Whatever Works: Allen collaborates with Larry David

“WHATEVER WORKS,” written and directed by Woody Allen, is being released on June 19, 2009 by Sony Pictures Classics.

While it’s hard to imagine that anyone but Larry David could have portrayed Manhattan  misanthrope Boris Yellnikoff, the lead role in WHATEVER WORKS was actually written for Zero Mostel. Woody Allen set the script aside after Mostel’s death, but recently, remembering it as a funny idea, decided to revive it. But he was well aware that Mostel’s shoes were extra-large  ones to step into. “I was thinking of who could play this who has enough humor and size as a character, and I thought Larry would be fun,” says Allen. “I’m a fan of his and he’s been in two movies of mine before [RADIO DAYS and NEW YORK STORIES], albeit in tiny parts.”

David’s debut with Allen was not particularly auspicious. “After I did my little scene in RADIO DAYS, I didn’t see any cameras, so I turned to someone on the crew, and asked, ‘Where is the camera?’ And he pointed up, way up on the roof. And then, when I saw the movie, all I could see was my bald head.”

When the production inquired about his availability to play Boris, David assumed he was being offered another small role. “I opened up the script and I saw there was the character of Boris plastered all over the first page,” says David. “And then, just out of curiosity I flipped open the script to page 50—and there was Boris again. And then I went to the final page and Boris was on the final page too. And then I realized, ‘Oh man, this is quite a part I have here.’”

While most actors would be thrilled to be offered the lead role in a Woody Allen film, David had a very different reaction. “I thought Woody had become unhinged,” he says. “I wondered who put this crackpot idea in his head. And of course as with anything I’ve ever been offered, I didn’t feel up to the task. Feeling up to the task is not my thing.” Reading the three-page monologue that opens the film was particularly daunting. “On ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ I never memorize anything,” he says. “In fact, most of the time I don’t even know what I’m shooting until a minute before. So this is quite a departure for me.”

“Larry kept complaining to me what a mistake I was making by hiring him,” says Allen, “telling me what a tiny range he has, how terrible he is, and all that. And then right out of the box, first take all the time, he was just wonderful, a natural actor. And what surprised me was how fine he was in the scenes that didn’t require him to be funny, but required genuine acting. But being funny is sort of built into Larry, he just has it. He doesn’t have to push it, he just has to show up and perform the scenes credibly, without trying to be funny, just trying to be real. When Larry’s real, he’s funny—because he’s funny in life.”

The character of Boris is a world-class misanthrope, with a high opinion of himself and a low opinion of the human race. As outrageous as his words can be, they don’t wander far from statements Woody Allen has made in the past. “I wrote the script, so of course it is the way I see things,” says Allen. “But Boris is a character I created. He doesn’t express me exactly—he’s an extreme exaggeration of my feelings.”

David believes that much of Boris’s pessimism stems from his atheism. “How can anyone be optimistic with death looming and no belief in the hereafter? He’s also a physicist who thinks the planet’s going to explode—so his glass isn’t exactly half full. Also, it must be frustrating being smarter than everyone else, because no one understands you.” Still, it can’t be said that Boris is guilty of prejudice. “Boris treats everybody the same, which is to say, terribly,” says David. “To him, most people are imbeciles. To me too, except of course, anybody who likes me.”