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.”
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…
PM: What’s it like being a part of a strong, mainly female cast, as opposed to a strong male-dominated cast? Freida, perhaps you can illuminate this because with Slumdog Millionaire you were basically the only prominent woman in the cast.
FP: I think it was kind of equal [in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger]. I never really felt at any time it was stronger. Naomi Watts, who isn’t here, her character, and Gemma’s character, like Woody said, are both “sufferers”, you know? I didn’t think that here the female energy was stronger than the male, because you also have Josh’s character who is also pretty strong in the film. I can say that it does feel good to be in a film that has a lot of strong female characters because the film that I did right before You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger [Julian Schnabel’s Miral] was all about four women, four Palestinian women. And I just thought it felt so great to finally have a male director direct all women who were these really brave kind of go-getters. So it does feel good, actually. I think things are changing and we’re coming to the forefront as well.
PM: I like that feeling of optimism! Gemma, a few minutes ago in the press conference you were speaking about optimism as well, in terms of the kinds of roles being offered to women who are more mature and seasoned. Do you find that you are getting better parts as you age?
GJ: Well, I certainly am keeping busy, yes. I feel incredibly lucky because many of my friends who are my contemporaries are not working. There aren’t quite enough roles for mature women, but I am very lucky to get the ones that I do. There are quite juicy roles for older women now.
PM: What are the qualities that you look for in the characters you play?
GJ: I don’t like to repeat myself. I always like to play something that’s different from the thing I did before. I loved this because it was comedic, essentially, although she suffers a lot (laughing). I probably, in the spectrum of my career, played more dramatic roles, but I love doing comedy.
PM: There’s not a lot of direct working on the character with Woody Allen. What about that is intimidating or freeing?
LP: I knew, I had been prepared that one gets very little direction from Woody and he works very, very fast and that you get very few takes. I also did a lot of work on my character and spent time developing that accent – an accent I am not that familiar with. Also, again, Woody gives you the freedom to improvise, which I love doing, and putting in and making the tweaks, because there is a certain way of talking, certain words she would use in expressing herself. Something you’d only know if you were from London, it was very specific. But, yeah, there’s a lot of preparation.
FP: Well, as far as I was concerned, I had no discussion of my character at all. I just knew that he allowed me to change her name, and that was pretty much it. The original name was ‘Lolita’ and I found it very similar to ‘Latika’ which was my character in Slumdog Millionaire. He changed it to ‘Neela’ which actually means ‘blue’. I just thought it would be so nice to have a name that could be pronounced easily. The name ‘Dia’ actually means ‘light’ or ‘a lamp that gives light’, and I felt that was so contrary to my state of mind (laughing). So I just said ‘let’s call her ‘Dia’ and Woody liked it. It was quite a happy feeling, that he liked that name. As far as I was concerned, there was very little discussion.
GJ: Yes, there is very little discussion. I think that essentially, he casts for something that we’re probably not even aware of, some idiosyncracies of our personalities. He casts it so that he knows what he’s got, and that is very complementary, really. It gives you confidence that you can deliver what he wants without needing to be nursed.
PM: That sounds exciting. What is your usual process like for creating a character, is it intense?
GJ: Well, I do do quite a bit of homework and preparation ahead of time so that I have a base, but then I like to throw all of that out the window each day and just be free to take chances.
PM: Something that Tilda Swinton once told me was that the costume is everything for her. How does the costume help you with your character in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger?
GJ: It was the defining moment when we actually found the right costume, because that took trial and error. The designer and I initially met up and didn’t really come up with quite what it was. We took these costumes to Woody and he didn’t like the costumes that we chose. He took us aside and said ‘I like hats and I like gloves. And I like Blanche Dubois.’ That actually really helped me to get into the character.
PM: When you’re on set with Woody, what’s the mood like? Do you get little zingers every now and then or is it very serious?
GJ: It‘s very concentrated, and maybe, I imagined that because Woody is such a fantasic comedian, that there might be a bit more levity on the set. It actually was very concentrated, he watches very closely and doesn’t say a huge amount, but when he does, it is very pertinent.
PM: I couldn’t believe I was even in the same room as Woody Allen a few minutes ago, let alone talking to him. How do you get over the nerves when you are working opposite a legend?
GJ: Initially, that is really disconcerting, because he is such an idol. So, I’d like to be re-warned and do the first three days over again!
FP: Oh my God! I said the same thing!
GJ: I feel like even when I was acting I was thinking ‘I’m in a Woody Allen movie!’ (laughing)
FP: For the first three days, I spent the whole time just being nervous, rather than just enjoying the experience. If I could turn back time, I would take those three days back as well and just enjoy it. But there’s not much you can do, I mean, it feels so good that Gemma just said that because now I don’t feel completely out of place! I thought that because this was my third film, there was no way I could not be nervous.