'Girls' Star Allison Williams Lets Loose
by giulia melucci
The 20-something female’s quest to find meaningful love and status in the world is a subject for the ages. What Jane Austen began in Victorian novels took off on television with The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the ’70s and Sex and the City in the ’90s. With Girls, Lena Dunham takes on the subject for the millennial generation. Allison Williams, who plays Marnie Michaels, the textbook-pretty and trying-desperately-to-be-perfect foil to Dunham’s fumbling Hannah Hovarth, is at the center of a bona fide cultural phenomenon. Girls is a lightning rod. Although there’s been a lot of fuss about the show’s frank sexuality, what is truly provocative about Girls is its relentless exploration of motivations and emotions—never letting any of the characters off the hook—and the creator’s willingness to allow her heroines to be their complicated selves, flaws and all.
What seems to distinguish this generation is a certain bravado that allows Williams to be so sure of herself and Dunham to be the most talked about artist on television. For all that progress (or is it precociousness?), the struggles depicted on Girls revolve around the same core issues as those of the women before them.
We recently got a chance to chat with Williams about her New England upbringing, how she quit struggling to be perfect, and the lessons she has learned from her famous father, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. For a woman of 24, Williams seems to have it all together, but one suspects she has more to learn. If she didn’t, then she’d be a bit boring—and Allison Williams is anything but.
BOSTON COMMON: Is this early for you? I heard you like to sleep late, and 8 am isn’t easy with a busy filming schedule.
Allison Williams: I do, but you know what? I have rid myself of that preference. I’m on some sort of unknown time zone. I’ve been all over the place—Kenya during Christmas, Paris, London.
BC: You grew up in New England. How has it formed you as a person?
AW: In a pretty substantial way. I feel I’m the product of the outdoors of New England. I was born and raised in Connecticut. I went to preschool at the New Canaan Nature Center, and a large portion of my childhood was spent outdoors. When I was in elementary school, also in New Canaan, we used to tap our maple trees and make maple syrup. We would go on little trips to Rhode Island or Maine. I am chock-full of New Englandy—and have a deep, deep affection for it.
BC: Because of the particular kind of beauty there?
AW: Yes, definitely. I grew up really respecting the outdoors around me. They taught it in school. We grew up respecting this part of the world, and certainly Boston is large when you’re learning US history.
BC: Have you spent a lot of time in Boston?
AW: Not nearly as much as I would like to. It does have that abiding New England vibe to it, which I love. There is something unifying about being able to go anywhere in the area and feel you probably can play the name game with someone or strike up a conversation with them. The accents alone in Boston are worth the conversation.
BC: On to sexier topics: Let’s talk about the show. Marnie, the character you play on Girls—we love Marnie. What do you have in common with her? What’s different?
AW: I am a very passionate person. I’ve always known what I wanted to do. So to play someone a little more aimless is very different for me.
BC: And Marnie’s striving for perfection—is that you?
AW: I’ve realized very slowly over the last five, six, seven years that it was a waste of my time trying to be the perfect version of myself. But it’s very hard when you live in a high-pressure academic culture. I was really trying to do everything right.
BC: And what about pressure from your family?
AW: It never, ever came from my family…. It came from my own ambition. It came from Greenwich Academy, these people around me—these high-achieving, highly intelligent people. But the people I really admired were [those] who realized they were not perfect. They embraced things about themselves that were imperfect, because they were able to recognize, with a lot of wisdom, that those little bumps are the things that make you interesting and textured and most compelling. Perfection is exhausting.
BC: What does it feel like to have already won a measure of success with the show?
AW: What you saw from the three of us when we won the Golden Globe Award was pure, unmitigated joy and surprise and elation. Because we have all gone through [the doubts]. At one point or another, we’ve all come to this realization that we’re not going to do what we do perfectly, so we just have to have fun and enjoy it.
BC: That’s very wise. Because the whole Lena Dunham thing definitely is “Look, I’m not perfect.”
AW: Exactly. I’ve learned a bajillion things from Lena. One of the major things is that sense of self. It does not need to be solidified forever, it’s not permanent, and that sense of yourself will continue to shift and flow throughout your life. And that’s okay. She’s helped me learn to embrace the gray area between black and white, which has been really wonderful.
BC: Do you worry at all about achieving fame so early in your career?
