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All My Woodys: Paul Rust and a Short History of Actors Declared the ‘Next Woody Allen’

The co-creator and co-star of ‘Love’ is just the latest in a long line

Recently, Netflix launched the second season of Love, a series about relationships in L.A. that stars co-creator Paul Rust as Gus, a nebbishy, neurotic aspiring writer courting a snarky, alcoholic played by Gillian Jacobs.

Love has received good reviews, with critics noting that Rust (who got his start at Upright Citizens Brigade) has a demeanor that’s similar to the most famous on-screen nebbishy neurotic. “Rust is surely somebody’s sex symbol,” wrote The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch, “but his initial effect is to make Woody Allen … look like Paul Newman.” Variety’s Brian Lowry observed roughly the same thing: “With his halting, over-sharing, slightly nerdy manner, Rust can’t help but evoke thoughts of a young Woody Allen (even though Gus at one point specifically says the two aren’t alike).”

For the better part of 40 years, being touted as Allen’s heir apparent was a massive compliment. The four-time Oscar-winner was once celebrated for his artistic independence, his bittersweet outlook on love and his distinctive voice — both literally and metaphorically, as many aspiring Allen-ites adopted his stammering, nervous onscreen persona, to say nothing of his pet obsessions with New York, old jazz records, and the fact that we live in a godless universe that’s indifferent to our plight. But in recent years, as Allen has been dogged by allegations that he sexually assaulted his adopted daughter when she was a child, “The Next Woody Allen” has become a trickier designation, indicating a pining for an earlier Allen whose name didn’t carry with it such complicated baggage.

With that in mind, here’s a look at nine actors who’ve been compared to the legendary filmmaker. For some, it’s been a gratifying stamp of approval; for others, it’s been a stigma they’ve fought to distance themselves from.

Albert Brooks

His “Next Woody” Era: Late 1970s–Early 1990s
The Case for His Woody-Ness: No performer on this list has more claim to being the “next Woody Allen” than Albert Brooks. Like Allen, he went from being a stand-up to a writer-director who played an exaggerated version of himself on screen, starting with 1979’s Real Life. Throughout the 1980s, in movies like Modern Romance and Lost in America, he perfected a comic persona of a highly intellectual, deeply insecure everyman. Brooks’ penchant for smart, funny comedies inspired Roger Ebert to write, “The other American filmmaker who resembles Albert Brooks, at least in the way that he writes and directs his own films, and often deals with his own neurosis, is Woody Allen.”

How He Feels About His Woody-Ness: When Ebert mentioned Allen to Brooks in 1991, the writer-director acknowledged (and envied) Allen’s unique situation as an independent, low-budget filmmaker. “I’ll tell you something,” Brooks said. “It is getting to be a harder world to make movies that gross $5 million than it used to be. Woody, bless his heart, had a running start at it, and had about 13 under his belt before the world changed. … I think there’s going to come a time when there will be a pretty tragic meeting. A meeting where some schmuck says to Woody Allen, ‘Well, what’s it about?’ I mean, Woody Allen has had unprecedented freedom, no audience testing, no anything. He doesn’t even have to give them a title.”

Steve Martin

His “Next Woody” Era: Late 1980s–Early 1990s
The Case for His Woody-Ness: Following Allen’s career trajectory, Martin started as a stand-up before catapulting into movies. But rather than becoming a director, Martin focused on acting and writing, engineering sophisticated romantic-comedy screenplays in which he starred. 1987’s Roxanne, a riff on Cyrano de Bergerac, found him playing a big-nosed fireman who helps a good-looking doofus (Rick Rossovich) court a beautiful astronomy student (Daryl Hannah). But 1991’s L.A. Story cemented the Allen connection: The melancholy rom-com was Martin’s love letter to his home and was, as Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers noted, “touted as the West Coast version of Woody Allen’s 1979 classic Manhattan.” Both films made their characters’ romantic troubles as grand and as complicated as the cities in which they lived.

How He Feels About His Woody-Ness: At a 1992 press conference, Martin was asked if he was America’s next Woody Allen. His response, as quoted by Playboy’s David Sheff: “I haven’t slept with one of Mia’s daughters yet.” Soon after, he lamented the joke. “I regret having said that,” he told Sheff. “The fact is, I like them both.”

Edward Burns

His “Next Woody” Era: Mid-1990s
The Case for His Woody-Ness: At the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, the writer-director-star made his feature debut with The Brothers McMullen, a Hannah and Her Sisters-like portrait of a Long Island Irish family. Winning the Grand Jury Prize, the movie became an indie hit, launching Burns’s career as a filmmaker of ensemble romantic comedies like She’s the One and Sidewalks of New York that aspired to be sophisticated looks at modern love in the big city.

How He Feels About His Woody-Ness: When Burns won the Sundance prize, he thanked his mom for encouraging him to watch Annie Hall as a kid, acknowledging his debt to Allen. “My mother was a huge Woody Allen nut,” he said recently. “Probably in ninth grade, she introduced me to films like Take the Money and Run and Bananas. And by the time I got to 11th grade, [I was] being introduced to Annie Hall and Manhattan. And then my senior year of high school, Hannah and Her Sisters was the first film I actually [saw] in the theater.”

