Actress Joan Allen receives her Silver Cleo Career Achievement Award from Chicago Film Festival founder and director Michael Kutza at the 48th Chicago Film Festival on Sunday, October 14, 2012.

Actress Joan Allen was given a Career Achievement Award on Sunday, October 14, 2012, at the 48th Annual Chicago Film Festival. Interviewed by Chicago “Tribune” film critic Michael Phillips, Allen recounted how it was “4 or 5 years before the penny really dropped for me in film. It took me a while.”
Allen was born in Rochelle, Illinois, in August of 1956 and was voted “most likely to succeed” of the girls in her high school class. She was one of four children and her mother is still alive at 95. Asked by Phillips whether it was true that she got into acting because she didn’t make the cheerleading squad her freshman year, Allen acknowledged that it was.

“I was a cheerleader in middle school, but didn’t make it in my freshman year. So, I tried out for the competitions for one-act plays. As soon as I competed, I said, ‘That’s what I’ve been looking for!’” After high school, she attended both Northern Illinois University and Easter Illinois University, where she met fellow Steppenwolf Theater founding member John Malkovich. Her first role was as Nurse Ratched in “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and she went on to play Laura Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie” and Linda Loman in “Death of a Salesman” at age 18 or 19. Describing the theater department as “a small drama department to train drama teachers” Allen noted, “College is about being in over your head.” Among other Steppenwolf actors she met in 1977 were Laurie Metcalfe and Gary Sinise.

Her first role was a small part in “Compromising Positions” in 1985. Then, she played the blind girl in “Manhunter” in 1986, followed by successful stage work on Broadway in such films as “Burn This” opposite Malkovich (for which she won a Tony in 1988) and “The Heidi Chronicles” in 1989.
One of Allen’s most memorable roles, and one for which she received her first Oscar nomination, was her portrayal of Pat Nixon in Oliver Stone’s 1995 film “Nixon.” (Allen has been nominated for Oscars 3 times). In 1996, she starred opposite Daniel Day Lewis in “The Crucible” and in 1997 opposite Kevin Kline in “The Ice Storm,” while also the lead actress in the John Travolta vehicle “Face/Off.” “Pleasantville” with Toby Maguire followed in 1998.

Asked if she had ever equivocated about a role

, Allen said: “Pleasantville. I thought I was getting into a rut of playing the wronged wife. Am I getting into the not-good-wife thing? It felt like somewhat familiar territory for me, after my previous roles, but Gary Ross irected it, and he said, ‘No, this one is FUNNY!’”

Q: “By ‘Manhunter’, did you feel you could do both films and stage?”

A: “I did not go thinking it would happen. It just happened. My interest in film developed because it was a bit more lucrative. It wasn’t a goal, but it evolved over time.” (Allen has been in 3 of the highly successful “Bourne” films.)

Q: “What is it like working with Francis Ford Coppola, as you did in ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’?”

A: “Francis likes to rehearse and use videotape. He likes having people improvise. He wants that laid in place before you start. Coppola may have been one of the first to use a monitor. We’d all be looking around and saying, ‘Where’s Francis?’”

At this point, Phillips joked, “Maybe he’s still finishing up ‘Apocalypse Now?’”

Q: “By ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’ were you worried about being typecast?”

A: “I felt I was getting to do the size of the roles I was prepared for. Coming from Broadway, I didn’t understand the lingo.”

Q: “By this point, you’d already done ‘The Heidi Chronicles’ on Broadway, Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play.”

A: “It was a big deal for me. The year before I had worked with John Malkovich on Broadway for about a year and a half. I was pretty honored to be doing a Wendy Wasserstein play. There’s a lot of work that goes on before. Quite a long preview period.”

Phillips mentioned most of Allen’s roles after clips were shown of many of them and said, “It’s a shame you’ve had to work with so many hacks,” with a laugh.

Q: “What was it like to work with Ang Lee on ‘The Ice Storm’?”

A: “He has a very clear vision of what he wants. I trusted his judgment implicitly. I really trusted his eye. Many actors are from the dailies era, when you could see some of the day’s shooting, but Ang would not allow actors to go. Jeff Bridges (she worked with Bridges on “Tucker” and “The Contender”) really wanted to go to dailies. Now, it’s instant replay on the monitor.”

Q: “Were there any surprises for you in the radical jump cuts and film vision that Oliver Stone brought to ‘Nixon?’”

A: “I usually don’t watch any of my movies again after they’ve come out. Oliver Stone likes the visual assault style, but he was a little more restrained in ‘Nixon.’”

Q: “Were you able to find a way to empathize with Pat Nixon?”

A: “Oh, yes. She had a very difficult life. She took care of her father and brothers by the age of 13. She was poor. There was a tremendous amount of responsibility for her at a very young age. They worked it out in the family so that all the children could go to college, but at different times. She did very well and was very well-liked. She drove an elderly woman cross country in order to get to New York to go to college. I really felt for her. Having grown up in the Midwest, you don’t complain. You pull yourself up by the bootstraps and you just keep moving on. One state department worker saw her dancing by herself, through a window of the White House, one night after a state dinner. She had a lot of loneliness, so I felt for her.”

Q: “What’s the first thing that strikes you after seeing that clip from ‘Yes?’?”

A: “Sally Potter directed it. It was all written in iambic pentameter, so it all rhymed. It was her response to 9/11. You go years before you get a part that gives you those kinds of opportunities.”

Q: “What about ‘The Contender,’ for which you were nominated for an Oscar in 2000?”

A: “Rod Laurie wrote ‘The Contender’ for me. He had been a film critic for a long time in Los Angeles. I was there getting an award and Rod Laurie said to me, in January, ‘I’m going to write a movie for you.’ We were shooting it by August. I think some of this business is luck, and a lot of it is hard work.”

Q: “What about shooting the ‘Bourne’ films?”

A: “I think Paul Greengrass does that breathless, almost incoherent but not quite cutting better than anyone. Shooting a Bourne film is a very long shoot…8, 9, 10 months, versus 28 days for others. I was in Berlin for the ‘Bourne Ultimatum’ and flew back and forth a few times. For ‘The Bourne Supremacy,’ we shot in London. I called and asked Paul, ‘Should I bring my script?’ He said, ‘Oh, darling, of course not. We don’t know what’s going to happen!”

Q: “So, the scripts are kind of loosey-goosey?”

A: “Well, there were writers shuffling in and out, but that’s normal for film. In ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ where she meets Bourne (Matt Damon) for the first time, we shot that scene 4 times. It’s been a very, very successful franchise, so sometimes I think there are disagreements between the producer, director, and others that I am not privy to.”

Q: “Is it freeing to not have to carry an entire project?”

A: “I consider myself more of a character actor than anything. ‘The Contender’ is an extremely ensemble film. I was raised on ensemble.”

Phillips commented, “It’s nice to see an actor who’s a very good listener on camera.”

Allen: “If there’s anything that’s key, it is that the story is paramount. The better the actors you work with, the better you’ll be.”

Joan Allen is now divorced, but has an 18-year-old daughter from her 13-year marriage. She has been nominated for the Oscar three times and also has 30 other wins and 38 nominations for her stage and screen work.