HBO picks up new television series starring Allison Williams ’10

“Girls” will feature Williams as an assistant at a PR firm in her professional debut. The series was created by independent film director Lena Dunham.
“Girls” will feature Williams as an assistant at a PR firm in her professional debut. The series was created by independent film director Lena Dunham. Photo by Courtesy Allison Williams.

Allison Williams ’10 has always craved the spotlight. As a little girl, she said she would put on a show whenever she could find an audience. Last October, that dream inched closer to fruition when she was cast in a Lena Dunham-directed, Judd Apatow-produced HBO pilot called “Girls.” Last week, the dream became a reality when HBO announced it planned to pick up the series, which Williams will begin filming later this spring and which is likely to premiere in spring 2012. The News spoke with the rising star direct from Los Angeles last night about her newfound success and forthcoming celebrity.

Q Hi Allison. How are you doing? How’s L.A.?

A It’s beautiful.

Q So what got you interested in acting?

A I have wanted to be an actress since I was about four or five. I don’t remember what specifically it was that got me into it, but I remember what kept me in it: I love being different people and I love entering other worlds and playing around in them. And then being able to leave and enjoy my world. When I was little it was about the spotlight and putting on shows in my kitchen or wherever I could find an audience. But it became sort of nuanced. It became about exhibiting truths.

Q Did you ever consider a career aside from acting?

A No. I’ve literally not even for a moment considered doing anything other than this. There are lots of things that I love and enjoy on an academic level and I can see myself going back to school to study them, but I don’t think my chief occupation will ever be anything other than acting. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to do this for the rest of my life — emphasis on lucky.

Q So you’re now starring in a television series — what made you choose the small screen over, say, stage acting?

A I love them both very dearly. The one thing I love about film is how subtle it allows the actor to be. You really can’t be pretending, you have to just be living. If you show any effort or performance on your part, it will just read as inauthentic on screen. What I love about theater obviously is the chance to do something totally different every night, with a different group of people, with different energy.

Q Your father, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, has been in the public eye for years now. Did he have anything to say to you about your desires for a career in the spotlight?

A [My parents] kind of knew as early as I did that this was what I was going to do. They always say when I was three or four years old, they saw me running around the kitchen performing and they said, “Well, this is who she is.” Rather than trying to quell that ambition, they parented me and mentored me in a direction that they knew would serve me well. They allowed me to watch films and see a lot of plays, and when I got older they gave me any opportunities to interact with people who have now become my mentors in this industry, which was invaluable because being able to talk to actors, directors and writers about this industry is almost as valuable as doing it yourself. But we have had many conversations about reading your own press and privacy and the temptation to live publicly when it’s really much more healthy to live as privately as possible.

Q What did your parents tell you in those conversations?

A Just to be aware that someone is always watching and that’s the industry we have chosen — it’s not something to complain about, it’s something to be cognizant of. We’ve discussed the extent to which that changes the decisions you make.

Q How has your life changed since you got this part?

A I mean, for the most part, only people who are in the industry really care or know that the show will be on the air, so it has been the same. To people who are in the industry, it certainly makes me a little bit less anonymous. There’s no sort of illusion that I’m any more important than I was but I’d say that it’s easier for me to get meetings with people that I want to see. Just being attached to the show adds a certain amount of legitimacy, which is really nice.

Q How’s life on the set?

A It was so fun. It was so fun. There were a series of moments where it would have been really nice to have had someone next to me to pinch me. It was literally everything I was dreaming about since I was four years old. It was one of those moments where I was like “O.K., you can’t get choked up, but your dreams are coming true right now. As we speak you are acting for film.” It’s very hard to put into words how meaningful that is.

Q Speaking of the series, tell us about “Girls.” What can viewers expect from the series? What audience will it attract?

