At twenty-seven, Alison Pill has already had a marvelous career. She has worked with Woody Allen twice (first as Zelda Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris); appeared in Gus Van Sant’s Milk (as the lesbian activist Anne Kronenberg); starred in the Broadway revival of The Miracle Worker as Annie Sullivan (reviving a role originated by Anne Bancroft); received a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut in The Lieutenant of Inishmore; was a regular in the HBO therapy drama In Treatment; and stars in the Aaron Sorkin drama The Newsroom, playing the neophyte reporter Maggie Jordan. The New York Times called her performance in Neil LaBute’s play Reasons to Be Pretty “commandingly intense and authentic,” which she always is. And she has worked with a spate of interesting and seasoned actors: Sean Penn, Jeff Daniels, Sissy Spacek, Steve Carell, and Gabriel Byrne.
Born and raised in Toronto, she spent some years in New York doing theater, and now spends part of the year in L.A., where The Newsroom is shot. Her home, however, is in Montreal, with her fiancé, the writer and actor Jay Baruchel (perhaps best known for his role as one of the stoner friends in Knocked Up).
Whenever I told anyone that I was interviewing Alison Pill, after a moment they would identify her as the girl with the “round face” or the “moon face”: a feature that’s kind of hard to miss. Her pale, wide-open face and round, wide eyes are absolutely distinctive—giving the promise of total transparency—which would not be so interesting if it wasn’t balanced by her remarkable self-possession, suggesting that the illusion of access cannot entirely be trusted.
We met at a Vietnamese restaurant in Toronto last August, while she was in town visiting her family. After lunch, we sat in my garden. She was playful, enthusiastic, and sharply funny and smart. She made silly voices, mocked herself, and laughed after most of what she said in a high-pitched and giddy way.
We spoke about her desire to have “kiddles,” and she talked about her early heartbreak at being kicked out of Claude Watson, the beloved arts school she attended as a child; they complained that she was missing too many days (she has been working professionally since the age of eleven). Still upset over it, she recalled them telling her, “You are a waste of space.” Yet among a crop of young actresses who are constantly being pumped out—here one season, gone the next—Alison Pill is anything but.
I. “HE’S LITERALLY, LIKE, HOLDING ME”
THE BELIEVER: I really wanted to be an actress when I was a kid, but I felt I was no good.
ALISON PILL: But how did you know?
BLVR: I was just very self-conscious! I never felt like I was losing myself at all, and I was sure real actors would lose themselves.
AP: I feel a complete lack of self-consciousness. That’s the only way it really works.
BLVR: And you don’t worry how it’s going to look?
BLVR: You don’t worry if you’re being believable?
AP: I mean, I worry after the fact. It stinks in theater ’cause I have no idea. There’s no way to know.
BLVR: Can you tell me about acting in theater as compared to acting on-screen? Is it true what they say—that it’s about “doing less”?
AP: No, that’s bullshit. [Laughs] They’re lying so much, because it’s apples and oranges. When you’re in film and you’re in close, charisma in the eyes and confidence can take over. But when someone’s sitting twenty rows back, you need the whole body. You need to be encompassed by an actor. And you’re also in control of the audience in a way you’re never allowed to be in film, because in film you have an editor. In theater, it’s all you. You either have it or you don’t. You’re either there or you’re not.
BLVR: You did a play off-Broadway, Blackbird, opposite Jeff Daniels, and you’ve mentioned before that you really trust him. What does it mean for one actor onstage to trust another? What is it you’re trusting?
AP: I think what I trust is that the support is there, the attention is there. Because in the play that Jeff and I did together, I had this seven-page speech about how he fucked me when I was twelve. And it’s really a hard speech. A lot of actors who are not Jeff Daniels would say, “Phew, finally she’s on the hot seat and I can just sit back and take a break for the seven pages.” Jeff isn’t like that. I could feel his attention and his listening. As humans we’re really adept at knowing whether someone’s paying attention to us, even if they’re not looking at us. That’s the reason I trust him. Even when we’re on separate parts of the stage, and to the audience he’s just sitting there, I know he’s not just sitting there. He’s literally, like, holding me.
