Alison Brie talks about working with Jason Segal and Emily Blunt in THE FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT, and her future acting plans.
So how did you get the part and how come you ended up being the British girl?
Well, obviously the character had to be British because Emily (Blunt) was going to do her original accent, and it’s actually a large part of the plot that her family lives in England. So they called me and asked me to do a table read, and then I had a frantic call from my agent that I had to have a British accent – it was the first they had heard of it and they were like, “If you go to this table read, you have to be able to do a British accent, will you be able to do it in time?” As luck would have it, I had been working on a British accent in my car for about a month, prior to this job, just on the off-chance that a job would come up. There are accent CDs you can buy, and you do drills and practice sentences and things like that, so I must be able to see the future! I just suddenly, on a whim, was like, “I should brush up on my British accent,” and lo and behold, this thing came up, so it was just like fate that things came together. Maybe I was willing it to happen.
If you put it out there.
Yeah, then it will come. Maybe I should work on some weird accent just to see what comes out of the woodwork! So I put a lot of work into the British accent prior to this table read, and trust me, I was so stressed about wanting to make the British accent perfect, I watched The Devil Wears Prada (2006) a million times to hear Emily’s voice. Then I worked on the Elmo voice very minimally, watching just one YouTube video of Elmo a few times at the last minute, then I went to the table read, and, of course, Nick Stoller (director) runs up to me after the read and is in awe of my Elmo voice, and says, “How did you do that Elmo voice? What a great Elmo voice!” I was like, “This is in the bag.” I’m 100% sure, because Nick has confirmed it since that the Elmo voice is the reason I got the job, not the British accent. After all that work on my British accent! Obviously I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I hadn’t been able to do the British accent.
When you do the table read, do you do the whole film?
Yeah. We sit and read the whole movie. They do these table reads in advance and have other writers come and weigh in just to perfect the script and stuff like that, and to test out different people for the roles I suppose. I had met Jason (Segel) at another table read for a different project to this, and that’s, I think, why I was invited to this table read.
When you do the table read, can you add anything to your character?
In this case, I think they specifically asked us not to improv at the table read because they wanted to hear how all the jokes were landing as is, and then see if they needed to do any brush-ups on the writing then. I think they are listening more to the story, so they don’t want you to get too carried away. I don’t think they mind if you kind of put it in your own voice, which I didn’t do anyway because I was so busy focusing on all these voices that I was doing!
What did you love about the story when you first heard it? It is unusual in that it is a guy following a girl, and that it’s after the proposal so you get to see how to make a relationship work after they have already got together.
Right. I like that you get to see it from both perspectives, that there is no villain here. You’re rooting for the couple to stay together but no-one is necessarily in the wrong – it’s just not coming together for so much of the film. Also, I am just such a fan of Nick and Jason – Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) I love so much – so you could have just told me their names and I would have been like, “I’m in! What’s the project?” Then the script itself was wonderful and touching, and it was balanced so well between so many sensitive and sweet moments, romantic moments, and then such great, ‘dude’ humour. Chris Pratt (Alex Eilhauer) and I were just handed this gift of these characters – some of the funniest characters in the script – that we really got to have a blast and I think that really appealed to me, because I usually play such stuffy characters, so I thought, “This will be a fun break.”
When you are on-set, this may have originated as a Judd Apatow [producer] thing, you are allowed to improv a lot while shooting.
So much, so much improv. Basically every scene, you start out and do the scripted version maybe once or twice, and then you just improv for hours! It was a masterclass in improvisation for me, because I don’t have a ton of experience with improv. Minimal. I may have thought in the past…people always ask me about whether we improv-ed on the set of Community (2009) and I would be like, “Yeah, we do a little.” No. After this movie I was like, “We definitely don’t.” Some people do: Donald (Glover) does, Joel (McHale) [actors cast in [Community] does. I don’t think I ever do. If I ever improv on the set of Community (2009), it’s usually weird physical things that I just add, but this was a whole different ballgame, and really cool to kind of get this on-hand training from the best of the best, in a really relaxed and cool environment. Nick (Stoller) is such a great director and Jason (Segel) is such a great leading man in terms of both of them setting the vibe being casual and fun and comfortable, so that made it not as daunting.
So you can try things without worrying about them falling flat?
Yeah, and I think that the most important thing with improv is confidence, because you want to be able to just say whatever - so you’re not censoring yourself and just say what’s coming off the top of your head, so it definitely helps that we were all hanging out, that we were all buddies, that we all felt comfortable around each other, and – from my standpoint – that I felt comfortable around them.
Is it difficult to keep a straight face around Chris Pratt? He comes out with some weird crazy stuff.
Yes. He is so funny. It was hard to keep a straight face around everybody. I think it helped that I did the accent, because one part of my brain was always like, “You have to focus on the accent, you have to filter everything through this accent,” so that kept me a bit more focused, but still breakage did happen.
