HEAT VISION

Alison Brie on 'Promising Young Woman,' 'Happiest Season' and Grieving Over 'GLOW'

Alison Brie
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images
The actor also discusses the latest on the rom-com she wrote with husband Dave Franco during quarantine, her directorial ambitions, and the excitement and fear of looking for her next TV series commitment.

Between her four well-received feature films and the end of her two hit Netflix series, 2020 has been quite a year for Alison Brie. Just a few days prior to the release of BoJack Horseman’s concluding episodes on Jan. 31, Brie’s latest film, Promising Young Woman, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews. Emerald Fennell’s unique revenge tale follows Carey Mulligan’s Cassie Thomas as she seeks vengeance against her medical school classmates who traumatized her to the point of having to drop out. Brie’s character, Madison, is one of multiple stops on Cassie’s revenge tour, and as soon as she read the script, Brie knew she had to be involved.

“The script was incredible. Every scene popped off the page, and I think it’s why [writer-director] Emerald [Fennell] attracted so many talented actors to come in for just a scene or two,” Brie tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It was such a page-turner and so unexpected. Even just reading it, I was like, ‘I’m not sure what this is, but I’m excited about the idea of it.’ It’s totally unique and it’s very different than anything we’ve seen before.”

In early February, Brie co-wrote and starred in Netflix’s Horse Girl, and the film’s generally positive reviews consistently highlighted Brie’s standout performance. This past July, Brie also starred in The Rental, her husband Dave Franco’s directorial debut, and while the film’s release plans were heavily altered by Covid, the horror-thriller topped drive-in and digital charts for weeks on end. Last month, Brie had a prominent role in Clea DuVall’s holiday rom-com, Happiest Season, which quickly became Hulu’s most-watched original film to date.

Despite all these silver linings in an otherwise difficult year, the scales unfortunately tipped in the other direction this past October when Brie’s hit Netflix show GLOW was un-renewed for its fourth and final season. The women’s wrestling show had already shot two episodes prior to the industry-wide shutdown in mid-March, but Brie knew the show was in trouble when the relaunch date kept shifting due to COVID.

“It’s something that was not really made public, but what we all knew behind the scenes was that the date at which we might go back to shoot kept pushing and pushing and pushing. So something like that is never a good sign,” Brie shares. “So I had some time to mentally prepare, and this year, as a whole, has also been a major perspective shifter for me. So, at the end of the day, I feel mostly just grateful that we made a really great show for three seasons. We had a great run.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Brie also discusses the latest on the rom-com she wrote with Franco during quarantine, her directorial ambitions, and the excitement and fear of looking for her next TV series commitment.

So what do you make of your two most recent characters in Promising Young Woman and Happiest Season both having twins?

Whoa! Gosh, that is a connection that I hadn’t even really thought about myself. You never see my character’s twins in Promising Young Woman, so I guess I didn’t think about them very much. That just makes me sound like a terrible actress because my character’s children were not a major factor in my character preparation for that movie. (Laughs.)

And not to be outdone, you recently adopted twin felines named Otis and Max, right?

That’s true. Yes, that’s correct. (Laughs.)

Clearly, both of these roles inspired you to adopt Otis and Max.

(Laughs.) Yes, but more so from Happiest Season because they had a larger impression on me. The twins were actively a part of the movie and not just talked about.

Starting with Happiest Season, was the sisterly competition between your character, Sloane, and Mackenzie Davis’ character, Harper, something you understood or related to right away?

Sloane’s intense type A behavior and her seeming lack of compassion for others are things that I find that I can lock into as an actress even though I would like to think that they’re not major parts of my life. That type of character is a character I’ve played before, and she’s a character that I’m quite comfortable inhabiting, even though I’m completely opposite. In terms of any competition with my own sister, I would say, on a personal level, it doesn’t exist. (Laughs.) I’ve never really felt competitive with my sister because our parents never withheld their love. My sister and I have always been very different, and we have always had very different interests from one another. So there didn’t need to be a competition because she was very active in sports and I was very active in high school theater. So the two didn’t really cross over in a way that would make us feel like we had to compete. But just having a sister, I can relate to the viciousness that can sometimes exist in the candid nature in which you might speak to your sister or any member of your family, especially when you come from a family that does love each other. Having that safety net with family, there’s a way that you can get away with stuff that you wouldn’t do with other people, knowing that you won’t have to really apologize later. You’re like, “It’s family!” and they know I love them no matter what. So I can be more candid with them than I might be with other people. (Laughs.)

