Interview: ‘Blue Jasmine’ Cast Talk About Woody Allen & Developing Their Characters

By July 26, 2013
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Woody Allen’s latest film, Blue Jasmine, centers on a wealthy woman name Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), whose husband’s (Alec Baldwin) illegal activities put an end to her lavish Park Avenue life and force her to move in with her grocery store clerk sister (Sally Hawkins). [You can read our full review here.] At the New York press conference for the dark comedy, Blanchett and co-stars Peter Sarsgaard, Louis C.K., and Andrew Dice Clay were on hand to discus working on the flick.

I want to start by asking you a little bit about your first conversations with Woody Allen about this role. He said it’s one of the rare times he wrote the part with a specific actor in mind.

Cate Blanchett: Is that true?

How did you find out you [got] this movie, and how did you approach it?

CB: I got a call from my agent saying that Woody had a script he’d like me to read and so we spoke – he and I spoke – for about 25 minutes. He said, can I send it to you? I said I’d love to read it, he said, well, call me when you finish. I read it straight away, it’s a script you do read straight away, and it was brilliant. He’s a brilliant dramatist, apart from being a filmmaker. We spoke for about 45 seconds and agreed to do the film together, and then I started with the camera tests in San Francisco. It’s so much – the premise of Woody’s direction is in the script itself. He says [he’d like to] get out of the way.

What sort of research did you do on your character? Did you immerse yourself in the stories of people who’d been affected by the recent economic downturn? Or did the character come from somewhere else?

CB: Yes, it’s a very contemporary fable…for the moment. That’s a thing of Woody’s. He’s only catering to the zeitgeist – who hasn’t followed the Madoff affair, and the epic nature of that catastrophe? But also catastrophes like it, there’s thousands of them, thousands of stories. But also, there’s a strong line in American drama of women who walk the border between fantasy and reality. Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, and Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. In the end, those reference points, they’re there to be drawn upon and that’s what we did, but these are all such particular women and takes on the universe. In the end, you’re in a Woody Allen film, playing a – he’s created some of the most iconic characters in his films – in the end you have to play that. And he cast it so weirdly!

Peter Sarsgaard: It’s a similar experience for me. I’d heard Woody was interested in me for this movie. My wife was about to give birth –

CB: So you wanted to get out of the house.

PS: Yeah, pretty much. Strangely, there was this guy that I knew that I was researching for a role, who had gone missing in the woods and he died…and I came back the next day, looking for him, got this call – Woody wants to meet you today or tomorrow, it was urgent-feeling. So I went down and I talked to him for about 45 seconds. He asked me what I was doing over the summer, and I said I was having a baby, and he said, ‘Would you like to do a movie?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ I didn’t even know what the movie was. And he sent me my parts, I read them. Then he sent me a formal letter, and I saw him first day on set. For me, it was like – there was so much that I was seeing…this woman seemed so – like she had so much going on. I was seeing someone who looked like they were really on the edge, yet at the same time I’m playing somebody who’s interested in her for some reasons that are not totally deep. In a lot of ways, the lack of information made me play the character in a certain way. I had to play someone who was not interested in reality. Because the reality was that this woman looked like she needed medical help some of the time. If my need to have a partner, a person stand next to me on the red carpet – a kind of first lady – [if] she seemed perfect for that, strong enough – then it all gets kind of justified. So you end up playing your character, or at least I did, in a kind of reverse order. Things start adding up. You go like, I don’t have to deal with that, and I can’t see that, or I have to see that and put it over here. It starts defining who you are. I think Woody picks up on something that’s in you that you can’t change when he casts you. And he knows that’s going to atomically be there. I have no idea what it was with me.

You came to your role in a little bit more of a roundabout way, can you talk about that?