There was a great scene at your character’s wedding where Chris Pratt is singing to you.
I mean, it was incredible. I was so impressed with his singing voice and that he learned all of that in Spanish. The first time I heard it was when he sang it to me in the scene, so it was just so fun. We all fell in love with Chris Pratt on this project.
Is that romantic though, having your groom sing to you at your wedding?
It surprisingly was. It was so weird, but it is. It was like funny and romantic and weird, but I loved it.
Your two characters are the polar opposite of Emily and Jason’s characters, in that they get on with life, they meet, get pregnant, they get married, have kids, they grow up.
It’s cool. Sometimes too much planning – like you see in the movie – can be a bad thing. It can really be a drama, you can over-think things if you have too much time to doubt and do things. Chris and I, our characters, really just go for it; they make a ton of mistakes then live with the consequences from there, but it’s also a testament to how great these characters are – they are really easy-going people, so it’s more about their response to everything that happens to them. These things might happen in another person’s life and it would be interpreted as not the greatest things to have happen, but they just kind of roll with it, make the best of it and turn out to have a really great life, whereas these other characters are just always waiting for the perfect moment, and are always holding their breath and trying to control their fate, and it doesn’t work out.
How about your singing at the end? Is that your voice too?
Yes. It was a pleasurable scene. We didn’t shoot that at the time, we shot that way later. It was a re-shoot that we actually did in Los Angeles so I was thrilled because that scene, seeing Chris sing that song, was one of my favourite things that we shot, I felt, hands down, that I was involved in, so when I got the call that that was what we were going to be doing, I was so excited and then immediately terrified when I started listening to the song. I had three days and I was like, “How am I going to learn this? How did Chris do this? He’s a genius.” I texted him immediately and said, “How did you do this?” He was like, “Just listen to the song non-stop.” So I listened to it non-stop. And we had so much fun shooting it. I swear people at Echo Park thought that we were probably shooting a Spanish music video, because Chris and I in the back of this horse-drawn carriage singing straight into a camera, this Spanish song just blasting through the streets. People were coming out of their houses going, “What is going on?” It was really fun though.
Will there be a lot of extras for the DVD?
Absolutely, because we shoot so much, a lot of stuff gets cut from the film because we shoot and shoot and shoot, and it’s always okay that it gets cut, because there are a lot of the scenes with Chris Pratt and I that didn’t make it into the film – there were a lot of them that did – but a lot of the ones that didn’t were where we were having these arguments, improv-ing these massive arguments, so they may be on the DVD.
Let’s talk about working with Jason. As he is the screenwriter as well as the star it could be a bit weird changing anything he wrote for your character?
But he’s just so unpretentious that it’s great. When he is on set, he always seemed to be more in actor-mode and let Nick Stoller and Rodney (Rothman) – our producer – kind of take over and be in writer mode. He just seems cool and laid back. It’s like being with a buddy. You never feel like, “I’m acting in a scene with my boss!” or anything like that. It was fun.
It seems like he had to carry more of the drama this time, which allowed you to be more wacky.
I feel like this movie is the most serious one they have done, and they just nailed it. It’s so sweet and the heartbreaking moments are heartbreaking, so it was really cool for Chris and I to be able to play these other characters that just get to have a lot of fun and be crazy and be juxtaposition to those characters. It was nice to get the chance to really be the comic relief, in a movie that’s already so full of funny people.
Do you think it’s important to have the drama there, the heartfelt stuff, to balance out the comedy?
I think that’s what makes this very different. Yeah, it’s great. It’s great to have a melding of genres, and not have it all just be romantic or have it just be all raunchy and funny, but I feel that this movie really earns all of its moments, because you spend time laughing, and after you spend a significant amount of time laughing you spend time being touched and really seeing what these people are going through, and when you are down in the dumps about it, you start laughing again.
Did you have any comedy heroes growing up?
Gosh, I would put Frances McDormand in that category – she is a funny lady. Honestly, I think that I get a lot of my sense of humour from my mum. My mum is not very funny, but my mum thinks that she is very funny, and that makes her funny. Nobody laughs harder at my mum’s jokes than my mum, and it’s a sad quality that I’ve inherited, and it’s kind of amazing. My mum is totally adorable, and I totally credit that to her because it accounts for this weird misplaced confidence, which is kind of a helpful tool. When it comes to comedy, you don’t want to be censoring yourself or feeling self-conscious. I’m like, “It’s great that my mum taught me to laugh wildly at my own jokes, it’s like I can’t hear if other people are laughing or not.” I just assume that they are.
In the movie, the two sisters are very different, so are you closer to your character or to Emily’s character?
