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ALISON PILL
INTERVIEWED BY JOSH CLOSE
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANNA WOLF
STYLING BY LAURI EISENBERG
HAIR BY SONG HEE FOR KERASTASE
MAKEUP BY KRISTIN HILTON FOR BENEFIT COSMETICS
 

I first met actress and karaoke-singer extraordinaire, Alison Pill, in New York after seeing her in the play Reasons To Be Pretty written by Neil LaBute and directed by a mutual friend. The opening scene is like watching a bomb go off, only sans countdown. Here’s this terribly cute young woman whom I’ve heard about several times — “She’s amazing,” “You have to see her in something… anything… She’s the best,” “She’s my favorite,” — punishing this guy on stage in a heated argument. Finally, here I am, getting a glimpse. It’s hard to call her an actress. I feel like there’s too many of those roaming around in LA. She’s that… and something more. Magician. Tightrope walker. Explorer. The next time I met Alison was equally impressive. Here was this pretty, intensely smart woman drinking Black Label and belting Sam Cooke in a five-by-five private karaoke room in the East Village. A cheesy eighties line popped to mind, “Gee whiz, what a woman!” Since that night, which ended with us listening to classic blues over the jukebox on our who-knows-what-number scotch at the corner bar of Ninth and Avenue A, I’ve leaped into the vast and crowded pool of Alison admirers.

JOSH CLOSE—Hi, How are you doing?

ALISON PILL—Good, how are you?

JC—Good, good. What are you up to?

AP—Not much, but it’s bitter cold today.

JC—Scotch weather.

AP—I just have red wine.

JC—Right… You’re on the Upper West Side having wine and dinner parties.

AP—Well, the dinner parties haven’t started, there’s still no furniture here. Besides my one chair?

JC—That’s right! I remember being around in New York while you were shooting the TV show In Treatment. You seem to have this clear attachment to what your character was going through. Also, wasn’t it through the writer that you kind of discovered a lot of the character?

AP—Yeah, we both related to what she was going through. I think we had both been through enough therapy and knew this type of over-achieving, people-pleasing person with so much indescribable rage. I think in trying to portray that, it’s like one of the scariest things you can do. I think angry young women are terrifying. Especially when on the outside they look so perfect…

JC—I agree.

AP—You know, here’s this girl who’s doing well in school and has the right kind of life and seems to have everything put together and yet, has this death wish.

JC—How do you even begin to carry something like that?

AP—It’s always interesting. I think it’s also interesting to play these women because they’re so good at hiding something and there’s nothing more fun in acting than not showing your hand.

JC—Yeah. The hiding of it all…

AP—… I hate it when actors shout or cry too easily. Too many people think that’s acting. I think that’s melodrama. I think there’s something interesting in trying to figure out ways to play that weight. I watched Inside the Actors Studio and I remember Benicio Del Toro talking about always knowing what his characters have in their pockets and that being one of the most important things. I think that’s so important, literally and figuratively. Everybody has secrets and everybody kind of keeps something back.

JC—How long have you been acting for?

AP—Fourteen years.

JC—So, you started when you were how old?

AP—Ten.

JC—And you’ve been working pretty consistently since then…

AP—Yeah, yeah, I’ve never had a real job!

JC—That’s huge. Do you still get the same sense of nerves that you once did or do you feel it’s kind of diminished in a way?

AP—I feel like it’s gotten worse.

JC—Worse?

AP—Yeah, I think when I was younger I didn’t know that I should be scared. It’s just like, “What? You want me to do this? Sure. Yeah, I can do that.” It was still acting and suddenly it became… At a certain point I had to question whether it was something I did because I was getting work and people thought I was good at it or whether it was something that I, in fact, liked doing. Because if “Yes” wasn’t the answer to either of those questions then why the hell would anybody put themselves through this? And then I realized that I did love it and I’ve taken it more seriously since… you know, the last five years.

JC—Do you remember what inspired you to say that? “I’m going to take this more seriously now?” Was it a certain part?

