Allison Williams, daughter of Brian and vexing star of HBO's Girls, talks to Bruce Handy about her sometimes controversial character, and the time she surprised Lena Dunham with a glass of water to the face.
by Bruce Handy, Vanity Fair
Allison Williams; courtesy of WWD/Steve Eichner
Some call it the Millennial Sex and the City. Others see it as a female successor to coming-slowly-of-age films such as Diner and I Vitelloni. The discerning recognize it as simply the best comedy on television (except for maybe Raising Hope). Girls, conceived, mostly written, and often directed by Lena Dunham, returns to HBO for its second season on Sunday, January 13, meaning the first month of the year won't be the usual total bust.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Allison Williams, who plays Marnie Michaels, best friend to and former roommate of Dunham's Hannah Horvath. (The show's central quartet of alliteratively named characters is rounded out by Jemima Kirke's Jessa Johansson and Zosia Mamet's Shoshanna Shapiro.) Marnie, beautiful and bossy and Marcia Brady-like, is something of a lightning rod on the show. Highlights from our conversation:
Bruce Handy: Certain colleagues of mine and I have had heated debates about Marnie: whether she's a good or bad friend to Hannah, whether she's loving in her way or just a narcissistic control freak. How do you keep her this side of likable?
Allison Williams: Well, I think, first of all, that's a huge compliment, but it's a testament not mostly to my acting but to the writing, which is so good. I think it would be very easy to turn a character like Marnie, who's always laying down the law and who's so type A, into an unsympathetic character. But when she makes decisions that are not great, or when she's unkind, it humanizes her in a weird way because her chief characteristic is to strive to be perfect at all times. We start to see someone who seems to have it together start to come apart. You get to see that she, too, is just struggling along with the rest of us. I feel like I'm always on Marnie's side, but in this second season I definitely test the limits of her . . . [laughs] ability to be sympathetic. I hope successfully.
I'm in my 50s and sometimes I sense people my age are maybe more sympathetic to the characters than are people in their 20s, though you'd think it would be the other way around.
In my life I know someone representing every conceivable demographic who watches the show, and their comments are kind of like what you were just saying. I think people who are still in the throes of their 20s, and going through this sort of existential wandering, find the show a little bit too close to home to be able to enjoy it thoroughly. Whereas people who are kind of looking back on this experience can sit back with their hands clasped behind their head and just watch. They know that, because they're sitting on a couch somewhere watching this show, that everything's going to be O.K.
Like watching a World War II movie and knowing the Germans aren't going to win.
But when you're in it--when you're in your 20s--it's still a total question whether everything's going to be O.K. You don't know what your next job is going to be like. You don't know if the guy you're dating is right for you--or the girl you're dating. There are so many questions, and when you're in the trenches trying to answer them and just trying to survive and be able to buy dinner for yourself, it's probably a little bit frustrating watching our show. Maybe that audience is looking for more answers and fewer questions, but I think those issues will be answered sort of very slowly on the show--and in a realistic way. I mean, things are messy in life. Problems aren't solved immediately, and I think our show does a pretty good job of resolving conflicts in a realistic time frame.
When you start shooting a new season, are the scripts mostly written, or is it a surprise week to week?
It's laid out, sort of in vague terms, but because this isn't truly a plot-heavy show, that becomes less important. I imagine if I were, you know, Damien Lewis playing Sergeant Brody on Homeland, I would definitely want to know what was going to happen to me by the end of the season. But on Girls, I would say it's mostly like an emotional framework. Before we started shooting Season Two we talked about where Marnie is going to be emotionally, what we were aiming for. The same went for Season One. Lena is talented across the board in a million different ways, but one of the really great strengths that she has is as a communicator with her actors. And I'm someone who asks a lot questions. I'm pretty cerebral about everything, and Lena's always very patient.
Can you give me an example?
Well, one of the long conversations we had was about the scene in episode seven or eight of Season One where Marnie reveals that she lost her virginity when she was 15. There was something about that which sort of struck a nerve with me. As I had come to understand Marnie, I had this idea of her losing her virginity much later--probably late compared to her friends, thus contributing to her sort of dissatisfaction sexually. And Lena felt really strongly about Marnie losing her virginity earlier. Lena thought it was going to make her more interesting and more multi-dimensional. It was one of those moments where I was like, "Oh, that's right. I didn't create this character. I'm just embodying her. I'm playing her. But the mastermind behind Marnie is actually Lena." And when I finally watched the episode it made perfect sense to me. Especially in juxtaposition to Jessa, who lost her virginity later than Marnie. So that was one of those moments where I just needed a little bit of clarification, and Lena held firm, and I'm very grateful that she did.
Have you had input into the writing at all?
I'm certainly not in the writers' room, so not in any major way. Not for plot. But we do a lot of improv so to that end, I guess I'm responsible for a little line here and there, sure.
During that Bushwick party [Ed: in episode 7, where Marnie, uncomfortably single, runs into an ex, Charlie, played by Christopher Abbott, who's with a charming and sexy new girlfriend, played by Audrey Gelman] there are a couple of cutaways to me sitting on a couch, unloading and complaining to this poor guy who's just sitting there. And that entire scene came about because we realized that Marnie was missing from the script for like 20 pages or something. So while they were setting out another shot, at one point they were like, "Can you just sit here with this guy and talk to him?" None of it was ever in the script. I just went on and on at this poor guy. And at one point, unbeknownst to me, one of the producers, maybe Jenny Konner, had whispered to him, "You need to just get up and leave at some moment," and so when he did it, I had no idea he was going to leave and it was very funny. It took all I had to not start laughing.
I remember that scene. It's a great moment because she's being so impossibly self-absorbed and then, in a flash, she's so vulnerable.
I think they had all been trying to think of how to do something like that, and they realized that the moment was there. But we do stuff like that all the time. For example in, I believe it's episode four or five, when I throw my glass of water in Hannah's face after Charlie and Ray perform a song from her diary, we told the director and Lena that I wasn't going to throw the water until the last take, because we wanted to make sure that we had it all right before I got her wet and the wardrobe department had to come fix it. But then I told the director, "I'm going to pour it on her on the first take because she's not going to be expecting it." And Lena has trouble seeming surprised. As an actress, I would say that one thing that she lacks or that constantly she has trouble with--because how can she possibly be surprised when she has written and directed and is acting at all out? And so I genuinely surprised her. She had no idea. It was probably mean to do, but that is genuine shock that you see on her face.
Did she get pissed?
She did not get pissed, because it's moments like that where she gets more like a producer than an actress. As a producer she's like, "Oh my gosh, I bet that was an amazing take," while people are, like, blow-drying her off. But yeah, stuff like that happens all the time. Little shenanigans.
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