'I don’t get tons of scripts to be looking at and deciding on in terms of feature films; the industry has changed,' Allen tells EW
After a nearly 40-year career that includes roles on stage and screen, Joan Allen arrived at an unlikely crossroads when choosing her next project. Despite earning three Oscar nominations for performances in The Contender, Nixon, and The Crucible, Allen tells EW that she found herself sifting through offers for film roles that would have afforded her the opportunity to do little more than provide bookend support to much younger male characters.
Declining to fade into the background, Allen followed in the footsteps of Viola Davis, Vera Farmiga, Halle Berry, and Jennifer Lopez as part of the growing number of film stars headlining a fresh crop of female-driven prime-time TV shows. Allen says the complexity of the character was a key factor in her decision to star in The Family as Claire Warren, a city mayor whose missing son mysteriously returns after a decade-long absence. The ABC drama, which debuts Thursday at 9 p.m. ET, hails from frequent Shonda Rhimes collaborator Jenna Bans.
Below, Allen talks about playing the mother of an abducted child in both The Family and indie hit Room, her transition from film to television, and her thoughts on the Hollywood movies that keep growing larger while parts for women get smaller.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The Family is a mysterious show that takes viewers on a suspenseful journey right from the start. When you joined the cast, how much did you know about the entirety of the plot? Did Jenna let you in on all of the its secrets before you finished shooting?
JOAN ALLEN: No. I knew some things, and then she [revealed the rest] on a character need-to-know basis. It was kind of great that way; I felt like I knew what I needed to know, and what the character didn’t know, it was kind of nice not knowing it.
[Jenna] has an uncanny ability to give out a certain amount of information, withhold some, and keep all these things spinning. She and her staff of writers have been able to keep us all intrigued for sure.
How did having or not having all of the pieces to the puzzle impact your performance?
A certain amount of knowledge you need to have in terms of performance choices that you make, because your character may know something, but isn’t letting anybody else know that they know, so you’re basically covering for something, and that is connected to performance. That’s how I approached it, and then I took each individual scene at face value the way that it was written.
The Family is premiering at a time when the nation is focused on the race for President. How do you think Claire, as a politically motivated character, either fits in with or defies the idea most Americans have about politicians and their behavior? Should audiences even be viewing Claire through that lens?
I think it is going to be an interesting year for Claire’s political leanings, especially with everything that is going on right now. My take on her, which has been really fun for me to play, is that she shoots more from the hip in an emotional kind of way. I think she is definitely more conservative than I am by nature, [and] that’s fun to play. Jenna did say in the beginning, “Should she be a Republican or a Democrat?” and I said, “I think a Republican could be more fun and interesting to play.” I’ve looked at a lot of different footage of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, and I’ve looked at other footage of other women mayors across the country to see how they behave and how they act. That’s what I’ve been focusing on, and I think it should be interesting to see how people respond — particularly this year.
How do you get into that headspace of balancing the act of trying to nurture this new son who’s coming back after missing out on all of these years with Claire’s more manipulative qualities? How do you prepare for those two opposing elements of your performance?
I think all of the characters, if they seem manipulative, are really from their own point of view trying to do the best thing they think they can do. I think intentions for most of the characters come from a good, protective, loving place, but the best intentions sometimes can fall flat. Another character can go, “What, you thought you were saving me? You’re killing me!”, you know? I think all the characters are trying in their own way and are damaged in their own way.
The trauma of this boy being taken really shook this family to its roots and changed it forever, and people responded in [survivalist] ways, [trying] to not cave in and die as a result. There are not many things that can happen much worse to a family than having a member taken and not knowing what happened to them. It’s one of the worst things that can happen to a person and to a family, and seeing how all of these characters have responded to that, the gulfs it’s created between them, and the moments where they’re back together [amounts to] a lot of the complexity and layering that Jenna was able to put into the story.
Why do you think we’re seeing more actresses such as yourself and Viola Davis gravitating toward these complex television roles shaped by women?
The movie industry, I think, has really taken a turn and a hit since the recession. There’s more interesting material in television these days, even for men, but really for women. I think the types of stories that are being told on television now are layered and complex, and what I’m getting to do on this TV show I would not get to do in a movie; I’m reveling in that and I’m grateful for it. [The Family] asks more of me as an actor to create and develop, and I feel more engaged and part of it; it’s adult and it’s layered, and a lot of the films coming out now are these huge, big action [films] only. There just aren’t as many stories being told in [more dynamic ways] on the big screen. There are a lot more interesting, complex things happening in television right now.
Meryl Streep once said she was offered three witch roles within a year of turning 40. Was there a film role you were offered that made you say, “You know what, I’m done with this. I’m going to TV”?
For a short period it maybe was more, “Oh, you can be the mother of the kid who’s going off on the adventure.” That’s not being part of the fabric of the story; [that’s] like a bookend, in a way. With fewer independent films or middle-of-the-road films being made — they used to make a lot of films for $15 and $20 million — those [quality roles] are farther and fewer between these days, and there’s just not the opportunity. I don’t get tons of scripts to be looking at and deciding on in terms of feature films; the industry has changed.
Fortunately, with television and streaming and original series online, there’s this whole new thing that has opened up, which I think is fantastic. I think the Brits have always had it right. Judi Dench would be on some EastEnders sitcom, then she’d win the Olivier for something she did on the West End, and then [she’d win] an Oscar. I love the British format where those actors just go between all the mediums, and I am heartened in the States now that there’s good television and there’s a place for it, and really good work can be done there.
Speaking of these smaller movies, I loved your performance in Room, a film in which you also play a mother whose child is abducted and not heard from for years. How did you draw from the experience of playing Nancy in Room to playing Claire in The Family?
[Laughs] Well, there were some similar scenes. Actually, you don’t see my reunification with my daughter in Room; you see after. My reunification with my daughter actually happens off-screen, but with the press all being on the family lawn, there are some similarities in the scenes in terms of the initial setup. But, Room was more of a study of the mother-son relationship in captivity and how somebody reintegrates into life; a 5-year old boy who’s never been in the world and a twentysomething-year-old woman who’s been in captivity for many, many years. While that is part of The Family in terms of [my] son being reunited with the family and everybody trying to figure out how to navigate that, it’s not easy to do.
As joyful as reunification is, it’s a really difficult thing. I don’t know if you remember the Jaycee Dugard story, but she’d been abducted for 17 or 18 years, and I found stuff online from her mother, Terry Probyn, who said you need a lot of help to reunify. It’s hard. As joyful as it seems that everybody is back together, so much time has elapsed, and so much has change has been done; so much trauma has been experienced by everybody, so I feel like we have the tentativeness of reunifying this young man back into the family again, but it also launches us into more and more things as well. Room was more a study of an individual event, and The Family takes off from there.