In October 2010, Allison Williams was introduced to the world as the stunning singer fronting Mad Men Theme Song ... With a Twist -- a YouTube video that mashed up the theme song with Nat King Cole's Nature Boy. Turns out that among the half a million viewers was Judd Apatow, who was in the midst of helping to cast a little show called Girls. Apatow was so taken by the brunette, he called her in to audition and the rest, as they say, is history. Or her-story.
But I doubt even Apatow knew what a gem he'd discovered in the actress, who, over the course of Girls' sublime first season, managed to make the high-strung, potentially off-putting character of Marnie endlessly relatable through a cunning combination of strength and sadness. A duality that has made her a frontrunner in the Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy category. ETonline caught up with the rising star to talk about the evolution of this evocative character, what life is like inside the world of Girls and why it's OK to mistake Allison for Marnie.
ETonline: I know from Tiny Furniture that Lena Dunham knew some of the cast previously, how did you come to be on Girls?
Allison Williams: I just auditioned for it – but I really do owe a lot to the Mad Men video because one of the people who saw that was Judd [Apatow, Girls producer]. They were in the process of auditioning a bunch of people for Marnie and Lena [Dunham, star, creator, writer, producer] was being very specific about what she was looking for. Essentially, they decided to start casting in L.A. at the same time Judd saw me in that video. He called my agents, asked me to go in, so I prepared for the audition and got so nervous to meet Lena after reading the script because I developed such an obsession with her mind and the way she looks at the world and the way that she captures dialogue and human emotions.
ETonline: What do you think it was that made you perfect for Marnie?
Williams: I don't know, but I remember we had to do an improv scene in my audition where Marnie had done something mean to Hannah and the scene just felt really natural. We ended up resolving fight, and Lena told me later that all the other actresses stormed out of the room. I was very hell-bent on making sure we resolved the crisis to move on, which she thought was a very Marnie quality.
ETonline: What was it that you were drawn to in Marnie?
Williams: I love that she has an almost sheepdog quality of trying to herd her friends together. She's very maternal in that way. But she's also controlling, which is the negative side of the maternal coin. I think she can be judgmental and is Type A to a fault -- but I also think that's very relatable. When you're in your early 20s, it's much more interesting and cool and exciting and fun to be carefree and spontaneous, but those aren't things she's capable of doing. And we have that in common. I was able to find little things that we share and then draw from people I know and my imagination. But the writing does a lot of the work for us.
ETonline: In the pilot, Shoshanna talks about which Sex and the City character she is -- something fans have started doing with Girls now. Do you relate to one more than the other?
Williams: It's so funny because literally right before this phonecall I was at a restaurant and my waiter did that. He goes, "I'm Shoshanna, my friend is Marnie …" and it's so funny because there was something so wonderful about this 35 year old beautiful black man saying he’s "A Shoshanna." Personally, I think I'm too close to play the game myself.
ETonline: That's interesting because more than anything else, I've been surprised by who is talking about the show.
Williams: When it first came on, I thought I'd be able to recognize who, in a group of girls, would know I was from the show. And time after time I have been proved wrong. People I would never expect to watch the show, watch the show. I mean, every generation in my family watches – including my 80-year-old grandparents. After hearing that and seeing some of their email chains about the show, all bets are off about our demo.
ETonline: There is this tendency for audiences to confuse an emerging actor with the character they play when its on a show that's grounded like Girls is. Has that been your experience?
Williams: I've definitely gotten people who are scared to talk to me. Like I'm going to immediately judge them and tell them how they're living their life wrong [laughs]. It's a major compliment when people conflate us with our characters because it means we're convincingly making them real, three-dimensional and full of life experience. Someone told me recently that they go to NYU and half-expect to see Shoshanna in the hallways. If you can create people who feel like humans you might bump into in your everyday life, not only does that mean we're accessible as characters, but it means the show is tapping into something very real and current and zeitgeist-y. That's sort of the goal of a show.
ETonline: Have there been any storyline revelations you didn't agree with or expect?
Williams: When I read the script where Marnie told Jessa she lost her virginity at 13 or 14 -- that was surprising to me. But Lena explained how it was something believable for Marnie to have done. And looking back on it now, I understand that she saw it as something that needed to be checked off a list. That was a very interesting moment for me as an actor.
ETonline: What about the flipside: what's been your favorite scene or development?
Williams: I loved dancing with Lena. That was a very emotional filming experience. I loved the episode where Marnie is Facebook stalking Charlie and Audrey. I had fun playing so dramatic and navel-gazing and looking like total crap. It's a great excuse to eat a ton of potato chips [laughs]. And the last episode of the season where Marnie loses it and decides to try to be the kind of person who can just have fun was also great because I felt like I got to do something very out of character. One of the great joys of this show is that we all get to do something out of character for our characters. I don't know a single person who always does things in character. It just doesn't happen.
ETonline: This is the first time you've lived with a single character for an extended period of time, have you been surprised by any byproduct of that experience?
Williams: After two years of playing her, it's become a bit like that E.T. thing – when she's sad, I start to feel sad. It's hard for me to read criticism of her. Like when people say negative things about Marnie, I start to get protective of her as a person. Like, justifying her actions to strangers. If they only understood where she was coming from [laughs].
ETonline: On the same tip, what's been the biggest acting challenge related to the on-going evolution of a single character?
Williams: It was fun but challenging to string the continuity of a character over all those episodes. But I'm so lucky to be on a show that gets to do that. I was very excited with where we left her at the end of the season. I loved that it was her making a conscious effort to get out of her comfort zone for an evening – even if it seemed uncomfortable with her chugging alcohol because she can't do it any other way. That forced "We're having fun here" attitude was a step in the right direction. For next year, what I would wish for her is that she finds something to be passionate about. If she did some soul searching, I think she could find something important to drive her because I think up until now she's been very motivated by the idea of "This is what comes next." The job, the boyfriend, the home – it's all coming apart at the seams, so I hope it sends her back to the drawing board so she can reevaluate her priorities in life.
Girls is currently available on HBO On Demand.
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- Judd Apatow