Louis C.K.: Yeah, I got a call that Woody wanted to meet me, so I went. It’s a few blocks from here, his office. I just wanted to meet him, I had very low expectations. I just thought, I’m going to get to meet Woody! And I wanted to meet him before he dies. [laughter]. So that’s what I figured I had coming. So I went to his office, a very nice little office where he’s got pictures of him with Muhammad Ali and all these people through the ages, and I’m looking at that wall and waiting to meet him. His hat was sitting on his table. I’m looking at Woody’s hat that he wears to work. And even if he tells me it’s too busy and I never meet him, it’s worth it!

And then I went in to this room and there he was, and I remember thinking, he looks just like Woody Allen! [laughter]. He was so nice to me. He said, ‘I like your standup, and I know you can act, but I don’t know if you can be this guy, this a very tough guy, a mean, tough guy.’ So I went in the other room and read a scene that he gave me, and I thought, I can’t. I can’t do this guy. I’ve never really been in a fight or anything. I’m big, and I’m not afraid of a lot of people, but I’ve never really been in a fight. I can’t really be this guy, so I’ll read it to myself and not get the part. I wasn’t going to be like, hey…Anyway. I read as me and he went, okay, and I knew I didn’t get the part. Well! It was like one of things where somebody just wants to say, well, that happened that you went there. [laughter].

So I left and I think I cried I was so emotional about it. I just met Woody and he was nice to me and I didn’t get the part and I’ll never see him again. And then I heard that Dice Clay got that part, and I went – I’m so happy he got that, he’s a good guy. And then I got a letter, someone who works for Woody is coming to your house tomorrow with an envelope. And a young woman came to my house, gave me an envelope and said, I have to take this back with me, so you can have it for 40 minutes. And I opened it and it was a letter from Woody, saying you couldn’t be that guy, but here’s another guy you could do. There were three scenes in it and they just made me laugh, and I thought, this guy’s totally a jerk-off and I could totally play him! So he wrote and said please do the part and I wrote back and said yes. That’s how I got the part.

Can you talk a little bit about that – is there something about the art of stand-up and the art of acting that are related?

Andrew Dice Clay: Well, originally I came into stand-up to act. I didn’t really want to go to an acting school, and I figured I would do comedy stages to develop my own method of acting. You know, not every comic can act. The ones who’ve really got chops – when you see somebody like Robin Williams, who could do anything probably, going from silly comedy to playing heavy roles, vulnerable roles…when I got the call that Louie had failed [laughter], when I got that call, I thought my manager was calling. I was here doing a gig at West Ferry, and my manager called and said, ‘Woody wants to meet you tomorrow,’ and I was like, ‘you’re kidding, right? For what?’ He obviously likes the bizarre I play on stage, and he really trusted…he doesn’t give a lot of direction, and I think his direction comes in his casting. He gets as close to the part on the page with the person and then he lets you really work with it. He was very workable on the set, very open to our ideas. Some of the words I would change to fit the way I speak, and he was just great with it. I was just excited to get it. I wasn’t even trying to get in a movie, I wasn’t going for auditions or anything like that. I was just really focused on my stand-up. I could do nothing but sit here and thank him for the opportunity, for giving me that chance to challenge myself a little and do something I haven’t done yet.

As a celebrity and a person who does very different work, do you find yourself courting fame as opposed to being an actress who performs well?

CB: No. I don’t – I haven’t made a movie in a while, so I’ve been out of this environment for actually nearly 6 years. My husband and I run a theater company. So yeah, I didn’t do this [for fame], as much as I enjoy it. It was to work with Woody and these guys. Obviously you do it, and the thing about Woody is that he’s constantly talking about the audience. He’s very aware of how people will – that you don’t do it to get anywhere in particular, you do it for the experience.

Did you draw parallels between this film and A Streetcar Named Desire?

CB: The other actors on set – a lot of whom worked a lot in theater – were talking about the set-up on the film being similar to Streetcar. Obviously the premise isn’t, and in the end it’s a Woody Allen film, the texture, the tone, the rhythm, the character portrayals and details are quintessentially Woody Allen, not Tennessee Williams. He never mentioned it. There are parallels to be drawn.