Do you think there’s more to the story as to why Sloane quit practicing law?

To me, it was about her relationship with her husband (Burl Moseley), and I’m sure it was also a rebellion against her parents. I think she felt like she always had to compete for their love and a lot of that had to do with her job, which became her identity. We don’t see this for a large part of the movie, but I also think Sloane is searching for happiness. She and her husband both said, “Our marriage isn’t working. Let’s see if we can take the stress level down a notch.” And I think Sloane then said to herself, “Let me see if I can connect to something that actually really makes me happy, even though that’s a scary thought because I know it won’t make my family proud. But I’m going to try to do it.” And even though her marriage is crumbling, Sloane can be a pretty happy person, but going home for the holidays is quite triggering for her, as I believe it can be for a lot of people.

Whether it’s A Christmas Story, Christmas Vacation or Home Alone, I love holiday movies where things don’t go as planned. Happiest Season certainly isn’t as extreme as a couple of those prior examples, but it still rids the notion that every holiday season must be perfect or picturesque. Do you remember a particular moment where you stopped pursuing an idyllic holiday season?

I definitely do. About three years ago, I had one of the worst stomach flus of my life. (Laughs.) So it was very easy for me to let go of holiday perfection when I was hunched over the toilet for hours. (Laughs.) That’s a little too graphic, but yeah, definitely. One of my qualms with Christmas in this consumer culture in which we live is that, as a holiday, it’s in danger of becoming a little bit superficial. It has so much to do with presents and decorations. When we get back to the true meaning of Christmas, which is really about love, being with the ones you love, appreciating your family or your chosen family, and being grateful for the things that you have, then I think we realize that those superficial things are not so important. And the true meaning of Christmas is definitely something that this family learns over the course of Happiest Season.

Do you have any holiday traditions along the lines of Happiest Season’s white elephant party?

No, we really don’t. (Laughs.) I wish I could make something up, but no. It’s tricky. Our family holidays have become a little bit more logistical now that I’m married and my sister’s married and has kids. So every other year, I’m with my family or my husband’s [Dave Franco] family. I guess my favorite tradition is a Thanksgiving one. We do a double Thanksgiving, which means we do Thanksgiving with my family on Thursday and then we drive up north and immediately do a second Thanksgiving the next day with Davey’s family. So, on that Friday, when most people are shopping and trying to work off the Thanksgiving calories, we are eating a second full Thanksgiving meal. We weren’t able to do it this year because of COVID, but I think that is honestly my favorite holiday tradition because I love Thanksgiving. (Laughs.) I love getting together with our families, being grateful and eating a lot of food — and we do it twice!

When actors transition from a very physical role to an everyday person, they can sometimes have a tough time unlearning years’ worth of fight training and whatnot. Thus, was GLOW’s Ruth Wilder itching to come out during Sloane’s altercation with Harper?

(Laughs.) I think so, and I think you’re right. Sloane was a good transitional role for me because I also got to learn ice skating for the part. So the role already felt really physical. When I have to learn anything that’s physical, I feel like I have a leg up now. I got to use GLOW to just get more in touch with my body and to train more and be pretty physically fit. But, certainly, when it came time to tackle the fight scene in this movie, I was really excited, and then I very quickly realized that it’s so different to do a regular fight scene between normal characters. Even though it’s physical, it is so different from a wrestling match, even a semi-professional wrestling match. (Laughs.) And on GLOW, all of our fights were so heavily choreographed and rehearsed, but in Happiest Season, it was a little bit more of a free-for-all. So I was definitely a little more bruised and beaten after the Happiest Season melee, which I think surprises a lot of people. (Laughs.)

Promising Young Woman is absolutely brilliant. I know you can’t always tell how things are going to turn out, but did that script seem pretty automatic?

Oh my god, yes. Absolutely. The script was incredible. Every scene popped off the page, and I think it’s why [writer-director] Emerald [Fennell] attracted so many talented actors to come in for just a scene or two. It was such a fun read. It was such a page-turner and so unexpected. It had a very unique tone, which obviously comes across in the final product, but even just reading it, I was like, “I’m not sure what this is, but I’m excited about the idea of it.” (Laughs.) And when I met with Emerald to talk about the role and the movie on the whole, she started talking a bit more about the soundtrack, the look of the movie and her overall vision for it. I was so excited by what she said, but I was even more excited to come on board and be a part of it. And now, having seen the final product, I think all of those things ring true. It’s totally unique and it’s very different than anything we’ve seen before.

