Passionately pursuing your dreams and not letting anyone stand in your way as you set out to achieve your goals is a powerful message present in several aspects of Woody Allen’s latest independent romantic comedy, ‘Magic in the Moonlight.’ The main character in the film, Stanley Crawford, is an admired illusionist who isn’t afraid to let go of his fame as he sets out to prove that people in his field aren’t genuinely gifted. Actress Erica Leerhsen, who plays a supporting role in the movie, is also effortlessly and powerfully fulfilling her dream career with her third film collaboration with the Academy Award-winning writer-director.
‘Magic in the Moonlight,’ which is set in the south of France in the 1920s, follows Stanley (Colin Firth), a master illusionist who disguises himself on stage as Wei Ling Soo. While he makes a living performing his magic, he prides himself on debunking spiritualists who prey on the rich.
Much to Stanley’s disbelief, his friend and fellow magician, Howard (Simon McBurney), claims he has met a true mystic who can actually communicate with the dead. The young American, Sophie (Emma Stone), has been garnering attention for her talent around the Riviera. The middle-class psychic has especially left an impression on the wealthy Brice (Hamish Linklater), who showers her with engagement gifts.
But Stanley isn’t as easily charmed by Sophie’s alleged talents. At a séance held for Grace (Jacki Weaver), the mother of Brice and his sister, Caroline (Leerhsen), Stanley vigilantly searches for hidden wires to prove Sophie’s talent isn’t real. He’s mystified when he can’t find any evidence of deceivement on her part. She also surprises him when they visit his Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), and she uncovers long-buried secrets about the family. Stanley suddenly lets go of his rational thinking and falls in love for the first time in his life.
Leerhsen generously took the time to talk about filming ‘Magic in the Moonlight,’ as well as her career in horror films, theater and television, over the phone during an exclusive interview. Among other things, the actress discussed how she was drawn to play the role of Caroline, as she has worked with Allen on several previous films and in theater, and she enjoys his directing style during the production; how she appreciates making independent films like the director’s latest romantic comedy, as the actors are encouraged to infuse their characters and the story with as much creativity as they like; and how she feels an allegiance and appreciation to the horror genre, which has offered her many great opportunities, including such career-defining roles in ‘Blair Witch Project 2: Book of Shadows,’ ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)’ and ‘Wrong Turn 2: Dead End.’
ShockYa (SY): You play Caroline in the romantic comedy drama, ‘Magic in the Moonlight.’ What was it about the character and the chance to work with Woody Allen again that convinced you to take on the role?
Erica Leerhsen (EL): Well, anytime Woody asks me to work for him, I say yes. I get asked in the form of a letter from him, which he has done the past two times I’ve worked with him. It’s basically like ‘Mission: Impossible’ in the way he tells me my character. He’s like, “Caroline is the wife of George and the sister of Brice.” He explained to me who she was in relation to everyone else. He says, “It should be evident from the script pages, but if you have any questions, feel free to ask me.” (laughs) I’m like, “Yes, I will accept it.”
It is a little intimidating, of course, because it is Woody, and the offer comes in the form of that letter. But it’s also exciting. I hope I get another one of those letters.
SY: Woody both wrote and directed the film. What was your experience of working with him on the comedy drama? Do you prefer working with helmers who also penned the script?
EL: I do, actually. I had that experience on another project earlier this year, so I’ve had it twice this year. It is better, because they know the script so well. There’s always that feeling on set that the director needs to know the script really well. Any director needs to know the script inside and out. They need to know exactly how they’re going to shoot it, and what they want to get, before they actually shoot it. So when it’s a writer-director, since they actually created the story, it’s easier. They don’t have to work so hard to get inside the script.
SY: You have worked with Woody on several other films, including ‘Hollywood Ending’ and ‘Anything Else,’ which were both released in the beginning of your acting career. How did working with him on those earlier films influence your acting style and career overall? What was the process of reuniting with him again on ‘Magic in the Moonlight?’