BLVR: Is it the same thing with most people that you would consider satisfying to work with? They don’t turn off?
AP: Yeah! They have the maturity to know that for the sake of the story, sometimes you’re not at center stage with a spotlight on your face, but the spotlight doesn’t bring any more or less importance to your own part of the performance. It’s got to be such a team that any single one of you couldn’t imagine doing it without every other single person. You never drop that ball if you’re a good actor.
II. “FOR FOUR MONTHS I just DISAPPEARED”
BLVR: Is acting at the core of your life, would you say? Is that the thing that will sustain no matter what? Or is there something else at the core?
AP: No, that’s the core.
BLVR: It trumps everything else?
AP: I try not to let it, and I’m getting better at… you know, my instinct would be to let it unbalance me or destroy me. And I have, in the past, done that.
BLVR: How so?
AP: Just letting the emotional toll be taken on myself. When I was in Blackbird, I just didn’t have the capacity to deal with anything. I didn’t have support from the director, and I was feeling very lost, so my solution was to have four martinis a night. Literally, for four months I just disappeared from the rest of life. Question being: was it worth it? The reviews were great. Everybody loved it. Everybody was like, This is the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen… And now they’re talking about wanting to do it on Broadway, and I’m like, Is it worth it?
BLVR: But can’t you do it without four martinis a night?
AP: Right! But the fear is you wouldn’t be as good if you didn’t put yourself through it. The director was sort of forcing that idea on me. He was more bent on my destruction than I was! He was like, “You have to be crazy!” I’m not sure I totally believe in that anymore, because I’ve been much happier over the last little while and I think my work has gotten better.
BLVR: Does being in a stable relationship help with that?
AP: Yeah. I feel like it turned a lot around, because we also are so mutually inspiring in a way that I don’t think has been the case in past relationships.
BLVR: Were your previous boyfriends also actors?
AP: Yes. But most of them were showmances, or they began as showmances.
BLVR: What is that?
AP: That’s like when you’re leading man and woman and you’re playing romantically, and then you’re like, “Oh man, I want to fuck this person.” But instead of just leaving it at that and saying, “I think we should probably just fuck for the entirety of this run,” you say, “I’m going to be your girlfriend!” And then to yourself you’re like, I’m going to marry this person!
BLVR: [Laughs] In your role in The Newsroom, your character is caught between her attractions to two men. Do you empathize with that?
AP: I totally get it. I didn’t like most of my boyfriends. I’m a perfect example of somebody who will make it work no matter what. Like, I once had a guy move in with me. He was my least favorite. Nobody who went out with us knew that we were together. I just would not give off the vibe. Most people are capable of that. I don’t have any trouble believing that you would avoid something seemingly perfect because you’re in something you really want to prove to yourself you can do right. At the same time, it’s also serial drama. And the best thing about serial drama—especially about screwball comedy—is blocked love.
BLVR: I wonder if it’s vanity to want to make it work, even if it’s not working. You want to prove to yourself that you can do it.
AP: Yeah, it has so much to do with the way you perceive yourself and the way others perceive you, because you don’t want to seem flighty or fickle. You want to be like, “No, I’m dependable. I’m loyal. I will stick till the end.”
BLVR: How did it end with that guy?
AP: Eventually he broke up with me. I was too chickenshit to do it. I was like, “No, no, it’ll be fine.” Then he took a trip to the West Coast and called me and was like, “What do you think? Maybe we should just be friends?” And I was like, “Oh no! OK!” It was the easiest thing in the world! I hung up the phone and was like, “Yep!”
III. “I’M KIND OF THIRSTY”
BLVR: You’ve probably encountered many people who aren’t good actors. Is there any advice that you would give to somebody that could go far in making somebody a better actor?
AP: I find that a lot of my best character stuff and ideas come unwittingly from novels. In scripts, it’s a lot about the outward signs of whatever’s happening—you have the end result. Whereas in a novel you get a buildup of the whys and wherefores, and you’re let into the backstory. So you get to learn how to make good backstories in your own head, without needing to share them with anybody. You can just know stuff about your character that nobody else needs to know: maybe this is your character’s favorite book, this is what your character has in their pocket, this is your character’s mom’s name. And these are three things that you can know about your character and not tell anybody else about. Secrets are great for acting. Secrets are the best thing in the world for acting, because they keep you looking like you have something in the back of your mind. Most people do it all the time. Most people when they’re listening to you are like, I’m kind of thirsty, and they have other shit going on. So to keep an active mind, I find that reading novels is really good.
