It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

It seemed like a good idea at the time: I would shake hands with Woody Allen.

Twenty years ago, I came thisclose to being cast in one of his films. The one called Everyone Says I Love YouThe part that would be played in the end by Drew Barrymore. I didn’t know any of that at the time–  Woody Allen is well known for being stingy with the details while holding auditions, even for famous actors. But I knew it was a big part, a great part, by the sound of my agent’s voice when he called to let me know that after Mr. Allen viewed my taped reading of a scene with his casting director– one in which I had successfully burst into tears at just the right moment– he had requested an in-person meeting the next day at his offices.

I hung my voluminous Ann Taylor floral dress on the back of the bathroom door so it would get a little extra steam while I showered the next morning.

penelopecruz1994This is not me in said dress, but rather Penelope Cruz in a very similar dress, circa 1994. You may know Penelope Cruz from her work in several Woody Allen films. Unlike some other people. Which is neither here nor there. The point is, this was my “Meet Woody Allen” look, because it was the same dress I had worn to the previous rounds of auditions, and I was pretty happy with it. I hung that dress up on the bathroom door, and boom, I was ready. I had no scenes to prepare because Woody Allen doesn’t let copies of his work out of the casting office. I just had to wait for the next day.

Then my phone rang. It was the casting director. “I’m calling to give you some advice, sweetheart,” she said. Now, I should point out that this almost never happens. Casting directors work through agents; they don’t want a personal relationship with actors to whom they will almost always be giving disappointing news. “Before tomorrow, I just want to let you know,” she said, “that Mr. Allen can be a little– off-putting. He might behave in ways that you might not expect. And I want that not to bother you. You just come in and do what you did for me, okay?”

“Sure!” I said. “No, of course!” I hung up the phone absolutely thrilled. The casting director was pulling for me! She wanted me! She had called me at home to say so! What was that she had said again? Whatever!

The next day I waited with several other auditioners in a hallway jauntily decorated with film cans. We eyed each other warily. I took deep breaths. After about half an hour, I was called in to a room the size of a grade-school gym. There were three or four other people there behind a long table (not unusual for a final casting session). But my eyes were only on Woody Allen, who approached me and stopped a few steps away. “My casting director tells me,” he said, looking alternately at the floor and my left elbow, “that you might be right for a part in my film, and I’m wondering if you’d like to read for me today.”

“Sure!” I said. “No, of course!” He nodded, turned away. I was handed a scene to study and escorted out of the room. There it was– the unexpected moment I had been warned about. What an adorable, sweetly odd little custom, right? I didn’t know why the casting director thought that was worth a late night warning call, but it didn’t matter– I had reacted appropriately.

Back to the hallway I went. Half an hour later, I go back in, nervous but not panicked. I’d already met him, and it had gone perfectly well as far as I could tell. This time, the casting director approached me and steered me towards one of two folding chairs. She took the other. We sat there for a moment. I looked to Woody Allen, waiting for him to give the usual bit of advice, the “Do you have any questions?” pleasantries.  He did not look up from the papers on his desk.

“Let’s read the scene,” the casting director said, gently bringing me back to the matter at hand. It was the same scene I had read with her at earlier auditions: the one where I had to cry and say I wasn’t sure I wanted to get married after all.

“I need to talk to you,” I said. (I had the first line.) At that point, Woody Allen got up and walked away from us, away from the casting table, and over to a far, far corner of a room. He sat down in a comfortable chair that was apparently awaiting this purpose.  He looked down at his folded hands in his lap.

The casting director was saying her line, but I wasn’t listening. WHAT WAS HAPPENING. I was auditioning for a film. Film directors sit as closely as possible to watch you audition, study your face like they’re memorizing it. Directors don’t sit that far away when they’re casting Rose Day Parades. Was I supposed to project so he could hear me all the way over there?  Was he even paying attention? Was this a test?

My mouth was saying the lines, the part where I was supposed to break down sobbing, but my eyes were looking into the casting director’s, saying What the hell is he doing over there? Her eyes looked back at me, saying, Come on, kid. I warned you. You’re blowing it.  We finished the scene. My eyes were dry.

The room was silent for a moment. I looked back to Mr. Allen. If I were lucky, he’d say, “Okay, let’s try that again, and this time, could you…” If he’d seen enough– for better or worse– he’d say, “Okay, very nice, thank you for coming in.”

He said nothing. He got up and crossed the room toward me. I stood as he approached, waiting for the verdict. I knew I hadn’t done my best work. This was probably the end of the line for me, but by gosh, I had met Woody Allen, and that was pretty cool.

He was in front of me now. He held out his hand. How kind, I thought. He’s really quite approachable, once you meet him.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, to return the gesture. To shake Woody Allen’s hand.  But when I reached out my own hand, he stepped back. Stopped. Looked me dead in the eyes at last.

“No,” he said. “I want my scene back.”


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