A I hope everybody will be attracted to the show. I only know about the pilot that we’ve shot and ideas about the rest of the series but aesthetically it is as intimate and as honest as “Tiny Furniture,” [Lena Dunham’s] first movie. It’s very stripped down, bare bones, real life. I think what we are doing is just showing a couple different examples of people that are living right now. I can see myself in all of them and I think for many of my friends of all ages that will be the same case. It’s not as glamorous as some TV shows. We don’t have endless wealth and we don’t have only boys to worry about. We all have jobs and we have ambitions and rent to pay. It’s not dramatic; it’s a comedy. It throws all of that into the light of being able to enjoy life while there’s stuff going on that could bury you potentially. But it has the genius of Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow — it has this amazing group of people that are going to steer it in an amazing direction.

Q What’s it been like working with Lena Dunham?

A It’s been an incredible experience to work with both Lena and Judd. It’s just such an honor to be working with her at this point in her career because I know that the rest of it is going to be such a long and amazing journey to watch. I continue to be the luckiest girl I can imagine that gets to work with both of them.

Q How did you react when you found out you had received the part?

A Ecstasy. In the purest of connotations. It was sort of a mixture of disbelief and relief. I wanted the part so, so badly but you don’t expect to get these things. It definitely would have felt like the part that had gotten away. I didn’t let myself get insanely excited until a couple days ago [when HBO picked up the series]. I was so thrilled. I went nuts. I called my family and my friends. There were tears. It felt like a group victory. I called everyone I could think of that had anything to do with it. I’m just so lucky, I’m so, so lucky and I can’t wait to play this person for however long I get to play her.

Q Can you tell us a little more about your character, Marnie? Is she really a “sexy, bitchy and ambitious assistant at a slick political PR firm,” as some news outlets have been reporting?

A That’s all wrong. Marnie is about a year older than I am, she lives with Lena’s character in the show and it’s hard to describe her because I think we’re very similar. We have similar senses of responsibility and similar values and perspectives on the world and our relationships. I think where we differ is that she does not know specifically what she wants to do professionally in her life. But whatever it is, she wants to do it better than anyone else. She’s very close to her family. She’s a great friend. She’s strong and funny but very vulnerable in some ways. The biggest threat to her success is probably her own intervention in it, so it’ll be interesting to watch that unfold. She’s well-set up and secure and has a boyfriend and a job and is good at her job and is generally happy, so she finds herself in this situation of being a support team for her friends. She provides stability and direction, because she thinks that is what connotes happiness and progress so there’s sort of an inherent conflict there.

Q Some in the media have drawn comparisons between “Girls” and “Sex and the City,” which is also an HBO series about women in New York. Do you think the two shows are really that similar?

A I think it’s an easy comparison to make because it’s about girls living in New York on HBO. I think that may be where the comparisons end. They are so different. I totally understand the temptation to compare them, but I would caution anyone against actually believing there is anything similar about them. Not only are they shot differently, but the caliber is different. We’re a lot younger, there’s no one that has books published or a column. Our characters grew up watching “Sex and the City” or had friends that watched it, so it’s definitely in our lexicon, but it’s not our life.

Q How did Yale prepare you for a career in drama?

A The best decision I made at Yale was to audition for [the improv comedy troupe] Just Add Water. Again and again, improv proves to be the most profitable skill that I have. Part of my audition for “Girls” was doing an improvised scene with Lena that lasted maybe ten minutes. If I hadn’t been doing improv for the four years that I was at Yale, I would have been completely unequipped to handle the scene. I think… the most important thing an aspiring actor can do is go to a liberal arts school or just a normal, non-conservatory college. With acting, so much of our job is to inhabit the lives of other people, and you have to have been living among other people in the same intense intimate way as one does during college. Yale prepared me for my career as an actor by not preparing me for my career as an actor, but in the best possible way. It was college, and that’s exactly what I needed.

Q What message do you have for fellow Yalies who are aspiring thespians?

A Call me. I’ll take them to lunch.

Comments