Alison Brie on marriage, mental health and her new Netflix show GLOW

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Helen Bownass
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If there is a TV show we all need right now, it’s a clever comedy set in the Eighties about female wrestlers. If there’s a TV show actress Alison Brie needs right now, it’s a clever comedy set in the Eighties about female wrestlers. Praise be then for GLOW (aka the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling). The series – consisting of 10 bite-sized 30-minute (ish) episodes – is inspired by the real story of an Eighties’ female wrestling league formed for TV and led by a B-movie director (played by Marc Maron).

It centres on Ruth Wilder (Brie), an out-of-work actress given her last chance at stardom when she’s recruited into the ring. Brie is utterly compelling as the overeager, sometimes flawed wannabe who unexpectedly finds her calling. It’s a show within a show that’s funny, dramatic and full of perfectly observed Lurex, blue eyeshadow and big hair.

Executive produced by Orange Is The New Black’s Jenji Kohan, like OITNB, representation is key. It takes stereotyped versions of women, plays with them, then knocks them out. It’s a show about self-discovery that will not only move us out of the mire but also propel Brie front and centre, moving her from “actress Alison Brie who was Trudy in Mad Men and Annie in Community” to simply “actress Alison Brie”.

At Stylist’s shoot with Brie in Los Angeles, it’s clear she’s a real-life powerhouse. The whole crew is transfixed as she does tricep dips from the shoulders of our male models and hangs off a gym bar with the same ease anyone else might have sitting on their sofa for a Netflix binge.

Brie, 34, has been training hard for her star turn. A Los Angeles native, her love of drama as a child and teenager was cemented while studying drama at theatre school Cal Arts. While there she also spent six months studying in Glasgow: “Oh my god, cheesy chips! I used to love cheesy chips,” she says dreamily, talking excitedly about her time there before explaining the culinary concept to the bemused Americans on set.

Being an Angeleno had certain benefits: “After I graduated theatre school I lived with my mother until the third season of Community,” she recalls. Brie no longer lives with her mum, instead sharing her living space with husband of a couple of months, actor Dave Franco (you can tell she still enjoys the sound of calling him her husband). I tell her I did a cursory google of “Alison Brie wedding” to see if anything appeared. She smiles when I tell her it didn’t.

We went out of our way to keep that private and I’m glad that we did,” she says. “It was a moment just for us.” They also share their place with two cats. “Our house is full of cat hair,” she laughs. “I have dust rollers hidden all around the house and in my car. I can only imagine that we must eat a lot of it too.” A Hollywood actress who’s not afraid to talk about the perils of cat hair – that’s my kind of woman. GLOW isn’t Brie’s only new project.

The actress, who voices Diane in Bojack Horseman and starred in How To Be Single and Sleeping With Other People, also joins Steven Spielberg’s The Papers alongside Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in 2018, and flexes her comic muscle in film The Little Hours (out later this summer) alongside her husband and Aubrey Plaza. The latter can only be described as… well, I’ll let her cover that one: “It’s a 14th-century, nun sex comedy. No-one has pitched me a nun sex comedy in my life,” she laughs. “So that piqued my interest.

Also there was no script, it was all improvised.” After the shoot is finished, Brie and I head to nearby organic cafe Food Lab, where we settle into a table in the dappled shade of the garden, and over earl grey iced teas and tomato salads get stuck into the important stuff…

GLOW is a new direction for you, was that a big part of the show’s appeal?

Absolutely. I wanted to do something really different and I wanted to look different. We [Brie plus her agents] had been looking for projects in film and TV, thinking can we cut my hair, can we dye it, can I change my body, what can we do to shake things up? People have an image of me being a certain way… I don’t even totally know what that is!

So you fully embraced the challenge and cut your hair to play Ruth?

