Interviewing Louise Lasser is the journalistic equivalent of going inside a traveling carnival funhouse -- it's entertaining and disorienting all at once.
To be fair, the veteran actress -- who got her start as a Woody Allen collaborator both on screen and off -- may not be herself today. She's soldiering through a press tour 3,000 miles from her Manhattan home despite such a wicked bout of laryngitis that she asks to sit cuddlingly close to her interviewer so the whisper that's left of her voice can be heard.
But she does freely admit to being more than a bit off-kilter even when she's at 100 percent. How off-kilter? "In our relationship, he was the stable one," she says, referring to her short marriage to the notoriously erratic Allen.
Even ostensibly specific questions are likely to send her galloping off on a seemingly incongruous tangent today. Asked if parts of Allen's "Take the Money and Run" were shot here in San Francisco, she replies, "He called me and said, 'Come down, I'm going to do a little improvised piece.' You know how they do that thing, 'Someone's committed a terrible crime, how did you feel about him?' And I just came down. I had a cold sore on my lip, no makeup, and I just did it."
Before I can get another question in edgeways, Lasser tinkers with another therapeutic cup of tea and goes on, segueing into a disjointed comment about American culture "revering our criminals" in a way and how Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer must have seemed like nice guys or their victims wouldn't have been taken in by them.
It's always possible to steer her back on topic, however. And today's topic is "Fast Food, Fast Women," an ensemble dramedy made on a shoestring budget in which she plays a rather desperate, long-time divorcee trying to get back into the dating game.
Written and directed by Amos Kollek, the film focuses on several interconnected New Yorkers fed up with looking for love after a certain age. It has a decidedly Allenesque bent to it, which may have been what drew Lasser to the material, but she's quick to insist the only connection this film has to Woody Allen is her presence.
"I don't get it. (I think) people see this subconsciously because I'm in it," she laughs, shining a broad, kid-with-a-candy-apple smile that doesn't seem to be effected by feeling under the weather.
Dressed in layers (collared shirt, sweatshirt, heavy corduroy jacket) to combat her malady, and absent-mindedly rearranging a cornucopia of home remedies on the table before her in a hotel conference room, the 62-year-old actress -- best known for playing television's "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" in the late 1970s -- gives off an aura of subconscious eccentricity and a certain vulnerability. They're traits that come across in many of her recent film roles, as when she played Ellen Burstyn's best friend in last year's drug trip horror flick "Requiem for a Dream."
But when we first sit down, the conversation begins with her very first film credit, a bit part in the hilarious hit comedy from 1965 that launched her romance with Woody Allen at the same time it launched his film career (he wrote and acted in the film).
|Q: I looked up your filmography and I discovered "What's New Pussycat?" as your first credit. That's one of my all time favorite movies.|
A: You know, I remember nothing about that movie. I knew (Woody) for years before. That's how I was there. He was making the movie, and I was there to visit. I can't remember the movie, I just remember how great that (title) song was. The melody of that song was fantastic. Burt Bacharach. Forget it! So I'm in my first scene in any movie. It was Peter O'Toole and Peter Sellers. And all I have to do is walk from here to there. I trip over a cable, I knock a light down. I was so humiliated!
|Q: So for "What's Up Tiger Lily?" (the cheesy Japanese gangster film for which Lasser and Allen wrote new dialogue to turn it into a badly dubbed comedy) they just put you in a nice safe sound booth! You must have watched that about ten times.|
A: I don't remember. I know we got married during the middle of that. On a lunch break. We went to get a ring in Times Square, I got some dress -- it was mod times, and I got tights and this dress. We'd gotten the blood test -- he did faint at the blood test. We got married in my father's apartment. We got married by a judge who said, "do you take Woody Herman...!" And I thought, "this is my chance." I said, "No!" He also said, "I've never married anyone who's gotten a divorce." [Sharp laugh.]
|Q: I found that "Fast Food, Fast Women" had some Woody Allen influences to it.|
A: People write this and people say this, and I don't get it. (I think) people see this subconsciously 'cause I'm in it.
|Q: How did you get in touch with (your character's) lonely desperation?|
A: I always tend to come from there, but especially a delicious part like this. She's witty, she's funny, it has a rake to it. You don't read that (often). It was not a lot of work in this case. Sometimes you have to go back and go A, B, C. It took me ten times seeing it to say, "Maybe it is a good performance." But I see glaring moments that I wish (I had done something different).
|Q: It was a good performance. What's it like watching yourself in such a touching performance?|
A: That's the best part. The best part is watching yourself do stuff that's not literally in the script. There's room for you to breathe and they let you. For me, the comedy is a certain attitude within that. It's how we all are. There are funny moments. But you know, a joke is underneath. I realized, here's these dark situations of obsession with age, whether it's 35 (as it is with another character) or 60. (But) they have happy endings. And for independent film, isn't that unusual?
|Q: A happy ending, you mean?|
A: Yeah! Usually it ends in more disconnection and more disconnection.
|Q: Like "Requiem for a Dream."|
A: That's a real morality piece. That should be shown in every rehabilitation center.
|Q: And in high schools.|
|Q: It's been quite influential.|
A: It's major. When I read that script, I didn't see that. (Then) when I saw the movie, Marsha Jean Kurtz (one of the other actresses from the apartment building in the movie) was next to me, and this other woman named Suzanne. We're sitting in the theater, and we don't know (director) Darren (Aronofsky) is behind us. Suzanne goes, [pregnant pause] "What is this?" We'd read the script and we're seeing all this stuff (that wasn't on the page), and you feel manipulated. And about five minutes later, she goes "What IS this?" And about ten minutes later, she goes, "WHAT is this?" Darren comes up to us later -- he's very sensitive -- and he goes, "I know Marsha liked the movie, I'm not sure about Louise. Suzanne definitely didn't like it."
Lasser laughs a whispered laugh, and it becomes clear her voice is giving out. So I thank her for her time and skedaddle, wishing her a rapid recovery.