Joan Allen on the challenges of bringing a near-catatonic character to life in Lisey's Story
There's something therapeutic about being able to just scream at the top of your lungs.
So says Joan Allen while telling EW about a scene she particularly enjoyed filming from a forthcoming episode of her new show, the Stephen King adaptation Lisey's Story. It features the three sisters at the heart of the series, Lisey (Julianne Moore), Darla (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and Amanda (Allen), standing on a table in the rain yelling — really letting all their pain, anger, and frustrations out. "I think we all could stand to be able to get on picnic tables and scream after the year we drew," she says with a laugh.
The moment is a far cry from the version of Amanda shown so far in the first three episodes of the new limited series, streaming now on Apple TV+. In them, a harrowing moment of self-harm seems to put her into a catatonic state, leading to her hospitalization. But really, she's become what the show refers to as "stuck" in the alternate world of Boo'ya Moon, left to sit on its terrifyingly calm shores, unable to leave.
It's a stunning turn from the veteran actress and three-time Oscar nominee, who conveys so much with so few words. Ahead, Allen opens up to EW about how she and series director Pablo Larraín crafted her complex character, what it was like working with the "J sisters," and what viewers can expect from the genre-bending show's remaining episodes.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Lisey's Story has a lot going on and is quite intense. When you were reading the script, what stuck out to you and made you want to sign on for the role of Amanda?
JOAN ALLEN: Well, it is a wild ride. It covers so many different genres of fantasy and suspense and horror, and it's this family story of basically Julianne's character trying to process her grief over the death of her husband. With Stephen King writing it in every genre that he chooses to write in, and the people attached — Pablo Larraín and Julianne and Jennifer and Clive [Owen] — those were very appealing things, and the character was just so out there, and kind of unlike others that I had done in the past, so that also was really appealing.
How did you prepare to play someone in a near catatonic state?
Pablo was very helpful initially. We talked a lot about the role and his vision of her, and prior to shooting, we did some screen tests for a few days before the series started shooting. And Pablo just brought all the different actors in, and he brought me in and had me try different things with the camera, and he kind of would narrate and talk me through what she's seeing, what she's feeling, and that's very helpful. I did do some reading and research and found some YouTube videos about people who are experiencing a catatonic state. There was one in particular that I found that was very helpful. It's actually probably from like the '60s or something. It was in black and white, and there was a psychiatrist interacting with these three gentlemen who were in states of catatonia. That was really helpful to me.
So many of your early scenes in the series are non-verbal. What would be going through your mind in those moments?
I kind of tried to put some sort of little narrative in my mind of what she might be imagining. And at the same time, like I said, even when we were filming, Pablo would be behind the camera, and he often would put those nonverbal things to me, tell me what I was reacting to when, and I just followed his direction.
How would he describe things to you?
Basically, he would talk about the long boy [the monster in Boo'ya Moon], and say when it was coming in, when it was scaring me, but it wasn't only so much things that I was seeing, but he would tell me literally to do things like, "Get up on the bed and start jumping and screaming." And, "Now you're tired and you're confused, so put your head down on the table and stare off to the left." Some of it was very literal.
Did you find it difficult to jump in and out of character?
I was pretty good at jumping in and out. I had to be a little protective of myself before they called action and kind of take myself into the corner a little bit and have a conversation with myself. And I was pretty good. There was one scene, maybe it was the self-harm day, which was really intense. I do remember heading back to my trailer at the end of the day, and just not wanting to speak with anyone. And I just said, "I'm so exhausted tonight." I couldn't help it.
Such a big and special part of this show is the relationship between the sisters. Stephen King called you the "J sisters." How did you and Julianne and Jennifer cultivate that bond?
We felt it pretty quickly. We didn't have a formal rehearsal period, but we did do some table reads for a couple days of the different episodes. I just think that Jennifer, Julianne, and I are obviously in the same age range and have done kind of similar bodies of work in theater and different things. And I think we all just felt pretty comfortable and very admiring and respectful of each other. So it was easy to do. And Julianne is very warm and very conversant. She loves to engage in conversation in between takes, and she's enthusiastic and joyful and kind of infectious in a way. I would say maybe Jennifer and I are a little bit more by nature on the quiet side, but Julianne just brings out this ebullience; she has it. So we all clicked very well and felt very comfortable around each other.
What can fans expect from the remaining episodes?
I can't get into spoilers, but I just think it's an interesting ride between the different worlds that my character goes into in particular, and how things kind of play out with the sisters and Dane DeHaan's character, the crazed fan. There's some interesting things at play there.
You've done so much in your career, whether it's in film, television, or on stage. What did you take away from this particular experience?
I just took a great sense of joy. [I got to] work on something like this with really incredibly talented people and a marvelous director. Pablo directed all of the episodes, so there was a great deal of continuity between each one and the overall vision. It's very exciting to work on something like that. He really is so thorough, and loves actors, and was so clear on how he wanted every detail of the story to be presented. You come home feeling really happy and fortunate to work in this kind of a situation. It's very fulfilling.
Lisey's Story streams new episodes every Friday on Apple TV+.