BLVR: What are some of your most treasured books?
AP: There’s all my Virginia Woolf and her diaries. There’s Winnie-the-Pooh, which is just—I mean, the final story, when Christopher Robin is sort of done with the woods, it’s one of the saddest moments. Or in Peter Pan, when Wendy says, “I can’t fly, I’m too old.” It’s just like, Noooo! Terrible. But I also find those stories to be the most moving.
BLVR: Stories of when somebody decides they’ve grown up and they leave behind old affections?
AP: Yeah. Everybody has to do it, I guess.
BLVR: Have you ever done it?
AP: Said goodbye to things?
AP: Well, my blankie was stolen—not stolen. We were staying at a hotel; we were shooting in Montreal, and it was the toughest shoot ever. And my blankie at this point was more of a knot and a string, you know? [Laughs]
BLVR: How old were you?
BLVR: Oh! I thought it was last year!
AP: No! It could have been. It would have been had this not happened. Which was that the maid, taking the sheets out—it must have been in my bed in the sheets—she just rolled it up and I got home and I was like, No! No! No! No! Then we called the laundry place—
BLVR: Who’s we?
AP: My mom and I. We left the city after shooting and I was like, “Goodbye, blankie. Now I’m grown up.” I didn’t like it. It wasn’t like, “Oh, awesome, now I’m not a kid.” It was like, Fuck!
BLVR: Have you had a similar experience in the last five or six years, but where it was a decision that you made?
AP: No. I would avoid those decisions at all costs.
IV. THERE WAS SOME GOOGLING GOING ON IN THE TRAILER
BLVR: How long ago did you meet your fiancé, Jay?
AP: Two years ago this fall. I’d been shooting this miniseries in Hungary and one day the head makeup artist mentioned that she had just done a movie with Jay Baruchel, and I was like, “Oh my god—you mean my husband?” And she was like, “What do you mean, you have a crush on him?” So I was like, “Since I was twelve! Whatever!” Then after Hungary they went back to Montreal and shot another movie with Jay, and somehow my name came up and she just said, “Oh yeah, she calls you her husband.” There was some googling of my name going on in the trailer. [Laughs]
BLVR: So now you’re engaged, but you’ve delayed the wedding?
AP: Yeah. I started reading the Bible online and it has these really specific things against divorce. Like, really. You really can’t do it. It’s pretty explicit. Also, I don’t know whether I can trust the world enough.
BLVR: How do you mean?
AP: Just statistically. Statistically for people and then statistically for actors are, like, two different sets of figures.
BLVR: What are the chances of marriage working out for two actors?
AP: I would say there’s a one in seven million chance for actors. And the one in seven million was Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and that’s it. That’s the only one.
BLVR: What did they have, do you think? I look at pictures of them all the time.
AP: Well, there’s that famous of quote of his, “Why go out for hamburger when you can have steak at home?” They really thought each other were the fucking best. But there’s also got to be something more than that. But then, I don’t know if there is anything more than that. They were huge theatergoers. They would come in from Greenwich—they came to see a couple of plays I did—and they would always leave right after and not come backstage. But they would also always fax a letter of appreciation to the cast: Thank you for doing that… this was great…
BLVR: What shows did they see you in?
AP: I feel like they saw Mauritius and Blackbird. [Pause] I think it’s just different to get married for a woman than it is for a man. The amount of work to overcome certain gender roles in the partnership—just the expectation of housework, kid-work, whatever it is. I mean, it’s on both sides. Then I get into the religious expectations of marriage—the domination of man over woman. I just don’t like it! I don’t like anything remotely approaching that. So there’s a lot more historical baggage to deal with as a wife than as a partner.
BLVR: I’m not crazy about that word—partner.
AP: I know. But I also can’t say, “You’ll just be my fiancé forever. We’ll just be engaged to be married forever.”
