IAR Exclusive Interview: Corey Stoll Talks 'Midnight in Paris', Hemingway, and Superheroes

Thursday, 25 August 2011 13:39 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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IAR Exclusive Interview: Corey Stoll Talks 'Midnight in Paris', Hemingway, and Superheroes

Summer is, of course, the season for cinematic slugfests centered around robots incomprehensibly beating the robo-piss out of each other, but this year one of the most phenomenal success stories was Midnight in Paris, the latest film from writer-director Woody Allen.  Of the more than forty movies that Allen has created, it is now officially his highest grossing film, having spent the summer consistently on the weekly top ten chart.  Since premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, it has also earned rapturous praise from both critics and audiences, even those inexplicable folks who aren't fans of Allen's work.  This Friday, August 26th, it will again expand to even more theaters; if you have yet to do so, see it immediately.  Then come back to read our exclusive interview with actor Corey Stoll.

The story follows Owen Wilson as Gil, a successful screenwriter visiting Paris with his fiancee (Rachel McAdams) and her parents.  In a wonderful twist of magical realism, Gil, a romantic who is completely taken with city, finds himself nightly visiting the city in the 1920's, where he commiserates with literary and artistic titans of the early 20th Century.

While several Oscar caliber actors portray these familiar figures, Corey Stoll makes the most of his time onscreen and upstages all the rest.  The acclaimed stage actor, who starred on Law and Order: Los Angeles and appeared in Salt and Push, plays modern literary icon Ernest Hemingway.  To act as such a well-known figure is no doubt a daunting task, but Stoll creates onscreen the Hemingway who exists in every reader's imagination, and the result is thrillingly funny and perfectly realized.  It's even surprisingly resonant, as when Stoll owns the movie during a monologue that incorporates seemingly all of the author's favorite themes in hard, spare, perfectly delivered prose.  Corey Stoll was kind enough to talk to IAR in a exclusive interview, discussing the film, it's famous director, his Hemingway research, comedy, and even superheroes.

IAR: So I understand you met Woody Allen after he saw you onstage in a play.  Could you share the story of what happened there?

Corey Stoll: Yeah, I was doing A View From the Bridge with Scarlett Johansson and Liev Schrieber.  They both had a lot of really fancy people who would come backstage, you know, you'd look at the sign-in sheet for who to let back in and every day it was somebody who made me more nervous to do the play.  But I remember before all that started, telling Scarlett, "I don't care who you have come, when Woody Allen comes, you have to introduce me, I have to meet him."  And she said okay.  Then, at one point during the run she told me, "Oh, Woody came last night but he was too shy to come backstage."  So I thought I'd missed my chance.  And then a few weeks later, I was doing my curtain call and I saw Woody Allen in the third row while I was doing it.  I was like, "Oh my god, he came back again."  The next day I got an email that he wanted a meeting.  I didn't know what it was for, there was no material or anything to memorize, it was just a meeting.  And so I showed up and then he said, "Oh, it was good to see you in the play and I'd like you read something," and he handed me that scene from the car.  It was this two page monologue.  He gave me like five minutes to work on it and then read.

Did you have enough familiarity with Hemingway as a writer to have a sense of a voice and a character or was it just going in blind, frantically trying to figure out how to play that in five minutes?

Stoll: I definitely had a sense of Hemingway.  He was one of my favorite writers.  I hadn't read him in awhile, I hadn't thought about him in awhile, and then I read that.  The thing is that the dialogue was just so perfect.  It captured that cadence and that intensity and spare style so brilliantly that it had its own gravitational pull.  I didn't have to conjure up anything, just read the words.  And that was basically the direction that he gave me throughout the shoot.  It was just, "Simpler." "Less."  That's always good direction.

So he's fairly hands off as a director?

Stoll: For the most part, yeah.  Especially for the scenes that are big group scenes, with big hand-held or Steadicam shots with a bunch of people in them, his only real direction is sort of blocking direction.  "You come here, and then you come here, and then the camera will come here, and then you leave."  You'll get one rehearsal and two or three takes and it's absolutely terrifying.  There were a couple scenes, like that one in the car and the one where you first meet Hemingway in the cafe, where he took the time and really had very specific notes, sometimes even down to the line.  I can't do him doing this, but he would occasionally go into this sort of Hemingway riff.  It was still Woody Allen's voice, but it was sort of, you know, "And then I did this, and then I did that."  It was hilarious.

It's quite a mental image, Allen doing Hemingway.  In your approach to this, were you trying to create a biographically accurate image of Hemingway or was it more of an almost cartoon version of him for the film?

Stoll: Well, I was trying to sort of shoot for between those two.  After I got the part, I asked for any sort of suggestions for research and he said to read Green Hills of Africa.  He even was sort of specific enough to say, "Don't listen to his voice and don't read biographies.  It should be about the writing and not the man."  I thought that was really, it was very smart, because I did read biographical stuff.  There's very little recording of his voice, but on YouTube, I think, there was him accepting the Nobel Prize and it was shockingly lispy and almost, like, weak, his voice.  So I clearly was not going to even attempt to do that, because that's not the image.  And that's the thing.  I think Woody Allen wanted all of these characters to sort of be the projection that the read has of these figures from reading their work and reading about them.  It's a fantasy and it's not a biopic.  So I had a few months and I just read and read and read and read to the point where I became pretty obsessed with Hemingway and trying to read anything else just seemed fluffy and baroque and silly.  Then, I sort of forgot I was doing a comedy and I showed up on set and I actually think that was good for me, that it made the part easier to play because he doesn't know, the character doesn't know he's in a comedy.  I think I learned a lot going forward in doing comedy in terms of where you put your focus and sort of honestly portraying the character, maybe even a little a bit too seriously can often be really.

