At 27, Alison Pill has already had a remarkable career. She has worked with Woody Allen twice (first as Zelda Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris); been in Gus Van Sant’s Milk (as the lesbian activist Anne Kronenberg);
Played Annie Sullivan in the Broadway version of The Miracle Worker (the role originated by Anne Bancroft); earned a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut in The Lieutenant of Inishmore; was a regular on HBO’s In Treatment; and stars in the Aaron Sorkin series.
The Newsroom as Maggie Jordan. The New York Times praised her performance in Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty as “commandingly intense and authentic,” which she always is.
Pill has also worked with a number of accomplished actors, including Sean Penn, Jeff Daniels, Sissy Spacek, Steve Carell, and Gabriel Byrne.
Hailing from Toronto by birth, she devoted a period of time to theater in New York and now divides her year between L.A. (where The Newsroom is filmed) and Montreal, where her fiance Jay Baruchel is based.
He is likely most renowned for his portrayal of a stoner pal in Knocked Up.
When I mentioned I was speaking with Alison Pill, people would immediately recognize her for her “round face” and “moon face”.
Her fair complexion, open expression and circular, large eyes are unmistakable – appearing to provide full insight – but her impressive self-control generates the notion that the impression of openness should not be completely trusted.
Back in August, my acquaintance and I encountered each other at a Vietnamese eatery in Toronto while she was visiting her family. Post lunch, we sat in my garden. She was full of life, upbeat, and witty.
She imitated different voices, joked about herself, and snorted after most of her statements in a cheerful and excited manner.
We talked about her inclination to have “kiddles,” and she reminisced about her initial anguish at being excluded from Claude Watson, the adored arts school she attended in her childhood;
Those in charge bemoaned that she was missing too many days (she had been working professionally since the age of eleven). Still disheartened by it, she remembered them saying to her, “You are a waste of space.”
Despite a large number of teenage actresses who are continually being produced–one season here, the next season gone–Alison Pill is anything but.
— Sheila Heti
Sheila Heti’s work has a unique quality; it challenges readers to think, to discover, and to explore their own unique perspective.
Her writing encourages readers to consider the complex questions we face in life and offers an insight into the inner workings of the human experience.
As a child, I had a deep desire to pursue acting, but I was not confident in my ability.
Pill asked, “But how did you come to know?”
BLVR: I was extremely anxious about myself! I never thought that I would sacrifice my identity, and I was certain that professional actors would forget themselves.
I no longer experience any self-doubt; this is the only way it can be successful.
BLVR: Are you not concerned with how it will appear?
The answer is “no.”
Does it not concern you whether you appear to be credible?
I always feel anxious afterwards since I had no way of predicting what would happen in the theater. It’s impossible for me to know.
BLVR: How does performing on stage differ from appearing in a movie or television show? Is it true that less is more when it comes to theater acting?
AP: No way, that’s absurd. [ Laughs ] They’re overstating things so much because it’s not even a fair comparison. In movies, when the camera is close up, a performer’s charisma and self-assurance can really shine through.
But when someone is farther away, you need to be able to fill the whole stage. And live theater offers something film can’t – you don’t have an editor to cover for you. It’s all on you. You’re either able to do it or you aren’t.
You either have it or you don’t. You either have the presence or you don’t.
BLVR: You performed in a production at a theater off-Broadway, Blackbird, with Jeff Daniels. You have said that you have faith in him. What does it take for two actors on stage to be able to trust each other? What is it that you put your confidence in?
I have faith in Jeff Daniels’ acting abilities. During the play we did together, I had a lengthy seven-page monologue regarding how he had wronged me when I was twelve. I could sense his focus and his concentration even when he wasn’t looking at me.
It was almost as if he was providing an invisible support system while I was delivering my lines. His presence enabled me to feel secure even when we were located on opposite sides of the stage, and to the audience, he appeared to be merely sitting there.
I understand that he is, in actuality, holding me up.
BLVR: Do you typically find the people you work with to be satisfactory and not be a problem?
Yes, actors have the wisdom to understand that at times, they may not be the star of the show. Nevertheless, that does not make their part in the production any less important.
To be a great actor, you must never forget the fact that you are part of a team and that each and every individual is essential to the success of the performance.
Would you say that acting is the focal point of your life? Is that what will sustain you no matter what happens? Or is there something else that lies at the heart of your being?
The nucleus is the essential part, according to AP.
