As you get older, you find that the years start to take on a familiar rhythm: New Year, Valentine’s Day, the clocks go forward, Marks and Spencers release their best/worst figures ever, local news programmes film teenagers opening their A level results, the clocks go back, and finally Woody Allen releases his latest movie. At that point every year the critics dust off the phrase “a return to form” then put it back in the drawer again, and those of us whose love for Woody goes back to the 70s and 80s troop off hopefully to the cinema as if for a rendezvous with an old flame we found on Facebook. But for me at least, this year’s Woody will be different. Because I’m in it.
I’ve always loved Woody Allen. It’s not just that I owe him bigtime for persuading the world that short funny-looking Jewish men can be sexy. It’s also because his early films catalogued every single one of my neuroses – women, death, pigeons (“rats with wings” – see “Manhattan”), sex, women, my mother, women, and so on. It was Woody who made me want to become a comedian and writer of funnies. My most burning ambition has always been to appear in one of his films. And then last year it finally happened: Woody was making his second film in London (it’s the new New York, apparently) and would I like to be seen for a part?
Auditioning for Woody feels more like auditioning for the secret service than for a movie. You’re not told the title of the film: it was referred to simply as “WASP” (Woody Allen Summer Project). Nor do you get to read the whole script – just your speeches ten minutes or so before the audition. The stage directions and other speeches are all mysteriously tippexed out. It feels a bit like being in a Dan Brown novel – Opus Dei with gags.
Woody wasn’t there himself (auditions for smaller roles are often recorded for the director on camera), but I knew that my obsession with him was more likely to get me a restraining order than a part. So I played it cool, dismissive even – “Woody who?”. I was so intent on my cover-up I forgot to be nervous and, foolishly, he gave me a role in his film.
I arrived at the location convinced they’d soon realise they’d invited a stalker on set, but it quickly became clear that all the other actors (Richard Briers, Meera Syal, even Ian McShane who was playing the lead) felt exactly the same. Woody has a reputation for being a very private, obsessively shy man who finds it hard to even say hello on set. He also has a reputation for sacking people without telling them – you just turn up to find someone else playing your part, put two and two together and order your own minicab home. All this was going through our heads as we waited backstage to do our bit, greeting those who’d gone before us as they came off set. One actress came back in career meltdown because Woody had corrected her pronunciation of “Heimlich manoeuvre”. I suspect she now works as a dinner lady. Another actor returned traumatized after his first ever panic sweat had necessitated two changes of clothing and a hastily improvised perspiration gag.
And then it was my turn. I walked onto set, trying to stay focused – mustn’t seem weird, must act natural, mustn’t get sacked – and there he was, standing right beside me. Without thinking I lunged at him, grabbed hold of his hand and shook it vigourously. This would have been bold under any circumstances, however I’d just removed a plaster from the palm of my hand which was protecting a blister I’d got from too much IKEA flatpack allen-key action the day before. This had left a sticky, plaster-shaped residue on my skin which I’m sure gave the handshake a slightly gluey, suction-pad quality. There might even have been a slight vacuum-seal-opening noise as we parted hands. Had Woody, this uberneurotic, felt the sticky plasteriness? Had he heard the noise or seen the slightly suppurating blister on my palm? Would he sack me? Would our relationship, destined for such great things, ever recover from this traumatic beginning? Thankfully, I can’t remember his exact reaction but I think he looked genuinely taken aback, as if I’d just asked him about Mia Farrow’s toilet habits. I made an agonised retreat before he could call security and took my position on set.
The thing about Woody Allen “in the flesh” is that he looks so ridiculously like Woody Allen. It’s such an iconic face, you can’t quite believe it’s real. It’s a bit like meeting the real Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny. And as for that New York accent! I wanted to tell him to tone it down as it was such an over-the-top Woody Allen impression it just wasn’t believable. Luckily, I didn’t. I just did my two lines, he gave me some direction, I did them again, he said he was happy and I stepped off the set, pausing only to tell him I was the friend he’d been looking for all his life and I didn’t want an exclusive relationship, he could have other friends but I’d be his main one, forget about Soon-Yi, it’s me he should spend all his time with, me. Of course I didn’t say any of that. I just smiled and nodded. He smiled back and said “thank you”, proving that he is, after all, a normal person, and I left the set, making sure that this time I didn’t shake his hand.
I learnt a lot that day. Firstly, never expose a weeping blister before shaking someone’s hand. Then there was the atmosphere on set. On most film sets, there’s a lot of joshing and mucking about in between takes, but there was none of that on Woody’s set – after all, who’s going to try and make a joke in front of Woody Allen? Instead, everyone went about their work with the sort of hushed reverence you adopt when you visit a cathedral on holiday wearing your shorts. We knew we were worshipping at the altar of Funny and that the Divine Presence was amongst us.
And then there was the man himself. After 16 years in “the business”, you can get to think you know pretty much all there is to know about how comedy works. But that one bit of direction from Woody, telling me to stress a slightly less obvious word in the gag He’d written at His computer, reminded me that while most of us are still celebrating inventing the comedy equivalent of the Wright Brothers flying machine, Woody’s planted his flag on the moon. OK, he’s had a few setbacks lately, but then so has NASA, and even if his films aren’t quite what they used to be, there’ll still be at least 5 or 6 jokes in every one that are better than any other jokes you’ll see at the cinema.
A couple of months ago my agent rang and told me they’d had to cut my scene from the film (could it have been the handshake?). So strictly speaking, I’m not actually in it any more. Of course I’m disappointed but I got a nice bag as a gift and a framed cast-list with my name just 14 lines below Woody’s. Plus I’ve still got that slightly mad, cross-the-road-to-avoid-me stalker’s stare whenever I talk about working with Woody – and that’s something no-one can ever take away from me.
First published in The Sunday Telegraph
I wrote this in 2005. The film, “Scoop”, didn’t even get a release in the UK but I did get a nice bag as a gift from the production. My cat regularly wees on it (Everyone’s a critic).