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To hear Wallace Shawn tell it, his inconceivable career as one Hollywood's pre-eminent "Hey, it's that guy!" character actors began with an entirely inauspicious encounter with Woody Allen. Years before he achieved scene-stealing status in pop culture favorites like The Princess Bride and Clueless, Shawn was a 35-year-old playwright and occasional actor making a living on the 1970s New York City theater scene. That's where Allen's regular casting director, Juliet Taylor, spotted him and arranged an audition for a small role in the director's ninth feature, 1979's Manhattan.
"My memory of that meeting is that [Woody] was standing on a ladder in a library," the now-78-year-old performer tells Yahoo Entertainment. "He looked over and said, 'Are you going to be in New York this summer?' I said, 'Yes,' and he said, 'Good.' And that was my audition!"
Flash-forward 43 years later and Shawn is the star of Allen's 49th feature film, Rifkin's Festival — his sixth collaboration with the filmmaker, and the first time he's been the first name on Allen's call sheet. Assuming leading man duties was an experience that he describes as "intimidating and frightening" compared to the supporting roles he typically plays. "I love Woody and his films, and I have a deep affection for him as a human being, so I really didn't want to let him down. I basically stayed in the hotel room [during production] and studied my part."
Shawn's alter ego, Mort Rifkin, is a familiar Woody Allen figure: a filmstruck New Yorker who finds that real life frequently falls short of the glamorous reel life he imagines for himself. Allen's script transports Mort from the streets of Manhattan to the beachside boulevards of San Sebastián, Spain, where he attends a prestigious film festival alongside his increasingly estranged wife, Sue (Gina Gershon). That set-up allows the writer/director to revisit the three big themes that have defined his career — sex, death and therapy — and incorporate comic and story beats that recall earlier films like Love and Death and Stardust Memories.
But the larger circumstances surrounding the production and release of Rifkin's Festival are far from typical. Originally shot on location in Spain in 2019, it's the first film that Allen directed following the termination of his five-movie deal with Amazon Studios — part of the still-ongoing fallout surrounding Dylan Farrow's renewed allegations of sexual abuse. In 2014, Allen's adopted daughter with Mia Farrow published an open letter in The New York Times shining a new spotlight on her claims of childhood sexual assault that had previously resulted in a very public 1993 court battle. (Allen was ultimately not charged, but a judge denied him custody of Dylan and two of her siblings, describing him as "self-absorbed, untrustworthy and insensitive.")
Following her open letter, Farrow has continued to make her case in interviews and a closely-watched 2021 HBO documentary series. Meanwhile, studios like Amazon have exited partnerships with Allen, and past collaborators like Drew Barrymore, Kate Winslet and Colin Firth have expressed regret over working with him. For his part, the filmmaker — who financed Rifkin's Festival with funds from the Spanish company, Mediapro — has repeatedly denied her charges, and criticized the actors who have spoken out as "well-meaning but foolish."
Shawn is one of the performers, along with Javier Bardem and Diane Keaton, who continues to publicly defend Allen. Last year, when Rifkin's Festival was still awaiting a U.S. release date — the movie premiered in European theaters in 2020 and finally debuts stateside on Jan. 28 — he penned his own open letter for The Wrap, outlining his reasons for believing the director's version of events and chiding the actors who had "distanced themselves" from Allen.
"I was very upset that some of my fellow actors leapt to the conclusion that Woody was guilty of a serious crime that you can go to prison for without really knowing that much about it," Shawn says of his motivation for writing his letter. "Of course, if someone like [Dylan] says 'This happened to me,' I don't fault people for thinking 'That might be true.' But on the other hand, Woody said, 'That didn't happen,' and I didn't care for the fact that so many of my fellow actors didn't look into it any farther, and just assumed he was guilty."
"I've followed the case: I've read quite a bit about it, I saw the documentary trying to substantiate Dylan's story and I don't believe that this happened," Shawn continues. "So I was angry at my fellow actors and at the fact that Woody Allen — someone who has done beautiful things for the world — became a pariah. That's a miscarriage of justice in my opinion. I hope that the more of us who stick our neck out and say, 'You must not jump to that conclusion,' it will become easier for more people to say that."
"At the moment, people's agents tell them to denounce Woody and to not work with him. If more people — like Scarlett Johansson and Dianne Wiest — say, 'We're delighted to work with him,' then maybe eventually the tide will turn," he adds. (Johansson starred in three of the director's films, including 2005's Match Point, while Weist won Oscars for her performances in 1986's Hannah and Her Sisters and 1994's Bullets Over Broadway.)
For now, it's unclear whether the 86-year-old Allen will make another film. While he's previously announced plans for a Paris-set drama, the Covid-19 pandemic has delayed the start of that production. In some ways, Rifkin's Festival feels like a natural endpoint for Allen's filmography, although Shawn believes he'll make a 50th feature and beyond. "I'm sure it won't be his last," he says, adding that he'd be open to collaborating with Allen again, perhaps with the benefit of not having to be the leading man.
"I was certainly aware of the pitfalls of playing a character that would be seen as his alter ego and the danger of imitating Woody," he notes. "I've seen most of his films, and I've seen people get drawn into that imitation and it's a bad look, because it takes you out of the story. If they're suddenly thinking, 'He sounds like Woody Allen,' that's not good. Of course, sometimes he'd read one of the lines that I was supposed to say and I would think, 'Oh, well that's really the way it would sound best.'"
As it turns out, imitation has served Shawn well in the past. With the 35th anniversary of The Princess Bride approaching later this year, the actor confesses that his performance as the rhyme-hating, wine-poisoning kidnapper Vizzini is modeled entirely after director Rob Reiner. "I didn't really appreciate the humor of The Princess Bride — it's just not me at all," remarks the author of cerebral comedies like My Dinner with Andre and Marie and Bruce. "So I asked Rob, 'Could you please show me how you would say this line?" I asked him that repeatedly and he would do it, and I would imitate it."
According to Shawn, his Reiner imitation grew out of self-preservation. Before shooting began, the actor was made aware that he wasn't the filmmakers' first choice to play Vizzini, and that knowledge left him uncertain about his continued employment. "My agents told me who Rob really wanted," he recalls. "First choice: Danny DeVito. Second choice: Richard Dreyfuss. They didn't even say, 'You're the third choice.' I might have been the 25th choice, but all I knew was who the first two choices were, and they weren't me."
Having worked alongside DeVito in the New York theater world — and on the set of the classic '80s sitcom, Taxi — Shawn had firsthand experience with the actor's specific comic capabilities, and that reinforced the fear that his Princess Bride stint might be short-lived. "I knew that I could not do what he did, and I also knew that what they wanted was what he did," he says, chuckling. "I had a little movie of him doing each scene in my head, so I suppose the idea did cross my mind, 'What if Danny has a break in his schedule and they could get him after all?' I wasn't dwelling on the idea of being fired. But I did know that I was falling short."
Rifkin's Festival premieres Jan. 28 in theaters