[20 October 2011]
Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris took critics and audiences by surprise this summer with its charming blend of quintessential Allen—hopelessly romantic, helplessly neurotic protagonist, timeless cityscape backdrop, self-conscious jabs at the upper class—and a seamless stepping-into-the-past-at-the-stroke-of-midnight conceit straight out of a fairytale. The latter magical absurdity was seemingly the breath of fresh air both Allen loyalists and cynics had been craving (tried and true box office draw Owen Wilson in the lead role didn’t hurt either), and the film now enjoys the distinction of being the top (non-adjusted) grossing film of Allen’s career.
But the real word-of-mouth surrounding the film was that Allen, who has a history of unearthing revelatory performances from newcomer and veteran actors, may have once again struck gold in the form of Corey Stoll. Stoll’s pitch-perfect embodiment of Ernest Hemingway (as imagined by Wilson’s Hollywood-screenwriter-in-crisis as he steps back in time to the heyday of art, intellect, and imbibing: 1920’s Paris) marries the near-comical stoicism and juvenile clenched-fist ruffian qualities that have become almost as iconic as Hemingway’s prose with an often overlooked fragility. The performance has quickly catapulted Stoll to that select club of actors who have convincingly tackled beloved, culturally ubiquitous figures onscreen while managing to eschew impersonation or mimicry (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote, Meryl Streep’s Julia Child, Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi, Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk among them) and has fast-tracked him to the top of Hollywood’s It list.
PopMatters recently sat down with Mr. Stoll to discuss becoming Hemingway, Oscar buzz, working with Woody, cop roles, Lifetime movies, and the virtues of a good wig.
* * *
Congratulations on the success of this film. It’s amazing to see Woody Allen having this somewhat unprecedented resurgence.
Yeah, I don’t think anybody was expecting this movie to explode as it has.
Speaking of the unexpected, your being cast in the film was somewhat serendipitous.
Definitely. I was doing a play here in New York, A View from the Bridge, with Liev Schrieber and Scarlett Johannson and, of course, Scarlett and Woody have this kind of muse-maestero relationship… She seems to have that with a lot of people… (laughs) Right. So, he came to see the play once, and then he came back a few more times, because either his casting director [Juliet] Taylor tipped him off, or he saw me in this wig and mustache and thought I looked the part, I don’t know. But it was incredible luck because if I had been on stage with my usual bald head and no mustache, I don’t know if he would’ve been able to see that. Prior to [Midnight], I had actually read another script where Hemingway was a character in it, and I really liked it, so I did all this research on Hemingway online and I was like, “Wow, I really look like this guy! I look like a young Hemingway.” And so I sent that director, who’s a friend of mine, these side-by-side shots of me and Hemingway that I made. That script hasn’t been produced yet, but yeah, I guess it was fated. And now I know a lot of useless factoids about Hemingway.
Your performance—transformation, really—in this film is both hilarious and uncanny, which can be attributed, I think, to the fact that much of your dialogue is lifted from or a play on Hemingway’s prose. How did you manage to avoid what could have so easily devolved into caricature?
Mostly, it was a function of the time I had before the shoot. In my experience, when you get a part you go right into it, but here I had about two months to just read and prepare. And that can be attributed to how well organized Woody is. Often with films it is sort of a mad scramble but [Allen has] a pretty well-oiled machine. He makes a movie a year and he knows what he’s doing and he doesn’t gum up the works with a lot of different people’s opinions. That’s what’s great about working with him. He’s a benevolent dictator and what he says goes, and you’re really dealing with a singular artist. So I read and I read and sort of got it into my bones, and it’s not that I forgot that I was in a comedy, but the power of Hemingway’s language that I was steeped in for all these months was intoxicating. I’d read so much of his work that when I would try to read other things, it all just seemed sort of flaccid. His prose is so muscular and attractive and it feels powerful and good to speak. Even though he did become sort of a parody of himself later in his career, with some of the semi-autobiographical stuff where he just gets really boastful and a little ridiculous, when you really look at his great early work, it taps into something very real and tragic and not funny at all. So, on my own, I was so immersed in that world, and then I’d show up on set and remember, “Oh wait, this is a Woody Allen comedy. This isn’t Interiors.” (laughs)
What’s so delightful and surprising about Midnight is its masterful blending of this latter- career “Woody Allen’s Europe” motif with the “alternate reality/time travel” trope that’s typically relegated to sci-fi or fantasy flicks. And at certain moments, in the best possible sense, when you’re on screen with Owen Wilson, it seems almost as though you’re acting in different movies. Were there any major differences in the way Allen directed you and the rest of the literary figures versus the “real” people?
Absolutely. He was definitely directing [the literary characters] a lot more. We were playing such specific people and Woody has been living with such strong connotations to these different characters for so long. Back in the 60’s, Woody wrote that story set in the 1920’s [“A Twenties Memory”] so he’s had this take on that era since then and he had a very clear of what he wanted. With [Hemingway], it was all about paring away as much as possible in the same way he did in his writing. So I actually had the luxury of more takes than most other people in the cast because Woody really wanted to perfect that very spartan dialogue. Whereas Owen, like his character, is such a buoyant personality, so enthusiastic and present in this really bright way that he really didn’t need to be directed.
