Name a mediocre movie, like any mediocre movie, from the mid-'80s to early-'90s—Look Who's Talking, Defending Your Life, Just One of the Guys, um, Look Who's Talking Too—and Alison Brie has not only seen it, but can quote from it extensively, describe its most arcane plot details, and even sing—full voice, at the drop of a hat—its Cher-helmed end credits song.
I know this because while Brie and I were talking, in between filming videos for this cover story, we wound up on the subject of how, before it became a home for prestige television, HBO was a channel known for playing the same handful of not-so-great movies on repeat. So if you were the kind of kid who maybe didn't sleep much and had an excess amount of energy, you'd often wind up watching Albert Brooks comedies until you'd memorize them, and also find yourself, decades later, remembering how wholly unnecessary the total disrobing of the main character was at the end of Just One of the Guys. As if at some point, as Brie points out, one of the male writers was like, "We're going to need full breasts for this movie."
It's easy to forget when talking to Brie that you're not simply shooting the shit with one of your close friends. I know—I know—one of the worst celebrity profile tropes is the journalist acting like this sort of forced professional encounter is analogous to an IRL blind date or something; it's most definitely not that. However, sometimes, as when I was first introduced to Brie who displayed not an ounce of pretense when we met and shook hands on a blindingly sunny street in Downtown Los Angeles' Flower District, it is easy to forget that the celebrity with whom you're speaking is not a friend, or at least an acquaintance, because they are so good at being open and funny and, well, inhabiting themselves, that your own intrinsic awkwardness kind of melts away. (This is probably the real secret behind "star power," that ability to make other people feel like they're the best version of themselves, simply by being in your presence. Brie has it.)
"Guys, we get it, you have dicks. You don't need to take them out in front of us for us to know."PHOTOGRAPHED BY LINDSEY BYRNES. STYLED BY KATIE BOFSHEVER. FEATURE IMAGE ALISON WEARS N°21 RUFFLED SILK CHIFFON DRESS. TO THE RIGHT ALISON WEARS VALENTINO MULTICOLOR SILK CABAN.
It also helped that, almost immediately, we found ourselves discussing exploitative nude scenes from '80s movies—you know, as one does. And then diving right into a conversation about the recent revelations of rampant sexual abuse in Hollywood and everywhere else. "It's in the White House," Brie points out, continuing: "Guys, we get it, you have dicks. You don't need to take them out in front of us for us to know, and to exert your power. It's disgusting."
For those people still most familiar with Brie from her beloved roles as wide-eyed, conservative community college student Annie on Community, or Trudy, the often prissy, flouncy nightgown-donning wife of Pete Campbell, on Mad Men, hearing the actress frankly remind the men of the world that she's aware they have dicks could come as something of a surprise. But those people clearly haven't been paying enough attention to what Brie's been doing in the last couple of years, as the actress has been steadily putting together one of the most slyly subversive and fascinating IMDb pages around, full of boundary-pushing roles in offbeat indie comedies like Sleeping with Other People, The Little Hours, and Joshy and voicing a part in the cultishly adored TV show BoJack Horseman (in which Brie not only plays key character Diane Nguyen but also literal perfect creation Vincent Adultman).
And then there's GLOW, the Netflix series currently filming its second season, which centers around the… glamorous world of women's wrestling in the 1980s. In it, Brie takes center stage (center ring?) as Ruth Wilder, a frustrated, struggling actress, who is maybe not making the best choices in her personal life. Or, for that matter, in her professional life, considering it leads her to join up with a group of total misfits who are reimagined as larger-than-life pro-wrestling performers.
Though the role of Ruth appears to be a huge departure from Brie's earlier work as more buttoned-up characters, it's impossible to imagine anyone other than Brie playing her—and I'm not alone in thinking that. Jenji Kohan, GLOW's executive producer and creator of Orange Is the New Black, says of casting Brie: "She wanted it, and she fought for it, and she was magnificent. We had no choice. She took it." Kohan also speaks to Brie's infectious energy and enthusiasm, saying that it's "the best. Haven't you met her? That's what you get. What could be better?" (Yes, I have. And, actually... nothing.)
Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, who brought on Kohan, GLOW is proof positive that a television narrative can center around women and delve deeply into topics of sexuality and exploitation, without actually being exploitative. This is rarer than you'd think! But its existence on GLOW can be credited to having a women-led production, something that Brie says makes a huge impact when telling women's stories:
It truly does make a difference having women in a position of power, and there's a true trickle-down effect that happens there, in which the whole set feels different, and it feels really comfortable and safe but also lighter. It seems like there's a little bit less ego being thrown around and it feels really collaborative. And especially on a show like this, where we're all so vulnerable and putting our bodies out there in such a vulnerable way—very literally a lot of the time—it's so important for us to feel empowered on set, and we really do.
