive press conference for the film held during the Toronto International Film Festival. “The people that we’ve been talking to seem to have enjoyed it hugely, so that’s been encouraging.”
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
Josh Brolin, Naomi Watts, Gemma Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, Lucy Punch
(Sony Pictures Classics; US theatrical: 22 Sep 2010; 2010)
Freida Pinto, a relative newcomer to the big-stakes acting game (her other film credits include Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire and Julian Schnabel’s Miral, due later this year), appears as what Allen called the film’s “obscure object of desire” Dia, a versatile, talented young woman in red who catches the eye of roguish author Roy (Josh Brolin). The incandescent Lucy Punch (so amazing as Annette Bening’s foil in Being Julia) expertly plays the comedically indecorous churl Charmaine, Alfie’s new wife, who enjoys working out, acting, and being a social-climbing tart. Rounding out this eclectic, strong cast is Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive, Mother and Child) as Sally, Alfie and Helena’s put-upon daughter and Roy’s wife who finds a little romance and purpose on her own as everyone else around her is falling apart at the seams.
All of these wild threads are woven together by one of the undisputed great film writers of our time. Never in my life did I think I would be sitting in the same room as Allen, let alone actually speaking to him, but I managed to get a question in at the TIFF press conference. Allen illuminated for me the shared qualities and connections that link the female characters across his filmography:
“Well, a lot of the women I have written about over the years have been sufferers. The women in this picture are sufferers. Freida doesn’t know it, but she’s a sufferer later (laughs). After the picture, a half hour later, she gets her suffering. Gemma suffers, Lucy suffers. Naomi Watts suffers. So there is that link, and of course, there is the link with Freida being kind of obscure objects of desire, someone who Josh sees through the window and has thoughts about, romantic thoughts about.
Lucy, who plays another recurring theme of mine, the woman who recaptures youth. Guys think they are going to experience – sometimes with women or with projects – that now the boat has sailed on those things. Gemma’s character is more in keeping with the general philosophy of so many of my films of wanting something to believe in and not having anything so settling.”
Following the press conference, I was able to sit down with the lovely trio of Jones, Pinto, and Punch for an engaging chat about making You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger with one of the cinema’s most legendary living filmmakers.
PopMatters: I think every actor I have ever talked to has said one of two names when asked the question ‘what director would you most like to work with?’ Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. What is “the moment” like – when you get the call or email or secret courier or whatever it is that notifies you that you’re going to be in a Woody Allen movie?
Lucy Punch: Gemma and I answered this question together earlier today and we both just screamed.
Freida Pinto: I could hardly believe it. I had not even finished my first film properly. This was, I think, a week before the  Oscars and I had already gotten a call from Woody Allen! I was like ‘okaaaaaaaay. This is hard to believe.’ Actually when I got the call, I was in London and I thought it was some kind of silly prank. But no, it was for real! I just find it hard to believe! Just one film down and then you get a Woody Allen film…
PM: What have been some of your favorite roles – other than in your film – that Mr. Allen has written for women?
Gemma Jones: Well, I always remember Annie Hall. I think that’s an iconic performance by Diane Keaton. Mia Farrow I enjoy…
LP: I like Dianne Wiest, she’s my favorite!
GJ: I love her as well!
FP: I’m going to have to break your rule. I don’t think there’s been anybody like Lucy in any of his films so far. I can’t recall. Perhaps Charlize Theron [in 1998’s Celebrity]? Its a completely different vibe here. [Charmaine] is someone who is just out there. She wasn’t supposed to be from that part of London, where they have that accent, and they told me that you put that on. I was like ‘that is freaking unbelievable! (laughing) I have to say that and break the rule! I really liked that character. I walked out of the film and thought ‘that is the best woman character I have ever seen.’ Even though she’s not the heroine, you kind of want her to be.
PM: She reminded me a bit of Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite.
LP: I know what you mean! And you know its really funny because it occured to me that ‘Oh God, I don’t want it to be this!’ I watched it – and I had seen a tiny clip of it years ago on YouTube, a scene. One of her first lines is exactly the same as one of my lines! She says, explaining what she does [a porn star/hooker] .. ‘but basically I’m an actress!’ And I’m like ‘what does that say about Woody’s opinion of actresses?’ (laughter) I don’t know…but I found that really, really funny.
PM: You have to wonder! That’s such a common theme in many of his female characters.
LP: Yes, actresses. And also there is another thing. Obviously I went back and watched all of his movies again and saw the film Interiors and there’s the character [Mona], when the father comes in and gets remarried, and his new wife… she’s the vulgarian. She had a scene where she said ‘its too quiet, its too quiet’ and I had a big scene where I was saying ‘it’s too fucking quiet!’ It was very interesting to see repeated themes and there’s lots of characters repeated and there’s this archetypal vulgarian who is an actress and who wants some noise! Maureen Stapleton is just fabulous!
PM: What do you think makes for a truly memorable or great onscreen romance? What romantic films do you love?
GJ: Well, it‘s lovely if you can work with an actor that you have chemistry with. Brief Encounter still is up there for me!
LP: That makes me cry! Gosh… L’Appartement a French film with Monica Belluci. Did you ever see that? Its a similar thing and its about looking and yearning and wanting. There have been so many…