For years, I’ve noticed how movies and TV shows rarely account for red wine-stained teeth and lips, but sure enough, your character’s teeth and lips were stained by multiple bottles of red wine. Can I credit you for this often overlooked detail?

(Laughs.) No, I think it was Emerald’s idea. This just goes to show what a great director she is because she pays such close attention to detail. You are the first person to bring it up, but I’m so glad because when I first watched it, I thought, “Oh gosh, did we go a little too far?” Although, as an avid wine drinker, especially this year, I can say that it’s absolutely true. (Laughs.) It is a thing that happens. It’s also a great visual cue to let you know how much Madison has drank over the course of the scene.

Since our last conversation in support of The Rental, I watched it top this drive-in chart and that digital/iTunes chart for quite a while. Given the circumstances, are you and Dave quite pleased with its performance?

Oh absolutely. What an incredible surprise. I’m obsessed with The Rental. Obviously, I love it on a number of levels since my husband wrote and directed it. I’m just so proud of him. And yeah, it’s been a very strange silver lining to this year, but it doesn’t quite balance out all the bad things that have happened. Obviously, it’s been a very unique year for movies and the way that people are watching movies is also very different now. So there had to be a perspective shift from our point of view in terms of how the movie was going to be released, and I’m also seeing that with Happiest Season and things like that. But it was incredibly rewarding to see how people have reacted to The Rental. I actually think that having a drive-in and VOD release somehow connected people with it on an even deeper level. The movie deals with this real intimate nature of being filmed in your home, and with people watching it in their homes, maybe it resonated with people more.

I’m really sorry about GLOW. This new age of the “un-renewal” is such a bummer. At this point, have you completed the various stages of grief?

I think so. I think I have. I guess I felt somewhat mentally prepared because the show had kept pushing. It’s something that was not really made public, but what we all knew behind the scenes was that the date at which we might go back to shoot kept pushing and pushing and pushing. So something like that is never a good sign. (Laughs.) So I had some time to mentally prepare, and this year, as a whole, has also been a major perspective shifter for me. So, at the end of the day, I feel mostly just grateful that we made a really great show for three seasons. We had a great run. We don’t get to do that final fourth season, but the show had already changed my life in so many ways for the better. I don’t know what else I could have taken away from that experience, so, to me, it’s all still net positive at the end of the day.

Did you and Betty [Gilpin] quickly gather the girls to lament via a group Zoom?

We absolutely did, yes. (Laughs.) Yeah, I think we all learned about it on a Friday, and then the group chat was buzzing over the weekend. Then we did a Zoom Monday morning, right before the news was released publicly. And I’m so glad we did because it’s always lovely to see all the girls’ faces. As you can imagine, in a cast of 15 women, there were a lot of different emotions that everyone was feeling and it’s always nice to touch base in as close to face-to-face as we could.

I spoke to an actor named Kathryn Newton recently, and her Netflix show, The Society, was also un-renewed in a similar fashion. She was just four days away from shooting.

Oh my god, I love The Society! Yeah, that is such a bummer. I do think it was a shock to us because we had shot the first two episodes of season four. So it seemed like there was a safety in that we had already begun shooting, but Covid is such a force. Everything this year has been such a crazy force and nothing is within our control. We’ve got to just surrender.

Demand for more of your work is certainly a good problem to have, but I feel for you, especially because you’re asked about a potential Community movie in every single interview you give. And now, you’re also going to be asked about a GLOW movie in every single interview moving forward.

(Laughs.) I’m just preparing myself to be asked about a Mad Men movie. I’m like, “That one can’t be far away. When is that fan campaign going to start?” (Laughs.) It is a funny thing, but I guess, on the one hand, I’m really used to it. So I have no problem shattering people’s dreams when I’m asked about these movies and I say that I don’t think there’s a high likelihood based on my personal experience. (Laughs.) But you never know.

I actually really like that you don’t get people’s hopes up.

Yeah, exactly. And thank you. It’s who I like to be.

Ultimately, it’s a small price to pay for having prominent roles on four beloved shows.