Playing the part, were you feeling sympathetic and protective toward your character, or [did you think] she was deservingly getting her comeuppance?

CB: I don’t think it’s particularly useful to fall in love with or detest a character. I think that’s up to the audience. I think it’s a bit sentimental – because then you’re not going to present nuance at all. There are plenty of [indistinct] to be presented in Jasmine, but in the end her flaw is tragic. Oedipus, for example, fucks up royally – he married his mother, for god’s sake, but it’s a tragedy because he does it unwittingly. Jasmine, she’s the unwitting agent of her downfall, in a way. What I found the most interesting was – to delve into her – she’s such a – she’s on all these different things, that’s an interesting thing. When is she on Xanax, when she’s had a drink…in the end, it’s the entire cocktail that’s so interesting to play. She’s so riddled with guilt and rage and fear. And then you add the situational aspect, Woody has placed the characters in often absurd situations. The scene where the two of us are in the park is completely absurd. But, you know, you have to play it for – the stakes are high and the situation is real.

PS: Just watching this film, I’m wondering, what’s going on with her, what’s happening? Why is she behaving this way? I particularly was in my own little world. I interacted with almost no one else, and the person I was interacting with it seems might have been unreliable [laughter].

That’s the core of the tragedy, I think, the deception. Either you guys are being deceived or you’re deceiving someone. Even though you guys didn’t see other parts interact, was there something in your life or your experience that you used [for these roles]?

LCK: Well, yeah, my guy is a liar. But he’s just trying to get something. From what I understand, the guy I’m playing works in a stereo store, and meets a very terrific girl who’s married. And he just wants to eke out this little place where he gets to go to hotels and have romantic sex with Sally Hawkins, which I would’ve liked to do [laughter]. I think he’s just trying to make something better out of his life. Most people are really shackled by everything they have to do, so when life gets really – so much not like a dream come true – you go outside of reality. I think that’s why most people deceive, or lie, they’re trying to get outside of reality. You try to say you’re something else, or you try to find someone who’ll believe you, or something else that’s true. I think you can find somebody – I think in most of Woody’s movies everybody’s trying their best, and they’re failing. They’re trying the best that they can at living a life and being a little bit happier than they seem to have been meant to be.

CB: This is what the film actually delves into quite deeply, as Peter was saying before, it what’s you choose not to see. It’s not just people on the Upper East Side, or people with unreal aspirations, it’s also the character of Ginger, played by Sally, she chooses not to see certain aspects of who Jasmine is. So to answer your questions, whether she’s sympathetic or not…it’s very dissimilar, in a lot of ways, to Streetcar. There’s a way of looking at A Streetcar Named Desire where you can say is Blanche a compulsive liar or is the world just set up to stamp out the poetry in her soul? Is there something intensely dysfunctional about the world in which she finds herself? Jasmine doesn’t land in San Francisco with a bunch of people who’ve got their shit together. Everyone has issues, and everyone is fooling themselves to some degree, or wanting to live a fantasy that is other to their daily existence. Jasmine does it to a spectacular extent.

Could you talk a bit about working with Sally Hawkins?

CB: I love her, I absolutely love Sally…she’s a wonderful, wonderful actress, and one of the kindest, most generous actresses…

ADC: Sally’s got this infectious smile, and she’s a very silly person. She lives in the moment a lot. And then, also, she’s extremely dedicated and breaks herself into pieces to get everything right. She works so hard. And then she’s easy to be around. I was really happy [to work with her].

If this film were recast with actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood, who would you imagine as Jasmine?

CB: I was going to say I was optimistic but now I’m probably pessimistic.

Can you talk a little bit about working with Woody – as a comic, were you looking to play a dramatic role or did he bring it out in you?

