Blue Jasmine: Interview with Woody Allen

Woody Allen has created many indelible female characters portrayed by some of the world’s greatest actresses, including Diane Keaton, Geraldine Page, Mariel Hemingway, Charlotte Rampling, Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, Gena Rowlands, Dianne Wiest, Mira Sorvino, Judy Davis, Samantha Morton, Scarlett Johansson, and Penelope Cruz, to mention only a few.

Whether they appear in light comedies, dark dramas or anything in between, these complex female characters resonate in our memories as the focal points of his movies. Certain to take her place in this gallery of multifaceted, complex, and richly observed women is Jasmine, the troubled heroine of Allen’s new drama BLUE JASMINE, portrayed by another one of the world’s most extraordinary actresses, Cate Blanchett.

We first meet New York socialite Jasmine shortly after she has suffered a breakdown, triggered by the cataclysmic collapse of her marriage to wealthy financier Hal (Alec Baldwin). Up until that point Jasmine’s entire identity was wrapped up in being an elegant, well dressed, culturally sophisticated woman living the Manhattan high life, but now that life is over, and her mental and emotional state is rapidly veering off course. “We know from the minute the movie opens that Jasmine is lost,” says Allen. “She’s already someone who has been found talking to herself and has had real problems.” Hitting rock bottom both financially and psychologically, and having nowhere else to go, Jasmine turns to her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a grocery store cashier in San Francisco. “Jasmine has really been through the mill,” says Allen. “In a fit of anger she did something that caused dire consequences she never anticipated, and she brought on herself an extremely potent series of traumas.” Says Blanchett: “Jasmine is in freefall and has to leave behind everything she knows and has expected. She’s entering the realm of absolute unknown, moving from one coast to the other, from one social set to the other, one class to another.”

Jasmine wasn’t born into wealth; she met and married Hal, a handsome, high-flying businessman, when she was a college student. Hal quickly transported her to a world of high fashion clothes, precious jewelry, elegant dinner parties, beach houses and private planes. “She was captivated,” says Allen. “Hal was good looking, charming, successful, dynamic and wealthy, and he swept her off her feet. She changed her direction and suddenly found herself leading the life of a wealthy wife—and she got used to it.” Blanchett feels that marrying into money wasn’t a completely unexpected path for Jasmine to take in her life, as she might always have had a vision of a handsome prince who would come to take her away: “To get a job and forge your own way in life you have to be able to weather the knockbacks that life deals out to you, and I don’t know if Jasmine is like that. For her to have to roll up her sleeves and get her hands dirty by taking a job is probably not in her ideal picture of the universe.”

Hal, portrayed by Alec Baldwin, is a man whose fortune is as bountiful as the source of his income is questionable. “I think Hal is like a million guys out there, who have this big shot complex,” says Allen. “They make a lot of money and they’re charming and generous with people. They stay just within the law when they can, and when they have to stretch it a little, they stretch it.” Hal is also equally flexible in his attitudes towards fidelity. “I think Hal is like a lot of hard-charging, successful men who feel the need to take the edge off of a stressful life and expect their wives to understand,” says Baldwin. “In his case Jasmine isn’t able to accept that, but he is very adept at reassuring her that she has nothing to worry about.” Says Allen: “For Hal, Jasmine is elegant and knows how to keep up the social end of things, and yet he’s always playing around because he’s good looking and dynamic and that’s his style.”

Born with the name Jeanette, Jasmine took on her more poetic moniker around the time Hal came into her life. “It’s quite a theatrical choice,” says Blanchett, “and it’s very telling that she didn’t call herself Scarlett or something completely different—she always steps slightly sideways from the truth. Small fantasies like this are harmless in of themselves, but the more you do it, the further you get away from reality.” Blanchett continues: “This leads to the question: ‘Is Jasmine predisposed to being a fantasist or is she a fantasist through circumstance?’ I think there’s a certain type of person who has a more fragile makeup and a less tangible grip on reality and Jasmine probably is in that camp.”