Yeah, and permed it. It felt really good. It was really freeing to play a character who doesn’t care about male attention – it made me care a lot less about it. It also coincided with me getting married; I think that also puts you in a similar headspace where you’re like, “I don’t need attention from other guys”. I’ve always had a very flirtatious personality but being an actress in your 20s, you always feel like you want everyone in the room to think you’re the most adorable thing, it’s such a huge part of who you are. And that was totally gone, especially because the GLOW set was run by women.

Did you feel like it had to be a physical change because sometimes people can’t always see past what’s in front of them?

Definitely. It was this whole idea of feeling underestimated or people looking at me and saying, “I can’t picture you doing X, Y, Z”, which has never been more showcased than me trying to get this part on this show. They didn’t want to cast me either.

How did you fight for it?

It took many phone calls, I flew to Toronto to read with Betty Gilpin [her GLOW co-star] and we put ourselves on tape together. I auditioned many times for the part, I was putting all my energy into getting this show.

That’s a lot of gumption. Have you ever wanted anything that much before?

No, I don’t think so. I certainly have been in the running for bigger movies that I would get very excited about and equally as heartbroken when they didn’t come to fruition, but there was something with this show… I had such singular sight set on it. It’s a very physical role.

Have you always been aware of the power of your body?

I’ve lived most of my life feeling very self-conscious about my body. It’s weird to say that, because at the same time I did enjoy streaking in college and thought of myself as sort of a nudist when I was at Cal Arts [laughs]. But even in high school, I can remember thinking, “my body doesn’t look perfect” and starting out in this industry, I thought I should look a certain way and was really at odds with my body. I think it’s why I like training and heavy lifting; working with my body instead of against it. Being on the show was super empowering, we all really learned to embrace ourselves because we were using our bodies as a tool. I was like, “my body has value, because I’m a wrestler, I’m powerful, it’s not about what I look like, it’s about how I feel and what I can do.

This is the first big TV show you’ve fronted. Is it pertinent that this role has come along when you’re further into your career or does it increase the pressure for it to be a success?

No I don’t think so, I think it’s exciting and it’s probably why I was more interested in holding out for the right thing. When I was starting out, I would’ve taken any show – I was just so happy to get a job and it turned out that I got jobs on the most incredible shows. But it was just luck that those shows turned out to be like that.

Has television become a better place for female-driven narratives?

One hundred per cent. Because you have the time, and a bit less pressure – film now is so trapped by box office expectations. In films, it’s so hard to crack the boys’ club, but also the very small group of female movie stars. It’s a tight-knit pool they’re casting through; it’s going to be one of five A-list [actresses]. They’re amazing and I’m happy to see their stories told but in TV, there’s a lot more opportunity.

Are you a workaholic?

Yeah but I’m trying not to be. It’s difficult for me. In this new moment of trying to be more strategic, I have had to work less for a minute to take my time to choose better projects to work on.

How does that sit with you? Are you able to relax into those times when you’re not working?

No, I hate it. I get very depressed [laughs]. When I was younger, I was much more of a workaholic and I think I needed to be – you have to hustle. But now, being married, doing work on our house, I feel like there are things in my life that interest me and I find fulfilling.

How do you make sure you keep your mental health intact and emotionally balanced in those times?

It’s all about putting it in perspective. As soon as I’m on the verge of tears that I’ll never work again, I have to stop and take stock of how lucky I’ve been, that I’ve just worked on this amazing fulfilling thing and that I’ve got great people in my life. You have to find your own happiness within yourself and feel good about that. And I have a very supportive husband who’s good at talking me through that stuff.

When did you realise you had a comic talent? Probably not until I was shooting Community. I’ve wanted to act my whole life but I can’t pinpoint a moment; it’s not like I came out of the womb singing. I was a little ham when I was a kid. My sister and I would play dress up with my dad and put together funny little sketch comedies for my parents and their friends. But I always thought I would be a ‘serious actress’. It never occurred to me that I was going to work in comedy. When I was in high school I remember saying: “When I’m done with theatre school I will either do some very dark indie movies or a period piece because those are the quickest trajectory to winning an Oscar”.

