Alison Brie is talking to another reporter. Doing interviews at a luxury hotel in Pasadena, Calif., she’s kneeling on a chair, like a kid, facing the guy. She’s wearing a striking layered-leather miniskirt (Diane von Furstenberg) and seriously high heels. She looks fabulous. And like an enthusiastic youngster, her hands going this way and that to make a point.
In this racket – meeting actors at the TV Critics Press Tour – there are some people you like and some you avoid. You avoid the brittle ones, those existing in imagined grandeur. Those you like are the rare ones, the confident, funny and self-assured. Ms. Brie is one those.
A petite brunette with enormous eyes, she’s 27 years old, articulate, mischievous and, like most good actors, not at all what one expects. She plays Annie on NBC’s Community and Trudy Campbell on Mad Men. I’ve met her before, in the summer of 2009, before Community began airing on NBC. When it’s my turn with her, I ask what’s changed since then.
“What do you mean, changed for me?” she replies with mock incredulity. “Nothing. I still live in the same place, I still drive the same car. The show is a hit and it’s really good. Is something supposed to change?”
Here we go with the mischief. When I first me her, I’d never heard of her. Then I discovered that Brie had won an award for her stage performance as Ophelia in Hamlet, played the lead in the notorious Web-only comedy series called Hot Sluts and was playing Peter Campbell’s wife on Mad Men. Also, she was born and raised in Pasadena and she still lives here. I’d never talked with somebody who actually lived here and, well, Hot Sluts seemed an odd career choice. I liked her sense of humour instantly.
Her character Annie on Community (NBC, CITY-TV, Thursdays at 8 p.m.) is described as “a high-strung perfectionist.” Community is a clever comedy, about a group of misfits at a community college. And the show is as odd as its characters – it spoofs TV and movies and from one episode to the next it can veer from deadpan to outright farce. The one established star is Chevy Chase, excellent as Pierce, an older man who bores everyone with his alleged wisdom. It’s an ensemble, though, and each character gets the spotlight regularly. Annie is the quiet one who might explode with frustration at any minute. Rather like the tightly wound, suffering wife she plays on Mad Men. Thus I have to ask: Is Brie just instantly drawn to tightly wound female characters?
She laughs. “I couldn’t be more different than those characters – I’m very laid-back, famous for it with my friends, I think,” she says. “Maybe that’s the acting challenge. When I play women who are tightly wound, I have to get away from my relaxed self. Annie gets plenty of time to go berserk. That’s the part that’s more like me. And it’s very funny.”
Okay then, the young lady is relaxed. So, Hot Sluts? The online series, made for Comedy Central, is a hilarious spoof of old movies about Hollywood dreams. Brie is Amber, who arrives in Hollywood on a bus and wants to be a dancer. She ends up working at a nightclub, part of the salacious dance troupe called the Hot Sluts. The official synopsis for the show is this: “Endless cleavage, bitchy girl fights and an 800-pound disco ball. All in one slutty nightclub.”
Brie burst out laughing when I ask about it. “Oh it was such fun,” she says. “Then, when my dad found out about it, that was a different story. But anyone who sees it knows it’s a spoof, a satire. We had almost no money to make it. All the episodes were shot in two long days. That show is the goofier side of me, which is truer to my personality.”
What? Cleavage and bitchy girl fights? She’s smiling now, pointing a finger at me and my notebook to make sure I write this: “Look, I like singing and dancing and comedy, even when it terrifies me. You have to be fearless.”
That’s a fairly standard actor’s declaration. But I’ve got a feeling that Alison Brie really means it. “In college, I played the ingénue,” she says. “I wanted to be the leading lady. Now I realize that I’m a character actress, not the lead. Everybody wants to be the leading lady, but there are more roles and more challenges if you’re the character actress.”
Asked where this change in her sense of herself as actor came from, she cites Glasgow, Scotland. She did theatre-training there. “Nobody knew me there, I was a student. It was no-car, no-cellphone for six months,” she says. “And the weather was a shock. I think I wore a wool coat every day for six months. But the theatre we did was cutting-edge, very demanding. It taught me to be fearless. Here, I think if you’re a young actor, you get bogged down in going for TV and movie auditions and you’re always doing the same thing. Glasgow opened up my eyes.”
Those same eyes open wide when I ask her if she became interested in soccer, Glasgow being one of the great soccer capitals of the world. “They don’t call it soccer!” she says, feigning sternness and smacking me on the shoulder. “It’s football. And yes, I saw Glasgow Celtic play Glasgow Rangers. It was an unforgettable experience.” I then confirm that she is now a committed Glasgow Celtic supporter.
And then there’s Mad Men. Last season Trudy became a mother, and deprived Pete of money to save the new advertising firm. Whither the Campbell marriage? Brie says she doesn’t know much, but she does say this: “Being on Mad Men is very intimidating at first. The level of acting performance is very high. Matt Weiner [the creator and producer] has very high standards and it’s a great compliment when he doesn’t have to give you very, very specific directions, when he trusts you. The challenge on Mad Men, for an actor, is that you have to hold so much in. It’s what the show is about in a way. You have to walk differently, dress differently, talk differently. You suppress a lot. It signifies the difference between the early 1960s and now. But it also creates this extraordinary dramatic tension. Even dressing for Mad Men is an experience for an actor. You have to learn the posture, the movements that the clothes demand of the character.”
Our time runs out. Her publicist paces. I ask her if she actually still lives here in Pasadena. “Oh yes, I like it and I know it here,” she says. Then she delivers a zinger: “I worked here at this hotel when I was a student. At the pool bar. Maybe I brought you drinks. I remember the actors coming through, and the journalists. The first time I saw a famous actor, someone I really admired, I got frazzled. I had to cool it.”
Now she is one of those admired actors. And cool about it. That’s why she’s one of the people you like.