Arriving in San Francisco, Jasmine is dismayed to see Ginger’s modest apartment and lifestyle, so completely different than what she is accustomed to. Adding to her discomfort is the fact that her relationship with her sister has always been complicated. Jasmine and Ginger were adopted children from different parents, and from the beginning, Jasmine was the favored child, bathed in love, of which Ginger received very little.

“Jasmine had this golden aura around her,” says Sally Hawkins (HAPPY-GO-LUCKY), who plays Ginger. “She was brighter and prettier and more elegant from birth. Ginger saw herself as the lesser child and the one who wasn’t really liked—sort of the runt of the litter.” The impact of the different treatments they received as children created a degree of tension between the two of them early on as well as two very contrasting viewpoints of life. Jasmine grew up with a sense of entitlement and found Hal to give her the life she felt she deserved whereas Ginger had very modest expectations, but developed the robust strength and skills to make it on her own. Her approach to life was always more hands-on. She bartended and waited tables, married a rough-hewn handyman named Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) with whom she had two boys. When Jasmine, on the other hand, was forced by circumstance to work in a fancy shoe store in New York, it was devastating for her to be seen by women she had previously socialized with.

“Her focus on the outward appearance or what the neighbors will think has probably led her to the state that you find her in when she hits San Francisco,” says Blanchett. “She fled because she was feeling judged by others. She is very conscious of how she’s perceived and her desire to control that perception, the outward shell of who she is, trumps the discovery of who she actually is.”
The sisters have lived in two completely different worlds for most of their adult lives, but now that Jasmine needs her help, Ginger willingly takes her in. “Ginger would never be close to her like she would a sister with a loving background,” says Allen, “but their situation isn’t so cold that when Jasmine’s in trouble she would turn a completely blind eye.”

Says Hawkins: “I don’t think Ginger could ever turn Jasmine away. Ginger is really kind and even though there’s great tension there. As the younger sister she has always looked up to Jasmine and now sees the opportunity to have a real connection with her.” Unfortunately, by the time of her arrival, Jasmine may be too far gone for Ginger to be able to reach. “Ginger does try, but she just doesn’t know where to begin to unlock Jasmine,” says Hawkins. “She’s so trapped in a different world that Ginger doesn’t really understand, that Ginger has no grasp of how to get to her.”

Trying to be helpful, Ginger suggests that Jasmine pursue interior design, a profession which would allow for her to express her cultivation and taste. Jasmine is enthusiastic, but comes up with the highly impractical idea that she take an online course, even though she can’t use a computer. “Her ideas are ill thought through but she’ll throw everything at them,” says Blanchett. “I think the thing that’s relatable and humanizes her is the panic that underlies that.”

Jasmine does have enough lucidity to try to convince Ginger to break up with her mechanic boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale). “Jasmine thinks her sister’s first husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) was a loser,” says Allen. “As any good sister or friend would do, she’s advising her not to fall into the same trap again, picking another guy who has no refinement whatsoever.” Clay feels that Jasmine doesn’t give Augie a fair chance. “He may be an ordinary working class guy, but he really loved his wife. I think Jasmine doesn’t like Augie because she’s all about money and jewelry and how much money the guy she’s with has.” Blanchett sees some truth in that appraisal: “Jasmine is someone who has pinned all of her ability to rise up in the world upon being connected to the right man, believing that it’s about who you attach yourself to, not through any of your own agency. How could you ever rise up if you’re connected to the wrong man? It’s very revealing about the way she sees her own ability to move and shake in the world.” Says Hawkins: “Ginger is very aware of Jasmine’s distaste for the men in her life. That pains her but she also feels that maybe she’s right. There’s a part of Ginger that wants to better herself. At the same time she’s confused and thinking that she should be looking for someone better just because she wants to make a better connection with Jasmine.”