His Woody fixation continued after The Brothers McMullen’s success: In a 2007 interview, Burns admitted, “I’d been trying to forge another version of Woody Allen’s career, to the point that when I signed with ICM right after The Brothers McMullen, I signed with Sam Cohn, who was Woody Allen’s longtime agent. The obsession ran that deep.” Eventually, though, he realized he had to shake his Allen fandom for the good of his creative development. “I have to admit, I love most of my films,” he said in that same interview. “But at a certain point, you have to take your influence and find your own voice if you want to become a relevant artist.”

Eric Schaeffer

His “Next Woody” Era: Mid-1990s
The Case for His Woody-Ness: In the 1990s, the writer-director-star consciously fashioned his romantic films — such as 1993’s My Life’s in Turnaround — after Allen’s urban comedy-dramas. Not that critics were ready to anoint him as Woody’s heir apparent. In her review of his 1996 film If Lucy Fell, The New York Times’ Janet Maslin sniffed, “Elle Macpherson swoons over Mr. Schaeffer and calls him ‘a cute, smart, sexy, good-looking guy,’ perhaps laboring under the misconception that Mr. Schaeffer is the next Woody Allen. True, Mr. Schaeffer has made a bittersweet romantic comedy with a New York setting, but that’s as far as the resemblance goes.”

How He Feels About His Woody-Ness: Critics have brutalized Schaeffer for his films’ Allen-ish aspirations. In his dismissive review of 1999’s Wirey Spindell, Times critic A.O. Scott commented, “There have been plenty of good movies about self-absorbed creeps — one or two of them directed by people other than Woody Allen. … [But] being endlessly interested in yourself is not the same as being endlessly interesting.”

As a result, his once-promising indie career has struggled in recent years. But in a 2000 interview with Observer, Schaeffer remained unrepentant, accusing critics of being jealous and insisting that they have it in for him. “If Paul T. Anderson’s name is on Wirey Spindell, it fucking gets nominated for an Academy Award,” he declared. “If Miramax distributes it, it’s nominated for an Academy Award. If a black lesbian woman named Uganda Sharif is the director of that movie, it wins Sundance. Guaranteed.”

Zach Braff

His “Next Woody” Era: Early 2000s–Present
The Case for His Woody-Ness: The Scrubs star started early with his Woody-ness, actually playing Allen’s son in 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery. Since then, the similarities have only grown. His character on Scrubs was a lovable, neurotic Woody type. Then, in 2004, he made the leap to writer-director-star for the Sundance hit Garden State, which aspired to be a zeitgeist-y portrait of young love. And in 2016, Braff went to Broadway, starring in the musical adaptation of Allen’s 1994 comedy Bullets Over Broadway, playing a nervous, pretentious playwright who was definitely the Woody-surrogate role.

How He Feels About His Woody-Ness: Speaking about Bullets Over Broadway, Braff once admitted, “There are certain lines, certain jokes, you can’t say them without sounding like Woody Allen.” But the comparisons have become commonplace for the director-actor, starting with Garden State. At Sundance in 2004, he pushed against the “next Woody Allen” declarations, saying, “I just directed my first movie. I think there’s a longer waiting period to get a gun than there has been for this.” Then, jokingly, he added, “I’m wondering if they’re actually making a statement about my offbeat good looks.” But still, he’ll take the compliment: “Actually, it’s really flattering to get all the comparisons. The thing I’ve always loved about his movies is how he’s able to speak for an entire generation. I hope someday I’m able to do that.”

Louis C.K.

His “Next Woody” Era: 2010–Present
The Case for His Woody-Ness: For much of his career, the man born Louis Székely was a talented stand-up who never had much luck in film and television: His big-screen comedy Pootie Tang and his sitcom Lucky Louie failed to find an audience. But in 2010, C.K. hit upon a winning formula with the Emmy-winning FX series Louie, which he wrote, directed and starred in, playing a neurotic Louis C.K.-like character. If all that wasn’t enough to get the Allen comparisons flying, the show was set in New York and was a frank look at modern relationships. (As if playing into the connection between him and Woody, C.K. briefly hired longtime Allen editor Susan E. Morse to edit Louie.)

In 2014, Esquire’s Stephen Marche made it official, writing, “I think Louis C.K. will become Woody Allen as we remember him, as we still wish he were: the funny, weird, un-ignorable comedian with the widest possible influence on the culture.” Marche envisioned that C.K. could be the new Woody by becoming “the brilliant self-hating schlub that American audiences, and particularly American men, need. It’s a key position in the ecology of show business: the man who has enough confidence to project his own total lack of confidence.”

