By Ashleigh VanHouten
photographer: Jennifer Rocholl
Alison Pill is my new best friend.
At least it was easy to imagine so as we chatted amicably over the phone, she busily petting her cat and us both giggling more than I would assume happens during the average celebrity interview. Pill, with her youthful, open face and her easy laugh, makes it easy to view her as a friend. But she’s so much more than a pretty face and a cute giggle, as her decidedly impressive and mature resume can attest.
Having just finished the successful HBO show The Newsroom, and with a host of über-cool movies (and a wedding; she was engaged about a week before our call) on the horizon, Pill is a force to be reckoned with, three-fold: she’s comfortable with—and successful in—TV, theatre, and the big screen.
I’m sure many of you want to know about her personal life (she’s recently engaged to fellow actor Joshua Leonard; she renovated a house with him; she has a cat, and a book club featuring only “lady authors”; she loves New York but has found ways to become immersed and engaged in the more isolating Hollywood scene); or maybe you’re interested in her career (The Newsroom was huge; she’s recently finished a completely unique and creepily-hilarious horror comedy called Cooties; I’m pretty sure theater is her favorite); but Pill does a great job of turning the attention away from herself, to real issues that effect her and others around her, and this deep passion for the world is both refreshing and much more interesting than grilling the actor about her latest roles.
Here’s the thing about Pill: she knows what she’s talking about. She’s knowledgeable about her industry, which is impressive enough in such a navel-gazing environment, but she can also speak to politics, and government policy, and having kids, and technology. She’s someone that would be great to sit next to at a dinner party, even if she wasn’t a movie and TV star. So many celebrities rest on their laurels, assuming that getting paid huge sums to pretend to be someone else makes them inherently interesting, but Pill is an engaging enough character on her own.
Case in point: unlike some real news producers, she actually researched the issues that her character dealt with in The Newsroom. “I didn’t like TV news, but I’ve always been an avid reader of monthly, weekly news magazines like The New Yorker and The Economist,” she says. “What I did find most interesting was the opportunity to look into the history of very specific stories; it was fun to do the actual research that a producer might do. Online, you’ll see some people saying, ‘how would The Newsroom cover this story?’ and it speaks to the idea that we need to ask for better news. Like politics today, there comes a point when it becomes so partisan that you don’t trust any aspect of it. There is such a lack of a communal voice that provides the basis of an open conversation. How can you expect people to have their own opinions when you’ve just told them their opinion is stupid?”
When she talks about public issues, you can tell she isn’t just paying lip service. “I actually just signed two petitions today, one for Canada and one for the U.S.,” both animal-rights related. “I’ve written to two government official bodies about things I care about, but I keep it specific because otherwise I get really overwhelmed,” she says. “As much as I get frustrated with politics, I do ultimately hope that if everyone got involved with their one specific issue there might be some change for the good.”
A Canadian who lived and loved New York but now lives in LA, her zest being truly involved in the world around her has made Pill adaptable. “People say LA has no culture, which isn’t true—but you have to spend the time to seek it out or make it yourself,” she says. “What I loved about New York is that it’s like osmosis: you get all this culture and conversation and bumping up against things. New York is so special and so rare. The community in general: New Yorkers are really good in a crisis, as we’ve seen over and over. And in LA you can close yourself off to so much and create an entirely unreal existence, and it’s not hard to do that. It’s not hard to live on the surface and not be affronted by anything.”
In a world of narcissistic and overly marketed celebrities (need I remind you, Kim Kardashian just published a coffee table book of her own selfies), Pill is refreshingly unaware of her celebrity—she was surprised, after posting an image of her engagement on Instagram, at the overwhelming response. “After I posed it I suddenly got lots more followers. I told my fiancé, ‘Well, the media just picked it up, so you had better been real about this!” she laughs. “It’s weird, but it’s OK because neither of us are very famous.” And it looks like we won’t have to wait too long for baby Pills: “My biological clock hit a year or so ago,” she admits. “I went from, ‘they’re not terrible’ to ‘get one inside of me’ and I’m weirdly trying to touch other people’s babies…I just think kids are cool.”
This abundant sense of humor is an asset to her career, too: while she shines in Blockbuster movies like Snowpiercer and cerebral shows like The Newsroom, there’s also the unreleased horror comedy Cooties about a group of teachers stuck in a school as they attempt to escape from pre-pubescent zombie types (there’s a message in here somewhere), complete with a love triangle between her character, Elijah Wood, and Rainn Wilson. Thanks to Ian Brennan, co-creator of Glee and Leigh Wannell, writer for the Saw movie franchise, she says the movie is essentially a lovechild of the two enterprises—a scary prospect indeed.
And then there’s her theater success—she was nominated for a Tony award for her Broadway debut in The Lieutenant of Inishmore and has worked alongside Ben Stiller, Edie Falco, and Abigail Breslin. “Theater is the hardest for me, no doubt about it,” Pill says. “If aliens came down from the sky and we had to explain to them why there were 300 people watching five other people pretend things…I mean, how do you explain it? It’s a really weird thing and it’s so fragile. All it takes is someone to yell, ‘this isn’t real!’ and it’s over for everyone in the room. The amount of collective belief is so amazing. Absurdity comes to life in the best way.”
Upcoming projects we can look forward to include an existential mind-fuck Canadian/Brazilian production called ZOOM, a Pedro Morelli feature opposite Gael Garcia Bernal, and a part in the newest Coen Brothers feature Hail, Caesar!. “They are SO good,” she says of the Coen’s. “There aren’t many filmmakers who have made that many perfect movies. The Big Lebowski is the movie I’ve seen more than any other movie…besides The Princess Bride,” she says, speaking as if the statement were obvious—which it is, considering that along with her wisdom and poise, she’s also a “normal” 29-year-old woman. A smart, successful, and genuinely happy actor who will also watch The Princess Bride repeatedly on Netflix?
I think Alison Pill just became everyone’s new best friend.