Oh absolutely. And I would say that all the shows that I’ve worked on have really survived because of fervent, passionate fan bases. So, if the trade-off of that love that we get from all those fans is people wanting more and asking me about the possibility of a movie, then that trade-off ain’t bad.

I believe the last time you were a free agent, or without a series commitment, GLOW came along. So is part of you excited for what could come your way, or has already come your way?

Yeah, definitely. It’s always a mix of excitement and fear. The bar has been set really high, and I feel like I was saying that four years ago prior to GLOW coming along. Coming off of Mad Men and Community, I was like, “The bar’s been set pretty high, so I don’t know what the next thing’s going to be.” And then, of course, it was GLOW, which, on a personal level, just set the bar even higher. So it’s always a mix of both. I’m always excited about the unknown, and I’m looking forward to finding something new and different to work on. But there’s also a slight bit of fear and anxiety that comes along with wanting the quality to be as good as the quality of the things I’ve worked on before. But, looking forward, hopefully I can get a little bit ahead of things. For all the shows I’ve worked on, I have yet to be a producer on one of those shows, and I haven’t really been at the forefront of creating one of those shows. So, hopefully, that’s something that could happen in the near future.

You and Dave wrote a romantic comedy during quarantine, which the two of you revealed during Rental press. Have you guys started showing it to your reps and whatnot? Or are you still refining?

I think we will continue to be refining it even while we’re shooting it. (Laughs.) We definitely are continuing to refine it, but yes, we’ve shown it to our reps. I don’t want to reveal too much, but we’re in the process of attaching actors and producers right now, so it’s moving forward.

You’ve directed an episode of GLOW, and you also co-wrote Horse Girl and the aforementioned romantic comedy. Is Marvel 616 another indication that you want to direct a feature someday? Is it another rep towards that goal?

I would say it’s an indication of my passion for directing in general, though it does feel like a standalone short film. (Laughs.) The two things I’ve directed so far, an episode of GLOW and an episode of Marvel 616, have been in the television space, and I really love it. I love working in TV. I have always loved working in TV as an actor, and there’s no love lost when it comes to directing in the TV space. On the film side, I just don’t know. I’m a little more hesitant. I’m not sure if it’ll be something that I end up writing, or if I’ll end up reading something that I feel an equal amount of passion for. Obviously, directing a film is so much more time-consuming, life-consuming and energy-consuming. So it would really have to be the right thing, and it feels a little bit daunting. I think Dave has slipped into it so seamlessly and has such a gift for it and such a real passion for it. So I’m just kind of waiting for that passion on the film side to ignite in myself.

Have you ever taken a role where you and your character were going through something similar and you knew you’d have to work it out in the process?

Ooh. That is interesting. I’m quickly scrolling through every role I’ve ever played. (Laughs.) I think there were elements of Ruth and GLOW that I found a connection to and that seemed more and more prevalent in my own life. And one of those things was Ruth’s journey in wanting to direct more, and my own personal journey in discovering that passion. There’s also a sort of insecurity that comes with that on the acting side. Are people pushing me to do this because they think I shouldn’t be doing this? (Laughs.) So there’s a little bit of that stuff, and GLOW functioned in that capacity for me.

One day, we won’t have to talk about this subject like it’s a rarity, but both of your new films are directed by female actor-directors [Emerald Fennell, Clea DuVall]. While men are certainly capable of helming stories about women, I have to imagine that there are many advantages to having a woman’s perspective on a woman's story. Is that the case?

Of course. That’s something that was really present on GLOW. I’m sorry that all roads lead back to GLOW. We just broke up, and she’s all I can think about! (Laughs.) But, yeah, I do think that’s the case with certain stories and storylines. I think you always want the director to have special connection to the material and a unique and personal perspective on it. And it’s present in Happiest Season and in Promising Young Woman, for sure. With Emerald, being able to have the kinds of conversations that needed to be had about consent, it felt important to have a woman at the forefront of leading those conversations on a really personal level with the cast. And for Clea, as a gay woman telling a gay love story in the holiday romcom space, I think that kind of representation is really important. Also, it’s sort of like a cart-horse scenario. The story exists because Clea, herself, said, “Oh, there’s a hole here in my experience as a moviegoer and as a queer woman. There’s a genre of film that I love so much, but I haven’t seen myself represented in those movies, so I’ll make one.”

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Promising Young Woman is now available in select theaters. Happiest Season is currently streaming on Hulu.

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