I think that I am probably closer to my character. I have an older sister and the dynamic is probably similar to the dynamic in the movie. My older sister is much more responsible, she looks out for me, and is kind of the cornerstone for our entire family. She’s definitely the one that I turn to for advice. I’m sort of the oddball, the younger, crazy actress sister! But my sister and I are so close, and as much as I get advice from her, I give advice to her too, and it’s the same in this movie. They are so close, and it certainly is that their roles reverse a bit throughout – at first, it seems as though my character is a big mess, but she turns out to kind of have it all figured out.
What does your family think about your career?
They are all excited. I mean, they’re excited. Are you kidding? They can’t believe it! My dad texted me the other day and said, “You’re on the side of a bus. I had chills. What’s going on?” So they love it. They’re excited.
It must be hard for parents to hear that their child wants to go into acting, and you started young in theatre acting, right? It can be a hard career path.
It’s true. I was lucky to always have very supportive parents, very supportive. My father is a musician – he is a singer/songwriter/guitarist – so he understood me from that artist perspective, and my mother is in child development, so she has always been very attuned to nurturing whatever a child is interested in, and it’s to their credit that when I was a little kid, and was putting on skits at home, they thought, “Why don’t we put her in a community theatre program?” They really fostered it the whole time, and really the only thing – the only thing – they ever said to me was that I needed to get a college degree. That was the one rule. They were nothing but supportive of my career, always, but they were like, “You have to go to college and get a degree,” and I was like, “Well, that’s fine but I’m going to get it in acting.” They were like, “That’s fine,” and we both thought we had swindled the other one. I was like, “Mwahaha! I always wanted a degree in acting anyway!” They were like, “Mwahaha! She’s going to college!” So they’re very supportive.
Did you ever have to do a terrible job to make ends meet?
I did. I had some. I worked as a clown for a while, at children’s birthday parties. Oh yeah, full painted face, wig, red nose. I did balloon animals, face-painting. It was fun. I was young enough that it was pretty fun. I was 17 or 18 at the time, so it was not tragic. I actually think it made me brave because you are on your own. There is nothing more terrifying than walking in alone to a group of 20 seven-year-olds. Then you are just going to entertain them for the next two hours, so it was good boot-camp for the acting world. It was pretty fun. I don’t know. I couldn’t do it now, and I don’t know how I did it then, but I seemed to have fun doing it.
So when did you feel like it was going to work, this career that you had set your heart on? Somewhere between clown and being in this movie there was a path to follow.
I never didn’t think it was going to work out. When I was younger, I remember my parents’ friends – never my parents – would say, “Well, what’s your back-up plan? What’s the fallback job?” And I was always like, “No. Having a fallback job is like planning to fail. I have no fallback. This is just what I am doing.” There was never a moment of doubt in my mind, and that sort of makes me sound like an asshole or something, but I don’t mean it in a narcissistic way. I was just like, “There’s nothing else I want to do. There is nothing else I am going to do. Period.” And that, I think, has helped my path, just being relentless about it.
So if you had to give advice to other people? Most actors say, “Don’t go into it unless you really, really want it.”
That I do agree with. Even in theatre school, they would tell us all the time – it was like they were willing us to leave school – they would say, “If there is anything else you want to do, do that. If there is anything else you like doing, even just a little bit, do that, because this is really hard.” And just them saying it would reinforce it, like, “Nope. There’s definitely nothing else that I would like to do, that I am really capable of doing, so this is it.” So I would say, “Find the thing that you love. If there is anything else, do that. If it’s this, do it.”
Do you have a dream role, or something in the future that you would really want to try?
No, I don’t. I think it would be hard to say that because, in my mind, I don’t think my mind can wrap around the endless possibilities that people can come up with for characters and scripts and all that kind of thing. There are directors that I would love to do something with, I would love to do something gory, to do a Tarantino or a Scorsese movie, or something brutal and violent. I love violent movies. Or a Coen Brothers movie, or a Wes Anderson movie, or a Paul T. Anderson movie. The problem is that there are too many, there are still too many. I am slowly but surely trying to check them off the list: Apatow was on there, so I can check that one off now!
Finally, you play Trudy on Mad Men (2007-), which is moving into the later 60s now, so what can you tell us about your thoughts on this season?
It’s a great season. It’s going to be great. You know I can’t really say much about it at all. I just go into it with an open mind, just waiting to see what they come up with because it is always brilliant.
You play this character in the 60s who kind of knows her husband cheated on her, and has to accept it, which is so different from this movie, where the guy follows a woman for her career? Is it strange for you to act that way in the 60s, when women’s lives were so different?
No, It’s not strange. It’s interesting. It’s something that I feel I didn’t think about a lot, because who walks around every day going, “Man, imagine what the role of women was like. Imagine what was like to be a woman in the 60s”? It’s not something that was really at the forefront of my mind all the time. After working on the show, I just feel like I am so grateful that a woman’s role in society has changed so much since then, and that we are afforded so many more opportunities than women were then.
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