Thursday, September 3, 2009

Joan Allen Finds Her Inner Artist in Georgia O'Keeffe

The film Georgia O’Keeffe — which is based on the artist’s early life and her tumultuous 20-year relationship with her husband, photography-pioneer Alfred Stieglitz — premieres on Lifetime Television on Sept. 19 at 9 p.m. ET/PT. The titular star of the Sony-produced film Georgia O’Keeffe, acclaimed actress Joan Allen, and her producing partner, Joshua Maurer, originally pitched the idea of the movie to HBO, which at first said yes, but then decided to take a pass. Well, HBO’s loss is Lifetime’s gain.

(All artwork courtesy Richard Foreman/Lifetime Television)

I spoke with Joan recently about her latest project and learned quite a bit about the influential 20th-century artist in the process.

Cindy Elavsky: Before deciding to take on the role of Georgia O’Keeffe, did you know much about her as an artist and a woman?

Joan Allen: I really didn’t know much about her. Of the people who do know her, I think they picture that very striking woman in the New Mexican desert. She spent half of her life in New Mexico — 40 years — and she lived to be almost 100. She really had two separate lives. I really didn’t know that she had lived in New York. She had a significant life in New York, and I had no idea. I don’t think I really knew that she was married to Alfred Stieglitz (played by Jeremy Irons) or what he was really all about. I didn’t know how Bohemian they were, or about all those nude photos he had taken of her — all of this information of what her younger life was like.

CE: Georgia and Alfred had a tumultuous relationship, but in a way, it was a very basic give-and-take. They both relied on each other and brought out something in the other. How were they good for each other?

JA: In some ways they were remarkable for each other, and in some ways they were very destructive. They were very different types of people. Stieglitz was New York intelligentsia, a very verbal person, a huge talker, and O’Keeffe was a somewhat more-reserved Wisconsin girl. She was more of a doer than a talker. So when she would talk, it was very smart and incisive. They were temperamental. He was a bit of a hypochondriac. He didn’t like to stray from New York or the family’s home at Lake George. She was from Texas; she liked to be outdoors and to explore. She was very different from Alfred.

They shared a very strong sensibility about aesthetics and art. He was very influential to her in terms of his photography; she was very interested in that. Alfred was able to market her in a way that was difficult for her. She understood that he played a large part in making her successful and known in her lifetime.

CE: Do you find Georgia O’Keeffe to be a good role model, especially for women nowadays?

JA: She was ahead of her time in many ways. I think it’s good for women to be reminded of these qualities: She was very determined, opinionated, self-sufficient. But she also came from a family whose mother was very influential. All the girls in the family were encouraged to read, paint and play music from a very young age.

CE: Now I know the purpose of this movie was to focus on her and Alfred’s 20-year love affair, the art that came of it and the woman Georgia became because of it. But I’d also be interested in seeing another movie about her life and her art after Alfred’s death in 1946. She lived a full life after that — 40 more years. Would you be interested in something like that?

JA: A lot of people have tried to tell the Georgia O’Keeffe story before, and it’s difficult in some ways because she was a success. Sometimes that is not the great stuff of drama. There has to be conflict, struggle, disappointment. She was very self-sufficient and hardworking; she had struggles, but not obvious ones, like drinking herself to death or OD-ing. We felt fortunate when we found out she had actually had a nervous breakdown. That gave us some sort of sense that it wasn’t always perfect for her. She did have to overcome obstacles.

CE: What was the actual shoot like? You got to film in some spectacular locations.

JA: We were very fortunate to be able to shoot at the ghost ranch where she actually lived. We were shooting in beautiful locations. It was a very fast shoot; we shot in four weeks. We had to move very quickly, so there was a sense of urgency. But it really was a joy for everybody; we were working hard in beautiful places.

CE: I especially liked the scenes in New Mexico where she has a rebirth after her breakdown. What was it about New Mexico for Georgia that rejuvenated her in such a way?

JA: It was just one of those places — you know how certain places click for certain people? And I think she just felt: ‘This is it. This is where I feel the most comfortable. This is where I feel at home and where I can do my work best.’

Stieglitz never came. She came out there quite a bit while they were still together. She’d come out for the summer. They led interesting separate lives. But New Mexico was a place near and dear to her.

CE: I know you recently starred on Broadway with Jeremy Irons in Impressionism. Did that partnership come about because of your chemistry in this movie?

JA: No. Actually, I was approached a year ago in June about the play. Jack O’Brien, a theater director I’d worked with many, many years ago, brought me a script for Impressionism. I hadn’t done a play in 20 years. I read the play and decided to do it, and we were going to start rehearsing the play the following January.

Right at the same time, HBO was giving Georgia O’Keeffe back to us, and Josh was shopping it around other places. And because the play was going to happen, I said: ‘I really want to get the film shot before the play. The play will take up a significant period of time. I’m not getting any younger, and I’d be playing O’Keeffe as a younger woman, so let’s just get this thing made.’ So we started moving very quickly in movie terms. We cast the movie with Jeremy because, ironically, he was just the right person. We did the film, and then we had a month off — I think we shot until Dec. 12 or something like that — and then we started rehearsal for Impressionism in mid-January.

CE: I have always been impressed by the roles you choose: strong women who show a vulnerability, normal women in a trying situation, and even a few action films thrown in here and there. How do you decide to choose a particular role?

JA: It kind of works out for me. I don’t have thousands of offers coming my way. I just choose things based on my daughter (Sadie, who’s 15) — where do we shoot, when do we shoot and how long? I choose based on liking the overall story, and then how well I like the character. Is it something I can do; is it interesting to me? And then I’ve got all the surrounding elements like who’s directing it? And some of it is just sort of luck — whatever comes around at a certain time. In this business, you have very little control, so I am glad that I can enjoy my life. I love my work, but I don’t need to work back-to-back-to-back, because that wouldn’t make me happy. Sometimes you can get caught in a trap and do things you don’t want to do, but this way I can be more choosy.

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