2:17pm PT by Scott Feinberg
'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Allison Williams ('Get Out')
"It was an absolute dream, synergistic moment of casting," says Allison Williams of being offered, as her first big-screen role, the part of Rose Armitage, the female lead in Jordan Peele's feature directorial debut Get Out — which allowed her to make fun of and then completely subvert her preexisting screen persona — as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of the Awards Chatter' podcast. "It was exactly what I needed. And I held out." Indeed, soon after shooting to stardom as Marnie on Lena Dunham's HBO series Girls, which debuted in 2012 and ran through 2017, many expected Williams to begin appearing in films, and were surprised when she did not. She explains, "Either I didn't get parts that I wanted, or I was getting offered parts that I didn't want or the timing didn't work out because I was on Girls. I was lucky enough to have what I often referred to as 'my day job' as Marnie on Girls, so I had the luxury, financially and stability-wise, to be selective. And I used that and allowed myself to really be thoughtful about what this first movie would be."
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 33:08], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Matthew Belloni, The Hollywood Reporter's editorial director, about the nominations for the 90th Oscars, Fox Searchlight's awkward post-noms predicament, snubs of the streaming services, how #MeToo could shape the results and why we may be underestimating Get Out.
Click here to access all of our 203 episodes, including conversations with Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Lorne Michaels, Gal Gadot, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Stephen Colbert, Jennifer Lawrence, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Snoop Dogg, Elisabeth Moss, Jerry Seinfeld, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Kate Winslet, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Aziz Ansari, Jessica Chastain, Denzel Washington, Nicole Kidman, Warren Beatty, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Natalie Portman, Robert De Niro, Judi Dench, Tom Hanks, Jane Fonda, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone & Jimmy Kimmel.
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Williams was born and raised in Connecticut. The daughter of NBC newsman Brian Williams and Jane Stoddard Williams, a former producer of his, developed an interest in acting at an early age, and performed throughout high school — including as an extra on NBC's American Dreams, through which she landed a SAG card and an agent. However, as she went off to Yale University, her parents forbid her from pursuing professional work until she graduated, and so the closest she came to Hollywood for the next few years were summer jobs as, among other things, a production assistant on 2006's A Prairie Home Companion and a personal assistant to Tina Fey. Still, she hoped to make a name for herself during her undergrad years, so she teamed up with classmates who were engaged in creating digital content as an extracurricular activity. One video they produced together — in which Williams sings, in gown and gloves, the lyrics to Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy" over the Mad Men theme song — had just that effect. Picked up by the Huffington Post, it was noticed by comedy titan Judd Apatow just after he had signed on to serve as an executive producer on Girls, and just as the show was trying to find its Marnie.
Williams graduated from Yale in June 2010 and shortly thereafter relocated to Los Angeles. By November of that same year, she had been called in to audition, for the part of Marnie, for — and with — Dunham. "I felt like I knew Marnie," she says of a character who likes rules, but wants to go into a profession in which they hardly exist, and who often struggles to get out of her own way — and, just 10 days later, she won the part. Williams' refusal to sign a nudity rider could easily have kept her from being cast on the sex-centric show, but she says that advice she had been given by close family friends Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson gave her the confidence to hold her ground. "Tom once told me that the times you say 'no' are much more impactful than the times you say 'yes,'" she shares, adding, "Rita was the one saying, 'Stick to your guns. I've never done nudity. If this is something that you're uncomfortable about in a kind of elemental way, do not second-guess yourself — don't fall to peer pressure in that way.' So I just said, 'No.'"
Girls debuted in April 2012 and quickly began dominating the cultural conversation. It spawned countless debates and think pieces about gender, sexuality and coming-of-age in recession-era America. Some loved it (regarding it as Sex and the City for millennials, who had never had a show like it, especially on HBO), while others hated — and, to use a term it helped to spawn —"hate-watched" it (deriding it as a show about a quartet of horny spoiled brats). For the actresses on the show, this sort of attention brought about some major life changes. Williams says she didn't mind being recognized out in public, where most people treated her respectfully. But she grew to resent insinuations that she and her core trio of female collaborators were just playing themselves. "No one thought we were acting at all, which was so deeply insulting," she says. "It wasn't a documentary. I wasn't being myself." She elaborates, "I had to lean in to the abhorrent, cringe-ier sides of her [Marnie], because that's where the comedy came from."