AP—It was an audition. I started coming down to New York before I moved and it was my last year of high school, maybe it was before then, but I just started coming down to New York for auditions and for theater, because I had never gotten hired or got auditions for theater in Toronto. Anyways, so I really wasn’t comfortable with theater, I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I came down to New York and my agent took me to see Proof with Mary Louise Parker. And I was like, “Whoa! That’s what I should do, that’s what you can do on stage.” You can make weird personal choices; you can use your whole body. You can command that much. I went into an audition the next day and there was just a chair in the middle of the room and instead of doing what I usually did during auditions, which was just kind of perch on the edge of the chair and say my lines, I worked and memorized and used the chair. You know, trying to give myself some physicality, trying to sort of think about other things than just saying the lines right and hitting my mark. And that kind of flipped the switch for me.

JC—Did it help you get away from yourself in some way? I mean, giving you a cast of things to do.

AP—Yeah. Saying the lines and hitting your mark, you’ll probably do fine, if that’s what you’ve been doing the last while. You won’t get anywhere near the kind of power that somebody else can bring.

JC—It’s true. I love the little things, the little doings, which communicate so much. Can we talk about Milk a little bit? What was that like for you? Did you audition?

AP—Yeah, I auditioned for it and then I got it!

JC—And… The End?

AP—It was really neat.

JC—What was “neat” about it?

AP—It was such a different shoot. I never knew what the camera was focused on. All of those scenes in the political office, in the mayor’s office, in wherever we were, we would just run them a few times and it wasn’t like, “OK, now we’re doing this close up and then we’re doing a medium on this person.” It was like, “Run through it and we’ll set up some shots and we’ll do some stuff.” I never saw one monitor in the entire time we shot. We’d get ready in the morning and we’d go to set in this political office, which was actually where Harvey and everybody were during that time.

JC—So, that must have inspired everyone…

AP—Yeah. I got to meet the woman I played and her daughter and Cleve Jones was around on set everyday. We got to meet everybody who is still alive.

JC—How was it working with Sean Penn and Gus Van Sant?

AP—It was amazing!

JC—I’m sure.

AP—Gus doesn’t really say a lot and it took a while for me to realize just what a light touch he has as a director.

JC—By ‘light touch’ you mean…

AP— I mean, the most you would usually get out him, if he was satisfied, was, “That was good”, and it took a while for me to realize that was the highest compliment you could get. He’s like, “If I’ve moved on, that’s all you need to know.” And then I realized that the way he shot, the way he put everybody in a room together, the cast, and then kind of let it fly, just works when you put together the right group of people.

JC—He doesn’t sound like he’s isolating people at all; he’s really bonding them. I feel as soon as you start saying, “This is your time for your close up,” it’s just sort of isolating, is it not?

AP—And you stop kind of reacting in the same way. You stop leading your own character’s life. Usually ’cause you’re so focused on one moment or one thing, and in his way, it was like every moment counts.

JC—How long were you on it for?

AP—I was in San Francisco for about six weeks, I think? The whole shoot was two months and we had two weeks of rehearsal beforehand.

JC—Well, the film was great. I loved it.

AP—And Sean’s just a genius.

JC—He is. How was it watching him work?

AP—Insane. I mean, it’s just like, he’s Sean, and then suddenly, he’s this gay man from New York. And it would be just about that quick of a change. Very few actors can act a scene with their back.  But, there was this one time we were watching — it’s a scene when Diego Luna walks up and he’s drunk, and it’s the first time he’s introduced in the movie…

JC—… I remember…

AP—… And the whole scene Diego has almost all the lines, he’s drunk and he’s just talking to Sean. They shoot Diego’s side and then the producers are expecting Gus to turn around and shoot Sean’s close up from outside the door. And Gus was like, “No, you know what, I have it.” You watch that scene and you get everything from Sean’s back. Not many people can do that. That sort of says a lot about the both of them.

