Tough Talk With Corey Stoll, That Ernest Hemingway Guy in “Midnight in Paris”

Tough Talk With Corey Stoll, That Ernest Hemingway Guy in “Midnight in Paris”
Stoll as Hemingway.
(Sony Pictures Classics)

Blunt and declamatory, the mythical Ernest Hemingway played by Corey Stoll in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” was one of the great comic turns of 2011.  As imagined by the dithering Gil (Owen Wilson) on his revelatory nocturnal jaunts, the Big H. spoke in emphatic aphorisms, straight from the horse’s mouth: “No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.” It was enough to make any wimpy wannabe novelist wish they had been a rugged, hard-drinking Lost Generation bohemian – while reconsidering his sorry lot as his materialistic fiancée’s doormat. 

Stoll is so funny in the faux-macho part he received an Independent Spirit Award nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category; the avian trophies will be presented on February 25, the day before the Oscars. The 35-year-old New Yorker, previously a Drama Desk nominee as Outstanding Featured Actor for his work in Lynn Nottage’s play “Intimate Apparel,” has built an impressive stage and screen resume over the last decade, being best known as Detective Tomas “T.J.” Jaruszalski in “Law and Order: L.A.” He will soon be seen in the indie “Decoding Annie Parker” and “The Bourne Legacy” and will play a womanizing congressman in the Netflix series “House of Cards,” a political thriller to be directed by David Fincher. Minus his Hemingway wig, Stoll recently sat down with ARTINFO to talk about the importance of being Ernest.

I gather that when you were called in to meet Woody Allen for “Midnight in Paris,” you didn’t know you were being considered for the Hemingway part.
No. It was just a meeting. I showed up and we talked a little about the play I was doing, Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge.” I think Woody had seen it because Scarlett Johansson was in it. A few days before the meeting, I tried to press her for any information. She said, “All I know is that the character’s really manly.” So when I met Woody I wore my cowboy boots.

Was he familiar with your TV work?
I’d sent him some clips, but I can’t imagine him sitting around watching cop shows. He’d probably just seen me in the play. I had a great wig and a moustache in it, and I was playing this incredibly honorable, manly sort of character. I think he just thought I’d be a good fit.

How did you feel when you discovered you’d been cast as Hemingway?
It was thrilling. People ask you as an actor, “What role would you most want to play?” And I would never have thought “Hemingway,” but the second the part was given to me, I thought, “This is the coolest.” He lived such an incredible life.

Did you feel a certain responsibility?
There was definite fear, especially once I started getting into the research. You Google Hemingway and come across things like the Hemingway Look-alike Contest in Key West. So many people have dedicated a large part of their lives to him and to his image. I respect him completely and love him as a writer, but this is a comedy and we’re taking the piss a little bit. I was definitely nervous that I was going to have legions of barrel-chested, bearded men coming after me with shotguns.

I believe Woody asked you not to do too much research.
Right, because he didn’t want me to do a realistic portrayal. On one level, I’m the idealized Hemingway as opposed to the real person. But I think Woody was happy I was familiar with Hemingway’s writing. He mentioned “The Green Hills of Africa,” which is definitely not his best writing, but is totally his macho-est.

How did you prepare physically?
I took boxing classes. I was invited to a fishing trip in Key West, but I couldn’t make it unfortunately. It would’ve been perfect, although I probably would have had to accept how bad a fisherman I am. Not doing it, I could at least pretend I’m good at fishing.

You have a deep voice whereas Hemingway’s was quite high.
It’s surprising when you hear it. It’s not only high, it’s almost lispy, in contrast with the voice that comes off the page. It doesn’t really fit.

And Hemingway was more stylish than you are in the movie?
Exactly. The original costumes were much more refined than what I ended up wearing. Hemingway was a clotheshorse, really well put together. Woody said he should look like he just came off of safari. In a way, I was playing the myth that Hemingway himself helped propagate.

Because Gil is so oppressed by his fiancée, he clearly needs to acquire some guts. It’s as if he conjures up Hemingway in his fantasy because of that.
I think Heningway functions in the movie like Tony Roberts did in some of the earlier Woody Allen movies, like “Annie Hall.” He’s more alpha, less neurotic, less tied up in his own insecurities than the Woody character or Woody surrogate character. He’s all about sexual appetite and not denying yourself anything. The Alan Alda character in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is like that, too. There’s something very foolish about that character, but there’s also something that the Woody character looks up to. It’s somebody who’s unselfconsciously confident.

The Bogart character in “Play It Again, Sam” has similar resolve.
That’s what I thought Hemingway would be like. Until I knew what the story was going to be, I thought Gil was going to be visited by this cast of characters in the present day and that I’d just be a figment of his imagination. But Woody took the idea further than that.

Were some of your lines written in the staccato language Hemingway used?
Yes. It was scary to be in front of Woody playing this iconic figure, but it was all on the page and I just followed the punctuation. It was inherently funny.

Did you think about Hemingway’s decline and his suicide?
A little. It was incredibly sad and maybe inevitable, based on his family history of suicide and the trajectory that he set himself on after World War I. I think what he saw in the war and his sense of mortality informed his writing and his fascination with death for the rest of his life. But I didn’t think about it too much. I was playing him when he was the height of his powers, when he had just published “The Sun Also Rises” [1926] and was about to publish “A Farewell to Arms” [1929]. He was in his prime, and that, of course, is what Gil has to see. Gil doesn’t want to meet the guy with dementia, padding around in Idaho. He wants to see Hemingway at his most robust. He’s his hero.

Do you think Hemingway’s machismo was genuine, or do you sense he was trying to prove something to himself?
I think it’s both. He was braver than me and most people I’ve ever met and faced death and pain more head-on than anyone I’ve ever met. But maybe that came from some deep insecurity – I don’t know. He was truly obsessed with testing himself. The stuff he saw in the war was so far outside his suburban life in Oak Park, Illinois, that I think it split him in two, and his whole life afterward was dedicated to figuring out what he learned.

Your Hemingway experience was extended when you read some of his letters in a literary forum at the JFK Library in Boston in December.
It was great being on stage with these scholars who have studied Hemingway for years, but sort of ridiculous because I don’t know who he really was. But I realized how lucky I was as an actor to have had the opportunity to pretend to be him and to have everybody pretend to believe me. Maybe I didn’t learn anything about the real Hemingway but to have embodied him even for a brief time was a privilege.

Do you think the Hemingway image has got any relevance for men today?
I think so. There have been so many strides in equality since then and it’s unquestionably better for both men and women, but both sexes are still trying to figure out their roles and how to be equal and yet specific to their gender. I think the theme of “Midnight in Paris” is that nostalgia is a dead end and doesn’t fit the world today, but I can’t deny there was some joy in being unapologetically macho.