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Joan Allen

August 19th, 2008 · 7 Comments


Joan Allen was born August 20, 1956 in Rochelle, Illinois. Her father was a gas station owner, her mother a homemaker. Attending Rochelle Township High School, Allen described herself as “shy but desperate to meet boys.” Her sister suggested Allen try out for the cheerleading team. She was not accepted. Allen auditioned for a play instead and won a part. “I think the cheerleading thing was a way of performing. There was the boy element, but more important was the performance element. Once I got to high school and auditioned for a play and got in, I thought this was really what I was looking for.” The left-handed Allen was also an honor roll student and “played the cello badly.”

Following her sister to Eastern Illinois University, Allen met a drama student named John Malkovich. After he graduated, Malkovich launched the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, performing plays in a church basement on the northside of Chicago. When Allen transferred to Northern Illinois University her junior year, Malkovich asked her to join the group. She accepted, and found less inclination to finish school, dropping out a few credits short of a degree. Allen found work as a secretary while performing with Steppenwolf. When their production of And A Nightingale Sang opened on Broadway in 1983, Allen landed an agent, who sent her on auditions for TV and film.


Allen credited her career to John Malkovich. “I can’t think what I would have done if I hadn’t met him. I wasn’t one of those kids who was like, ‘Get me to New York. Get me to a big city.’ I was always much more shy. All I knew was that I loved to act. But I don’t know about the other part of it. I’m not sure I had the chutzpah to go and prove yourself.” In 1985, Michael Mann cast her in the pivotal supporting role of a blind woman who unknowingly becomes drawn to a serial killer in Manhunter. Roles in Tucker: The Man and His Dream and Searching For Bobby Fischer followed, but Allen’s greatest success remained on stage, winning a Tony Award for the 1987 production Burn This.

In 1995 – once her peers in Hollywood got a look at her performance as Pat Nixon in Nixon – Allen was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She shot to the top of casting lists, playing the wife of John Travolta in Face/Off, Kevin Kline in The Ice Storm and William H. Macy in Pleasantville. Film critic Rod Lurie, who wanted to be a filmmaker, also took notice. With Allen in mind, Lurie wrote a script about a female vice presidential candidate whose sex life becomes public debate. Released in 2000, The Contender resulted in Allen’s third Oscar nomination in a five year span, this time for Best Actress.


Currently a single parent raising a daughter born in 1994, Allen has focused on film and TV work for the last fifteen years. Her eclectic taste has led to roles as a lovably bitter alcoholic in The Upside of Anger (2005), Rachel McAdams’ interfering mother in The Notebook (2004), a benevolent spymaster in The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), a sorceress in TNT’s mini-series The Mists of Avalon (2001), and martyred Irish journalist Veronica Guerin in When the Sky Falls (2000). She hosted Saturday Night Live in November 1998, performing sketches with Will Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer, and has been a presenter at the Tony Awards.

Allen has spent years trying to set up a comedy called Pushers Needed, about working class women in Dublin who push wheelchairs for the cripples going to Lords. Despite interest from Claire Daines, Kathy Bates and Maggie Smith, Allen has been unable to secure financing. When asked in a 2005 interview about her status as a star, Allen responded: “I’m hard to pin down. I tend to look different in films. But I just live my life. I get on the bus, I get on the subway, it’s not a problem. I think of myself more as a character actor than that ingénue leading lady, who started out something like Michelle Pfeiffer, or Jessica Lange. I’m a bit quirkier than that.”


© Joe Valdez

Photo courtesy of Wisdom Digital Media at Broadway

Mad props to Aaron Valdez for designing the United Federation of Character Actors shield.

Tags: United Federation of Character Actors

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mrs. Thuro's Mom // Aug 20, 2008 at 12:07 am

    I never thought of Joan Allen as a character actor, but it is interesting to know that that is how she sees herself. She was great in “Pleasantville” and “The Mists of Avalon”. I seriously need to add “The Contender” to my queue. Thanks for the great info on a wonderful actress who, despite 3 Oscar noms, does not get the credit that she deserves. (What on earth possessed her to do “Death Race”?!!!)

    Oh, I forgot to mention that she had a great supporting role in “Peggy Sue Got Married”.

  • 2 Joseph R. Valdez // Aug 20, 2008 at 7:29 am

    Bravo!! Long overdue this indepth look at the “character actor” , who often provides sorely needed character, meaning flavor, style, and substance to the director’s film.

    Look forward to seeing more characters on this site.

    Keep on writing and reviewing!

  • 3 Daniel // Aug 21, 2008 at 11:26 am

    This is awesome, Joe. Maybe you’ll eventually be able to get input from the actors themselves on these!

  • 4 Marilyn // Aug 27, 2008 at 11:39 am

    This is really a wonderful feature, Joe. Congratulations on this great asset to the film blogging world.

    I do think Allen is a good actress who has really made her mark, but something she said kind of stuck in my craw – that she considered herself a film actress and would NEVER go back to the stage. Now, Steppenwolf/Malkovich nourished her, but she would never perform there again?OK, not many of the original ensemble show up on its boards more than every few years BUT they still show up.

    I’m also a little upset with Steppenwolf for continuing to publicize her as an ensemble member – obviously to rub a bit of shine off her apple. I wrote to them about it, but they never replied.

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Aug 27, 2008 at 6:04 pm

    Mrs. Thuro’s Mom: Thanks for commenting. While almost every actor or actress could be considered a “character actor,” for me the term extends to anyone whose face you recognize but their name escapes you, usually because it isn’t found over the title or the actor does not embrace celebrity, yet does great work almost every time out. Yeah, I’m bewildered about Death Race myself, but I haven’t read the script. Maybe Allen saw something she liked. Then again, maybe she’s remodeling her kitchen.

    Dad: Joan Allen is the only actress I can think of who started her film career by playing mothers. She missed out totally on an ingénue phase and her work has a much greater nobility as a result. Thanks for the props! The next edition of the United Federation of Character Actors has already been written and will be posted by month’s end.

    Daniel: I’m glad you dig the feature. That means a lot coming from someone who produces consistently good content on his site. I’ll see if I can keep it going. I don’t know about getting feedback from a for-real actor though. I would think that surfing the web or sitting alone in front of a computer for five minutes would be the antithesis of what makes an actor successful in the first place. Maybe they can be computer geeks like the rest of us. I’ll pass along any celebrity encounters.

    Marilyn: I’ve heard of letters-to-the-editor, but never letters to Steppenwolf. That is very cool what you did! I’m always pleased to read about people who didn’t grow up in New York or L.A. with all sorts of connections to the film industry and on the basis of talent and luck, succeeded anyway. Thanks as always for your support and terrific comments.

  • 6 Jeremy // Sep 6, 2008 at 8:26 pm

    She’s so comanding and sublime in everything she does. My favorite is THE ICE STORM as I think her performance is one of the best essays on middle age angst ever brought to the screen.

  • 7 AR // Sep 18, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    Weird. I always forget how many films I’ve seen her in. For instance, I had forgotten that she was the blind girl in Manhunter. Her scenes, I would say, are my favorite in the film, but her name/face never registered.
    I do always recall that she was in Pleasantville, but I’ve seen that one a few times. She’s so wonderful in it, too.

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