The words froze Joan Allen. Here she was, doing her best on the set of The Ice Storm, the intense, critically hailed case study of how the swinging ’60s trickled down to the confines of 1973 suburban Connecticut. In character as a cheated-on housewife, she’d turned her head to signal boiling anger, and director Ang Lee cut her down with the words she most fears: too dramatic.
She tried it again and got it right. But inside, she says, she crumpled. ”I always think things are my fault,” confesses Allen, 41. ”I didn’t do films until my late 20s. I was so entrenched in theater, I didn’t know how to act in front of a camera. I tend to feel I’m the one not up to speed.”
Most of Hollywood would dispute that contention. In the last two years, Allen has earned consecutive Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress by articulating the pain of two unhappy wives: Plastic Pat in Nixon and prim Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible. Before that, she’d had practice playing mates of all sorts, including turns opposite Liam Neeson in Ethan Frome and Joe Mantegna in Searching for Bobby Fischer.
And it was her spouse-heavy résumé that landed Allen opposite John Travolta and Nicolas Cage in this summer’s $111 million-grossing hit Face/Off. She got the part without auditioning — ”a career first,” she says — and received her highest salary to date. ”I didn’t get seven figures,” she confides (Cage was paid $6 million to $7 million; Travolta reportedly pulled down more than $15 million). ”But relative to what I’m used to, I was grateful. John asked me one day, ‘They payin’ ya well on this one, Joan?’ I said, ‘For me, yes!”’
Now her frosty turn as Ice Storm’s matriarch is likely to propel Allen once more to the Shrine Auditorium, though she expects that even if Oscar beckons, she’ll wind up a bridesmaid again. ”It’s about promotion, and it’s political,” says Allen. ”I mean, sending Nixon to Academy members’ homes on videotape was only so helpful. A movie that long is a big commitment. And it was about a guy in history that not many people liked.” Allen’s Crucible chances, of course, were flattened by The English Patient’s sweep.
If she does get another chance at a statuette, Allen can count on director Lee’s vote. He’s still awestruck describing the day he put her through 13 takes of a tense bathroom confrontation with Kevin Kline, who plays her philandering husband. ”Most actors, they’re like boxers,” says Lee. ”They become nasty before big scenes. You can’t even talk with them because they’re honing all day. Not Joan. She showed no trace of preparation. I gave her a cue, and she was right there, shaking with emotion … I never directed a scene like that where I had wet eyes. I was wrecked.”
As for the leading lady, ”she walked away calm,” says Lee. ”I don’t know where that power comes from.”
On this particular day in Manhattan, however, the powerhouse actress looks in need of a recharge as she perches on the edge of a sofa, nursing an iced decaf latte at a hipster coffee shop called Drip. In the flesh, she seems as mild as the milky brew she’s sipping. Wearing dowdy pants, a pullover top, and no makeup, she’s almost alarmingly pale. This unglamorous bent, in fact, got her in trouble on the set of Face/Off. Director John Woo decided that a quiet dinner scene should be spiced up by having Travolta — who elucidated the sensual glories of foot massages in Pulp Fiction — give one to Allen.