Joan Allen tells Miles Fielder why she’s pleased to be taking a break from the role of the strong, stoical woman with her new comedy The Upside of Anger
Joan Allen is by far one of America’s most respected actresses. Brian Cox, who appears alongside her in the forthcoming espionage thriller The Bourne Ultimatum, says she’s the best he’s ever worked with.
The three Oscar nominations she received for heavyweight dramas Nixon, The Crucible and The Contender support his claim. And respect for her craft is probably why Allen, who came to cinema via Chicago’s equally well-respected Steppenwolf Theatre Company, has been cast over and over as the moral centre of her movies.
All of which makes Allen’s new film, The Upside of Anger, something of a departure. In it the actress plays Terry Ann Wolfmeyer, a suburban wife and mother of three who turns to the bottle after her husband leaves her and whose subsequent behaviour around her grown-up daughters veers between adolescent and infantile. It’s a blackly comic drama about domestic dysfunction that pulls no punches. ‘It’s true,’ says Allen, ‘and it’s one of the reasons I loved playing Terry. She’s the matriarch, but she’s not really making self-sacrificing choices for her family.’
Allen says the pattern started when she was cast as Pat Nixon. ‘I did Nixon, The Ice Storm and then The Crucible, and certainly in The Crucible I was playing the moral centre. It became a typecasting trend: “get Joan Allen if you want strong, silent, doing the right thing”. Filmmaking is an expensive business and people want to be sure their films are going to work, so you do see actors cast to play their greatest strengths
‘But in the last three or four years I’ve been given more of an opportunity to play a broader range of characters, and The Upside of Anger is a great example of that.’
The Upside of Anger is a departure for Allen in another way: it’s a comedy. While some of Allen’s films are humorous - Pleasantville’s subversive irony, Face/Off’s B-movie mania - none of them are comedies as such. It’s why she asked Mike Binder, writer-director of The Upside of Anger and her co-star in The Contender, to write a part for her. ‘I found out that Mike was also a writer-director of comedies,’ Allen says. ‘I told him that I wanted to do some comedy. I wasn’t expecting him to take my request so wholeheartedly.’
Allen says it was tricky getting the comic tone of the film just right, while keeping it dramatically real and poignant. Due credit to her and Binder for doing just that with The Upside of Anger. ‘It’s been very interesting to hear the different reactions from people that have seen it,’ she says. ‘I’ve spoken to some people who have said, “A comedy? Oh, of course”. Others have said, “Are you kidding?!” So the film definitely has a unique comic style to it.’
Having completed the third Bourne film, Allen is currently stepping behind to the camera to co-produce a feature about the American modernist artist Georgia O’Keefe (who Allen will play if and when the financing for the film is raised). ‘That’s something I’ve never done before,’ Allen says. ‘I enjoy a new challenge. And that’s why, acting-wise, I am more interested in doing comedies now rather than playing yet another moral centre.’
The Upside of Anger is on selected release from Fri 4 May.