EL: Well, I view Woody as a mentor of mine, even though I’ve barely ever spoken to him socially. (laughs) For ‘Hollywood Ending,’ I was on the set the entire time, in case he wanted to put me in an extra shot. He did that with one of the other actors, too. It was the other actor who was also playing the actor in the movie within the movie. So I had the chance to absorb what it was like to be around him, and observe things like the notes he would give to other people.
That’s how I really developed my knowledge of film acting, too, because I was a theater actress before then. Woody always puts an emphasis on being natural, and have things come out of improv. He often says, “You don’t have to say what I wrote. You can say it however you want. But this is what I’m trying to get across. Don’t put anything into the words, because the words can be thrown away. What you’re thinking matters even more,” which is an important thought in film. In movies, the audience can see what you’re thinking, because the camera is so close to you.
SY: Speaking of the fact that Woody allowed the cast to improv while filming, you didn’t have much rehearsal time with your co-stars before you began shooting the movie. Did improvising allow you to bond with your co-stars while filming, and determine how you would play the scenes?
EL: Yes, improv loosens everyone up, and I have a feeling that’s what Woody’s thinking. I guess when you work a lot with a director, you develop a sense of what they’re thinking, even when they’re not talking, because you’re so used to their style. I feel that way with him.
Woody jokes all the time, too, on every film I’ve worked with him on. The first thing he’ll say to you in the morning is a joke. Or he’ll give you a hard time about something as a joke. It immediately puts everyone at ease, and I know he does that on purpose to get the best work out of the performer. I think when he also says, “Don’t worry about what I wrote-say whatever you want,” he’s also putting his faith in the performer. It’s a lot like what his letters are like, too. It’s like he’s saying, “This is your job-you take it.
I remember he actually said to me one time, “You’re the female lead of this play. I wrote this character for you to take these moments.” That always stuck in my head. I always treat the character like the writer wrote this moment for me, and it’s mine. It really gives you the sense that the character is yours, and its your responsibility.
SY: Woody is known for not sending his entire scripts to his actors while filming, and the cast members only receive the pages with their scenes. How did that influence the way you portrayed Caroline in the film? How did you prepare for the role?
EL: Yes, it did affect the way I portrayed Caroline. I actually didn’t want to know about the rest of the story. Sometimes when you’re hanging out with the other actors, they’ll ask, “Do you want to know what happens when you’re not here?” I’ll say, “No, I don’t want to know.”
I think Woody only gives us our pages, not in the sense of security reasons, but because he doesn’t want us thinking about all this other stuff that’s irrelevant to our characters. This is stuff our characters wouldn’t know, because they weren’t there.
I think that’s why he also writes those letters. They’re like, here’s what you need to know. He doesn’t want you getting lost, and thinking about other stuff. You just need to focus on what you need to focus on. That comes from someone who knows actors, and he’s such a performer himself. So it’s all about focusing on the task at hand. It’s not your job to do the whole script.
SY: ‘Magic in the Moonlight features a diverse and talented cast, Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden and Jacki Weaver. What were your experiences acting with your co-stars on the set?
EL: Working with the rest of the cast was great. Whenever you’re on location, like with this film, I find the cast always bonds more. When you’re flown out there (to the set), you don’t have your family or friends. You’re thrown into this situation where you’re the only people who know each other. So you become closer than you normally would.
On this film, everybody was part of an email chain that continued for a year. People would check in and update each other, and that has never happened to me on a movie. We wouldn’t update it everyday, but someone would say something like, “Happy New Year.” It was so genuine and nice.
That’s how I found Colin and Emma to be, as well. They’re such huge movie stars, you can’t walk down the street with them, even in the South of France, without getting mobbed. But they’re so caring.