The word "empowering" gets tossed around an awful lot these days, but GLOW deals with the idea of women channeling their power in a very straightforward way, by allowing them to explore the limits of their strength, both physical and psychic. In doing so, the characters grow to have a better understanding of the complexities inherent to being a woman, in a society where simply existing in a female body is a de facto political act. That GLOW does so from a vantage point of three decades later puts an interesting spin on things, because, as Kohan tells me, "[It] gets to play both sides, because it's about the strength and camaraderie and awesomeness of women in a less than enlightened decade. And right now, we can sit back and watch and appreciate the complications and nuances of the time—and delude ourselves into thinking we've come so far."
Brie recognizes the importance of a show which celebrates all types of women's bodies, saying, "It's a show about women's bodies and the normalization of seeing women's bodies in a myriad of ways. Seeing them in the ring using actual brute strength, but also having to work together—none of what we're doing in the ring would be possible without the other woman's permission or collaboration."
GLOW is also very much a show about women's ambitions in a world in which their drives and desires are not valued in the same way as men's. The series memorably opens on a scene in which Brie's character is auditioning for a part on a television show and reads the lines of the male role because the female part is barely anything, just one of those characters who seems to be more of a placeholder than an actual person. It's a prime example of the ways in which women are thwarted before they even start, especially in an industry which has long prioritized men's contributions over those of women. But it also serves as a reminder of the ways in which Brie has managed to stand out in every role she plays, no matter how small the part; as an actress, Brie has a singular ability to take those placeholder roles and make them into fully formed people.
"Women are allowed to wear a short skirt and still be empowered and still be a feminist icon… Their bodies are not for you."
Perhaps one of the best examples of this is her turn as Amber in the newly released The Disaster Artist. Based upon a book of the same name by Greg Sestero (played in the film by Brie's husband, Dave Franco), The Disaster Artist is about the making of Tommy Wiseau's cult classic film, The Room, which is often described as the worst movie ever made. Directed by Brie's brother-in-law, James Franco (who also plays Wiseau), it's an ingenious, hilarious look at the inherent absurdity and beauty that goes into creating art. It's also a love letter to all the struggling artists out there, as well as a brilliant riff on the idea of the dictatorial auteur. I half-seriously ask Brie what made Wiseau so different than, say, Paul Thomas Anderson, and she laughs, "Quality, one might say."
Virtually alone among the film's characters, Brie's Amber is not part of the making of The Room; she is involved with it only insofar as she is in a relationship with Greg, and worries about his dedication to a film created by Wiseau, who, if not a madman exactly, is definitely not what you'd call an orthodox filmmaker. Amber serves as something of a stand-in for the audience, she voices what so many of us would have been thinking, were we around to watch our loved one potentially ruin his career. But Amber also, in lesser hands, could be portrayed as a nagging killjoy, someone who can't just relax and let her partner find success on his own terms. Instead, Brie manages to turn Amber into a fully realized person, whose motivations and actions you may or may not agree with, but who you can still fully respect, and probably identify with.
Brie thinks Amber serves an important purpose in the film, the embodiment of a reminder of what the film is trying to do, which is to look at a controversial piece of art, like The Room, and examine why it's so compelling. She elaborates:
It's sort of like you're trying to figure out, What's the other thing that really draws people to this work of art? It's actually something that's inspiring. It's more like the singular nature of this man, Tommy Wiseau, his singular vision that went into making this movie so bizarre. More than anything, it's a psychological study of this one person, of what they think life looks like, of how they think male interactions should be, what they think romance is like. It's what they think film is and what filmmaking should be and what a good movie looks like. Also, it's made so in earnest and out of such passion. I think that people respond to that as well.
Amber is the one asking those questions of Greg, demanding that he explore what it is that draws him to this particular piece of art. And even if Amber doesn't wind up agreeing with Greg's decision regarding his participation in The Room, it serves as a worthwhile look at not only why it's important to question and define our relationship to the art we're attracted to, but also about the perils of artistic collaboration between people who have a personal relationship.
I ask Brie if she ever finds it difficult to be in a relationship with someone who works in the same field as she does, and she immediately demurs, saying:
I love it! It's the best. Especially because now we've gotten some opportunities to work together, which is so fun and so gratifying and just really wonderful to be together while working. But also, there is an understanding. I think that we're very similar to each other in the way that we choose work and in the way that we both are very understanding of how hectic the other person's schedule can be and how we need to cherish the time that we have together because of that.