Your first scene with Kathy Bates’s Gertrude Stein character is a real highlight of the film. They are two such powerful and important figures and watching them interact on screen is something of a surreal treat. Did you two figure out that dynamic together in advance, or did you just dive right in?
No, unfortunately, we didn’t have time to discuss anything at length before shooting. Kathy and I had our scene together on the very first day of principle photography so everybody was in such a daze, just jumping into it. But Kathy was so perfectly cast. She’s such a strong, formidable presence, not unlike Stein, and I think because we were both so invested and researched in our characters, we were able to hit the ground running. It’s funny, because I remember when I heard that Kathy was playing that part, and I thought, “Of course! Who else?”
There’s well-deserved Oscar buzz surrounding your performance. It seems pretty unanimous among critics and moviegoers alike that your work in the film was the definition of “scene stealing.”
I’m incredibly flattered, of course, but it’s really the role, not me. You just don’t get roles this good that often, and I really lucked out because Woody Allen can get anybody he wants. But in some ways he was really interested in having an actor who wasn’t well-known because it helps the audience get into that world even more. So, I was incredibly lucky in terms of that. Just the idea that I could get awards or even nominations is great and it’s all gravy; I just need to make sure that I don’t get too wrapped up in that because it’s all really nice and exciting but I know it isn’t something I have any control over. But this role has been the gift that keeps on giving. From the people I worked with and the people I worked for, to the part, to the filming location. There was nothing bad about this job, that’s for sure.
I was fascinated to learn that your diehard fanbase—
Wait. I have one? (laughs)
Absolutely. Google yourself sometime. Anyway, your diehard fans really revere your performance in the Lifetime movie A Girl Like Me with Mercedes Ruehl, about the murder of Gwen Araujo, a transgender woman.
I’m so glad to hear that. Something that is really lovely about that film is that it’s still so relevant, maybe more than ever today than it was six years ago. It was a really great feeling on set despite the subject matter. We had to be very delicate, especially with the love scene [between me and JD Pardo], but it has been really great because over the years many people have told me it really meant a lot [to them]. It’s tricky because that movie-of-the-week genre can be pretty manipulative and a little lazy. [Director] Agnieszka Holland did a great job. She’s a world class filmmaker and she assembled a great cast. I was actually really surprised, frankly, with the end result. I thought the network would change it and try to sanitize it, make it easier to digest, but for what it was, it was kind of groundbreaking. I’m proud it’s still out there doing its thing.
Yeah, I remember seeing that movie and thinking that love scene was brave and pretty bold for a television movie. Speaking of television, you were recently the lead on the short-lived Law and Order: Los Angeles, and you’ve often played cops, detectives, SWAT team members. Are you especially drawn to those roles? Is it typecasting? Both?
It’s probably the bald head and the deep voice. I don’t think people would buy me as a wedding planner…
Depends on the wig.
Cory Stoll: Good point. I grew up in New York City so I guess I understand and can easily convey that blunt shop talk. I actually really love playing those characters. And I don’t think it’s a mistake that so many shows on the air right now are cop shows.
Does it ever become difficult to distinguish between those characters? To make them distinct and not feel like a repetition of what you’ve done before?
I haven’t felt that yet. As an actor, you’re always using yourself, it’s always your voice. And I like having different facial hair and accents. But in the end, there’s always something unique you can bring to the character, even if you’re only making that explicit or known in your mind.
You’ve worked in pretty much every medium an actor can at this point: television, film, theater, even video games…
No! That’s not me! I don’t know why it’s there. And they refuse to take it off IMDB. I mean, I’d love to sometime, sure, but it definitely hasn’t happened yet.
Well, video game hoaxes aside, what do you bring consistently as an actor regardless of mediums, and what invariably changes depending on medium?
They all definitely have a different sense of time and space. With theater, you rehearse and you try to find the rhythm on a basic level and then you’re off and running. In film, when you’re working with some sort of a budget, you’re finding out in the moment what those beats are and then finding ways to perfect them [with multiple takes]. With TV, it’s often first impression stuff because there’s not as much time. It’s always a question of stakes. For me, it’s always the same in terms of finding the way into my character. When I first started working I made the mistake of thinking [the mediums] were more different than they actually are.
So, what’s next?
I just finished the new Bourne movie—that’s what this is all about (touches his beard)—with Jeremy Renner, who is playing the new lead. It’s a different character from [Matt Damon’s]—I think I’m allowed to say that. I had to sign all these non-disclosure agreements but I think that’s already out there.
Playing a cop?
Oh, I’m not allowed to say who I play. That I know for sure.
* * *
Midnight in Paris, released by Sony Pictures Classics, is still playing in theaters.