BLVR: You can’t?
AP: Actually, I think you can! Maybe I’m preparing for that! [Laughs]
V. MAN, THE SPANISH STEPS ARE AWESOME
BLVR: Do you feel like you act differently in response to different directors?
AP: The biggest thing I’ve noticed with some of my favorite directors is their gift of sticking a bunch of strangers in a room together and making them comfortable and making them into a cohesive group. There’s magic involved, because you don’t know why anybody would pick this group of people. We’re often from different sides of life or different parts of the world, and have different levels of education or whatever, but somehow this guiding light has put together the best group of people for this particular thing. There’s something really deep about that. It means that you get to meet your best friends in the whole wide world.
BLVR: How did the Woody Allen stuff come about?
AP: It was crazy. His office is in the back of a hotel—well, now an apartment building. So you go through the back door and there’s this sign that says film studio. The first meeting was literally just me sitting in this room and then he came in, he shook my hand, he was like, “Hello, so you’re here and doing a play right now? OK, great. See you later!”
BLVR: That was it?
AP: Yeah. Then I got a call later and I was literally left alone in this screening room and he had written a letter to me, which I still have, on the Woody Allen stationery, which is like: “Dear Alison, obviously this character is crazy Zelda Fitzgerald. Marion Cotillard is playing this part; Owen Wilson is playing this part. We’re shooting in Paris this summer. If you like it, please let me know, and if you don’t, please don’t share it with anybody. It’s quite secret.” Then I read the scenes and I wasn’t allowed to take them with me. And then I was on a flight to Paris.
BLVR: So his casting director had seen you in other things?
AP: I think it was In Treatment. Yeah. Then for the Rome one it was so funny because he had been looking to cast this part, but he couldn’t. He just kept thinking of me as Zelda in the crazy hair. Then he saw a video of me—I don’t know what it was; I had long brown hair and I was just sitting there talking. And he was like, “She’s perfect!” He’s awesome. He’s really a lovely, funny guy.
BLVR: I’ve heard that when he’s shooting, it’s not important for him that actors read the lines exactly.
AP: Right. He gave me some improv stuff, but I don’t do improv. I interpret text. [Laughs] There’s this one scene at the very end of To Rome with Love where we’re on this rooftop. It was just him and Judy Davis talking. Then he was like, “Me and Judy will have our little scene, and we’ll take the camera to you and you’ll say something about the Spanish Steps in Rome.” I turned to the guy who played my fiancé, Flavio, and was like, Help me! What do I do? What do I do? It was terrifying. But it ended up in the movie.
BLVR: What was the line?
AP: It was just like, “Man, the Spanish Steps are awesome.” It’s really bad. But it works, I guess.
VI. DOESN’T EVERYBODY CRY ALL THE TIME?
BLVR: What do you feel, as an actor, is the most that you can give to or do for an audience? Like, what is the purpose, at root?
AP: I really don’t know. My friend Kris and I have talked about theater and how crazy it is. Like, if aliens came down, what the fuck would they think? These adults are playing dress-up and a bunch of other adults are watching them and everybody knows it’s fake! But the whole idea is that it’s not? But I do know there’s something important about it, because we humans have been doing it for so long, and every culture has some form of theater.
I guess the biggest world difference you can make is in people’s relations to their own emotions, ’cause emotions rule so much of our daily life, and I think that’s where we work. I mean, as much as I obsess about the text, it’s really just about those fleeting moments during your day when you have, like, extreme sadness or extreme happiness for two seconds, and then the rest of the day is normal. But how do you capture that? How do you capture two seconds of utter joy or utter sadness, then cover it up again? It happens to people all the time. Or maybe just to me. I’m like, Doesn’t everybody cry all the time? [Laughs] I also find it interesting, all the different styles that have come about, because it’s not a universal thing, what acting means. We know that it ends up being about incorporating another person into you, or putting another person on top of you or something. [Pause] I don’t know. I always think about it in terms of me, ’cause I hate audiences.
BLVR: What do you mean, you hate audiences?