LCK: I never go out for movies and stuff any more. I have my life in a pretty good rhythm of doing stand-up and then doing my TV show, and I spend time with my kids…so I never really want to go live on someone else’s movie set. And I never get parts, I never go out for stuff. So it came out of nowhere, I had no interest in any of it. I get offered stuff sometimes and I usually just – don’t want to do it. You gotta go live in, like, Shreveport, Louisiana for half the year. I just don’t think that’s worth anything [laughter]. I have custody of my kids for half the time and I want them to count on being with me, so. I just want to say one thing about optimism and pessimism – it’s interesting, I was having a conversation with my kids about it – you know, they say that pessimists see the glass as half empty and the optimists see the glass as half full, and my kids and I figured out that there’s a third kind of person, and I don’t know what you call him, but it’s somebody who sees the glass is always half full of water and half full of nothing. That’s the third kind of person.

Louie, can you talk a little bit about your work on this movie with Woody – did he direct you, did you do any scenes over again? 

LCK: I think you have to have a sense of proportion, you know, and I knew Cate and these guys were making a movie and I was…in it. Woody, I think he tried not to have the focus on me at all. That means that I’m basically doing what I was hired to do. But it was fun, because sometimes – I was happy when he didn’t say anything. Or he cut me and I didn’t cause too much trouble. But then some days…one thing he said – that pause was too long for the audience. And that told me that Woody – the audience is with him. He’s always in the seats watching, because he’s a comedian, he came from that. He tried to help us do it right for the crowd. But he’s very humane about movies. Some people are kind of crazy about how they direct, but I think that he’s really humble, too…that was my experience.

CB: The thing he used to say to me is the audience is boring, you go to the theater. [laughter]

PS: Or – you sound like an actor saying lines. That’s another good one.

CB: I actually found him really forthcoming, in the end. I think there’s an obvious reverence for Woody and his body of work. The danger of that is that the set can become a sacred place where people lay their offerings at his feet. But when you ask him a question he’ll give you an answer. Once you set up that dialogue it became really enjoyable, and he felt free to say – that was awful – and I felt free to say, okay, what are you after, then? I could do that or this, he said, try that. He was forced to direct me!

Were you worried at all?

CB: I was worried.

He’s famous for firing people.

CB: For firing people? You just assume it’s going to happen, you make day 13 and it’s going well, you make day 20 and it’s the end of the movie. Disabled Olympics. [laughter]

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Could you talk a bit about your perception of Cate’s character?

ADC: I didn’t like Cate’s character too much…because I hate the rich. I hate them on film and I hate them in reality. [laughter]. I lived, for a long time, in Beverly Hills and I’m from Brooklyn, and when you talk to people with old money, it’s like you’re an insect to them. So the way she played her character was so perfect, I just hated her [laughter]. She’s great, I couldn’t believe I was working with any them, but she played it just perfect. I had a neighbor just like her. I had such hatred for this woman that when I had to dialogue with Cate that’s all I could think about. That’s how those people are, anybody – what they call new money, they have no respect for those people that come from blue collar, that work their ass off.

LCK: You’ve been rich for like 40 years, though, man.

ADC: No, I’m broke, I was actually going to ask you for a loan today. But you know what I’m talking about. And Louie also comes from that kind of family, where you work your ass off and try to accomplish in life. Then when you come from certain families that maybe things were just handed down to you, like Coca-Cola, you don’t have to work too hard and you look at anybody who didn’t come from that kind of class like dogs.

CB: That’s interesting. I think the interesting thing about the level of delusional fantasy that exists with Ginger as well as Jasmine is that they were adopted into a really middle-class family. Jeanette changed her named to Jasmine and thus began the fiction. She set about creating a fantasy world and inhabiting that reality of the princess.

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Justine Browning
Justine is a film and culture reporter whose work has appeared in USA Today, Indie Wire and The Huffington Post. She currently serves as an on-camera correspondent for MovieWeb and Cine Movie TV.