EXCLUSIVE: The Ever-Persistent Alison Brie on Comedy, 'GLOW' and the Mild Humiliations of Auditioning
By John Boone
Despite having played type-A former Adderall addict Annie Edison for six seasons (and perhaps, someday, a movie) on Community, for which she earned a Critics' Choice Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series; despite going joke-for-joke with comedy heavyweights like Will Ferrell (Get Hard), Rebel Wilson (How to Be Single) and Jason Segel and Chris Pratt (The Five-Year Engagement); despite the cosign she's received from comedy maestros ranging from Adam McKay to Judd Apatow; and despite having once worked as a birthday clown named Sunny, Alison Brie has a hard time thinking of herself as a comedian.
"I've never done standup and I've never done improv," Brie says almost timidly, referring to the way in which many people in comedy now work their way through Upright Citizens Brigade or Second City. "I went to theater school" -- she graduated from California Institute of the Arts in 2005 -- "and we did a lot of, like, Shakespeare and Molière and Ibsen. After graduating, I was doing plays in Ventura county. Those were my first jobs where I could support myself as an actress, but it was The Diary of Anne Frank and I was playing Ophelia in Hamlet."
Yet here she is, adding two more comedic projects to her ever-growing IMDb page: GLOW, the new Netflix series from Orange Is the New Black's Jenji Kohan about the "Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling," and The Little Hours, a movie about sex, drugs and mortal sins in a nunnery.
Ultimately, it took booking Community for Brie, 34, to realize that the comedic part of her was something she could tap into. "And use to my advantage," she explains, "which was just never on my radar when I was younger and studying acting. I always wanted to be an actress and really took it very seriously. It's funny to me now that I'm fighting this comedic persona to get back to serious work."
We're sitting in a sunshiny suite at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, where Brie is dutifully promoting The Little Hours. Wearing a floor-length, floral sundress with bright red lipstick, the actress has been doing interviews since 10a.m. Now, six hours later, she is still engaged and engaging, with a theatrical intensity in the excitement over her work.
The new film, out June 30, almost perfectly fits in the center of the Venn diagram that is the actress' career. Based on a novella within The Decameron, a 14th-century text by Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, director Jeff Baena's film is about three bawdy, blasphemous and blood-eating nuns -- Sisters Alessandra (Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) and Ginevra (Kate Micucci) -- at a medieval convent. The Catholic League called it "pure trash."
"Alessandra's kind of the straight man for some of the movie and really everything comedic about what's going on with her comes from a dramatic place," Brie says of playing the "really depressed, serious" sister, who is devastated over being forced to live out her life at the convent. “She fantasized about getting married and having a family. Then this man appears. This young, attractive man...”
That attractive man is Dave Franco, Brie's real-life husband. (The couple wed earlier this year.) The Little Hours is not the first time they've worked together -- in 2013, they made a Funny or Die skit called "Dream Girl," and she recently co-starred in brother-in-law James Franco's upcoming The Disaster Artist -- but Brie never felt any conflict about merging their personal and professional lives.
"My only hesitancy was that the way you are when you're on a set is kind of, you're in 'set mode.' And [I thought], Are our set personalities going to be in sync or is it going to feel weird to see the other person's set personality that you don't usually witness?" she reveals as she forks at a plate of melon. "It wasn't weird at all. It's so fun, actually." Plus, after spending months at a time apart shooting this movie or that TV show, working together gave them an excuse to finally be in the same place. "It felt like, Thank God, I have my person here with me. What a dream job to go to Italy with my husband and our friends and shoot a movie together."
Ahead of The Little Hours, Brie fronts Netflix's newest binge, GLOW, which is loosely based on the obscure, late '80s women's syndicated wrestling series of the same name. "I'd been reading tons of pilots and I'd been like, No. No. No," Brie says. "Everything was just feeling the same." Then she got her hands on the script for GLOW.