BLVR: Does it outrank all else?
I make an effort to not let it affect me, and I’m progressing with that… my natural inclination would be to let it unsettle me or ruin me. And I have, in the past, done that.
BLVR inquired, inquiring about how this was the case.
While I played the part of Blackbird, I was unable to cope with any kind of stress due to lack of direction from the director. The way I chose to deal with the situation was to have four martinis a night, for four months.
After all that, when the reviews for the performance were positive and people were discussing the possibility of taking it to Broadway, I asked myself: did it really pay off? Did I really benefit from all the stress I went through?
Is there a way to accomplish the task without consuming four martinis in the evening?
AP mentioned that the director seemed to have the idea that he had to be “crazy” to be successful, yet he’s not sure that he truly believes in that idea anymore. He shared that he’s been feeling much more content lately, and that he believes his work has improved as a result.
BLVR: Does having a reliable romantic partnership aid with that?
AP: Absolutely. This relationship has been far more impactful than any I’ve had before due to the way in which we both motivate and encourage one another.
BLVR: Had any of your past beaus been actors as well?
Yes, the majority of relationships on the show were showmances, starting out that way.
BLVR inquired, “What is that?”
AP: When you are playing a romantic role with someone, it may seem like a great idea to simply have sex for the entire run, but instead of that you can suggest being in a relationship. And then, to yourself, you may even contemplate the thought of marriage.
BLVR: [ Laughs ] Your portrayal of the character in The Newsroom is of someone struggling between two romantic interests. Do you relate to that feeling?
AP: I totally understand. I didn’t get along with the majority of my significant others. I am a prime example of somebody who will make it work no matter the circumstance. I had one individual who went so far as to move in with me and it was the least favorable of all my relationships.
People we went out with had no idea that we were together; I simply did not give off that same energy. Most can relate to this. I have no trouble believing that you would pass up something that appears perfect because you want to prove to yourself that you can make it work.
On the other hand, it’s a series of ongoing drama. The best part of this type of drama, particularly screwball comedy, is unrequited love.
I ponder if it is conceited to desire to make it function, even when it is not succeeding. You want to demonstrate to yourself that you have the capability to do it.
AP: It’s really connected to how you think of yourself and how other people see you since you don’t want to be considered undependable or changeable. Rather, you want to be seen as dependable, steadfast, and dedicated.
BLVR: What became of that fellow in the end?
AP: In the end, it was he who did the breaking up. I was too cowardly to do it myself. I was telling myself, “No, it’ll be alright.”
Then he went to the West Coast and phoned me, asking, “What do you think? Maybe it would be better if we just remain friends?” And I replied, “Oh no! Alright then.” That was a piece of cake for me! I hung up and thought to myself, “Yep!”
III. A DESIRE FOR SOMETHING TO DRINK
I feel like I need a drink.
BLVR: Have you ever interacted with individuals who don’t have great acting skills? If so, do you have any advice that you could provide to help someone become a better actor?
I find that keeping secrets and having a backstory are key elements to creating compelling characters. Reading novels can be a great way to build up a backstory without the need to share it with anyone else.
Knowing a few personal details about a character without anyone else knowing can be incredibly helpful for an actor. It can keep that active mind and give the illusion that something else is going on in the back of their mind.
A lot of my best character ideas come from novels and I believe that most people do this all the time.
BLVR: What books do you hold dear?
AP stated that he finds Virginia Woolf and her diaries to be very moving. He then discussed the sorrowful conclusions of two classic childhood stories, Winnie-the-Pooh and Peter Pan. He exclaimed that the endings of these stories were “terrible,” yet still managed to be moving.
BLVR: Tales of when someone chooses to move on from their past and its emotions?
AP acknowledged that it was something that needed to be done by everyone.
BLVR: Have you ever experienced it?
AP: Have you bade farewell to anything?
BLVR responded affirmatively.
AP recalled a difficult experience shooting in Montreal, during which his beloved blanket, which had been reduced to a knot and string, was misplaced. He chuckled as he spoke about the incident.
BLVR: At what age were you?
The answer is twelve.
BLVR: Oh, I had assumed it was in the past year!
AP: Absolutely not! It would have been the case if something else had not taken place. The maid was removing the sheets from my bed, and she must have rolled it up with it.
I returned home and exclaimed in disbelief, No way! No way! No way! No way! Then we contacted the laundry service–
BLVR inquired as to who was included in the “we” being referred to.