How He Feels About His Woody-Ness: C.K., who appeared in Allen’s 2013 film Blue Jasmine, admitted to freaking out about auditioning for one of his comedy idols. “I didn’t care if I got the movie or not,” he told Today. “I just loved that I got to do that. … He’s a very big deal in my life — since I was a little kid, I loved Woody Allen.” Speaking to the A.V. Club around the same time, he elaborated further, “[Allen] is the guy who took comedy and added an artistic, challenging filmmaking element to it. And so that’s obviously a great role model for me. … He’s a no-bullshit filmmaker. He doesn’t add the Hollywood spectacle to what he does, and he just does it his way. He also makes movies uniquely, and he doesn’t waste any time or money. That’s the M.O. on him that I understand, and that’s the way I do [Louie]. We get an enormous amount done for the amount of money we spend on the show, because we know what we’re doing.”

Jesse Eisenberg

His “Next Woody” Era: 2010s–Present
The Case for His Woody-Ness: Before he was the star of The Social Network and the Now You See Me films, the actor-writer had a run-in with Allen at 16: Eisenberg wrote a play about Allen’s early life, which found its way to him — resulting in Eisenberg’s receiving a cease-and-desist letter from Allen’s lawyers. Since then, he’s appeared in Allen’s To Rome With Love and Café Society, playing, as The Atlantic’s Megan Garber put it, “an unsubtle stand-in for Allen himself” thanks to Eisenberg’s characters’ stammering, anxious line-readings.

And when Eisenberg’s play The Spoils, in which he also starred, played in London last summer, Telegraph theater critic Dominic Cavendish opened his review by wondering, “Is Jesse Eisenberg the new Woody Allen?” and went on to declare “the 32-year-old New Yorker is a renaissance-man in the Allen mold.”

How He Feels About His Woody-Ness: Eisenberg knows that he gets compared to Allen both for his nervous onscreen persona and for his writing ambitions. “I write for The New Yorker, put on plays, so yeah, people make that association,” he said last year. “I came to him later than a lot of people who end up enjoying him do.” When asked if he shared Allen’s cynical perspective of the world, Eisenberg responded, “I think my writing is different because it has more to do with a generational divide than a philosophical one. I always think that Woody is presenting something authentic, given his worldview, which I find thoughtful, contemplative and realistic, but I would say it’s less than optimistic. … He’s my favorite writer.”

Chris Rock

His “Next Woody” Era: 2014
The Case for His Woody-Ness: Rock has long been a massive Allen fan, even if no one thought of him as the filmmaker’s heir apparent. Surely that’s partly due to not-so-subtle racism, but Rock’s edgy sensibility does seem far removed from Allen’s more-refined tone. Nonetheless, the comparisons finally began happening with the release of Top Five, which Rock wrote, directed and starred in, playing an A-list comic actor who wants to start making more serious films. “Top Five is Chris Rock’s answer to Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, a film about a comedian who doesn’t feel funny any more, Geoffrey Macnab of The Independent wrote. And The Guardian’s Catherine Shoard observed that the onscreen rapport Rock has with love interest Rosario Dawson was comparable to the one shared by Allen and Diane Keaton in their 1970s pairings.

How He Feels About His Woody-Ness: He’s thrilled with it. Back in 2010, Rock was asked how long he could stay funny — and if he aspired to be the next Bob Hope, an example of an evergreen comic institution. “Can I become the next Woody Allen? That’s the real question,” Rock replied. “Can I keep it going like him? Woody Allen’s still making cutting-edge fucking movies. Vicky Christina Barcelona is as good as any movie that year. Show me the 25-year-old that made a better movie that year! It’s as good as Paul Thomas Anderson’s last movie, or as Tarantino’s. And the guy is 74 years old!” And: “I like Woody, I feel Woody,” Rock said when Top Five came out, although he acknowledged he’s not part of the target audience. “I mean, I know that the movie ain’t made for me,” he added. “I know he’s not like, ‘I can’t wait till black guys from Brooklyn see this!’ You never have Woody Allen arguments at the barbershop.”

Lena Dunham

Her “Next Woody” Era: 2010–Present
The Case for Her Woody-Ness: Starting with her 2010 film Tiny Furniture, writer-actor-director Lena Dunham drew comparisons to Allen. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody called Tiny Furniture, “the reflection of an authentic sensibility that suggests the prospect of something comparable to what Woody Allen has achieved,” going on to say, “Annie Hall came out when Woody Allen was 41; Lena Dunham is 24.”

Once Girls hit in 2012, writers jumped at the chance to anoint the rising talent the new Allen, including The New York Times and Vogue, whose John Powers noted, “Both make movies about the comic tribulations of brainy, plain-looking people who are smarter and more humiliated than those around them. Yet Dunham already seems the more grown-up of the two, and not only because she doesn’t romanticize Manhattan … or hoard all the best one-liners for herself — she lets her other cast members shine.”

How She Feels About His Woody-Ness: Filmmakers normally love being compared to Allen. Not Dunham, who’s been a sharp critic of his. Appearing on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast in 2014, she said, “In the latest Woody Allen debate, I’m decidedly pro-Dylan Farrow and decidedly disgusted with Woody Allen’s behavior,” adding, “I’m not gonna indict the work. I think that you can decide that you don’t want to support the work of somebody who has molested a child. … [But] I’m not comfortable living in a world where art is part of how we convict people of crimes. … I mean for me, I haven’t wanted to watch his movies for a long time, partially because of who I think he is and partially because I think they got really bad.”