AP: [Laughs] Well, it depends on the setup of the stage, but if I can look out before the show starts, then I will pick a person in the audience to specifically despise the most. I’ll be like, G3—that fucking guy is getting it tonight! It’s like, I hate this person so much that I’m going to do the play for them.
BLVR: Wow. I’ve never heard that before! Is it just a way of focusing your anxiety, or is there something in acting that is inherently aggressive?
AP: It’s like, Why the fuck are you here? Why are you watching me? I suck! Go away! You’re dumb! You shouldn’t watch this! I’m stupid at everything! Why, when you’re in your early twenties, if some guy is really nice and acts like he likes you, are you like, You’re so dumb! Why did you do this? Don’t you know who I am? Terrible at everything! So I guess there’s that. It makes it easier if you can put some of your self-hatred into hatred of the audience.
BLVR: And that frees you up to do your performance?
BLVR: Do you feel gratitude at the end of the night, when the performance is over?
AP: Oh, no, I never feel gratitude. I really don’t. I hate people who are audiences. I’m sure they’re nice enough. But they suck.
BLVR: How do you respond when you get fan letters?
AP: Well, there are people in my life, like Jay, who are like, “You should send the autographs back.” But I think it’s so dumb! At the same time, I’m a huge fan-girl, so I get it. But there’s just this disconnect between people being fans and people being fans of me. It’s weird ’cause I have nothing to do with it at that point. It’s all them.
BLVR: You mean it’s all their projection?
AP: Yeah. I feel very uncomfortable with the whole thing. I find it very hard to believe that people would prefer an awkward picture with me than a normal conversation. Because you could just say, “Oh, I liked your show. Do you also drink coffee?” I’d be like, “Yes, yes, I do also drink coffee. That’s so funny, we have something in common. Now let’s have a conversation because I, too, am a human person who lives in a house and eats food and farts.”
BLVR: So if you look into your future, you must be kind of conflicted as to whether you want more of that kind of fame of not.
AP: Yeah. I talked to my therapist about this, ’cause some people have no qualms about fame; they’re just like, “Let me at it!” And I don’t understand it. Part of me is jealous, but part of me is like, Why would you go to the ribbon-cutting of the new Saks Fifth Avenue? What are you people doing? But also, you can’t frown on it, because it’s the basis of so much of the industry.
BLVR: Fame is?
AP: Well, fame and awards. How do you quantify the five best movies of the year or the five best performances? It’s absurd. If five actresses did the same performance with the same director and the same cast, then you could maybe say, Who did you like best? And it’s still the most subjective thing in the world. It’s like, you’re gonna like Roseanne Barr the best because she’s amazing, or maybe you like Gwyneth Paltrow because… she’s blond.
BLVR: Do you feel your attitude toward it all might be different because you grew up in Canada and still live here?
AP: Totally! Because I saw the absurdity of the fact that I couldn’t get hired in Toronto for a play, and then I moved to New York for a while and I did plays all the time. And I’m like, Wait—this is supposed to be the hardest place in the world! Canada has the tall sunflower syndrome and America has a weird, patronizing, awful—like, the most disgusting attitude toward Canadian actors. You have to audition in New York or L.A. for shit that is shooting in Toronto, because if you audition in Toronto they’ll be like, “She’s so good. Maybe we can give her two lines.” But if you audition in New York, you’re the second lead of a movie. So the absurdity of all of that hit me when I was seventeen. It’s been proven to me, by the course of events, that if you have a complicated relationship with what success is and what that’s going to look like for you personally, you’ll end up with a lot of crazy amazing shit under your belt by the time you’re twenty-six. [Laughs]
BLVR: How did that crazy relationship play into you achieving all this?
AP: I think a lot of people try to plan things in their career. They feel like, If I don’t get this done by the time I’m thirty, everything’s over. But I’ve worked with a lot of people whose careers shot to the top later in life. The biggest thing about growing up in Canada is you know that Los Angeles and New York are not the only places in the world. They’re not the only places where brilliant acting happens. I’ve worked with incredible Toronto actors, Montreal actors, French actors, Italian actors. I just don’t have that same bias of saying, “If you don’t get the right American accent and dye your hair blond and get a boob job, you’re probably not going to work.” I did a Disney movie with Lindsay Lohan when I was seventeen [Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen]. There was a moment that I could have taken a path to L.A., followed in Lindsay’s footsteps. [Laughs]
BLVR: You could have moved to L.A. at that time?