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Shortly after our in-person sitdown in L.A., Brie phones me as she's prepping to jet off to New York City to promote the show, which began streaming on June 23. She remembers the initial pitch from her agent, who encouraged her to google the original GLOW. "Five minutes later, my jaw was on the floor," she says. "I was so turned on and excited by the idea of being a part of something like that. The show is so bizarre and weird. It's really its own world -- they rapped and they did sketch comedy! It's a really weird variety show, almost! And there's wrestling."
Playing Ruth Wilder, a classically trained actress who enters the ring in a desperate attempt to find a good role, checked off many of the things Brie had been looking for: Something that would show off a more physical side of herself, but with writing as good as anything she'd read on Mad Men. Brie was obsessed with getting the role, but almost didn’t, because she almost didn't get to audition. "I had heard that they didn't think I was right for the role.
"I was hanging out with my Community cast mates at Ken [Jeong]'s karaoke birthday party and I was with Gillian [Jacobs]," she thinks back, laughing as she recalls the memory. As it happened, Jacobs was a longtime friend of GLOW co-creator Carly Mensch. "I was like, You have to text her right now. You have to tell her how much I'm interested in the role! If they would just let me come read, I'm sure they would be happy about it!" Jacobs texted Mensch the next day, but it wasn't just her Community connections that helped Brie get the part. "Everything in my career has been leading to this job in some ways. Jenji told me that they showed my tapes to [Mad Men creator] Matt Weiner, because she's good friends with him and wanted his opinion on if he thought I would be right for the role."
One reason that Mensch and co-creator Liz Flahive were hesitant to cast Brie was that Ruth requires a look that she had not yet shown in more polished personas on Community and Mad Men. To achieve that "unconventional" appearance, Brie cut her hair into a style inspired by Sigourney Weaver in Alien and wore no makeup while filming. "Liz and Carly kept thinking that we were sneaking more makeup in, which of course was never the case," Brie exclaims. "I remember a day Liz saw me applying something to my lips and she ran over and was like, What is that?! And I was like, It's chapstick! Calm down!"
GLOW was the most difficult audition process of Brie's career, but it wasn't her worst. During a recent discussion following the show’s ATX Television Festival premiere, the conversation turned to changes in the audition process over the past 20 years, and the actress reflected on going out for a bit role on HBO's Entourage. "I had to go in a bikini!" Brie reportedly said. "Or, like, shorts, and the tiniest shorts. And they were like, OK, can you take your top off now?"
The soundbite, sans context, quickly made headlines, and Brie had to clarify on Twitter, "I had a bikini top on UNDER my top. They didn't ask me to get totally topless." She signed the tweet with the sunglasses emoji. When I broach the subject in the hotel room, she has a physical reaction, tossing her head back and sighing sadly.
"I was actually really disappointed with the reaction to that story," she opens up. "I think that actually spoke to my exact point about sexism in this industry. It was disappointing to me that, coming out of a festival where we essentially premiered the first episode of GLOW to an audience to great reviews and much excitement, the main headline was a story about me showing my tits?"
To Brie, it was a distraction from the message of GLOW, which is female empowerment. She would much rather celebrate the efforts of casting directors who are seeking out diversity in their talent: Jennifer Euston, Allison Jones, Ellen Lewis. "I was caught off-guard on this panel and made a joke about auditioning not changing very much from the 1980s until today. That is something that is true in certain ways and obviously not true in other ways. But the way the headlines misconstrued it, because obviously they misinterpreted what I said, made it sound like it was an attack on a specific show, on a specific casting director. Really, it was more like a generalized story. That's not the only audition I've been to where I've had to wear a bikini! It was more the idea that actors, women and men, suffer mild humiliations all the time for the sake of our craft."
Aspiring actors, Brie says, come out of theater school thinking they are going to play roles like Ophelia, and then the next thing they know, they are auditioning for a few lines in a fast food commercial. “It's the nature of the job," she shrugs. "But I think for actors just starting out, there are these early hurdles that you have to undergo where you just think, God, I never pictured this when I was studying Chekhov."