'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Alison Brie ('GLOW')

A star of 'Mad Men,' 'Community' and Netflix's comedy about women wrestlers reflects on her career, assumptions about her range and making a female-dominated show.
Photographed by Austin Hargrave

"It's my dream job," gushes the actress Alison Brie as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR's Awards Chatter podcast and begin discussing her work as Ruth Wilder, a struggling actress who winds up cast in an exhibition as a Soviet wrestler, Zoya the Destroya, on Netflix’s comedy series GLOW. "I had been reading a ton of material and everything just felt kind of the same," she says of the period after her two prior shows, AMC's Mad Men and NBC's Community, came to an end within three weeks of each other in 2015. "What was disappointing to me, I guess, was that I had worked on these two shows that in my mind couldn't have been more different, and the thing that people took away was, 'She [Brie, as an actress] is a hometown girl, she's sweet, she's a little, I don't know, strung-out, she's definitely type-A, and she's buttoned-up.' I guess I was so surprised that people were still able to put me in a box so easily." Then, after a year, came the script for the pilot of GLOW. The 36-year-old emphasizes, "It was everything I never knew I always wanted."

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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.

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Brie, the daughter of an entertainment journalist and an educator, was born and raised in Los Angeles. She wanted to perform from an early age, but not professionally, and remains grateful to this day that her parents afforded her opportunities to act in local theater, but did not push her toward child stardom. She ultimately attended the California Institute of the Arts, graduating in 2005 with a BFA from its acting conservatory and only then seeking professional work. "What I had going for me was naive optimism and true belief in myself," she says before cracking, "Only later would I get jaded and have very low self-esteem and body dysmorphia."

For a brief period, Brie worked in the Hollywood area as a receptionist at yoga studios and as a restaurant hostess while taking screen acting classes and doing local theater. In 2006, she landed one of her first prominent acting jobs, on TV's Hannah Montana, and then a year later was performing at Ventura's Rubicon Theatre when she got the news that would change the trajectory of her career. She recalls, "I was working on Hamlet when I booked Mad Men."

Initially, the character Trudy Campbell — an ahead-of-her-time wife of ambitious young Madison Avenue ad man Pete Campbell, played by Vincent Kartheiser — was supposed to appear in just one episode of Matthew Weiner's drama series. But, thanks to Brie's performance, Trudy was expanded into a recurring role, popping up in 36 episodes between 2007 and 2015. Brie jokes, "I was like a sad girlfriend waiting by the phone, like, 'When will they call me again? I love them so much!'" More seriously, she emphasizes, "The writing was so good," adding, "Doing that show was like doing Chekhov, where you were living in the silence and filling in so much subtext about your character constantly."

Brie was at one point asked to become a series regular on Mad Men, but with little pay increase and no assurance that she would be used often, so she declined, enabling her to simultaneously appear on other shows. In 2009, she landed her first job as a series regular, playing Annie Edison, a quirky former Adderall addict now enrolled at a Colorado community college, on Community (even though the show's creators were originally seeking an Asian actress). "It was the best of times and it was the worst of times," she cracks in reference to her six seasons on the show, noting that it faced "constant hurdles" — low ratings not helped by lack of promotion by NBC (the show moved to Yahoo in its final season), tricky personalities in actor Chevy Chase and showrunner Dan Harmon (who was fired and rehired) and, in the case of the first three seasons, the grind of having to make no fewer than 22 episodes. "We all took times crying on a regular basis," Brie acknowledges, while emphasizing that the actual making of the show — for which she received a best supporting actress in a comedy series Critics’ Choice Award nomination in 2012 — was "so fun."

Until 2015, Brie juggled the "two big exciting jobs," sometimes visiting both shows' sets in a single day. "It was very fulfilling to go back and forth," she says. During their off-seasons, she pursued film work, which she says "was always important to me, just wanting to build my career." Her film credits include The Five-Year Engagement, The LEGO Movie, Sleeping With Other People, The Disaster Artist and The Post — but her best showcases have always come, thus far, on the smaller screen. "Certainly, I've been afforded much greater opportunities for richer, fuller characters in the television space," she confirms.

When Mad Men and Community ended, her career was at a crossroads, but one that she welcomed. "It felt like a nice new chapter to open up," she emphasizes. "I really only remember being excited — for about a year, until I was like, 'Oh, people don't want to hire me in those big movies. I guess I'll do more television.'" She elaborates, "I really wanted to take a full year [off from TV], because the idea of jumping into another show after finishing these two shows that I'd been on for so much of my life seemed daunting, and I just didn't want to make the decision quickly." She continues, "I wanted to be very careful about the thing that I chose. I didn't feel like I wanted to be on a network show because that experience had been harrowing.... I wanted the freedom [from not having to make a huge number of episodes per season] to still have opportunities on the film side.... I wanted depth of character." In short, she says, "I was open to anything. I just wanted it to have an effect on me in a guttural way."

As soon as Brie read the script for the pilot of GLOW, a brainchild of Jenji Kohan — who had previously created Showtime's Weeds and Netflix's Orange Is the New Black — about the making of a women's wrestling TV show in the eighties, she knew she wanted to play the lead. "It just sounded so different from anything I had read," she explains. "The writing was so good, and the character was so complex and interesting, a little bit dirty, not at all buttoned-up or prissy, not at all fucking 'wholesome.'" She adds, "I was so drawn to every aspect of it and determined to fight to the death to get the role — and they damn near made me," noting that she had to audition four times and do a pre-read with a casting director, a chore usually reserved for nobodies. "I couldn't decide if they were trying to deter me a little to see if I was more high-maintenance or something than I was," she volunteers, before continuing with a smile, "But luckily I'm pretty low-maintenance and think very little of myself, so I was happy to come in as many times they wanted."

In a very real sense, the deck was stacked against Brie. "They wanted someone unknown and unconventional," she says, "so I understand why they didn't think immediately that I would be right for the role — and that's also part of what made me want the role so badly." She ended up convincing them that she was the woman for the job, landing atop the call sheet — for the first time in her career — on a show almost exclusively starring, written by, directed by and addressing the trials and tribulations of women. (The show includes a season one story arc about abortion and a season two story arc about #MeToo.) "The whole experience on GLOW has been life-changing," emphasizes the actress, who received best actress in a comedy series Critics’ Choice, Golden Globe and SAG award nominations for the show's first season; has already received a best actress SAG Award nom for season two, as well; and shared in the cast's best ensemble in a comedy series SAG Award noms for both seasons. "It's hard to describe how different and freeing it feels [to make a show dominated by women]. We all have such ownership over our space. We don't feel scared or intimidated. I think we are intimidating, and that's been really different. And it's cracked everything open. It's made me want to take bigger risks as an actress — and I get to on this show."