Chili recognizes very quickly the threat that Jasmine’s arrival poses for his relationship with Ginger. “As soon as Jasmine gets there, he can see that Ginger is changing,” says Cannavale. “He understands that she’s very susceptible to Jasmine and the stakes are high for him. It’s obviously very important for him to fight for Ginger because he’s very much in love with her.” Unfortunately Chili’s attempts to hold onto Ginger are expressed in explosive acts that only serve to confirm Jasmine’s low opinion of him. Says Allen: “Even though he makes a scene in the apartment and in the grocery store where she works, he’s not a villain, he feels he loves her and to the best of his ability, he’s trying. His heart’s in the right place but I don’t know what will happen in future years.” Cannavale believes Chili sees Ginger as someone who is very easily manipulated and he has taken it upon himself to look out for her. “He’s a very natural sort of protector,” he says. “He’s interested in giving her unadulterated love, a real physical kind of guy who’s vulnerable too. I think she needs that from him and he needs somebody to protect.”

To make money for her computer classes, Jasmine takes a stopgap job as a receptionist at the office of dentist Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg), work that she finds highly beneath her, and which she is ill-suited to do. To make matters worse, things quickly become awkward between Jasmine and her employer. “On the surface Dr. Flicker might appear to be generous to Jasmine, but he has an ulterior agenda,” says Stuhlbarg. “He wants something from her.” It soon becomes clear what that is, as he clumsily and inappropriately tries to come on to her, ignoring her highly distressed state. “He’s not really paying attention to what she’s going through,” says Stuhlbarg. “His desires blind him to what she’s going through.” No matter how much she resists, he only becomes more aggressive and insistent. “By the time Jasmine finds herself at the dentist’s office she’s really beginning to be in free fall because nothing is working out,” says Blanchett. “It’s like they’re speaking Swahili in these computer classes and if she can’t learn the computer then she can’t study interior design and then she’s got no other ideas. She has no money, no skills, and she’s clearly on the verge of outstaying her welcome at Ginger’s place.”

An unexpected potential lifeline turns up for Jasmine when she goes to a party and meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a genteel diplomat who takes an interest in her. “Dwight is very ambitious and wants to go into politics,” says Sarsgaard. “Based on how Jasmine looks and the way she’s dressed and acts, he sees her as the kind of woman who would really be an asset for his political plans. But what draws him to her is a certain nervousness and vulnerability that she has. She’s not comfortable with herself and that makes her easier for him to approach—I don’t know if he would have done it otherwise.” Not wanting to fill Dwight in on the calamity of her recent months, she quickly invents a much more upbeat and elevated persona for herself. “She’s able to lie,” say Allen, “She’s saying I’m a decorator and my late husband was a surgeon. She has a certain built in elegance in her persona and from years of social activity and upper-class social interaction, she puts on a good show, and he’s not looking for or suspecting any lies.”

Says Blanchett: “I think Jasmine has so little faith in her own abilities that she has to make herself more than what she is constantly. It’s an instinctual response; she doesn’t think things through. And once those words come out of her mouth, she can’t put them back in—she just has to keep going. The truth is often very terrifying, particularly when you’ve spent your entire life in a fiction.”

At the same party where Jasmine encounters Dwight, Ginger meets Al (Louis C.K.), who has a more upscale job and a sweeter manner than the men she’s used to going out with. Even though he is only modestly above the level of what she’s used to, she sees him as a step up. “Al is a guy living a kind of drab life where he’s fixing people’s audio systems,” says Louis C.K, “and he’s trying to trying to find some happiness by carving out a little romance with this very innocent and nice young woman. He’s got a very simple way of paying attention to her and showing that he likes her and it makes her feel really good.” Says Hawkins: “Ginger has aspirations for a better life and thinks that Al is the solution. It’s like she’s playing a role—she’s really liking this world that Al seems to offer. He’s showing her a life that could be better than what she sees her life to be.”