AW: “Fame” is such a sticky word. It’s all so fickle and fleeting. I don’t feel famous, but I do feel that attention is being paid. The amount of attention is the variable that seems to change day by day. It’s early. I’m young, I just started, but given that I’ve wanted to be an actress since I was 4, I just feel lucky to be making a living doing what I love. I have always held that as the standard for happiness... and it feels as good as I always imagined it.
BC: When your character, Marnie, tells Hannah she’s beautiful, does she mean it?
AW: She definitely means it. If Marnie had the confidence, she’d just tell Hannah how jealous she is of the parts of Hannah’s personality she lacks. But I think that requires a lot of self-reflection and confidence, to go on about someone when you’re in an intimate friendship. I’ve just gotten to the stage in my life, with my friendships, where we’ve started to feel comfortable professing our love to each other in explicit, specific ways. We’re starting to appreciate the things that our great friends bring to the table. I think that’s Phase 2 of the post-collegiate friendship.
BC: Let’s talk about the relationships in the series—how desperate your character became when her ex found someone else in five minutes. My husband, watching the show with me, said, “Oh, come on! A beautiful girl like that, she wouldn’t care.” People think pretty girls never have any romantic problems.
AW: In that situation it’s as much about Charlie as it is about control. The comfort of having this ex-boyfriend in her control is very appealing, because she can use that as a safety net until she finds someone to move on to. The fact that he beats her to the punch—leaving her alone, feeling isolated and undesirable—is unfathomable and unbearable to her, and unexpected. For her to go right into a relationship would have been less interesting.
BC: Did you watch Sex and the City?
AW: I did watch Sex and the City. I loved it.
BC: Tell me the ways you think Girls is different.
AW: That question was asked more frequently before the show came out. For journalists looking at a one-sheet of our show, it looked eerily similar: four women living in New York City…. Once everyone saw Girls, the comparisons stopped. Initially our show was going to be three girls, then Zosia [Mamet] killed it so hard that they made [her character] Shoshanna a series regular.
BC: Do you have any special plans for the spring you want to talk about?
AW: I’m hoping that I’ll be going back to work on our show.
BC: And we’re hoping that Ben Affleck calls.
AW: Well, I know that he’s been a cover boy for you [Boston Common]. I really don’t know him, but I am happy for him. I look at how easily he and Matt Damon could have been totally worked over by their early success. They kept their heads level. Not only that, but they are high-achieving and permanent fixtures in this industry, and that makes me very proud. Also, Matt went to a very good school. Even though it’s not the best school, it’s a very good school.
AW: I think that rivalry still holds up. [Editor’s note: Williams went to Yale.]
BC: What are the causes closest to your heart?
AW: I’ve long loved Horizons Student Enrichment Program, which started at my school in my hometown. My mom has been very active in carrying the program across the country. The program turns independent schools, colleges, and universities into summer learning camps, and they’re free for the campers, who are underprivileged but really smart and determined. That’s what inspired me to connect with Determined to Succeed, which is an LA-based mentorship program for low-income but high-achieving middle schoolers. The kids are selected not because they have 4.0 averages, but because their grades are just low enough that otherwise they would fall under the radar.
BC: The work your parents do seems to have profoundly affected you. Does your father love his work?
AW: That was one of the cool things about growing up in the house that I did: I was raised by two people who believe firmly that it is possible to love what you do and to do what you love, and to make a life out of that.
BC: Did you talk politics at the family table?
AW: We actually didn’t really discuss politics at home growing up. Home was always a place of creativity and family time. We’re very close, and because my father’s political beliefs remain unrevealed to us, it would have been a very lopsided conversation. But I do follow politics. I thought the president’s speech at his inauguration was moving, and I was lucky enough to hear it in person. I was so pleasantly surprised and thrilled when he mentioned marriage equality. Massachusetts was way ahead of the curve on that one!
BC: So, when is Ben Affleck calling?
AW: Oh, my gosh. That was my one goal of the Golden Globes, to introduce myself to him, because I think he’s a genius, and I just never got it done. When he won for best director, I turned to Zosia and said, “There goes my chance of meeting him tonight—he’s going to be so busy.” And then when he won for best picture...
photography by robert ascroft; Styling by Zanna Roberts Rassi at The Wall Group; Makeup by Matin, Color Consultant for Laura Mercier Hair by Luca Blandi for Oscar Blandi Salon/Haircare Manicure by Myrdith Leon- McCormack for CND Shellac in Beau at Factory Downtown