Before she turned up as Trudy Campbell on AMC’s Mad Men, Alison Brie appeared onstage and in TV guest spots, most notably on Hannah Montana. After playing the increasingly strong and stable wife of Sterling Cooper’s most tumultuous young ad man, though, Brie became one of Mad Men’s go-to recurring players. Last fall, she joined the cast of NBC’s new ensemble show Community, which has rapidly turned into one of the best comedies on TV, with a cast that seems destined to be legendary. The dissimilarity between Brie’s characters has led to much discussion of her comedic and dramatic talents, and she recently talked to The A.V. Club about playing wildly different roles, making watching TV look dramatic, and the perils of comedic improvisation.
The A.V. Club: The character you play on Community, Annie Edison, is relentlessly optimistic. Are there ever days when it’s hard for you to get into that place?
Alison Brie: I think it’s a pretty easy place for me to access. I’m a generally optimistic person. I think on a low day, it’s fun to play a character like that. It can really be uplifting.
AVC: Since the early going of Community, the cast has become a tight-knit ensemble. It started off with the actors in separate storylines, and now you’re all sharing screen time. Was that always the plan, or did that evolve organically?
AB: Well, I think that at the beginning, it was the writers’ intention to profile each character individually, give them each their own episodes, so we could get to know them. And then they saw us work together, and it was such a blast. We all get along so well, and I think they saw that and wanted to incorporate that.
AVC: The show played up a sexual tension between your character and Joel McHale’s in a recent episode. Was that always the plan?
AB: I don’t know. It’s hard to know what the writers had been planning beforehand. But I think that when we originally got the script for the debate episode, they had that written in the script. And I don’t know that they were looking to get the characters together, really. It was kind of done with a sense of humor, that plotline, but the audience reactions to that episode were really enthusiastic. I know that everyone really took notice of that, but you never know what they’re going to do. We’ll just have to see.
AVC: In interviews, other cast members have said that creator Dan Harmon has lots of big plans for the show and its characters. Has he told you more deep dark secrets from Annie’s past?
AB: No, no, not really. I feel like that is another one of the things, that the longer we work on the show, the more the writers just start surprising you. Dan hasn’t really told me about anything deep, dark that’s coming up. You know, I’ll learn about it right before we’re gonna do an episode. It makes it kind of fun. You wanna do a lot of backstory for your character—as an actor, you wanna research that. But on the show, it’s fun to remain in that naïve place as you go along, and be able to continue to discover things about your character as the writers come up with them.
AVC: You’ve done a lot of comedy, but before Community, you were best known for Mad Men. What’s it like to go from being known for a drama to being known for a comedy?
AB: It was an easy transition. It’s so fun. I enjoy doing drama, and I enjoy doing comedy equally. They’re both amazing to me, and it’s such an honor to be recognized for both genres, and to have the opportunity to work on shows of such great caliber in both genres. So, you know, it’s easy to do both.
AVC: Now that you have a regular Community gig, Trudy on Mad Men isn’t going to die in a fiery plane crash or anything, is she?
AB: I hope not! Fingers crossed. But I don’t even know. You know, Mad Men is notoriously secretive with its plotlines, even with exposing them to actors on the show. So I don’t know, and even if I did, I wouldn’t really be allowed to say anything. But fingers crossed, that doesn’t happen.
AVC: You were pivotal in the episode where Kennedy was assassinated. A lot of that was just you watching TV. How do you make that interesting for people to watch?
AB: A lot of that had to do with the research that was done in terms of the content we were watching. It’s not like people were watching us sitting there watching cartoons or anything like that. Barbet Schroeder, the director of the episode, had a little mini video player on set, and was showing us the footage right before we went in, and shot the scene where we were watching it, so we really had a visual to draw from. And it’s such heavy, dark stuff that I feel like you can’t help but be moved watching it, and watching people watching it, and thinking about what they were feeling at the time.
AVC: For Mad Men, you have to do research, but did you do any research for your role in Community?
AB: I did. I think a lot of it has to do with—since the character is younger than I am, a little bit, it was easier to draw on experiences from my past. And because it’s a contemporary show, it’s not as research-heavy as Mad Men, which happened when I wasn’t alive. So it’s not as much research in that sense. It’s more drawing on experiences, but I certainly have to look things up, because she’s a very intelligent character, and there’s a lot of [pop-culture] references, too.
AVC: You have done some multi-camera comedy stuff, and this is obviously a single-camera comedy. What are the differences in your approach when you’re going to act in one or the other?
AB: The multi-camera that I did was on Hannah Montana, and to me it was almost more like theater than anything else, because you’re in front of a live studio audience. And not to say that it’s very broad, but it’s certainly more broad, and you’re gonna be a little bigger, a little louder. So it did remind me more of theater and stage work, which is what I studied and feel very comfortable doing. But I love single-camera comedy. I think NBC does a great job of it all with the Thursday-night shows, which are all really great single-camera comedies. I just think you get to nuance scenes a little bit more. It’s an interesting way to do it.
AVC: Do you feel like NBC is behind the show, even though it’s struggled in the ratings?
AB: I think that NBC is very supportive of our show. I think that, y’know, ratings can be relative, in terms of different ways of looking at it, and I think our show is moving right along, and everyone seems to be pleased, as far as I can tell. I’m certainly not privy to insider info.
AVC: A lot of critics have noted how different Trudy and Annie are. But where would you say they’re the most similar?
AB: In terms of their perfectionism, I suppose, or their wanting everything to just be a certain way, like how they imagined it. Trudy has a certain image in her mind of what marriage should be, and it’s certainly turned out not to be that way for her all the time. And Annie started out very uptight in terms of what her education should be, and those expectations also have not been met. I think they’re following a similar road in terms of maturing and learning things about life and the real world, I guess you could say, and coping with things not turning out exactly as they had planned.
AVC: Where would you say they’re the most dissimilar, then?
AB: Aside from time period alone, in terms of being at different places in their lives, the biggest difference at this point is that Trudy has had three years now to grow and change and learn different things. She’s way ahead of Annie in the grand scheme of life and learning about that. And Annie is still quite naïve to a lot of things. It’s just a matter of seeing where she’s gonna grow. And I have no idea.
AVC: On Mad Men, you’re isolated from the larger ensemble most of the time, but on Community, everybody is in almost every scene of every episode. What’s the difference there for your process?
AB: They’re both great in their own way. It’s certainly very different. When I’m on Mad Men, it’s usually just Vincent [Kartheiser] and I, which is fun. It’s great in the way that Vincent and I can usually get together and rehearse before we shoot a scene. It’s just a more intimate way of working, and the scenes are very dramatic, usually, or we think they are, and when it airs, it turns out to also be a bit comedic. And on Community, it’s just… It’s fun. I mean, the hours are longer because we’re all shooting, we’re all there together the whole time. But we’re all having a great time. It’s obviously much more social, because everybody’s there.
AVC: Is there a lot of improvisation on the set at Community?
AB: The writers script a lot of stuff, and then they’ll let us have our fun with it. We’ll do takes of scripted stuff, and then at the end, they might be like, “If you have anything else you wanna throw in there…” And we’re always adding things sort of between the lines, and some of it stays and some of it goes. I think it makes for a fun time, but it’s not like we’re using improvisational stuff all the time. Although Donald Glover is a particularly good improviser. They use his stuff a lot. He’s so funny.
AVC: Do you enjoy improv?
AB: It terrifies me! Especially being surrounded by all these brilliant comedians. But it’s certainly fun to just let something fly off the cuff. I don’t have any improvisational training, so sometimes it can be a little intimidating. But we all just have a fun time, so I can get into it.