It has been said that Ernest Hemingway wrote the first six word novel: For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn.
Hemingway once described his writing as, "Getting the most from the least." Well, the same can certainly be said of Corey Stoll in the film Midnight in Paris. How else do you steal a Woody Allen movie in less than fifteen minutes of screen time?
In Midnight in Paris, Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) runs into a writer who calls himself "Francis Fitzgerald," and if that isn't strange enough, F. Scott then introduces him to a rakish fellow who declares himself to be: "Hemingway." Owen Wilson's blue eyes widen. "You like my book. Yes. It was a good book because it was an honest book and that's what war does to men, and there's nothing noble and fine about dying in the mud unless you die gracefully, and then it's not only noble, but brave."
Actor Corey Stoll. Portrait by Leslie Hassler
Hemingway, brilliantly paraphrased by Woody Allen and perfectly delivered by Corey Stoll, lives again; his masculinity, thirst for life and women so palpable that he bounds off the screen and nearly lands in our laps.
Leaving the film, one has the sense that one has actually "met" Hemingway: an impossible dream, come true.
A written line of Hemingway is perfect in its simplicity. He has captured the art of the unsaid. Stoll's voice doesn't sound like the actual Hemingway (thank God), whose voice was known to be high and pitchy. It's as we wish it sounded; the ultimate fantasy. And the cadence of Stoll's voice folds beautifully into the way Hemingway wrote his sentences. In a strangely circuitous way, hearing Corey Stoll speak the words of Hemingway may be just as honest an experience as hearing the great writer speak them himself.
For our meeting, Corey Stoll is already seated in a booth, perfectly on time, in a Los Angeles diner so picturesque that it looks like an episode of Twin Peaks. We debate ordering cherry pie to complete the scene, but luckily, there isn't any.
Hemingway has hardly been the beginning of the swoon-worthy parts for Stoll. On YouTube, there is a blow-by-blow video of Stoll having the mustache he wore to play the part of T.J. Jaruszalski on Law & Order, shaved off. "It was my idea!" One of the viewer-comments below reads as follows: "Tears, tears, cause the 'stache made him sexy!" Is Yeats alive and trolling the internet? As a follow-up, will there be some sort of facial-hair haiku?
Corey Stoll played opposite Scarlett Johansson in A View From a Bridge at Lincoln Center. A lifelong admirer of Allen's he told Johansson that of all her "fancy friends," Allen was the man he would most like to meet. But when Woody Allen came to see the show, he felt shy, and went home afterwards. (If Woody Allen, both a man and a religion, feels shy, how can the rest of us ever hope to leave the house?) But a few weeks later, Stoll spotted Woody Allen in the third row. And even better, Woody was there for him. Stoll then got a message from Allen reading, "We want you to play Ernest Hemingway. Don't tell anyone." Stoll's girlfriend has since framed the message.
If Hemingway is a first introduction to Stoll, it is a surprise to see him as T.J. whose only hair is his mustache. Or on IMDB as himself, without any hair at all. In L.A., a town where most men and women are wearing hair that doesn't actually belong to them, it is a refreshing change to see someone who pretends for a living, not pretending. Stoll is, in fact, conventionally handsome. But he doesn't rely on playing that persona. It's hard not to feel that with Stoll's turns as both leading man and character actor that he is transcending the rules, and as he does it, he's changing them.
How did Woody Allen tell him to prepare for Hemingway? "He told me not to listen to recordings, or to read the biographies. He wanted me to be the Hemingway you get when you read him. To be the writerly voice." When I note how many different kinds of men he is able to play, he says, "I love wearing a mask. I love using accents." I ask him if he's more comfortable being other people and immediately he looks uncomfortable. "I think it's more interesting. I find being someone else more interesting than being myself. Although now I'm starting to play roles that are closer to me. T.J was closer to me."Although he found acting, not as man, but as a boy:
"I had a camp counselor who taught improv. And it was the first time in my life where I could bring my whole self to it. The kids who wanted to be actors really creeped me out; the jocks and the comfortable kids who liked to show off. This was the first time that I felt I could bring my dysfunctional self to it. I could bring my unattractive side to it and performing was not about being pretty or impressive or cool. My weakness as well as my strength and that people still thought it was funny or compelling."
As he says this it occurs to me that we love Hemingway all the more for his flaws and his failings. Personally, and in his characters. Destroyed by war, alcoholic, suicidal, tragic, and always compelling. Stoll says, "Acting is one of the few arenas in which our flaws and our fallibilities are considered a plus."
Actor Corey Stoll. Portrait by Leslie Hassler.
Next up is The Bourne Legacy with director Tony Gilroy: (the fourth in the series) that is so top-secret that Corey can't say anything about it except that Jeremy Renner (Hurt Locker) is in it. "It was a cloak and dagger situation. I handed back the pages at the end of every day. I only got to read the script in its entirety once. I signed the longest waiver I've ever seen -- I don't even know what happened to me!" The film also stars Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Albert Finney, and Joan Allen.
In A Movable Feast, his book recounting his youth in Paris, Hemingway wrote: "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you. A movable feast."
It begs the question, "When was Corey's Movable Feast?" He thinks silently to himself, for a moment, and then his eyes move slowly across the table and suddenly look up. "I think it's now." he says.
Broadway, television stardom, Woody Allen, the Bourne franchise, working with the top talent; What can I say? When you're right, you're right.
Tonight: November 10th screening of Midnight in Paris, followed by Q&A with Corey Stoll.
See more of photographer Leslie Hassler's work here.
Follow Cynthia Ellis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CynthiaJEllis