This week, the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival showcases Alison Pill in two of the highest-profile projects in the program: Woody Allen’s opening-night feature “To Rome With Love” and Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series “The Newsroom,” the pilot of which will screen Friday, June 22. The Canadian 26-year-old has long made a point of seeking high-strata work like this in television, theater and film.
Indie movies such as “Pieces of April,” “Milk,” Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and “Goon” pepper her resume, and her jaunty performance as Zelda Fitzgerald in Allen’s 2011 breakout “Midnight in Paris” brought her a new level of recognition. On the TV side, Pill played a student diagnosed with cancer in the second season of HBO’s critically acclaimed series “In Treatment,” while her theater work has included parts in “The Miracle Worker,” “Reasons to Be Pretty,” “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” and “Blackbird,” in which she co-starred with “Newsroom” lead Jeff Daniels. As a newly engaged American abroad, Pill’s character in “Rome” must navigate the awkward tug-of-war between her Italian fiance and her crusty retired father, and in “Newsroom” she plays an associate producer of a nightly news show convulsing through a major identity crisis.
Her eclecticism and avoidance of most studio-backed projects is no accident, and while Pill’s goofy charm and enthusiasm were on display at a recent press day for “To Rome With Love,” so was her ardent feminism. Pill’s the kind of woman who seems eager to take a stand — and she’s the rare bird that doesn’t lose her smile even when expressing the fierceness of her opinions.
To get a sense of what Pill really thinks of Woody’s take on young women, the infuriating standards of studio meddlers, the appeal of playing a happily sexual woman, tolerance for gratuitous T&A or the challenges of speaking Sorkin’s “musical dialogue,” read on.
What’s it like having Woody Allen play your dad?
It’s as surreal as being in a Woody Allen movie. It feels like it’s all a dream and still could be. He’s incredible, and one of the most amazing comedians working today.
Woody has a reputation for not directing his actors that much. Did you find that true compared to other directors? What kind of input does he generally give you?
It’s usually pretty basic. For “Midnight in Paris,” it was really just, “She’s southern and the life of the party.” I was like, OK. I think he’s grown to have trust in his instincts enough that he’s not going to choose somebody who would come in unprepared or be a jerk. Once you find somebody who’s not a jerk and wants to be in your movie, then they’re usually going to do as good a job as they possibly can. And I think he trusts that.
This is your second go-round with Woody. Aside from just working with him generally, what appealed about doing the “Rome” character? Did you see the script beforehand?
Yeah, I got our whole storyline. I had no idea what the other storylines were, like Roberto Benigni’s. And we never met each other. Greta [Gerwig] and I knew each other in New York and saw each other last night. We were both like, “Ah! We’re in the same movie!” On this one, I really just got to laugh at everything and sort of be part of the crew.
How long were you in Rome?
I was there for about a month, the month of August. It was hot as balls! It was awful! Also, there are no Romans in Rome in August. They’re all at the beach, they’re all gone. So you’re sort of like, “Oh, I see, you’ve taken the wise choice, Romans…” Just us and the tourists.
What’s your feeling about how Woody writes young women? Do you think he gets it right?
Ellen Page’s lines in that movie are so hilarious and amazing, and Alec Baldwin’s responses to them are just genius. That’s the thing, is that ultimately Woody Allen has been doing this wonderful thing of both appreciating and being confounded by young women. And most people wouldn’t admit that. So it doesn’t matter what the ultimate line is, it’s about the relationships between men and women more than it is specifically about the woman’s story. And once you see it in that context, you can make total sense of it. As a daughter and a woman with a fiancé [in the film], I think it was totally right. The main focus in your life at that point is the competition between your fiancé and your dad. Even if you didn’t know your dad, you would still be like, Who is this guy? Is he going to be a good dad? Would I want him as my dad?
It’s like that line that you cross when you’re kicking one of your parents along with your spouse until suddenly you’re defending them…
Yeah. “You can’t make fun of my parents. Only I’m allowed to do that.” That tension is all throughout there. And that is reality. I could say that “Eurydice” by Sarah Ruhl focuses on the female storyline more. But it’s Woody Allen, it’s a comedy, and it’s hilarious, and his appreciation for young women and his interest in them is always more admirable than a lot of male directors who are confounded by young women and then just ignore them.
You generally stay to more original storytelling in independent film. Is that by design or just how the puzzle pieces have come together? Is that a strategy?
