Wallace Shawn, between Woody Allen and Israel

Wallace Shawn with co-star Gina Gershon in “Rifkin’s Festival,” a new movie from Woody Allen set in San Sebastian, Spain.
Photo by MPI Media Group

By Andrew Lapin

Headlining a Woody Allen movie in 2022 is a dicey proposition — and Wallace Shawn, the star of the filmmaker’s latest, is the first to acknowledge that.

Shawn’s lead role in “Rifkin’s Festival,” arriving in U.S. theaters after already opening in Europe, is in one sense a Woody Allen archetype: a neurotic New York Jewish intellectual, in this case a retired film professor and failed novelist named Mort Rifkin, who has various insights about life, love and cinema while accompanying his unfaithful wife (Gina Gershon) to the San Sebastian Film Festival in scenic coastal Spain.

But in another sense, Shawn knows that, by agreeing to work with Allen after the 2014 resurfacing of allegations by members of the Farrow family that he had molested his daughter Dylan in the early 1990s, he is aligning himself with an industry pariah. And he’s done so very publicly, not only by starring in “Rifkin’s Festival,” but also by penning editorials explaining his decision to continue working with the 86-year-old filmmaker, most recently in November for the film industry publication The Wrap.

“I’m someone who would like to be liked by absolutely everybody,” Shawn says. “So even to say something that some people won’t like is upsetting and frightening.”

And yet, Shawn — who used his piece to re-litigate Allen’s side of the story, as well as that of Dylan, Mia and Ronan Farrow, before ultimately concluding, “It’s possible for a person to be quite convinced that certain things happened, even though they didn’t happen” — believes he is not alone in his insistence that Allen is innocent of the charge that he abused his daughter.
“I think there are quite a few people who feel the way I do, and who have not quite dared to say so,” he said.

“Rifkin” was shot in 2019, with European financing, after American public backlash against Allen had already swelled to the point where the filmmaker’s longtime distribution deal with Amazon Studios was cancelled, and many actors who had previously starred in his films had publicly announced they would no longer work with him.

Since then, things have only gotten worse for Allen. A major publisher dropped its scheduled printing of his memoirs following protests led by his son Ronan Farrow, and HBO aired a 2021 documentary series that was heavily sympathetic to the Farrows’ allegations.

The 78-year-old Shawn, whose longtime partner is the Guggenheim- and MacArthur-winning fiction writer Deborah Eisenberg, has had a long and fruitful career outside of Allen. He has acted in hundreds of movies and TV series, lending his distinctive, nasally vocal cadence to “The Princess Bride,” “Toy Story,” “Clueless,” “Gossip Girl,” “Young Sheldon” and many more works. He’s also an influential playwright who made a name for himself in the arthouse world after co-writing and starring in the landmark 1981 film “My Dinner With André.” But his screen debut was in Allen’s 1979 film “Manhattan,” and he has appeared in six Allen movies in total.
That longtime connection isn’t lost on him: “Am I grateful to Woody, and is that part of my reason why I seem to be motivated to speak up for him and his defense? Yes,” Shawn said.

A longtime member of the left-wing Jewish group Jewish Voice for Peace, Shawn also discussed his recent writing on Israel; his father, the famous New Yorker editor William Shawn; and his often lacking sense of his own Jewishness.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You shot this movie in 2019, when, already, a lot of Hollywood had decided that it no longer wanted to work with Woody Allen. His distributor had dropped his previous film. Did you think even at the time when you were making it that “Rifkin’s Festival” would ever come out in America?

I didn’t think we’d ever see it here. I’m totally amazed. I’m shocked — I thought it would never show in America. And that’s what I said to everybody: “Well, come on over to Spain and watch the movie when it comes out.”

In your piece in The Wrap, it seems like you’re acknowledging that choosing to work with Allen now isn’t an easy decision to make. You can understand why other people might be wrestling with it.

I mean, I believe that Woody’s daughter is sincere — that she thinks she’s telling a story about something that really happened. And you’ve got to confront that, and, you know, mostly when people tell you, “This happened to me, I remember it,” you believe them.

However, there are cases where people think they remember things but those things didn’t actually happen. I mean, you know, in the case of child molestation, the McMartin preschool case in California in the ’80s had dozens of children who remembered sincerely — they believed that they remembered — these “Satanic rituals” in which they were molested, and in which animals were tortured and killed, and none of this stuff actually happened. There are different psychological situations in which it’s possible, but you have to take it seriously. And Dylan Farrow is an appealing person and [when] you see her on video, of course you have to take it seriously.

Woody Allen famously has this persona of the Jew who has rejected a lot of Jewish thought — such as a belief in God and similar ideas. Where do you come down on that? Do you find yourself aligned with him spiritually? Or do you have a different outlook on your upbringing and your Judaism?

I think [I’m] very similar to Woody. I’m not religious. I have never been a believer. The Jewish, what can I say, commitment to being a good person, to social justice — that’s pretty strong in Woody and in me. I think that part of the tradition has come down to both of us.