JC—Too much of the time it’s about finding ways to explain what’s going on… I was having a conversation with my friend the other day about this, after seeing a film called Brothers.

AP—Oh, I haven’t seen it yet. I want to see it!

JC—It’s good. Great performances. There’s a scene where Jake Gyllenhaal was talking about this horrible act that he committed and you never go into the act, you never see the act, but the way he is describing it is so involving as an audience member. I forgot how appreciative I am when filmmakers do that, you know? They don’t show you every bit; they don’t go into every detail to show how people reacted and what they’re doing… We get to experience it through these two characters talking about it. It’s refreshing to be involved that way, with a film.

AP—It’s like mental involvement versus an emotional involvement. I mean, I can mentally put together the story, but it’s another thing to feel like you’re watching somebody live through it again.

JC—Your right. What’s in our imagination is so much more fearful, more vivid… Or maybe it’s just mine? I’m sure it’s picking and choosing, but it diminishes whatever feelings were there in the first place.

AP—Yeah, it’s like, “Mine was scarier.” You realize it’s the end of the decade soon?

JC—I know, it’s crazy. Are you a reflective person?

AP—I’m trying to be. I think it’s kind of worthwhile to say what works and what doesn’t. You know, things I would improve upon… I think that’s a valid thing to think about.

JC—Do you have anything you want to share? Resolutions?

AP—Um… keep a cleaner house. [Laughs]

JC—I’m going to send that resolution your way too. I think that’s a great resolution. Is there a certain day of the week that you love the most?

AP—I love Wednesdays.

JC—You do? Why do you love that day?

AP—I love it because it’s usually my favorite crossword day! It’s in the Dining section of The New York Times and [it's] a challenging crossword, but a doable crossword. Then Thursdays are my favorite, because I know I have Thursday night and there’s not a matinee until Saturday.

JC—So, you have that full stretch open, to yourself.

AP—Yeah, yeah. But usually Wednesdays.

JC—The Hump Day. Have you ever interviewed someone before?

AP—No.

JC—If you could interview someone who would it be? Besides me?

AP—[Laughs] It would be, uh… I don’t know. The Red Book, by Jung is now out, but it was unpublished during his lifetime. Anyway, he’s not alive, not that he would be my first interview, but he just opened up a whole dead person category. But in terms of living people… That’s a tricky question.

JC—Maybe you want to interview someone who just read The Red Book?

AP—[Laughs] Maybe Hugo Chavez. He’d be interesting for me to interview.

JC—That would be a good interview.

AP—He’s supposed to be incredibly charming. And I would be fascinated to meet him. Him and Karl Rove.

JC—Why those two? Especially Rove.

AP—I would say one new resolution is to try and empathize with the other side of whatever side I’m on.

JC—That’s funny you say that, because you seem like the most empathetic person in the world. So, I’ve got some shorter questions for you. What’s the last joke you heard? And retell it. No matter how bad it is.

AP—No! I can’t.

JC—Come on, there’s no joke rating in this magazine.

AP—Yeah, but I can’t because I know exactly what the last joke I heard was. And it involves The Miracle Worker and it’s a Helen Keller joke and will not tell it.

JC—What’s the last good piece of advice that you got?

AP—Look people in the eye when you tell them you miss them.

JC—I like that a lot and have never heard it. When’s the last time you ate a chocolate bar?

AP—Um, I actually bought one on my way home.

JC—Have you ever had a Baby Ruth?

AP—Yeah, I know Baby Ruth.

JC—Baby Ruth is the best.

AP—Mmm… Almond Snickers is pretty much no joke.

JC—That is no joke, actually. When I was playing hockey, I’d always see young diabetics carrying the Almond Snickers around, ’cause that was their drug of choice.

AP—Fuck you, insulin.

JC— [laughs] Well, I’m back on the East Coast as of mid-next year.

AP—Woo-hoo!

JC—Well, until then.

AP—Until then. Talk to you soon.