I don’t believe in strategy. I don’t think you can have strategy in this business, and that anybody who thinks that is a crazy person. But my strategy is basically to work with cool people who I respect and on scripts that I think are interesting. I got burned early on by being in studio pictures that, by the time the studio was done with them, were shells of their former selves in terms of writing. And it’s not just studios, it’s actors who have too much power. It’s why I went and did theater, because I was like, you’re not going to fuck with Shakespeare, you know? [laughs]
Although plenty have tried.
I know. People often do. People always will. But I did a John Guare play last year [“The House of Blue Leaves”], and no one in their right mind would mess with a John Guare line. How could you? Why would you? And I think that’s what’s missing from a lot of stuff today is that there’s very little dialogue crafting going on in most films by studios. Too many chefs ruin a lot of things. [laughs] So to be getting notes on what is most acceptable, what’s “real,” what a “real” heroine would act like, whether something can be lovable if it’s flawed… The reason I loved the script when I read “Goon” was because the character legitimately slept with a lot of dudes, drank a lot and was fine with it. Like a lot of my friends in their twenties! It’s not such a shocking thing, and you’re not the devil if you do it! You’re a human being.
Well, Warner Bros. can’t get Coca-Cola as a sponsor if they have a heroine that sleeps with a lot of guys and is fine with it.
Right. Exactly. And so, I just go, what’s the point of that? That’s just feeding into terrible stuff.
That’s something that you and Ellen have in common: You’ve both dipped into the studio world — she did an “X-Men” movie and “Inception” — but most of the work since has been outside that system.
I’m an actor, but I’m also a feminist, and a lot of times in movies there are things that I cannot imagine happening that are on the screen and totally accepted. And I just go, Whaaat?
Would you share an example?
I would. What was that movie with Jason Statham with the adrenaline thing? “Crank.” Listen, I fucking love action movies. I love them. I love shoot-’em-ups, I love kicking movies, I love anything! Like, martial arts, but even if it’s not, even if there’s just kicking, I’m into it. And I’m usually fine with having bullshit ladies on the side. That’s fine. You need some tits in it? I get it. But in this case I was like… No.
At a moment to keep his adrenaline up, his character wants to have sex in a public place with his girlfriend. He pulls her down, she’s saying no-no-no, he rips her shirt off, she’s saying no-no-no, she’s yelling, people are watching, he gets down and he starts fucking her, and she’s still saying no-no-no… until she starts liking it. And I was like, Did nobody at the studio with a daughter go, “Maybe we shouldn’t have a rape scene by our hero in the middle of the movie? Maybe that wouldn’t be a good hero move…?” But nobody ever, I don’t think, brought that up. And that is disgusting to me. So, they can have it.
Meanwhile, you look at the famous case of Kimberly Peirce and “Boys Don’t Cry,” where she had to cut some of Chloe Sevigny’s enjoyment of her orgasm, which was a loving, connected, intimate moment.
Yes. Exactly. No, female orgasms are scary! You can’t show too many of those. You can show them getting raped, but…
Is anything going on with the music biopic “Girls Like Us?” Are you actually attached to play Carole King?
Oh! I auditioned for it, and I don’t know whether that was a press release to see if there was interest. I don’t think there’s an official thing to be connected to, necessarily. If anybody has money and wants me to sing Carole King songs, I’ll do it for 20 bucks and a slice of pizza.
Do you know her work?
[scandalized pause] Yes! And Joni Mitchell is a goddess. If the opportunity were to arise… I would be open to doing that!!
Do you have any good Sorkin stories? He has a reputation for giving some pretty specific line readings.
Again, I come from theater — all of our cast, for the most part, like Jeff and I, we did a play together, and Tommy Sadoski and I did a play together, and John Gallagher, too, Mr. Tony. The script to us, for the most part, is the Bible, so we’re perfectly fitted to be given line notes like, “Uh, there was a comma after ‘it’ that you sort of missed.” And it’s not a joke. He has planned it out so that you take a breath there. A comma means a breath. It is music. He has written musical dialogue and you need to get it down. He said to us before we started shooting, “Here’s the thing: You’re going to be a lot happier if you have this memorized so utterly that you know it backwards.”
There’s also the speed with which he wants you to deliver it.
That’s the real thing. You gotta be gung-ho. You have to take big, deep diaphragm breaths in order to make it to that first comma, because he speaks really quickly. And he… [laughs] I guess when he’s writing, he acts everything out himself, says all the voices and everything. And he jumped somewhere and busted his face on a mirror. It was crazy! We’re like, “Aaron, what happened to you?!” He’s like, “I was acting it out…” He was in his office, reading it… [can’t stop laughing] And so, if he’s that dedicated to his performance alone in his office, you have to be 100 times more dedicated on set.