My parents were not believers. They grew up in Chicago. I think that my father’s parents spoke Yiddish. I think my mother’s mother kept a kosher household. But they moved to New York when my father was 21. And that was like a second immigration. It was like a new country, and they left everything behind, including all Jewishness, really. But my father, my God, he was a typical Jew in many, many ways. And he did tell me that when he would meet and talk with [famous Jewish author and New Yorker fiction contributor] I.B. Singer, that he felt some kind of unusual connection. They were both Jews. He would have understood Yiddish, but he didn’t speak it. I mean, even Woody will use Yiddish words. My father didn’t.

Both my brother and I are upset that our parents showed, frankly, so little curiosity about our ancestors. Undoubtedly, relatives in Europe were killed, and I don’t know who they are.

These would have been people that my parents, if they’d shown more interest, I could have found out about them.

I am not into identifying that much with a group. I just don’t. But yes, I feel that connection on a daily basis. I feel, in myself, the Jewishness of myself, in my personality and my sense of humor — in every aspect of my life it’s part of me. Woody, he’s not preoccupied with Jewishness, but other people who see him all over the world think of him as a Jewish figure, which he certainly is.

Your character is not particularly successful at his artistic endeavors. He’s sort of spent his life squandering his promise and realizing that the culture has passed him by. It seemed like a bit of a different tone for Woody Allen. Did you feel that?

Well, it has a wonderful trajectory, the story of the film. He has been a very ambitious guy. He not only wants to be a writer, he wants to be as good as Dostoyevsky. Very, very ambitious. And he realizes that that is his false self; that’s not authentic. And it’s not what he should be doing. And he realizes that actually, what he loves is film, and teaching film, and even he admits about himself he has a rather narrow list of films that he is passionately devoted to. It’s a rather beautiful conclusion to the man’s story.

I am much more like the original Mort, very ambitious and wanting to be Dostoyevsky. I mean, that’s me. Woody is a weird mixture, because he consciously I don’t think had those crazy ambitions. And yet, he became someone who created great films, even though his own attitude is still, in a way, just trying to do something amusing that will please a few people.

In this film, there’s a running gag about the pretentious young filmmaker who thinks he can solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And in the context of that, I noticed you had written an essay in The Nation this month about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Well, that’s a very funny line in the movie. And as I say, I’m more like the early Mort who wants to be Dostoyevsky. I mean, I have, in a way, absolutely no qualifications to write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am, from the point of view of the public, a guy who does voices of animals in cartoons. But somehow that hasn’t deterred me. I wake up in the morning and I think of myself as that serious guy. I can’t help it. I don’t see myself as anything else. So I feel I have the right to comment on the most serious political matters.

And of course, it’s hilarious that this guy in the movie, Philippe [Louis Garrell], thinks that he can make a movie that will solve the conflict. I didn’t say the line, but I’m in the scene watching him say the line. Did I get a special kick out of it? Compared to anybody else in the room? Probably.

Between Woody Allen and Israel, you really like choosing topics that bring people together.

[Laughs] Well, yeah. I first wrote about Israel in 2008, when it was also frightening. Now there are a lot of people who say some of the things I say. In 2008, not so many — and there were more people who would have expressed anger. But you know, in writing the Nation piece, I still contacted a selected number of people whom I know and whom I’m close to, to say, “I have to admit to you that I’ve written this piece, and I know you’re not gonna necessarily agree with it. But you know, this is why I did it, blah blah.”

And similarly with writing about Woody, which I first did actually in 2014, I’ve had painful conversations.

On a personal level, do you feel like these things have affected your friendships or relationships?

Yeah, I mean, the Woody Allen thing raises so many connected issues. But also the Israeli subject, I mean, yes, I’ve had some painful experiences with people that I know, but not as bad as it could be. And certainly not as bad as it gets. I mean, I don’t do social media. I know a lot of people who do — nobody has told me that it’s gotten literally dangerous or frightening.

I would love to ask you about your thoughts on “The French Dispatch,” since Wes Anderson has said he made the movie in part as a tribute to your father. What did you think of the film?

He said that?

That’s what I heard.

Really! I actually have not had the nerve to see the movie yet. I love Wes Anderson. And, you know, several of his movies, particularly the one in the summer camp [“Moonrise Kingdom”], was one of my favorite movies I’ve ever seen.

I am a little afraid to see it because I’m very sensitive on the subject of my father, maybe more sensitive than about myself. I’ll see it, but I’m afraid of it a little bit.

I also feel, as Wes Anderson does, that there was something absolutely amazing about that magazine in my father’s time, both in the content and the incredible way that it was run. You know, there were people who were sitting in a room, not coming up with material to be published — they were getting a check. They were paid. And also they published things that my father found interesting that there might not have been anyone else who was interested, and he didn’t care. If he thought it was interesting, it would be in the magazine. And I am a child of The New Yorker.

Your movie is full of these classical-movie parodies where they’re made Jewy: “Rosebud” from “Citizen Kane” becomes “Rose Budnick.” What were they like to shoot?

What can I say? Grown-up people don’t usually get to play as we do. And here we were doubly playing, putting on the costumes of the characters in Bergman and Fellini… Playing is quite fun. You know, if you don’t do it, I recommend it to you, to act. It’s a beautiful thing.

—JTA News and Features

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