I had a hard time when my mother and I departed from the city after the shooting. Saying goodbye to my childhood was not something I wanted to do. I felt far from excited – in fact, I was really frustrated.
BLVR: In the past five or six years, was there a choice you made that was similar to this experience?
In my opinion, it would be wise to steer clear of these choices.
BLVR: When did you first encounter your future spouse, Jay?
AP: Two summers ago, I had the chance to work on a miniseries being shot in Hungary. One day, the head makeup artist mentioned that she had just done a movie with Jay Baruchel and I was in disbelief, revealing that I had had a crush on him since I was twelve.
After Hungary, they went to Montreal and shot another movie with Jay and somehow my name got brought up and the makeup artist said that I called him my husband. I think they were googling me in the trailer. [ Laughs ]
BLVR: Now that you’ve made a commitment, you have decided to postpone the wedding ceremony?
AP: Absolutely. After I started looking at the Bible on the internet, there were some very particular declarations against divorce. It was so clear that it was not allowed. Additionally, I don’t feel confident enough in the world enough to make this decision.
BLVR asked what was meant by the statement.
When it comes to numbers, the statistics for people in general are not the same as the statistics for actors.
What are the odds of a marriage between two actors succeeding?
AP stated that the likelihood of an actor achieving the same level of success as Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward was incredibly slim, at one in seven million. In their view, there was no other couple that had matched their level of success.
I’m curious to know what they were endowed with, considering I’m always gazing at snapshots of them.
AP: He had a famous saying that went, “Why go out for hamburgers when you can have steak at home?” Obviously, they deeply cared for each other. But is there something more to it than that? I’m not sure.
They used to come to the theater from Greenwich, watch a couple of my shows, and then leave without coming backstage. Nevertheless, they would always send a letter of gratitude to the cast: expressing their admiration … expressing their appreciation …
BLVR: What kinds of performances were you featured in?
AP: Mauritius and Blackbird were viewed, I believe. [ Pause ] To me, it appears that there is a discrepancy between the amount of work that is expected from a woman and from a man when it comes to getting married.
Not only the expectations associated with housework, childcare and so on, but also the religious connotations of a man having power over the woman. I strongly oppose any such thing.
Therefore, there is a greater amount of historical weight that a wife has to bear in comparison to a partner.
BLVR: That word– partner— isn’t something that I’m especially fond of.
AP: I understand, however, I’m not suggesting that we remain engaged indefinitely. We can’t stay betrothed forever.
BLVR: Is it not possible?
I believe I’m capable of doing it! [ Chuckles ] Maybe I’m in the process of getting ready for it!
It’s incredible how amazing the Spanish Steps are; truly a sight to behold!
Do you find yourself adapting to different directors in a distinctive way?
AP: I’ve been struck by the talent of several directors I admire, in their ability to gather a collection of unknown individuals and make them into a unified team. It can be seen as a kind of sorcery, since it’s hard to tell why a certain group of individuals were chosen.
They may come from different places, have different backgrounds, and levels of education, yet the director has managed to find the perfect group for the task at hand. It is an incredible experience to come together and form friendships with people from all walks of life.
What was the origin of the Woody Allen project?
AP described the first encounter with him as “crazy”. Apparently, his workspace is located at the rear of an apartment building.
When they arrived, a sign that read “Film Studio” was seen. The initial meeting was just the two of them in the room, and he greeted AP by extending his hand and asking if they were there to put up a play. After that, he wished them goodbye.
BLVR: Was that all?
AP: Later, I received a call and I was the only one in the screening room. Woody Allen had written me a letter, which I still own, that read: “Dear Alison, the character I’m featuring is the mad Zelda Fitzgerald.
Marion Cotillard will be in the role, and Owen Wilson is set for a part as well. We are going to be doing shoots in Paris this summer. If you like it, let me know, and if you don’t, please do not tell anyone.
It is quite confidential.” After reading the scenes, I was not allowed to take them with me, and then I found myself on a plane heading to Paris.
Did the casting director for him have any prior experience with you from other roles?
AP reminisced that the show In Treatment was the first one he did. For the Rome production, he was searching for someone to fill a role, but had difficulty envisioning her.
However, after observing a video of AP speaking with her long brown hair, he proclaimed that she was perfect for the part. He then added that the director of the show is an amusing and kind person.
