How Corey Stoll Manned Up for Hemingway in ‘Midnight in Paris’

“His voice was actually kind of high and reedy, with a little bit of a lisp — it doesn’t fit at all with what we see in the film”

It was a warm summer afternoon and Corey Stoll and I sat together at a table on the terrace of a clean, well-lighted café, watching the crowd going by.

Stoll is not a household name but he is a major player in "Midnight in Paris," a movie so strong and true and funny that it has remained in picture houses all summer long and made more money than any other movie from the director Woody Allen.

Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway

The boulevard was busy and the trees moved slightly in the wind. We drank black coffee and talked about bullfighting and fishing and fighting, and then we had brandy and got in an argument that led to a fistfight. It was a fine day.

Some of that is a lie.

Here is the truth.

We were supposed to meet at a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, but I got tied up at work and we talked on the phone instead. We talked about acting and the motion picture business and how Stoll played Ernest Hemingway in "Midnight in Paris."

There was no whisky and there was no fighting. But it was still a fine day.

Your performance was so delicious that I have no choice but to write the introduction to this interview in imitation Hemingway style. Did you have any sense of the kind of phenomenon this movie was going to be?
No. I expected it to get the attention that Woody Allen movies have been getting over the last decade or so. I knew it was going to get out there, and I knew that even if it ended up being a minor Woody Allen film, it's still going to last. But you never know how many people are going to see it.

Corey Stoll

But it's funny, because my girlfriend knew. We were shooting it in Paris, and she saw the people and the costumes and everything and said, "People are really going to react to this. This is going to be a big hit." I think I had lower expectations, but I'm glad that she was right.

Do people recognize you as Hemingway now, or does the fact that you wear a wig in the movie and have a shaved head in real life prevent that?
It's only happened a couple of times in New York and L.A. What happens is that people recognize from my time as Detective Jaruszalski on "Law & Order: Los Angeles," and if they're business savvy they may know that I also did this movie.

 

Ae you getting more scripts now, and different kinds of scripts?
All of the above. In theater, people have been putting wigs on me for years, and within that community the idea that I have more visual range was a given. And now it's opened things up a bit in Hollywood, too.

View from the Bridge

You got the call from Woody Allen after he saw you in the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's "A View from the Bridge." Do you know if he'd seen you in anything else?
I think it was just that. Luckily, in the play I had a wig, I had a mustache, I was in period clothes and I was playing the manliest man you can imagine. (pictured, Stoll at far right.)

Before he called, you were a big Woody Allen fan.
Oh yeah, absolutely. Since I was 12 or something. I was sort of born into it. Growing up as an Upper West Side Jew, it was sort of my birthright, and my birth responsibility.

That's why I had to deal with this out-of-body thing where I was thinking, Oh my God, you're playing Hemingway and being directed by Woody Allen. There was a surreal quality to it, and I had to think, OK, you're here now, and you have to do this. Don't start writing your memoirs quite yet.

Your character, in a way, is an idealized and romanticized version of Hemingway. Did you try to make him look and sound like the real person?
No. I listened to the only voice recording I could find, which was him accepting the Nobel Prize. And it's just not your image of Hemingway at all. His voice was actually kind of high and reedy, with a little bit of a lisp. It doesn't fit at all with what we see in the film, which is Hemingway as the model of a purposely-led life.

I was more concerned with reading his material and seeing what he said about himself, because that's the image that Owen Wilson's character would have, and that's what the movie is about. It's a time-travel movie, but I don't really know the realities of what is supposed to be happening. My assumption is, I'm playing the iconic writer, the idea that is instilled in all of our minds of Hemingway, not the real person.

It's really a license to chew the scenery.
Well, there are some people who think it's totally cartoony, but I was sensitive to the fact that he's such a beloved writer. There are a lot of American men who see him as the ideal man, and I didn’t want to mock him. But when I got to the set, there were certain times that Woody was encouraging me to go in directions that were sort of comedic. I was preparing as if was going to play him in a biopic, and I'd forgotten that it was a comedy.

Did you ever try to talk Woody about your ideas, or did you defer to him?
I always bowed to the benevolent dictator. It's his movie, and he gets the benefit of the doubt for all of his amazing work, and all of the amazing performances that he's gotten out of a wide range of actors.

I never realized how much I loved working for benevolent dictators until I worked with him. I had a great time working on "Law & Order," but it's a corporate environment, and decisions need to be made up and down the line of command. The simplest things can take a lot longer than they need to, and end up watered down – whereas when you're working with Woody Allen, the choice is his and he makes it in the moment and that's it. It's a much more immediate feeling of creation.

Typically, he gives his actors only the script pages on which they appear.
Yeah. Only Owen Wilson got the whole script.

Did you ever see the rest of the script, or learn the entire story?
On the first day I asked Owen what's happening, and he sort of gave me the rundown. So I had a basic idea, with a lot of holes. But I don’t think for my character it was really important. I think sometimes actors having a holistic view of what they're in can be overrated. Especially when you're playing somebody as narcissistic and self-involved as Ernest Hemingway, it doesn't really matter what else is in the script. Whenever my character's on the screen, it's all about him.

So are you getting a lot of scripts to play manly men now?
Yes, a few. [laughs] Which is fun. And that was a fun little trick to play on myself when I was doing this movie. There were a lot of things that were pretty intimidating: working with a legendary director and Academy Award-winning actors, playing this literary god. So there were times when I sort of had to will myself to be as confident as the character. It was fun, to pretend that I am the cockiest guy on earth.