Flitting between s/s 2017’s pretty dresses and louche tailoring, Allison Williams is fun, fascinating and nothing like her Girls persona Marnie
Words: Helen Bownass
Photography: Catherine Servel
Fashion: Arabella Greenhill
Photography Direction: Tom Gormer
In the game of ‘which Girls character do you most want to be?’ chances are the answer is probably not Marnie Michaels. The Uptight, Self-obsessed, Judgemental one. In the game of which Girl do you want to be in real life though, I’m calling shotgun on Allison Williams, who plays her. For Williams is wildly self-aware and self- deprecating, referring often to her type A personality. She is philanthropic, hugely and quietly so. In our interview, she’s incredibly earnest and thoughtful, talking eloquently about incarceration and radical feminism. But she is also pure fun. These are some of the topics we discussed during Stylist’s shoot on a sunny yet freezing New York day:
- Food. Her diet is the most un-Hollywood thing ever. She rattles off her won’t-consume list which includes: anything from the ocean, any weird animal parts, rabbits, radicchio, anything citrus-flavoured, alcohol... Her daily breakfast (which she brings to the studio) is an iced doughnut, while at lunchtime she looks forlorn as the pizza is too fussy for her tastes: it comes with two types of cheese.
- Astronomy. Williams is remarkably well versed in star spotting (of the actual luminous ball of gas variant), anthropology and dinosaurs – her favourite is the brachiosaurus.
- The cheap perfume she wears. “It’s from a range called Body Fantasies,” she explains. “You could walk into [US drugstore] Duane Reade right now and buy it.”
- The hotness of Jamie Dornan.
- Her sleeping habits. She is a night owl and regularly stays up working until 3am. Her dad, NBC anchorman Brian Williams, and brother Doug are the same. Her husband, internet entrepreneur Ricky Van Veen, is not.
- Her viewing habits. Her family have a Christmas tradition of watching Love Actually and she adores The Bachelor – indeed she recently flew herself out to LA to be on the show’s panel. “It’s my religion,” she laughs.
See, a world away from Marnie! You didn’t expect that, did you? But she also takes the whole of our shoot very seriously. Probably because since she was tiny, she has wanted to “do what they did in The Wizard Of Oz”. She realises that the things that come with it – the photo shoots, the red carpets, the interviews – are all part of that. There’s a sense of: if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it properly. Before our shoot, where Williams modelled the best of the high street, from masculine tailoring to girly femininity, she spoke at length to Stylist’s team about the concept and character she’d be playing, eager to do a great job.
Like all the women in Girls, Williams has faced some cries of nepotism – as well as her father’s fame, her mother, Jane, is a high-ranking TV producer. But for her, there was never any other option. And in any case, Williams (who grew up in New Canaan, Connecticut) got the role utterly on her own merit. She studied English at Yale while also nurturing her passion for acting, then after graduating made an impressive audition tape Mad Men Theme Song... With A Twist (you can find it on YouTube), which caught the attention of producer Judd Apatow and led to her being cast in Girls. Her first audition. Her first role.
It’s a part that she’s perfect for. She submits herself to her meticulous alter-ego – never more so than in Season 5 and the one-hander episode that saw her reunited for a heady night with ex Charlie, nearly drown in a lake, then commit the world’s worst walk of shame – wet and barefoot.
I’m not the only one who thinks that Williams is the business. “Allison is the wittiest, prettiest, kindest and wisest woman in show business and she’s only 28,” Girls creator Lena Dunham tells Stylist over email. “I may have technically been her boss, but I truly consider her my mentor on everything from risk-taking to good manners. Through the show, she’s become a sister and I could not feel prouder or luckier.”