The cast hung out a lot, even though I was in Cannes, and they (Stone and Firth) were in Vannes. (Actor) Jeremy Shamos and I were in this amazing hotel in Cannes called The Magestic, because they couldn’t fit us in (Colin and Emma’s) hotel in Vannes. Being separated was a little tough, because we couldn’t hang out with them. But Colin and Emma were constantly trying to get us into their hotel, which I thought was so sweet. I’ve never seen movie stars go through so much trouble
SY: The movie was set in the 1920s, and was filmed in the South of France, where the story takes place. What was your experience of shooting the period comedy drama on location in France?
EL: It was idealic, because it was such a beautiful and relaxing environment. That helped add to the 1920s flow and energy, and the fact that life wasn’t as busy. So people moved more fully, and I felt like we captured that in the movie. The South of France really helped with that, because it has such a languid feel to it.
SY: ‘Magic in the Moonlight’ was filmed independently, and was initially released into select theaters nationwide on July 24 by Sony Pictures Classics. Did shooting the movie independently pose any challenges on the set, or did it add to the story’s creativity?
EL: Yes, it helped with the shoot. The peopled who financed the movie were so sweet, and always on set, because they’re such huge fans of Woody. That really helped, since they’re so supportive of him and anything he does.
That really helped, because no one’s telling you that you have to put something specific in the movie, and how to do things. It worked really well, because a movie’s like an assignment. It’s best when everyone trusts the boss. There’s so much trust in Woody that the movie’s like a well-oiled machine that runs very well.
The fact that it’s independent made it much more creative on the set. I think on a studio movie, I’m always trying to get the feel of an independent film. I do that so it doesn’t feel like we’re making another generic movie. Every film should have that feeling of being completely unique. Independent films have that feeling naturally. The immense trust in Woody adds to that.
SY: You also worked with Woody on his 2004 play, ‘Second-Hand Memory.’ Had did the experience of working with him on the play compare and contrast to working on his films?
EL: Working on the play with Woody was very different than working with him on his films. He’s a great writer in both mediums, but he can’t edit a play. So he really had to turn the story over to the actors. But Woody’s a great editor, and he can edit movies in about three or four days. If you do something in a movie he doesn’t like, he just won’t use that take.
So on the play, it was different, because he had to talk to us more than he normally does on movie sets. (laughs) He had to say, “I really think you should do this.” It was great, because I got to learn more about acting from Woody, since he had to explain things more. Since I’ve been a fan of Woody’s work since I was little, working on the play with him was like getting more of his secrets.
I think his work in stand-up helped with his direction. He knows the audience and how to get an audience on the charters’ side. I think there’s a certain feeling of adrenaline from performing in front of a life audience. I’ve never done stand-up, but I’ve done sketch comedy.
Woody’s also a musician, and I’ve seen him play in the South of France. He is great in front of a live audience. So I got all these tips about how to be a performer. I think he just respects that aspect of being a performer.
SY: Your first major film role was in ‘Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,’ and you’ve also found success in several other horror films, including ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and ‘Wrong Turn 2: Dead End.’ What is it about the horror genre you enjoy acting in so much? Are you interested in starring in another horror film in the future?
EL: Yes, I am. I have more of an allegiance, as well as a connection and positive feeling, about the genre. Horror has given me so many great roles, and I’ve gotten great opportunities from those roles. It sounds funny, because the genre is so gruesome. (laughs) But it’s been a huge and positive force in my life.
I love being on the set of horror films, and I feel like I’m at home. I love being in the woods to shoot a movie, and I’ve done that so many times. (laughs) I have to think of a new movie where I can go back into the woods. Shooting in the woods and in nature is so fun, and it’s like camping.
I do want to make more horror films. I just starred in a low-budget, called ‘Mischief Night.’ I also want to produce horror. I did just produce a (romantic) short called ‘Pacific Standard,’ and it’s the first movie I produced. But I love horror, and I’m grateful for it. I want to write my own horror film, too.
SY: Having starred in and produced films, would you be interested in directing a movie in the future?