Another frustration for Williams was her struggle to be seen as having earned her shot on Girls. Many in the media noted that all four of the show's stars had at least one famous parent, implying that their casting was due to nepotism — something Williams firmly rejects. "She didn't know who my dad was," the actress says of Dunham. "She pictured Peter Jennings for like two years — until she met my dad, she was picturing the wrong guy — and I think at that point Peter Jennings was deceased, so that was even weirder." Still, she found it hard to escape the shadow of her father (with whom she is very close). "There was one magazine where my name wasn't even on the cover [the April 2013 issue of Town & Country] — it was just, I was someone's daughter," she says. "That magazine cover was the peak of my annoyance. That was insulting...it was horrifying." She continues, "I avoid being overtly political, to this day, because people will ascribe my beliefs to my father. Of course, since I'm just a woman, after all, my beliefs must come from my father — I'm almost 30, but of course everything I know comes from Daddy. But no, I'm serious, if I were to come out seriously in one way politically, people would definitely get mad at him for it, and he would pay the price for it. So there is this inextricable kind of umbilical cord, career-wise, between the two of us."
Girls was a huge part of Williams' identity for six years, during which she and her collaborators congregated in the summers to shoot the show, which would then roll out at the start of each new year. During hiatuses, when she could have been shooting films, Williams instead focused on her personal life (she got married in 2015) and occasionally other projects for TV. She began exploring a film project with producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, but it fell through, at which point they asked her to play the title character in their 2014 three-hour NBC musical production Peter Pan Live!, a highly unconventional and, in many ways, risky, assignment. She signed on immediately. "I had to do it," she explains. "It was like a tip of the hat to that little girl who got me here, the girl who was obsessed with Peter Pan, who didn't want to grow up. I broke her rules and I grew up and I shouldn't have, and this was kind of my way of apologizing to her — but also reassuring her that even though I look like I grew up from the outside, I still play dress-up for a living, so I didn't really."
Not surprisingly, Peter Pan Live! proved somewhat divisive — but, oddly enough, it, even more than Girls, is what convinced Peele to reach out to her about Get Out. Peele, she says, communicated to her that, on top of the extreme "whiteness" with which she is associated from Girls, and the sense of trust that she vicariously carries as the daughter of a famous journalist, "Peter Pan is a mischievous, ageless boy — he's not gonna lie to you about being a white supremacist who kills people." Just as Peele thought Williams was perfect for the part, Williams thought the part was perfect for her — it would at first embrace and then ultimately explode her preexisting screen persona — and also had something important to say about race in America. As she puts it, "I was militantly on board." She got to set, in Alabama, before anyone else and, like the character she was to play, began recruiting other members of the cast and crew to hang out at her (rented) home during the shoot. But once it came time to go to work, she isolated herself. "She's so quiet and calculating and evil and removed [during the film's final scenes]," the actress says of her character. "I knew I would have to be physically removed from everybody else."
Get Out explores race through horror tinged with comedy. It cost just $4.5 million to make, and, after being released nationwide the weekend of last year's Oscars, grossed $250 million more than that worldwide. It ended 2017 as the year's best-reviewed film (standing at a formidable 99 percent favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and has been the toast of the awards circuit ever since. "This experience has been the best-case scenario realized," Williams says, calling it "a highlight of my life." She's says she's totally on board for a Get Out sequel, should Peele decide to make one, as well as a Girls movie, should Dunham decide to make one, noting with a chuckle, "I already agreed to it, hypothetically." For now, though, she's at work on a bunch of other projects, and has an appointment on March 4 which she cannot — and has no desire to — get out of: a night at the Oscars.