Woody Allen's latest film "Blue Jasmine" stars Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Louis C.K., and numerous other recognizable faces. Recognizable all except for one: that of Annie McNamara who plays Jasmine's close friend Nora. "Blue Jasmine" is her first movie.
Though she's acted in theater for years, McNamara's only other film credit is a horror short from 2007 called "Pumpkin Hell." So how does a virtually unknown actress get a role in the latest Woody Allen movie acting alongside Cate Blanchett? First, act in an eight-hour play.
McNamara is a member of the Elevator Repair Service theater ensemble, the company who created "Gatz," a production of "The Great Gatsby" where the entire text is read aloud on stage as actors bring the story to life. Longtime Woody Allen casting director Juliet Taylor saw the lengthy production at The Public Theater last summer and called in three of the show's actors.
"I was already like, this is the best thing that has ever happened to me," McNamara said. "Woody's casting director wants me to see her? It's already amazing." What followed was a brief meeting with Taylor where McNamara says she was simply sized up to see if her personality would mesh with Allen's material.
"Then you meet Woody," McNamara said. "And they say don't be upset, but it's going to be a really short meeting, like the shortest meeting of your life and it doesn't mean that you've done anything wrong." Before meeting the legendary director, McNamara ducked into a restaurant bar and ordered a glass of liquid courage. "I had two sips of Chardonnay, put my napkin on top and said, 'I will be back in two minutes.'"
Allen's first words to her were, "So we're putting together a movie."
"And of course I was like 'Oh good for you!'" she said. "I was like, really Annie?!"
In the coming weeks, McNamara's father fell ill and passed away. She was sitting Shiva in Connecticut when she was supposed to be meeting with Allen for a second time. She wasn't initially going to go, but her mother gave her a nudge.
"Mom said, oh you're going. Dad would want you to go," McNamara said. "I wore the dress that I wore to dad's funeral and thought this is the weirdest thing I've ever done." It was another quick meeting, no more than a minute, and then she headed back up to Connecticut. "And it was great cause then I could tell everybody at Shiva!"
On her fourth visit, McNamara was finally asked to read a scene from the film. "It was just like any other audition," she said of cold reading a scene with Taylor. The only difference? Woody Allen is right behind you. "He can't hear very well anymore," she said. "He's literally on my shoulder, like perched." The next day, McNamara was on a smoke break outside of her midtown Manhattan day job at a financial services company when she got the call that she had gotten the part. She had five days of shoots in New York that she said were surreal, but ultimately one of the most rewarding acting experiences of her life. So what was it like to work with such a renowned writer-director on one of his projects?
"Woody Allen is not precious with his writing," she said of his approach. "He wants you to muck it up a bit and go off book." Allen encouraged her and Blanchett to improvise a bit with their scenes. "He came up to me and said, [she adopts a typical Woody Allen voice] 'This is too funny, how I wrote this. Do something to make it less funny.' And I was like sure OK, meanwhile I can't feel my face because Woody Allen is directing me." Of his directing style, McNamara said, "He's really focused and quiet. He talks to you and works with you but it's really personal."
She also found it enlightening to watch Cate Blanchett, an actress that she admires and considers one of the best in the business, focused on her work and going through a process. Though as professional as she was, McNamara said, Blanchett was also extremely down to earth. "We had lunch and she just wanted to talk about her sons," McNamara said. "She's a lady with a life. It just put a lot of things in perspective for me."
Perspective is something that McNamara is holding on to. Despite being on the verge of a breakout role in a critically acclaimed film, she's kept her 9 to 5 finance job. She took work calls during our interview, and soon had to head out to pick up a copy of "Despicable Me" for her boss' kid.
"I love acting, I love this experience, but I've never been one to live the lifestyle of paycheck to paycheck," she said noting the hardships typical of up and coming actors. "It's wonderfully exciting I hope someone sees me in it and gives me another part in a movie" she said. "But I'm not quitting my day job."
Not yet, anyway.
"Blue Jasmine" opens today in New York and Los Angeles and expands to other cities in the coming weeks.