It's really interesting that he chose Green Hills of Africa as a specific text for you to read.  What do you think it was about that book in particular that he wanted to impart to you?

Stoll: It covered any sort of biographical thing, because it is supposedly non-fiction, but it's also the most over the top macho of his work.  It's past his more literary early phase where he was still all about discovering this new style and had his first few sort of loss of innocence stories in The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms.  He was sort of in his full, almost icon of masculinity.  The whole book is about proving to himself and the reader just how ridiculously masculine he is.  I think that's what it is.  It's a lot of his best writing, but just a little overripe.  You know, just a little too Hemingway.

I understand that nobody other than Owen Wilson had a full copy of the script.

Stoll: Yeah.

Was that helpful for you, especially since you felt like you sort of forgot it was a comedy?  Did it help?

Stoll: Yeah, I think so.  I think for some of the other characters whose lives sort of continue throughout the movie, it may have been more difficult.  For me, especially because it was playing such a self-centered, narcissistic, egotistical person – the rest of the world doesn't really exist once he's not there –  I think that's helpful.  Normally, in a part, you're trying to get as much of a holistic sense of what the piece is that you're doing, but I think when you're playing somebody who is comically self-absorbed, it doesn't hurt to just focus on your own thing.

I talked to Michael Sheen, and he said it was helpful because he didn't have to play it with any subtext or motivation beyond what was right there.

Stoll: Right, right.  That's great.

How long were you actually in Paris shooting this part?

Stoll: I was there for like three weeks.  I had a lot of free time, which was fantastic.

Did that help you get into the expatriate mindset at all?

Stoll: Absolutely.  My girlfriend and I – and actually my parents showed up, which was actually a lot of fun – we went on four or five different walking tours.  There was like a Hemingway walking tour and a lost generation walking tour and she went on that with me and was actually quite upset when she realized it was still mostly about Hemingway. [laughs]  At a certain point, I was there by myself and would just take long walks by myself.  I got a little ridiculously into it, but I would listen to John Slattery's reading of A Farewell to Arms, the audiobook as I took epic walks through Paris.

That's awesome.

Stoll: Yeah, it's somewhat too too.  It's a little masturbatory in terms of getting into the whole thing, but I think a lot of why the movie is being so well received is because so many people share that fantasy and that romanticism for that city and that sort of state of being, that independent romantic worldview.

As you said, the movie's been insanely well-received.  When I saw it, I had seen you before on Law and Order: LA, but had no idea that it was you in the movie.  It didn't compute for me at the time.  Have you found, with the movie's success, that's leading to opportunities for people to see as a character who's not like Tomas Jaruszalski?  Has that been happening so far?

Stoll: Yeah, no, absolutely.  Absolutely.  I definitely think it's opened up the way people see me.  In theater, people are expecting transformation, and so I've always been more of a sort of a leading man in theater than I have in film and television.  I mean I hate to...those distinctions between leading man and character actor, I think, are really old-fashioned and don't really mean anything anymore, but I still think that often there is this sense of, "Okay, well, you can either be this sort of blue collar-y cop or robber or you're somebody who can be romantic or something."  Hopefully, and already in the meetings I've had, the way people have been looking to cast me, it's opening up, which is fantastic.  And also just in terms of, even though my character had a great sense of humor in Law and Order, there is this sense, often, that there's people who can be funny and then there's people who can't.  I think I showed that I can be funny, hopefully.

I read in an interview that though you're interesting in continuing to make movies aimed at adults, you'd also be interested in appearing in a superhero movie.  So often there's a reluctance to engage with genre material, and I was curious where that impulse comes from for you and if there's any specific superhero for you?

Stoll: [Laughs] Well, I sort of feel like all the superheroes have been taken at this point.  They're going down the list now, to the C-list and D-list superheroes.  But you know, when I was a kid, I was super-into comic books.  In fact, my little sort of scrapbook-wall when I was a kid, there was Spider-Man right next to Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese.  So I was both sort of a film nerd and a comic book geek and, you know, like everybody in my generation, really into Star Wars.  I sort of started reading comic books after Frank Miller and Alan Moore had sort of broken open that superhero thing where it wasn't just about primary colors and guys slugging it out.  There was some real psychological depth and I think, in some ways, the types of stories and the types of characters were opened up in a way in comic books that they weren't in most popular films, actually.  And I think there was a complexity and a darkness to a lot of those things that I really related to, that you could only really find in, like, Scorsese movies.  So I still really feel connected to that stuff, even though I don't read comic books as much as a used to.  It was a combination of incredibly fun stories, but also with the possibility of having some psychological depth and I think the better superhero movies have that.  Certainly like Michael Fassbender in the latest X-Men, that's a performance that could be in any movie and would hold up, not just a superhero movie.

Dr. Stange.  I think Doctor Strange could be your guy.

Stoll: Oh, yeah, yeah.  I would love that.  I'm not as familiar with him, but I've read a few.

Midnight in Paris expands on Friday, August 26th.  See it post haste.  For reals.

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