Now, as Girls comes to an end after five years, Williams has some big career decisions to make to move on from being typecast as variations of neurotic Marnie. It’s already working well. Her next role is truly genre-busting: she plays Rose in Get Out, a horror film that tackles racism through the lens of famed US comic Jordan Peele. It tells the story of an interracial couple and what happens when they visit Rose’s family in the suburbs. Clue: it’s traumatic. And fresh. And smart. And it couldn’t be more relevant to today’s political landscape. Audiences agree – the film has a near perfect 99% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes and took $30.5m in its opening weekend in the US. It’s a bold move and one that almost makes us feel better about waving goodbye to Marnie Michaels for good.
When we first met Marnie, Hannah, Shoshanna and Jessa, they were all struggling to find their place in the world. Will they have everything in order when we leave them?
To say that it’s the happiest ending for each character, well, you know our show... Every season, I’d say to Lena, “Is this the season Marnie finally gets fixed?” and she’d say, “No, she’s going to hit a new bottom”. I am so invested in Marnie and feel weird not knowing what’s going to happen to her [in the future]; I want to leave her in a place where she’d be OK.
Now you’ve had some distance from the show, what has it taught you about being a woman today?
The weird thing – and it’s kind of meta – is that the four characters have had normal millennial twenty-something experiences but by virtue of playing those roles, we [the actresses] haven’t. It propelled us into our 30s prematurely. Right after shooting the pilot, I met Ricky, got engaged, got married three years later and got a dog. We’re all very mature beyond our years. I didn’t actually learn these life lessons, Marnie did. I was telling some friends I grew up with about this the other day and they were like, “But you wanted to be 30 when you were seven!” That’s fair!
What do you think is the impact Lena has had on the world?
I’m endlessly proud of anything that makes an audience go: “That looks just like me”. That is the radical choice that Girls made. It came out when there wasn’t anything else around like this. I know Lena says that if she made the show today she wouldn’t make it about four white girls; everything she does now is to increase the number of types of people who can see themselves reflected – to me, that’s the most radical act of feminism you can do.
Do you ever feel sloth-like in comparison to Lena and her prolific workload?
It’s impossible not to. You can’t be around Lena and be like, “I’m satisfied with the amount of work I’m doing”. We talk constantly, we strategise. We have an incredible amount of love for each other. Lena’s bravery is never where people say it is – it’s not being naked on camera, it’s standing up for people on the margins, even though you know the s**tstorm that’s about to hit.
Have audiences become less squeamish about female sexuality since Girls has been on screen?
I hope so. I think women have often felt like the sex they have doesn’t look right and try to cater it to the aspirational versions they see portrayed in film and on TV. Now they can have the sex they organically have knowing that it is, at the very least, familiar to a bunch of other women.
How have you dealt with the emotional space you’ve had since leaving the show?
I’ve filled it completely! I’m really busy with Horizons National, a learning programme that works with low-income kids and those with non-English speaking families to make sure they don’t fall behind with school. I’m also becoming more involved with criminal-justice reform work. I recently read Writing My Wrongs by [author and former prisoner] Shaka Senghor – my friend who is a prosecutor put me in touch with him and I freaked out. Then I’m working on a documentary series about education with [digital news company] NowThis. I’m also very interested in public defence work, educating myself on the process from crime to incarceration to rehabilitation is something I need to understand.
These issues seem far away from the world you grew up in and now inhabit. Why are they important to you?
I guess that’s true from the outside. But as an American, it’s important to have involvement and education in these areas because it’s so much a part of our identity. When you see the rates of incarceration in our country, you can’t look yourself in the mirror and say, “This all looks great”. It’s broken. It’s not comfortable to confront it but it’s our responsibility.
You seem to have a strong sense of self-awareness...
Well, thank you! I hope it’s not weird [laughs]. If you become too self-aware it can be crippling too. I think that doing five years of press interviews has been really helpful. Looking at yourself from within and thinking: what am I not getting right in terms of my ability to communicate? Knowing that I’m often seen as a goody two-shoes or annoying – how do I prevent that idea of me? To attract attention to the causes I care about, people have to find me tolerable. It would break my heart if someone didn’t go and see Get Out because they find me grating. I need to make sure I understand what the criticism is so I can counteract it.
