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Movies: When Woody Allen met Emma Stone


Emma Stone

Emma Stone

Getty Images

Emma Stone

There probably comes a thought in every movie actor's life: will I ever get to work with Woody Allen? The director turns 79 this December and has been making movies for almost 50 years.

"If half a century goes by and you haven't had the call, you start to assume that it's probably not forthcoming," says Colin Firth, the British actor, who breaks his Allen cherry in the director's new film, Magic In The Moonlight. "I don't really have a bucket list, or not a very long one. But he definitely would be there, if I did."

He's not the first Englishman ever to venture into Allen's world - following everyone from Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity to Hugh Grant in Small Time Crooks. But he's arguably the first actor ever to turn up to a press junket looking like him, sporting a pair of thick black-rimmed glasses that could easily be mistaken for Allen's own distinctive spectacles. Sitting next to him is his co-star Emma Stone, the 25 year-old American who made her name in comedies like Superbad and Easy A and, like Firth, is making her bow in Woody's world.

They make for an unusual pair - even in a Woody Allen movie where the older man and the younger woman are regularly paired (think Whatever Works, with Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood). With three decades between them, Firth, who turned 54 the day before we meet, has been married since 1997 to Italian film producer Livia (they have two sons, Luca and Matteo). Stone, meanwhile, has been dating Andrew Garfield - her co-star in the two recent Spider-Man movies, in which she played Gwen Stacy - since 2011.

Dressed in a lace-fronted, sleeveless dress and towering heels, Stone is not quite her usual bubbly self today. Too many trips back and forth across the pond - she recently premiered her other new film, Birdman, at the Venice Film Festival and is currently in rehearsals in New York for a Broadway stint of Cabaret - have taken their toll.

"I'm very sick!" she groans, before wishing upon herself the power of self-healing. "Wouldn't that be amazing?" To be fair, like a true pro, she's soldiering on before the Paris premiere tonight.

At least she gets to be ill at the five-star Le Bristol hotel - where some of Allen's mega-hit Midnight In Paris was shot. His latest, a lightweight romance that skates by on charm and good looks, could easily be called 'Twilight In Antibes', given how many sundown shots bathe its cast.

Set in the 1920s, the story revolves around a cynical conjurer named Stanley Crawford (Firth), who is invited to the home of a well-to-do family to expose a young American girl named Sophie Baker (Stone), who claims to be a psychic.

It's a fairly typical Allen plot-line. Before he ever wrote jokes, he was practising magic tricks as a teenager and the art of illusion has cast a spell over him ever since. From playing a bumbling magician, The Great Splendini, in his 2006 comedy Scoop, to featuring hypnotists, healers and even a fortune teller in You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, it's no surprise to see him turn his attention to mediums. The result is, effectively, a dialogue between the scientific and the spiritual, as Stanley tries to debunk Sophie's spot-on "mental vibrations".

Stone admits she's ventured into this world before, even visiting psychics. "I always was so interested in it as a kid, growing up. There was one in New York; it's one of those where you go in, and there's a street-front 'Psychic' in neon-lights, and you go in and she reads your palm and basically tells you that there's change coming up in your life, and something big is going to happen. Then she says, 'For $200, I will cleanse your aura, but you have to come back!' But I couldn't take it that far."

Firth, listening intently, almost snorts. "I think my aura is beyond cleansing," he says. So much the epitome of stiff-upper-lipped Englishman - from his Darcy in the BBC's mid-90s Pride and Prejudice to his Oscar-winning turn as the tongue-tied King George VI in The King's Speech - he looks like he'd rather die than approach a mystic for advice. "I have not yet to do it," he says, and he clearly never will. In that way, he's perfectly cast as the sceptical Stanley.

And Stone? "What do I have in common with Sophie? A dumb Middle American, I guess!" she laughs (she hails from Phoenix, Arizona, though spent her late teens in Los Angeles, when she and her mother moved there so she could pursue acting).

In truth, Sophie is not so dumb, not least when she talks about illusions as a means to happiness. "In many ways, illusions are an important part of living," agrees Stone. "If you live in stark, logical reality - although reality itself doesn't feel very logical a lot of the time - it can be a very bleak place."

Talk to Stone and she appears to be a mine of information about Allen. "Woody hates direct sunlight," she tells me. He also sits in his car at lunch, every day, with the window down - "but sometimes, there's a little curtain drawn" - and plays the clarinet. "He practices every day for an hour."

Years ago, long before she was ever involved in Magic In The Moonlight, Stone saw Allen play with his band at Café Carlyle in New York. "Other people would talk, and then he would play the clarinet and look down again. He never said anything."

Not only on stage; there's a persistent rumour that Allen never gives direction on set. "We were told he doesn't rehearse and that's true, and we were told he doesn't direct. That's not true," says Firth, debunking some myths of his own. Stone concurs, noting that Allen would frequently act out scenes for her. "One of his favourite jokes with me - when I ask him about something, he goes 'Well, how I would do it...'. He does that all the time to me, animates it and takes you through how he would do it, and you just want him to do it a lot of the time."

Stone has already gone on to shoot her second Allen movie in a row - a college campus-set tale co-starring Joaquin Phoenix that she pledges was a "different tone" to Magic In The Moonlight. "It feels like it's this weird, bizarre-o alternate reality," she says. "It doesn't feel real at all. Especially over the past couple of years, I've had the opportunity, which I never thought I'd have, to work with filmmakers like Woody. I never thought I would have that kind of opportunity. And I've been soaking up as much as I possibly can."

As for Firth, he's heading into an entirely new field - the action-thriller - in Matthew Vaughn's upcoming espionage thriller Kingsman: The Secret Service. Firth even trained on the set of Magic In The Moonlight. "The trainer came to France. I'd get up in the morning and work for an hour and a half, with him, so for the first time in my life I was in calorie deficit." He looks pained at the memory of it all. "It's a strange age to be introduced to that life, and it hurt."

Still, they've both got a long way before catching up with a veteran like Allen. The still-untitled film he's just completed with Stone will be the 47th feature that he's written and directed. "I think the only thing that's bothering Woody is a little bit of vision in one eye, otherwise he just springs everywhere," says Stone. Her co-star nods in agreement. "It doesn't feel like you're working with an old man at all," smiles Firth. "He's more mentally alert than most other human beings."

Magic In The Moonlight opens on September 19