- The Washington Times - Friday, May 3, 2002

NEW YORK — As a rule, the audition has no relevance to the casting process in a Woody Allen movie. Actors desired for principal roles by the writer-director are informed of their good fortune. There are no rehearsals. Unless the actors have roles that need to be sustained from fade-in to fade-out, more or less, they are unlikely to see a script in advance. Even when production starts, they may be privy only to the pages of the script for their own scenes.

While promoting Mr. Allen's new comedy, "Hollywood Ending," actors Mark Rydell, Debra Messing, Tea Leoni and George Hamilton offered impressions of what's it like to work as part of an Allen ensemble. Their consensus: The experience is very gratifying but arouses doubt and insecurity in the early stages.

Mr. Rydell, two years Mr. Allen's senior at 68, is also a native New Yorker and part-time jazz enthusiast. (He plays piano rather than clarinet and doesn't confine himself to the Dixieland idiom.) Trained as an actor in New York during the early 1950s, Mr. Rydell was a six-season regular on "As the World Turns" during his youth.

He gravitated toward directing and in the early 1960s migrated to Hollywood, where he was on the staffs of "Ben Casey," "I Spy" and "Gunsmoke" before making a successful shift to features at the end of the decade with "The Fox" and "The Reivers." He acts occasionally but devotes most of his time to his own directing projects.

Mr. Rydell had been approached about roles in earlier Allen movies, but timing conflicts had ruled out those possibilities. He plays the most lovable character in "Hollywood Ending," a cherubic agent so devoted to the comeback of Mr. Allen as director Val Waxman that he helps conceal a little problem when Val gets a new project. Val suffers a sudden attack of "psychosomatic blindness" on the eve of production.

Mr. Rydell says his methods and Mr. Allen's are "antithetical." When preparing a movie, "I'll take the cast and sit down at a rehearsal table for two weeks," he says. "I'll evaluate every moment, set goals for everybody, individually and collectively. I might take the cast to locations in advance, to get a feel for the settings."

He was one of the privileged few who was permitted a whole script. "A messenger showed up at my house with the script," he recalls. "When he kept standing there, I asked if there was anything I could do for him. He said he needed to return it as soon as I finished reading it. So I sat down, read the script and returned it so he could leave."

Mr. Rydell also felt he needed to take Mr. Allen a little by surprise to get into the spirit of his character, the big-hearted Al Hack. "I'm clearly playing someone who's an old, old friend who cares what happens to Val," Mr. Rydell explains. "But Woody is generally kind of reserved and withdrawn. We hadn't rehearsed, so I thought, how can I begin to play this?

"I decided to force myself on him. When I entered the set the first time, I embraced him. Looking over his shoulder, I could see all these crew members who were slightly horrified at my audacity. I told him, 'We must be the only people here who have 100 years of psychoanalysis between us.' Which is absolutely true. It broke the ice, and I kept forcing myself on him."

•••

Miss Messing, co-star of the "Will & Grace" TV series, is cast as Val's blithe girlfriend, an aspiring starlet named Lori. She had played a small role in Mr. Allen's "Celebrity," so the idea of a second summons took her completely by surprise. "I thought that had been the fulfillment of my Woody Allen dream," she says.

Because Miss Messing was not allowed to see the script in advance, she began virtually without a clue when she joined the company, which had been shooting for a couple of weeks.

"I started to have a panic meltdown," she says. "I didn't know what the film was about. I didn't know the tone. I didn't have any context for my character. Woody had said all I needed to keep in mind was that she needed to be bigger than life. If she was too naturalistic, she might seem hateful, and it wouldn't work."

Miss Messing pleaded with Miss Leoni, who possessed a complete script, for some girl-to-girl guidance. She was advised that the first four days would seem bewildering and hopeless. By the fifth, Mr. Allen would begin to offer some minimal direction, and the skies would clear.

"Lo and behold, that's pretty much what happened," Miss Messing says. "I played four different Loris on the first four days. I had no idea what was acceptable. On the fifth, Woody came up to me and said something that sounded like 'broda.' I figured it out after a few repetitions: 'Broader.'

"Soon after, I earned another nugget: 'Better.' By the time my mind and body were changing so much I thought I was doing a kind of Kabuki Lori, Woody said, 'You've just found the character.' I thought we'd go back and shoot the first four days, but he said, 'No, it doesn't matter. I saw the dailies, and it'll work.'"

•••

Miss Leoni is cast as Ellie, Val Waxman's ex-wife, who is now the consort and trusted associate of a studio boss played by Treat Williams. Ellie has persuaded herself that struggling, neurotic Val is the right man for an ambitious new production. Eventually, she also is drawn into the conspiracy to conceal Val's shortcomings.

The actress arrives for the press junket as her ninth month of pregnancy begins. She and husband David Duchovny are expecting their second child in a matter of weeks.

Miss Leoni reveals an advantage to being part of the Allen ensemble that is mentioned rarely. "We're all getting sleep," she says. "One day Woody wrapped at 11 in the morning. We had started at 8."

Miss Leoni says she was aware of "this kind of Woody Club," made up of actors who had been in his movies. "It's so elite and special and sought-after," she says, "but I'm not sure that Woody, as president, knows that it exists."

The actress says she felt wounded during the Academy Awards telecast when Mr. Allen mentioned his next movie, which begins production June 3, and she realized she had not been cast in it.

"At first he said it was about a college student," she recalls. "I can reach back, but not that far. But then he mentioned that the kid falls in love with a beautiful professor. That was a body blow. I took it like a public breakup. While I'm moaning, David says to me, 'Have you looked at yourself lately? Do you have any idea?' I said, 'It can't be that bad. If he really cared, he would have waited.' I'm very pregnant. I take everything personally."

••• n

Mr. Hamilton, one of Hollywood's great secret weapons as a self-deprecating raconteur, has a minor role as an elegant studio yes man. He acknowledges that he still has no idea exactly what his character does, but he recalls meeting such figures many times during his own career.

"I realized they were important, at least in their own minds," he says. "So I thought I had better be kind to them. They could give you nothing but grief."

The actor, now 62, emerged as a promising newcomer in 1960 in "Home From the Hill" and "Where the Boys Are." He enjoyed a comeback triumph at the age of 40: in the vampire spoof "Love at First Bite," released in 1979. As both star and producer, he was in a position to profit from a dazzling differential.

The movie cost about $3.4 million and grossed $78 million in its first release.

His agents informed him of Mr. Allen's interest in him for "Hollywood Ending" a few days after he complained that he was desperate for something classier, such as a role in a Woody Allen comedy.

"When I get this call, saying Woody Allen wants to talk with me, I think it's Robert Evans playing a trick on me. So I disregard it at first," he says.

"We finally do make contact on the phone, and I tell Woody, 'I'll be happy to read the script.' He says, 'No script. You'll have to accept the role.' I ask what the character is like. He says, 'Like you.' What's he look like? 'You.' What does he wear? 'What are you wearing?' Then I get a real inspiration. I throw in, 'Can I have a tan?' Woody replies, 'As dark as you want.'"

Once he was in New York for the production, Mr. Hamilton was told he could see some script pages at last.

"I refused," he says. "I thought, 'Who needs it?' I'm working with the big cats, without a net.'"

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