Get Out is a brave choice for your first film. Were you worried about taking on a role where white people are basically portrayed as brainwashing slave-owners?
That’s why I wanted to do it. Immediately, I was like, “Oh s**t, this is going to rock the boat”. For me, it’s much more powerful to do work like this than stand on a soapbox. I needed to find something that was going to make noise. One hope [for the film] is that by seeing racism treated fictionally, white people can begin to understand what it is to be treated as ‘other’.
Have you ever known that feeling of being ‘other’ yourself?
I’ve never felt it any way that isn’t totally trivial. I’ve been deeply unpopular, I’ve been bullied, I’ve been made fun of, but not in the larger sense we’re talking about. I was born into the upper hand. Because of that, and because of the way my parents raised me, not only have I not taken it for granted but it comes with the complete responsibility of trying to make sure inequity isn’t something that continues for generations and generations. Various stages of my life were more selfish than others, but when my brother and I had an allowance, a lot of it was given away [to charity]. Even when I had a job at a farmers’ market, I gave some away [to charity].
The timing of the film seems particularly relevant considering the rise of overt racism...
Last fall, when everything was continuing to simmer and explode [politically], I texted Jordan [Peele, the director] to say I wish that the movie was coming out now and he said it’s depressing, but that it will continue to be relevant. This is something you have to confront one way or another.
Are you worried that given recent events, the US may struggle to keep confronting these issues?
It’s our job to. I was very compelled by Barack Obama’s speech [when he left the White House], where he was saying, “run for office, start a movement”. If anyone tells me they feel like they don’t matter to the world, their family, their community, then there’s nothing more motivating to me than trying to make them feel important.
Do you remember when you first identified as a feminist?
Probably at around two years old [laughs]. Because my mum is who she is. Because she is someone that has always said: “you’re fully equal to boys”.
Recently, we’ve been seeing people use fashion to convey a specific message with politically-charged slogan T-shirts, etc. Is fashion a vehicle for you?
Sometimes I think about it in terms of building an image for people, so that they can more easily imagine the characters I can become. There’s an actor that fits every type, so it’s very easy to pick that actor, rather than saying, “I trust your ability to be a chameleon”. My job in part is to help casting directors and studios see that I’m not only one thing. You can do that a little bit with clothes, a bit with hair and make-up, but the best way to do that is with your career, which is a catch-22.
What do you think your clothes say about you then?
Right now, they say that I’m very comfortable [laughs]. Life is too short to be uncomfortable. But I dress very differently depending on my mood and what I want from my day. Sometimes I dress up for no reason in a business outfit. Sometimes I’ll wear yoga clothes to a meeting – although that’s usually because of timing. I don’t want anyone to think they’re not my priority in any given moment. I don’t want them to think I was like, “Ugh, this meeting?!” when in reality I was up Wikipedia-ing them till 2am.
You’re good friends with Katy Perry, what does she bring to your life?
She has been through so much and gives great life advice. But she also knows all the fun things; I went to Hawaii over Christmas and she was like, these are the places you need to go to. She’s like a Yelp that I trust more than anything. She has a lot of light.
It’s often said that it sucks to be a woman in the world today – how do you feel about that?
I think it’s hard to argue that it’s the same experience as being a dude. I’ve been pretty lucky [in my career] but I’m also pretty new to this game. Keep in mind that my first acting job was on a show staffed by, run by, written by and directed by women. It probably primed my life so that I expect a certain kind of treatment and I hold people to that. If you’re going to treat me differently as a woman, you’re just gone so quickly. That’s not even allowed.
Get Out is in cinemas nationwide from 17 March; Girls is on Sky Atlantic on Mondays at 10pm
Hair: Rheanne White at traceymattingly.com using Kérastase
Make-up: Michael Anthony at traceymattingly.com using Chanel
Nails: Pattie Yankee for Patricia Nail Lacquer
Fashion assistant: Sophie Henderson
With thanks to: Pier 59 Studios, New York