Small Time Crooks

Woody Allen, regular guy

A big time in 'Small Time Crooks'

By Donna Freydkin

May 19, 2000

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Woody Allen isn't really a neurotic, fastidious, brainy New Yorker. Really. He just plays one on the big screen.

Allen may have built his reputation at art-house theaters with critically lauded films that barely broke even in the United States. But at heart, says the writer/director/actor, he's just a simple guy, the antithesis of the intellectual he's portrayed in movies for more than three decades. Allen, 65, insists he's more at home at the neighborhood diner than a chic Soho eatery.

In his latest film, the bank-heist comedy "Small Time Crooks," Allen plays Ray Winkler, a grubby petty criminal who unexpectedly strikes it rich, thanks to his manicurist wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) and her hidden baking skills. But after raking in piles of cash from their cookie business, the two find that money can't buy class. For that, Frenchy turns to her Pygmalion, the suave art dealer David (Hugh Grant) who ends up ditching her when the money dries up.

After years of playing fretful Manhattan literati, Allen says he relished sinking his teeth into his latest role. In fact, says the Oscar-winning director ("Annie Hall," "Hannah And Her Sisters"), the role of Ray Winkler was as tasty as a Coney Island hot dog.

CNN: In "Small Time Crooks," a trashy couple is transformed by its newfound wealth. How do you think money changes people?

Allen: It doesn't change you, but you become more uninhibitedly (in) who you really are. So if you're a louse and if you had no money, you have a tendency to control that. But when you hit it big, you start to let who you really are come out. The real you tends to come out when you don't have to hide it.

CNN: How did fame and wealth affect you?

Allen: Me? I think that I was always a sweet guy -- I mean this -- and that money didn't change me. I'm sweet now. I was never overly pretentious, except in my work a certain amount. I always led a simple life. I got up in the morning, I worked, I practiced my clarinet. I go for walks, I go to the Knicks games. I do the same things I did when I was 25.

CNN: Your film is about a tug of war between fine dining and diners, between high culture and low culture. Where do you fit in, in that equation?

Allen: I'm essentially a low-culture person. If you cut to me at home now, I would be in front of the Knicks and Raptors, with a beer, spaghetti and turkey meatballs. That's a perfectly good evening. I look literate. But the truth of the matter is, my tendency is to watch sports and listen to jazz. It's not so cerebral as I appear to be.

CNN: Did you get a kick out of playing such a hapless criminal?

Allen: There is a connection between the dirty, dramatic things and comedy. In the world of crime, you're always dealing with colorful characters. Through history, there've been a countless amount of comic films that have to do with crime and murder and robbery. It's got a built-in conflict.

CNN: After the critical success of "Sweet and Lowdown", your paean to jazz, why did you choose to make such a broad, even slapsticky, comedy this time?

Allen: This kind of film is easy for me. What's hard for me is really serious film. I always have trouble with those. And the more serious the comedy, the more difficult the film is, because the relationships become complicated. I could do two of these a year, because this is really what I am, after all is said and done and all the pretension falls away. I can make up funny things and broadly comic things very easily.

CNN: Do you think people have a skewed view of you and perceive you as being more serious than you really are?

Allen: People think of me more seriously than I really am. I've done about 30 films and about 26 or 27 of them have just been out-and-out comic films, really. I've done, like, three serious films in my life and a few semiserious films.

CNN: But what about you as an actor?

Allen: I'm not really an actor. I can play myself. And one of the things I can really play is a lowlife. I'm not an actor. I'm a comedian with a very limited range.

CNN: So the comedian in you must have enjoyed working with a cast made up of such noted clowns as Tracey Ullman, Jon Lovitz and Elaine May?

Allen: I'm familiar with the no-pain no-gain philosophy -- that if I'm not suffering and I'm working hard and it's not coming slowly and agonizingly and we're not all suffering and re-shooting and worrying, that you're not gonna get anything out of it. Out of a polite shoot comes a polite movie. So here, this was fun and I was having a good time.

CNN: In this film, you have Hugh Grant and Ullman. In the past, you've cast Goldie Hawn, Leonardo DiCaprio and Julia Roberts, to name but a few. How do you get such big stars to work for you, minus the enormous paychecks?

Allen: Certain people are willing to work for no money if they like the project. You have to to be in my films, because everyone works for the rock-bottom minimum; everyone works for the same amount of money. People that get $10-20 million per picture get $50,000. You've got to want to do the movie.

CNN: Were you surprised when "Sweet and Lowdown" got two Oscar nominations, considering that it's not a commercial film in traditional sense and did not reach a broad audience?

Allen: What can you say about a process where millions of dollars are spent to campaign for something? Is it an honor to be nominated for something when people have spent millions of dollars to push people to do that? When they take ads out and you go to lunch and people call and badger on your behalf? That's not what it should be.

CNN: In "Sweet and Lowdown", guitarist Emmet Ray swooned whenever he met his icon, Django Reinhardt. Is there someone like that, a similar idol, in your own life?

Allen: To me, it's musicians and athletes that are ... for me what Django Reinhardt was to Emmet -- untouchable and great.