AP: Yeah, or gone the route of “Let me get a publicist for this movie that’s coming out with Disney.” The fact was, I saw the movie and was like, “This is horrific. This is the worst movie I’ve ever seen, and it makes no sense, and it’s so different from the script I read, and I think I want to quit acting.” I realized early that success lay nowhere down that path.
BLVR: Had you been tempted to take that conventional route before you had these realizations?
AP: No. Even working on the movie, I was confounded by how much bullshit there was.
BLVR: What do you mean by “bullshit”?
AP: Well, just the changes to the script. Our characters are in high school, and originally we were supposed to run away to New York to see a band. Then Disney decided that wasn’t a good example to be setting, so instead of running away, we ask our moms! And then we go to New York. But, like, the whole thing of the movie was this big secret trip to New York! It’s like but-but-but wait! And another example—this was a literal discussion—they said, “This word has so many syllables. Real girls don’t talk like this.”
BLVR: [Laughs] Oh my god.
AP: Yeah, and all these people supporting the idea that a single actor makes a movie happen? Uh, no! Your grips and electrics would choose to differ, I think. There’s a slew of people you cannot do it without. So when a film is set up in such a way that everybody else feels kind of shitty and less than—no matter whether you’re another actor, or whether you’re hair and makeup—whatever you are. If you feel less than, it’s not a good movie.
VII. YOU CAN COUNT ON THIS GIRL
BLVR: Has being in The Newsroom changed your life?
AP: The thing is, The Newsroom shoots in L.A., and it’s like a day job. I’m there for thirteen hours every day, at my desk, even if I’m not in the scene. ’Cause I’m in the background of everything, ’cause it’s just one room.
BLVR: Is it kind of boring?
AP: I mean, sometimes it’s less boring… I’m studying French and reading books in French, so it’s fine. I’ll study my conjugations. I have a little workbook. So there’s stuff you can do, and we do have an incredible, amazing, awesome cast. But it’s like, I never wanted to work in an office!
BLVR: But isn’t it a soundstage?
AP: Yeah, but we’re under fluorescent lights at desks for twelve hours a day! We literally have a roomful of the same people who show up for work every day, who have the same complaints. One woman shares a desk across from me, and she will be like—’cause we’re right below the air-conditioning vent—she’ll be like, “Can we get the air conditioning turned down? I know it’s hot over there, but I’m sorry—I’m wearing my cardigan right now, there’s nothing more I can do!” Like, office debates about temperature control! But it’s fun. Emily Mortimer is the best. [Pause] My sister can’t stand the woman’s side of Sorkin’s—
BLVR: How do you feel about that?
AP: I don’t know, ’cause I’m way too close to it to really say. My character has been singled out as being unrealistically dumb or nervous or whatever it is, and I just [laughs], I don’t know. I think, Should I have thought of this when we were shooting this? Am I a bad feminist? Did I miss something?
BLVR: I want to ask you one last thing. You mentioned Jennifer Lawrence as an actress you really like. What is it about her work that excites you?
AP: She’s just so intensely present. One of my favorite things in watching an actor is feeling, The story is safe in your hands. I can lean back and trust you with this. You can count on this girl. There’s no vanity or pretense that gets in the way of her being the character. When she’s standing somewhere, she looks like she’s standing in that place. I buy every second of it, which allows all the fantasy to come in.
My friend Kris told me this story about how there were these two directors who were big into Beckett, and they’d both done well-received productions of Waiting for Godot, and this happened at one director’s version of it. The play starts, and the rival director is in the audience and it’s opening night, and in the midst of it he cries, “I’m here! I’m Godot!” He stands up in the audience and ruins the play by saying, “I’m here!”
BLVR: [Laughs] That’s ridiculous!
AP: And certain actors can do that for an audience, like, “Don’t worry—I’m here!” And you’re like, “No, that’s not—ugh!” And so Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t stand up and say, “I’m here, I’m Godot.”