Joan Allen for “The Contender”

Joan Allen may not be a movie star in the conventional sense of the term, but her various Oscar nominations confirm that she is one of America’s most talented actors. Her latest performance, as Vice Presidential nominee who is victim of a smear campaign, may well garner her a third Oscar nomination, though it is not exactly a priority in the acclaimed actor’s life. Allen spoke to Paul Fischer during last month’s Toronto Film Festival.

The unique thing about Rod Lurie’s exceptional political drama The Contender, is not only how sharply observed the script is, but that it is a film containing actors, as opposed to movie stars. Not that the likes of Jeff Bridges, Gary Oldman and two-time Oscar nominee Joan Allen are exactly lightweights when it comes to the movies, but they remain first and foremost actors. In the case of The Contender, written and directed by former film critic Lurie, the studios may have wanted Michelle Pfeiffer for the plum role of the much attacked vice presidential candidate, but Lurie wanted Allen – he wrote the part specifically with her in mind. “I knew,” Lurie told me, “if I got her, the movie will be a success. Because she won’t do a bad script and she’d never screw it up.”

He was right, and Allen got another great role. Not unfamiliar to the world of politics, Allen was lauded for her portrayal of Pat Nixon in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (receiving her second Oscar nomination). This time around, she has gone from playing the complex wife of a politician to a politician, yet the actress is far from political herself, she insists. “I’m not very political at all,” which was precisely one important reason why she was drawn to The Contender, Allen explains following the film’s premiere screening at Toronto. “I thought I’d just see if I can pull off being a senator.”

The scenario of Lurie’s script seems simple enough: When the Vice President of the United States dies suddenly, Senator Laine Hanson (Allen) is chosen by the President (Jeff Bridges), to be the Vice Presidential replacement. Dogged with opposition from both parties, Hanson is challenged to prove that she is a strong enough politician to handle the job’s responsibilities. However, during the confirmation process, the fierce congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman) digs up secret information about her past personal life that sparks a huge political controversy.

In order to get into the skin of a US senator, Allen was able to meet at least one actual Senator from Arkansas, who was open to talking to the actress. “.She gave us an hour, we got to see her office, how her staff runs, and it was really informative. “I got to see how her office operates. She said she didn’t feel that Washington is a boys’ club and that she is taken seriously. She felt it has become a very level playing field and that was important for me given that my character has the opportunity to become the first female vice president.”

In playing this seemingly tough, and at timers, cold politician, Allen IS able to strike a balance here with that sense of coldness and a certain emotional vulnerability which seeps through the character. The actress wanted to show Laine Hanson as both a politician and a woman, she says. “It was important that her vulnerability also be there, because her ideals are so strong and clear, I didn’t want to make her like a saint, or totally inaccessible that you couldn’t relate to her. So it was important to us that then process DOES start to get to her. It was important that it be seen that she has a human side to her, as long as it remained a matter of degree.”

Allen’s performance, which has so much range, may well bring her a third Oscar nomination, but the serious actress who shuns the Hollywood spotlight, admits that winning an Oscar is not really “one of my career goals” though she does concede that it would be nice to get that recognition from one’s peers. “And I think my mother would be thrilled,” she says, half smilingly.

Still, The Contender, with or without golden statuettes attached — is obviously dear to her heart. Yet though she has had her share of strong women ton play on screen, Allen still says how tough it is to find good scripts. “It gets harder and harder, and I feel fortunate that Rod chose to write this for me. And stand by me. If it had been a full on studio film, I would not have been cast.” Allen is respected in Hollywood, but she is hardly a member of the $20m a movie club. On that level, she remains philosophical. “If you can bring in the multi-millions, if you can attract people globally, you deserve that money.”

Her only objection, she says quietly, is that when one actor gets $20 million, “Everyone else can go scratch for scale. I get frustrated that there’s less and less of a middle class in acting.” Still, Allen, the only actor in her family, adds that she is not complaining. “Look, I have a sister who is an executive assistant, and another sister who manages a Subway sandwich shop, and a brother who’s a maintenance guy in a building.” It is not surprising that when John Travolta asked her during the filming of Face/Off if she was being well paid, Allen could say unhesitatingly “Yeah! For me.” And laughs uproariously in the process.

Born in Illinois, she attended Eastern Illinois University and, in 1978, joined fellow graduate John Malkovich in Chicago to be part of the Steppenwolf theatre company. Allen moved to New York in the early ’80s, quickly making her mark on the stage. She won a Tony Award for her work in Burn This (also with Malkovich) and a Tony nomination for The Heidi Chronicles. Then she chose to hit her mark and make movies.

Her first movie role, a small part, was in Compromising Positions, and she appeared in Searching For Bobby Fischer, In Country, Ethan Frome, Mad Love, Peggy Sue Got Married and Tucker: The Man And His Dream. Then there came Nixon, The Crucible, Face/Off, The Ice Storm and Pleasantville. Allen lives in New York City, where her relative anonymity on the celebrity front suits her just fine. “As it is, I wash my face, I put on sweatpants and I walk my daughter to school. I’m on the bus. I’m on the subway. I’d feel like every time I go out I’d have to look like this,” says she, indicating her “dressed-up” look for this interview.

Next up for Allen is a considerable change of pace from The Contender: The TV miniseries The Mists Of Avalon, from the classic novel. She stars in this story of the women behind King Arthur with Michael Vartan, Julianna Margulies and Anjelica Huston; Allen plays Morgause, the villain. “It was really fun. I cast bad spells. I get to draw a dagger!” As opposed to being stabbed in the back as a politician? Allen laughs at the analogy.