She’s only 26 years old, but Alison Pill has already twice done something most actors or actresses her age would punch their mothers to get a chance to do: work with Woody Allen. In the writer-director’s “To Rome With Love,” she plays Haley, an American student who takes an Italian fiance, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), and hosts her parents (Allen and Judy Davis) for a visit to meet him. For ShockYa, Brent Simon had a chance to talk to Pill one-on-one recently, about the movie, her continued love of theater, and her new Aaron Sorkin-scripted HBO series, “The Newsroom.” The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Since “To Rome With Love” consists of four discrete stories, did you have any inkling of the other elements and pieces of the movie?
Alison Pill: No, I had no idea! When I saw the first trailer I said, “Okay, I kind of have a sense of what people are doing, but I really don’t.” And then last night, seeing it (at its Los Angeles Film Festival premiere), I was like (yelling), “Oh my God, this is amazing!” It was so exciting.
ShockYa: You’ve worked with Woody Allen before, so getting another chance must be an extra validation of his confidence in you. As a veteran, was there any macro-level thematic discussion about this film, or perhaps a secret handshake?
AP: (laughs) Never. Even on “Midnight in Paris,” when I arrived in Paris I had no idea there was any sort of fantasy time travel element (to that movie) at all. I thought it was all set in the 1920s. [But] that stuff also kind of doesn’t matter, honestly. As an actor, your focus isn’t on the macro, unless you’re doing some sort of essay movie. You just don’t concern yourself with that, plus the editor is going to do that anyway. You have control over the way you say your lines, and that’s it. Very few people, in their real lives, would even really think, “What’s the overarching theme here, what am I going for in this life?” Nobody ever really does that. So to kind of sit back and say these words and be just present in the greatness of Woody Allen was all I needed to concern myself with. And to focus on not laughing when he made a joke.
ShockYa: That’s right, you share screen time with him, in his first performance since “Scoop.” How was that?
AP: His physical comedy, no matter how subtle it is, is some of the most brilliant out there today. And the subtlety is what makes it so great. When people think of sketch comedians and these giant performances and impressions and things that are funny, like improv and stuff, sometimes it’s really small, well-crafted jewels of comedy (that) are really the best. There are moments in this movie that just kill me… he’s a wordsmith, and then (when he’s) physically doing something it all comes together.
ShockYa: It struck me that Haley is a particularly adventurous spirit. Is the leap she takes something you feel like you could make in real life?
AP: Well, I got engaged and month-and-a-half after I met my fiance (Jay Baruchel), so I’m pretty capable of, like, “Whatever!” (laughs) I feel like people think that things are riskier than they are. It’s the “devil-you-know” mentality — it’s probably safer and better, the danger I’m in now, than the danger I don’t know about down the road. It’s a gamble. You never know — by staying in one place you can rot and die. (laughs) It feels like a calculated risk a lot of the time to take these leaps. But I moved to New York when I was 18 and I knew one person in the city and found roommates on Craigslist.
ShockYa: And you didn’t get killed, so that’s nice. So who was your weirdest roommate?
AP: No, they weren’t even sketchy at all, they were lovely British guys. The only sketchy thing was that they would never, ever tell me when there were houseguests, so sometimes there would be all these British people on the floor. And I would be like, “Oh, what fun!”
ShockYa: You’ve done lots of theater, and continue to work on Broadway. What informs the commitment that you maintain to the stage, and how does it impact or influence your preparation or process differently than on film work, if at all?
AP: Well, I mean, the amount of stamina to do a long run of a play is something that can’t be approached by the sprint of a film. Even if a film is a long shoot, you’re still going, going, going all the time, and you don’t get to pause and think about stuff. And, I don’t know… (I enjoy) being given time and space and being expected to grow with a performance in a play as it just gets more and more into your bones. You start to discover new things, and your body becomes your biggest tool — your body and your voice, because most people won’t be able to see your face, really. They’ll see what it’s doing, or if you’re crying, or you can make it big, but for the most part it’s the rest of you. And you also don’t have an editor, and that’s one of the greatest joys to an actor, I think. (laughs) Well, editors are our best friends and amazing and wonderful and do things (on films) that you can’t do anywhere else. But as an actor, it’s really exciting to say, “This is mine, from beginning to end. Every moment in this performance tonight is because I chose it, not because somebody in a committee said, ‘I think we should take this look from over there and use it here.'” That can be great, and thankfully you don’t have to bust your balls everyday on set, because if you mess up there’s somebody who has your back and is going to cut away from you sucking, you know? (laughs) In a theater you don’t have that, and it’s so refreshing to take that control and say, “Hey audience, come on!”