EL: It’s so interesting, because I never think about directing; I only think about producing and writing, which is so weird. Directing is a huge responsibility. I like making everybody happy, and hanging out with them on set. (laughs) That’s why I’m like, I’d rather be a producer!
Directing is a different skill that I think I would need to develop. I think I’m still naturally more of an entertainer. I can be a boss in other ways with producing. But I’d have to think about directing, since it is such a huge responsibility.
SY: Besides films, you have also starred on several television shows, including ‘The Guardian’ and ‘The Good Wife.’ What is it about television that you enjoy appearing on diverse shows? Are you interested in starring on another series in the future?
EL: I am interested in doing more TV. But movies are my first love, and I feel like I’m most naturally a film actress. Then secondly I’m most natural at being a theater actress, and third would be TV. I always try to make TV more like a movie whenever I do it.
I do prefer movies, but the TV I’ve done has been often been action-oriented, like ‘Person of Interest.’ I’m usually in intense situations when I do TV, which I enjoy. I would like to be on a TV show like that, which isn’t weighed down by dialogue. I’ve gotten a lot of chances to do that. I would like to be on another TV series, but it would have to be the right one. I do like working for CBS, which I’ve done a lot.
SY: With horror films being driven by action, as well as your action-driven television roles, do you enjoy doing your own stunts in your projects?
EL: Action is so fun, as it gives you an adrenaline rush, especially when you get to be on a series with Jim Caviezel, like on ‘Person of Interest.’ I love to be around people who are great at action, and then get to do the action with them. That’s one of my favorite things.
I was just talking with someone else about jumping on Ken Kirzinger’s back, and biting his neck, on ‘Wrong Turn 2,’ and it was so fun. (laughs) Luckily there was a prosthetic on this neck that I bit off.
I like athletics, and I’ve always been an athlete. I played field hockey, soccer and basketball. So the action genre is like a merging of that with stunts. Watching action movies is like listening to a great song-they put you in a great mood. I love to do that for the audience.
SY: Speaking of Jim Caviezel, I saw him sing with the band Chicago two years ago near where I live on Long Island, New York.
EL: That’s great! I didn’t know he sang!
SY: It was great! It was one of the first times he sang publicly. Is transitioning into music also something you’d be interested in?
EL: I love singing, and I used to sing a lot as a child. I originally wanted to be a singer. But I’d have to make sure that other people thought I should be singing, too! (laughs) I’d also have to make sure I like my voice! (laughs)
But I don’t really do it that much anymore. I just stopped, but you gave me an idea to try to sing again! I took so many lessons, and it was really fun. I have a low voice, as I’m an alto. But I don’t know if I can do it professionally.
SY: You mentioned working with Ken Kirzinger earlier on ‘Wrong Turn 2.’ Are there any other actors you’d be interested in working with on a horror film in the future?
EL: Yes, definitely. I loved ‘Breaking Bad,’ so I would love to work with any of those actors. There are so many people I’d love to act with on my future projects. When I’m producing, I also think about who I’d like to work with. I (recently) watched William Hurt in ‘Syriana,’ and he’s so great. I’d love to work with him. I like the character roles he’s playing now.
SY: Besides ‘Magic in the Moonlight,’ do you have any other projects lined up, whether in films, theater or television, that you can discuss?
EL: Well, there’s the short ‘Pacific Standard,’ which I produced. We want to develop it into a feature, as opposed to releasing the short. But people really like the short and its script. It does look like the feature might very well happen. I love producing, and searching for ways to make a movie.
The short was written by Markus Redmond, who also wrote ‘If I Had Known I Was a Genius,’ which went to Sundance. I love working with him, and we’re a great team. So I can’t wait to do that movie.
I might also do some more television, as I have offers in that area. But I’m looking to do more movie roles. This is going to sound like a cliché, but there aren’t as many female roles in movies as there are male roles. It was really exciting to see Scarlett Johansson in ‘Lucy,’ which debuted at number one during its opening weekend. I hope there are going to be more female action heroes coming up.
Written by: Karen Benardello