Always the bride 

Joan Allen escapes typecasting and lands a bad-girl role

If the fanciful '50s parable Pleasantville helped bring one phase of Joan Allen's movie career to a fitting flourish, so was it responsible for enabling her to embark in a different direction (at long last). An original member of John Malkovich and Gary Sinise's renowned Steppenwolf theater company in Chicago, Allen later made a name for herself on Broadway, with a knack for playing fiercely independent women -- winning a Tony Award for her star turn in Lanford Wilson's Burn This, and scoring another nomination as the lead in Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles. But her niche on screen has been decidedly more subservient and domesticated.

"Yeah, with a lot of the films I've done, if you had to describe each of my characters in one sentence, you'd automatically begin by describing them as some other character's wife or mother," the actress acknowledges with a smile during a recent interview. To wit: She was Liam Neeson's wife in Ethan Frome, John Travolta's in Face/Off, Kevin Kline's in The Ice Storm and, as richly as she deserved those Oscar nominations for Nixon and The Crucible, she was still pretty much playing wife to Anthony Hopkins and Daniel Day-Lewis.

Allen, 44, notes: "I don't have to tell you Hollywood is very youth-driven. Most of the time, they're just targeting the crowd that's going to see Bring It On or whatever. It's hard. There just aren't that many interesting roles for women in their 40s. Plus, inasmuch as movies are a reflection of society, a lot of women out there are married with children, so when you're an actress my age, it's kind of common to find yourself in that position. The trick for me was always trying to make sure they were different types of wives and mothers, at least, in different types of dramatic situations."

Who better or more experienced, then, to epitomize Pleasantville 's Donna Reedian wife and mother than Allen? Indeed, the film was something of a culmination for the actress, who admits, "I decided after that to declare a moratorium on any more of those roles." The performance also nabbed her an award from the Los Angeles Film Critics -- which, in turn, introduced Allen to Rod Lurie, who presented it to her. At the time a movie critic for Los Angeles magazine, Lurie was also an aspiring filmmaker who took Allen aside after the ceremony to say he was writing a juicy part for her in his new script.

In Lurie's bristling political drama The Contender (opening Oct. 13), Allen plays Laine Hanson, a woman who's very incidentally someone else's wife and mother. Much more importantly, she's a liberal U.S. Senator tapped by the president (Jeff Bridges) to fill the vacancy left by his recently deceased vice president. Among the proverbial hurdles in their way is the disgruntled old-guard conservative (Gary Oldman) presiding over her confirmation hearing, not to mention the pesky matter of a possible sex scandal lurking in Hanson's past.

"It's incredibly flattering and something I've never experienced before, where somebody wrote a part for me and believed in me so strongly that he only wanted me to do it. I was just grateful for the opportunity to finally branch out a little. I think Rod wanted to see me try some things I'd never been given the chance to try before. It's why he emphasized the sexuality of the character, because he felt he really hadn't seen that in any of my other films. It's why he purposely brought an athleticism to her. I mean, when was the last time you saw me jogging or playing basketball in a movie?" the actress says.

Allen's "moratorium" continues. In her next film, When the Sky Falls (due out later this year), she portrays the late Irish journalist Veronica Guerin. And she recently completed a mini-series for TNT, the medieval epic "Mists of Avalon." "I got to play a really wicked character in that one, and I had a blast," Allen gushes. "A lot of times, my characters are referred to as the strong moral center of the piece. I suppose that's true of The Contender and When the Sky Falls, too, so I was thrilled to get the call about the mini-series, because nobody ever sees me as the bad girl."

That there might be some right-wing moviegoers who will consider The Contender's Laine Hanson to be one such "bad girl" makes Allen laugh. "I'd never thought of that," she says. "I'm interested to see how middle-America responds to the film, but all this time I've been worried that maybe they wouldn't respond. Maybe I should be more concerned that they'll respond to the Gary Oldman character instead."

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