ShockYa: Regarding that sense of control — would you like to eventually extend it to life behind the camera?
AP: Oh my God, not at all! [Directors] can have it. It’s so exhausting. They don’t get a break, and everybody wants opinions on everything. I don’t care about enough on a film. I appreciate every crew member for what they do, because I don’t care enough about whatever it is. If I could wear pajamas and not brush my hair or shower and do my job, I would be so happy.
ShockYa: So you should aim for more voiceover work, then.
AP: (laughs) I know, I know. But then you’re even further a step away from what someone can do with your face. My fiance wants to direct, and I think he’s going to be great at it. I really don’t. I could maybe see myself directing theater, but that’s again because I would leave it up to so many other people. (laughs) I would get to go away for the run of the show! If I got bored with it I could say, “Okay guys, I’m done, carry on!”
ShockYa: You started acting at a fairly young age, didn’t you?
AP: My dad just transferred some of our old home movies from VHS to a DVD, and I haven’t changed at all. My face is the same, I still dance and laugh any time I choose. And that’s just what I’ve been doing. I really like it, I love performing in any capacity. There’s this footage of me dancing for my grandma at 18 months, when I’ve just really learned to walk but I’m really going for it. And I’m like, “That’s the Pill, that’s me!” I started professionally when I was 10, but I’d been doing dance and ballet and gymnastics and choir and anything. I had amazing parents that let me do all that.
ShockYa: You’re also co-starring in HBO’s “The Newsroom,” which debuts this fall. How are the paces on that — is this another Aaron Sorkin walking-and-talking TV show?
AP: There’s a significant amount of walking and talking, but we also have the fishbowl boardroom, so there’s a lot of sitting and talking too. There’s a lot of talking at every moment. It’s so fun to do as an actor. I wish we had a month of rehearsal before every episode. We don’t. That would be crazy. But the thing is you have to… well, it’s not just the dialogue, which has statistics and names and a lot to memorize. There’s punctuation that will tell you where to breathe in the midst of that, because you have to control the musicality of the dialogue. Then on top of it you sometimes have emotional switches at the end of a sentence, so that by the end of it you’re crying. … You have to figure out all that stuff and then do it faster than you ever thought you could do anything. We’ll rehearse a scene and run through it, start shooting it, figuring out little moments and switches, and then it’ll be whatever director coming up to us and saying, “Great, do it faster.” I’ve never been more brain-dead at the end of a shooting day than on this show. But it’s the best job in the entire world, and everybody should be jealous. (laughs)
ShockYa: What can you tell us about your character?
AP: I’m a good, Christian, Midwestern girl who’s been living in New York for about a year and has been an intern and assistant at this cable news station, and working with this man Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels. In the pilot there’s a huge staff change and in the midst of that I get bumped up to associate producer and I start working on actual stories. What’s exciting about [the series] is that it brings up stories that I think people are missing about the Koch brothers, Citizens United, and stuff that’s affecting us now. I think our show offers up some explanation. The one thing that’s going to bug me the most is that there will be knee-jerk reactions that will say it’s just liberal bullshit, but I really do believe it’s mostly non-partisan. It’s about logical, rational behavior rather than screaming. I can’t watch most news. It’s either boring and they’re not sharing any news or somebody’s screaming and they’re not sharing any news. Neither of those are the best ways to get information.
ShockYa: Yeah, as a film critic I understand the somewhat rhapsodic appeal of politics-as-horserace, the narrative pull of it… but it can drive me insane, that instead of reporting on actual events it’s all about opinion poll numbers or fundraising as a litmus test for viability.
AP: And just the mis-education of a population that’s been going on for years, on every side — propaganda everywhere and no actual education. We can talk about Michael Moore, but he’s a propagandist of the left and I have no interest in propaganda to get my information. I would appreciate rational facts and thought. I don’t think journalists shouldn’t be opinionated, I think opinions are impossible to extricate from life. Everybody has a perspective. But facts that aren’t massaged, that’s what I want. And [“The Newsroom”] is about that feeling of being overwhelmed and hoping for a civic discourse that steps above all of the stuff. We’ll see how everybody takes it. (laughs)
Written by: Brent Simon