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Whatever Works for Woody 

Allen on life, actors, younger women and his 40th film

Wednesday, Jun 10 2009
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The same obsessions I had when I first started, I have now. I’ve been in psychoanalysis, I’ve been successful, I’ve had ups, I’ve had downs. I’ve had some hit movies, movies that failed. But with everything that’s happened to me, all of my experiences, I’ve never been able to solve the real problems of life that have plagued every playwright since Euripides and Aristophanes. No progress has been made on the existential themes and the subject of interpersonal relations, which are still brutal and painful and fragile and very hard to make work, and which cause everybody an enormous amount of suffering and grief. Why are we here? What is the point of it all?

Take Camus’ question [in The Myth of Sisyphus] of whether or not to commit suicide. Now, even the most grim people come to rationalizations where, in Camus’ case, he feels that pushing the rock up the hill, the doing of it, is worth it and you don’t have to succeed. But I feel — in answer to the question of why should we not kill ourselves given a meaningless, godless existence — that it’s a pre-intellectual question, and that your body answers it for you. Your mind will never be able to give you a convincing justification for living your life, because from a logical point of view, if your life is indeed meaningless — which it is — and there’s nothing out there, what is the point of it? Well, the point of it is only that you’re too scared to terminate it because you’re hard-wired, it’s in your blood, to live and to want to live and to want to protect yourself. So, while I’m home babbling about how meaningless life is and how cruel and brutal and without any purpose, if there’s a fire in my house, I’ll go to extreme measures to save my life. And then when I’ve saved my life, I’ll say to myself, “Why did you bother to do that?”

Even by the standards of some of the antisocial, unlikable characters you’ve written in the past, including the ones you yourself played in Anything Else and Deconstructing Harry, Boris seems a step beyond.

click to enlarge Allen and David, putting it together
  • Allen and David, putting it together

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You know, at one point I was going to call this film, when I first wrote it for Zero, The Worst Man in the World. I thought it would be a funny character — a guy who is the quintessence of misanthropy and who can’t fit in, doesn’t want to fit in, rejects everything, just isn’t someone who can deal with life or wants to deal with it. He doesn’t accept it: He finds the fact that he’s mortal to be unacceptable. He cannot agree to the rules of life. The characters I’ve played in those other movies were certainly in that direction but not as extreme as I wanted to make the character of Boris.

Did you, at any point in the past three decades, consider playing the role yourself?

No, because when I thought of it for Zero, I thought of it as a part for a fat man. I thought of him as a big, aggressive physicist, a Russian chess genius who had no time for “microbes” and “earthworms.” And I can’t do that. My source of comedy is more victim — I find myself frightened when I hear the noise in the other room, that sort of thing. This guy was grandiose. It was hard to think of people who could play him now, and then [casting director] Juliet Taylor mentioned Larry, whom I had worked with very briefly before and whom I knew from Curb Your Enthusiasm. But it seemed to me that he could do it, because on his television show he’s very authentic. He’s not an overacter or a fake posturer. Of course, he told me up and down the line how he couldn’t do it, how he’s not an actor and this and that, and then I knew he’d be great. Because it’s the ones like Diane Keaton, who tell you how bad they are, who always come through. It’s the ones who tell you how great they are who never come through.

People who can act are naturals. Over the years, I’ve met and worked with people who studied all over the place, and if they had natural talent, it was great. If they didn’t, the fact that they had studied didn’t mean anything. I’ve gotten guys off the street — literally off the street — who come in here and, when they speak, they’re un–self-conscious and authentic. Whereas, with a lot of professional actors, they come in to meet for a part and we’ll be chatting like we’re chatting now, and they’re just fine. Then, they read the part and they go into their acting mode, and everything about them suddenly becomes inauthentic. They feel they have to do something to the material or they’re not justifying their paycheck. So they start acting it, and you don’t want them to act it; you want them to just say it. If they’re supposed to be a salesman, you want them to be a salesman like you’d experience a salesman. But they don’t. They start playing a salesman.

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