BLVR: It appears that when the director is filming, it is not necessary that the actors recite the lines precisely.
AP recounted a scene in To Rome with Love in which he was on a rooftop with Judy Davis. He was instructed to say something about the Spanish Steps in Rome, but he had no idea what to do.
He turned to his co-star, Flavio, for help, but was ultimately able to pull it off and make it into the movie. [Laughs]
BLVR asked: What was the line?
I said to myself, “The Spanish Steps are incredible!” Even though it was a bad way of putting it, it still made sense.
BLVR: As an actor, what do you think is the most you can contribute to a viewing audience? What is the fundamental purpose?
I have discussed theater with my friend Kris and the concept of it being so strange. We both wonder what aliens would think if they were to witness it.
Although everyone is aware that it is false, there must be something important to it since it has been done by humanity and many different cultures for centuries.
I believe the most influential change a person can make is to affect their own attitude towards emotions, since they dominate so much of our daily lives, and that’s what we should focus on.
I’m intrigued by the idea of capturing two seconds of intense joy or grief, then suppressing them again. It happens to everybody, or at least me. I’m always wondering if everyone weeps all the time.
[ Laughs ] It’s also intriguing to me that there are different interpretations of what performing means. We know it’s about taking on the persona of someone else, or having them take on you. [ Pause ] I don’t know, I always consider it in terms of myself, seeing as I detest crowds.
BLVR: How can you possibly detest audiences?
AP: [ Chuckling ] It really depends on the configuration of the stage, but if I’m able to observe the crowd before the show begins, I will make a point to find someone to really despise.
I’ll think to myself, “G3–that person is going to suffer it tonight!” It’s like, I’m so angry with that individual that I’ll put on the performance especially for them.
BLVR: Fascinating! That is a concept I had never come across before. Is your technique of focusing on your anxiety a form of aggression, or is aggressive behavior just an inherent part of acting?
AP: It’s like, What in the world are you doing here? Why are you paying attention to me? I’m terrible at this! Please go away! You must be crazy! You shouldn’t be looking at this! I’m completely inept!
Why is it that when you’re in your early twenties, if a guy is really kind and appears to be interested in you, you think, You’re so silly! How could you do this? Don’t you realize who I am? Incompetent at everything I do! I suppose that helps.
It makes it simpler if you can switch some of your self-loathing into detesting the viewers.
BLVR: Does that enable you to do your show?
Indeed, that is correct.
At the conclusion of the show, do you experience a sense of appreciation?
AP expressed that they never experience gratitude due to disliking those who are in the audience. Despite this, they acknowledged that the audience are likely nice enough, yet still found them to be ‘sucking’.
What is your reaction when you receive fan mail?
AP commented that there are people in her life, such as Jay, who suggest she should send back any autographs she receives. She considers that idea to be ridiculous, though she understands the concept of being a fan.
Nevertheless, there’s a disconnect between being a fan and being a fan of her specifically. She believes there’s nothing she can do about that, because it’s completely up to the fans.
BLVR: Is it all a figment of their imagination?
AP: Absolutely. This entire situation makes me rather uneasy. It’s nearly inconceivable to me that people would rather have an uncomfortable image with me than a regular dialogue. You know, something like, “I enjoyed your presentation.
You like coffee, right?” I’d answer, “I sure do! That’s so funny that we have something in common. Let’s talk, I’m a person too who lives in a home, eats meals and passes gas.”
BLVR: Considering the future, it must be difficult to decide if you would like to attain even more fame or not.
I discussed this with my therapist because there are some people who are completely comfortable with fame and I don’t understand it. Part of me is envious, but then I wonder why they’d go to the opening of a Saks Fifth Avenue store.
You can’t be negative about it though since it’s the basis of a lot of the entertainment business.
What does fame mean to BLVR?
AP declared that it is ridiculous to try and quantitatively determine the top five movies or five best performances of the year. Even if five people were to act out the same scene with the same director and cast, it would still be a very subjective opinion as to who did it better.
He then gave examples of how someone may prefer Roseanne Barr for her amazingness, or Gwyneth Paltrow for her blonde hair.
BLVR: Could it be that your behavior towards the situation is distinct because you were raised in Canada and still live here?
AP: Indeed! I was shocked when I couldn’t find a play to be hired in Toronto and then I moved to New York and ended up doing plays all the time. Canada has a tall sunflower syndrome, and the U.S. has a patronizing attitude to Canadian actors.