"It truly does make a difference having women in a position of power, and there’s a true trickle-down effect that happens... it feels really comfortable and safe, but also lighter."
Brie's schedule has indeed been incredibly hectic these last few years. Besides GLOW and The Disaster Artist, Brie will soon be appearing in Steven Spielberg's upcoming film, The Post, which also stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks (and, as Brie notes, "about 30 other brilliant actors"). It's certainly one of the more high-profile films of her career (if not anyone's career, ever), and Brie says that her work on GLOW enabled her to quiet any voices of doubt before starting her work on The Post. She explains:
Sometimes, we have trouble giving ourselves permission to be happy or to believe in ourselves, and that's something that GLOW has reminded me to do, and say, "You know, it's okay to feel good about yourself, to believe in yourself." I think, as women, sometimes we're meant to feel like that type of cocky behavior is inappropriate and that we need to sort of belittle ourselves to make other women feel good about themselves or to make men feel less threatened. And, I think, I just have let all of that go.
I mention to Brie that one of my favorite sayings is that every woman should have the confidence of a mediocre white man, and if only we all did, we could rule everything. She agrees and relates it to the rise in consciousness happening in Hollywood and around America right now:
The archetypes we've seen of strong women are, you know, cunty bitches. Strong women have always been portrayed in a way that is very cold and, I don't know, bitchy? I don't know what other word to use! But that's just not the truth. I think, more and more, we're seeing so many examples of strong women in every different line of work showcasing strength in many different ways, and it's a cool time. Even the way that we talk about feminism now has changed, and that's something that I think GLOW is influencing and is part of that conversation as well. I like that the conversation about feminism is changing all the time and that today, you look at things like Wonder Woman, and you say, "Women are allowed to wear a short skirt and still be empowered and still be a feminist icon." Because, again, they're doing it for themselves. Their bodies are not for you. That's the difference—a feminist woman in a position of power doesn't have to wear a pantsuit. That's not indicative of really anything. I mean, I love a great pantsuit. But it's more about women saying, "I can be whoever I want to be and then empower myself from there."
"The archetypes we've seen of strong women are, you know, cunty bitches… But that's just not the truth."
Brie's career is filled with roles of women who subvert the idea of what it is women are expected to be—often even upending the ideas that these women have about themselves. The huge variety of roles she plays is undoubtedly due in part to her self-professed love for keeping busy (she tells me, "My natural state is just: I want to be working"), but also indicates a sort of anarchic presence. Brie's is an art similar to what Janet Malcolm wrote about David Salle in "Forty-One False Starts," her seminal profile of the painter in The New Yorker. Malcolm explained that her difficulty in describing Salle stemmed from the fact that his was "an art that refuses to be any one thing or to find any one thing more interesting, beautiful, or significant than another." With Brie's work, I find the same thing to be true—it is impossible to prioritize any one part over the other, or even easily compare her different roles, because they are so disparate and perhaps of objectively different levels of significance. Yet, in Brie's embodiment of them, each role becomes fully realized; Brie breaks every rule in terms of what she invests in a part, making placeholders into people, yes, but also making larger-than-life archetypal characters into recognizable humans. It's a somewhat lawless, wholly joyful approach to acting, and it's no small part of the reason why, once you've watched Brie perform, you want to see everything else she's ever done.
This is also maybe why, prior to even beginning our interview, back when Brie and I are sitting around, laughing about the movies we've both seen that often nobody else in the world, it seems, has even heard of (or, at least, nobody other than a very discreet subset of people who binged on HBO in the late-'90s for lack of much else to do), back when Brie bursts into song in a voice so strong and pure that it fills every inch of the warehouse loft we are in, I have a brief moment of panic about how I would ever manage to fully capture Brie in print; her cheerily chaotic energy can only really be channeled through herself and her art. I worried, as Malcolm once worried, that anything I wrote would wind up seeming like something of a parody of a person whose charm and intelligence, whose strength and wit, whose myriad talents, are now at the peak of her powers.
But, maybe that's okay. Maybe it's just fine if something doesn't come out exactly as you intend it to. As Brie reminds me when we talk about The Disaster Artist and The Room and what it means to create anything, "Success is going to show itself in unexpected ways, and you can't predict how it's going to go." And perhaps Brie, better than any other actress working today, shows that the important thing about building a career is not in simply going for the "prestige" roles (she did start off with a guest part on Hannah Montana, after all), but rather imbuing everything you do with passion, with your whole self. Success might be hard to predict, then, but there's no doubt that Alison Brie is on a path right to it, unpredictable though it may be.
"My natural state is just: I want to be working."