Is there any sort of comedy that sets your teeth on edge?

Toilet humour is a weird one for me. Sometimes when things are really gross I turn off but at the same time if someone farts near me, I find it very funny. On the set of GLOW, it’s all women, we’re all so comfortable with each other and we’re in these crazy positions, wearing almost no clothes, and if someone were to fart – or if I farted – I wouldn’t be able to keep it together.

I know you used to practise your Oscar speech – do you still do that and how has it evolved?

I’m always including new and different people, and now at the end of it I get to say my husband [laughs] so that’s a fun, new aspect. For a long time there was no-one special to really mention.

Would it matter if winning an Oscar didn’t ever happen?

No, it obviously would not matter. It’s a bit of a pipe dream, sometimes I’ll imagine maybe it will still happen and I’ll be in my 70s and it’s like my final role and I play that unexpected killer in that movie. But no, if it doesn’t happen, which it most likely will not, I will be fine.

Do you still have that hankering to do a dark indie?

Yes! Definitely! I’m taking slow steps into the darkness. GLOW is a bit grittier than work I’ve done before. I want to do a thriller, that’s my new thing.

You have played in a band – Alison Brie And The Girls – for several years, what’s the appeal of being a musician?

It was just a really fun hobby. At the time it was a creative outlet that we were in control of for three struggling actresses. Being on stage and singing is so fun and a nice way to spend time with two of my best friends, but it’s difficult because we are three actresses and everyone’s schedules are so crazy. It has become a very fluid thing.

You were also once a clown for kids’ parties. Were you good at it? 

Yeah! I was great. I had the red nose, a yellow wig, my clown name was Sunny. It was good preparation for intimidating situations because you walk into a room and for the next hour you’re the person who has to entertain 20 seven year olds. But I quit because it was too stressful [laughs]. Because of how busy our schedules were I’d be late for a party and I’d get yelled at by parents. I was like, “I can’t do this job anymore, they’re yelling at me!”

How do you react when someone is shouting at you?

I burst into tears, and start apologising profusely and then hours later I think, I should’ve said this! I speak my mind a lot, but in confrontational situations I get quite emotional, so I’ve been trying to speak my mind in the moment more.

Do you have quite a busy mind?

In certain respects I do. I can be a bit anal, I like a schedule. I make the schedule for my week every Sunday. But I don’t worry about many other things. Especially things that are outside my control. Although I still feel guilty for things that happened years ago. I’ll be driving in my car and think, “I can’t believe I never apologised to that boyfriend from eight years ago, maybe I should email him”. But of course I shouldn’t email him.

What about change, how does that sit with you?

[Laughs] I don’t like change, which is strange for this line of work. I’m very much a creature of habit. I like my routine; whenever I shoot a movie out of town I like to immediately establish my routine. I’m really not as ‘go with the flow’ as I was in college. I feel like I did all my great experimenting in college and in my 20s, I really went for it, I figured some s**t out, I got it out of the way and now I know exactly what I like and it’s these five things.

What sort of things are they?

Being physical is really important and I’m a bit of a foodie I guess. I’ve gone through phases where I’ve wanted to try every new restaurant but now, whatever city I’m in, I really just want to find my three favourite restaurants and then eat there every night. I can eat the same thing every night for two weeks. I like to cook too. I always use recipes though, I’m terrible when I try to freestyle – I measure everything and set my phone timer even if I’m only cooking something for two minutes.

Where are your current favourite places to eat in LA?

I like Go Get Em Tiger for coffee and brunch, a great new Greek restaurant called Kismet, and I’m probably going to grab something from M Foods – a macrobiotic place – on my way home tonight.

How do you like to relax when you’re not being physical – whether that’s on set or in the gym?

We love watching TV on the sofa with our cats. And I love getting a foot massage. I feel like it’s so decadent not just going to get a massage, but specifically getting a foot massage. Getting your feet taken care of feels really adult.