You have to audition in New York or L.A. to get parts even when they’ll be shooting in Toronto. You can make it as the second lead of a movie when you audition in New York.
This absurdity hit me when I was seventeen. I’ve now realized that if you have a complex relationship with success, you will have some amazing things in your life by the time you are twenty-six. [ Laughs ]
BLVR: What role did that wild connection have in your success?
AP believes that many people attempt to plan their careers. They are of the opinion that if they don’t accomplish something by a certain age, their lives are over. However, AP has worked with people who have achieved sudden success in their later years.
AP also stresses the importance of growing up in Canada, which gives you the knowledge that the only two cities in the world that can provide brilliant acting opportunities are not New York and Los Angeles.
AP has worked with amazing actors from Toronto, Montreal, France, and Italy that prove this point. AP does not hold the same notion that one must have a certain accent and change their hair color and body features to be successful.
As an example, AP starred in a Disney movie with Lindsay Lohan at the age of seventeen, and there was a time when AP could have gone down the same path as her, but chose not to.
BLVR: Did you contemplate relocating to Los Angeles during that period?
AP discussed the idea of getting a publicist for a movie coming out with Disney, but after watching it, she felt it was the “worst movie” she had ever seen.
It was also so different from the script she read, leading her to consider giving up acting. She soon realized, however, that leaving the industry was not the path to success.
Was there a time before your realizations that you considered taking the typical path?
AP: Despite being involved in the production, I was taken aback by the sheer magnitude of nonsense that surrounded the project.
BLVR: Could you please explain what you mean by “bullshit”?
AP: So, changes to the script. Our characters are in high school and the original plan was for them to run away to New York to go to a concert. Disney didn’t think it was a good example so instead of running away, they asked their moms for permission and then went to New York.
The movie was about a secret trip to New York and there was this moment of surprise, like but-but-but wait! Another issue that came up was that a certain word had too many syllables and it was decided that “real girls don’t talk like this”.
BLVR: [ Giggles ] Oh goodness.
AP commented that there is not just one person who makes a movie happen. He believes that the grips and electrics would disagree with this notion.
He went on to explain that there is a multitude of people that are needed to create a successful movie. He emphasized that if any of these people feel less than, then it will not be a good film.
VII. SHE’S A PERSON YOU CAN RELY ON
In what way has being a part of The Newsroom impacted your life?
AP: Working on The Newsroom was a bit like having a full-time job. I had to be on set for thirteen hours every day, even if I wasn’t actually in the scene. This was because the entire show takes place in a single room, and I was often visible in the background.
BLVR: Does it feel tedious?
I find that studying French and reading French books is quite interesting. I can practice my conjugations with my workbook. On the other hand, although I’m part of a great cast, I never planned to have a desk job.
BLVR asked if the area wasn’t a soundstage.
AP: Working in an office for twelve hours a day beneath fluorescent lights with the same people every day can be a bit tiresome.
One colleague of mine sits across from me and always complains about the air conditioning being too high – despite her wearing a cardigan! It’s quite humorous, but Emily Mortimer is truly outstanding. [ Pause ] My sister, however, cannot stand the female side of Sorkin’s…
BLVR asked, “What is your opinion on the matter?”
AP: I’m too close to the project to really be objective. I’ve been criticized for making my character appear overly stupid or timid, and it’s left me wondering if I should have seen it coming.
Am I in the wrong for not being more aware? Did I miss something? I don’t know. [laughs]
BLVR: Could you tell me your thoughts on Jennifer Lawrence as an actress? What about her work do you find so inspiring?
AP noted that the actor was exceptionally present in her role. He appreciated that he could lean back and trust her with the story, with the assurance that there was no vanity or affectation that would take away from her embodiment of the character.
According to AP, when she was standing in a scene, she looked like she genuinely belonged there, making it easy for him to suspend disbelief and accept the fantasy of the story.
Kris was recounting the incident of two theater directors who had both put on acclaimed productions of Waiting for Godot. On opening night of one of the director’s plays, their rival was in the audience and suddenly declared “I’m here! I’m Godot!” disrupting the performance.
BLVR: [ Chuckles ] How absurd!
AP affirms that certain performers are capable of providing comfort to viewers, but then adds that Jennifer Lawrence is not one of them – she doesn’t give the impression of being a savior. “It’s not that she’s ugh,” they explain. “She’s not Godot.”
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