Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
Though still young, Alison Pill has already amassed the kind of career most actors would kill for, with dozens of roles in everything from made for TV movies to films by some of the most acclaimed directors in the world. She started in Canada as a child, working steadily in television and small film roles before moving on to appear in popular indie films like Pieces Of April and large studio projects such as Confessions Of A Teenage Drama Queen. From there, she moved into a diverse series of roles, including beloved cult films like Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and Snowpiercer, and a starring role on divisive HBO series The Newsroom. Currently, she’s promoting the new reality-bending comedy Zoom, co-starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Tyler Labine, about a young woman at a sex doll factory who decides to get breast implants, but doesn’t realize the characters in a graphic novel she’s writing are being affected by her actions. Despite being almost seven months pregnant (and not having much time), she sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about fake breasts, Canadian TV, and how the role of Lindsay Lohan’s best friend almost made her quit the business.
The A.V. Club: You spend the majority of the movie with these massive fake breasts. I assume this was almost all practical effects, not CGI?
Alison Pill: That is correct. We had this sort of brassiere stuffed with chicken cutlets, foam bits, insane things, more than the size of my head on each boob. And then I also had prosthetic breasts for the nude scenes and the scenes with actual cleavage. So getting a mold done of the chest and then having to lie back for a couple of hours while people glue on ginormous silicon latex boobs, I got to feel what that would be like. It’s terrible. Nobody do this! It’s a bad, bad idea. Your back will really hurt.
AVC: What is it like from a practical standpoint? Was this your first time wearing some sort of prosthetic like that for a role?
AP: Yeah, this was my first time. I’d had basic wound stuff done in the past, but sort of minimal prosthetics. [Sarcastically.] You know, wound work. But this was an entirely different thing—God, they must have weighed, I don’t know, like 20 pounds or something.
I mean, these were sizable, and they were similar to what they would be in life, these big sacks of plastic hanging off your chest. I wouldn’t advise it. And practically, you know, you open doors—there’s stuff in the film that’s really true. You open doors into your body which, now, as a pregnant lady, I totally get. I think the same thing but with a different part of my body where I’m like, oh, right, I forgot about you, large bulge. But, yeah, don’t get fake boobs that big.
AVC: That big?
AP: Some people get fake boobs, but whatever. You can make your own decisions.
AVC: IMDB lists your first credit as Lucy in The New Ghostwriter Mysteries back in 1997. Is that accurate?
AVC: So you would have been, what, 12 years old?
AP: I have a late birthday, so I feel like I might have been 11. Ghostwriter was this amazing mystery show and this was the next generation. Did you ever see Ghostwriter?
AVC: I never—
AP: I was obsessed. He’s like a ghost who can read text and sort of give clues with text. It’s a little unclear on what he was besides being a ghost writer that helps kids solve crimes. Mostly property crimes around their neighborhood. Anyway, it’s a fantastic show, and then they did this reboot. It’s like a procedural drama where they’re talking to other kids trying to get clues. And all I remember was the pizza, which was Hawaiian, which is horrifying. Why would anybody ever choose Hawaiian? But I was like, OK, my character eats Hawaiian pizza, she’s psyched about it. So I just ate pizza and was like, “Well, what I heard was this kid, you know, went that way that day,” and that was about it. I think it was three lines in a pizza shop set and it was amazing.
AVC: Were you psyched to be there? Did you want to be an actor as a kid?
AP: I did. My mom tried to convince me that it would be terrible by letting me become an extra, or “background performer” as we say now. But I did one day as an extra on Kung Fu: The Legend Continues and got to see David Carradine and walked around in the background of a museum set and I remember—this is true—there was a green room that was the [backstage] green room, and I thought from then on that every room in which you wait would be green. There would be a literal green room and that that was a thing. I was like, “Oh, that makes sense.” Just a green room with a Jim Morrison poster and we waited for hours and hours and then we were on set. And instead of finding it horrifically boring and horrible and not a great way to spend your time, I was like, “This is fantastic. This whole thing about being on set and having a room that is green called a green room is going to be where I want to be.”
AVC: That’s such a perfect kid’s logical assumption. “Green room,” of course it’s going to be green.
AP: Yeah, right! And then imagine the disappointment when you realize that it’s just a weird saying and they often are not green. They’re rarely green, in fact. Also because who wants to sit in a green room for hours at a time? But I was like, “Well, that’s what professional actors do.”
AVC: Was this your first feature film gig?
AP: It was. Sarah Polley was in it. Catherine O’Hara was in it. It was just an amazing cast. I played a goodie-two-shoes violinist schoolgirl who takes off for the day. And it was all about—there was this random horrifying mass shooting at this restaurant called Just Desserts in Toronto, and so it followed everybody leading up on this day to the moment when there’s this big, random shooting.
AVC: It’s one of those big vignette films, right?
AP: Exactly. And it was really complicated. The role is this girl decides she’s going to try and get her friend a better test score by accusing her favorite teacher of molestation. And I was like, “Whoa! This is crazy!” But it was the first kind of more grown-up thing I’d been able to do. “Whoa, what’s molestation?”
AVC: You played Lindsay Lohan’s best friend!
AP: Yeah, “Ella Never-Had-A-Fella.” I had just graduated from high school. I had done my first play in New York and then returned to Toronto to shoot this film, which was the biggest budget film I had been in up to that point. And to be honest, it almost made me want to quit acting.
AVC: Wow. Why?
AP: [Laughs.] Partly, it was just sort of studio, big-budget stuff. They took out some of my favorite lines of scenes from the script while we were in the middle of shooting. I was like, “Wait, but…” The whole thing about them, they weren’t supposed to get parental permission. That was a huge plot point, when they go to the city to see their favorite band play. In the original script, they’re not supposed to ever tell their parents.
AVC: So it basically sucked out all the tension.
AP: The entire conflict! Then they’re like, “But actually, we did tell our parents! So, bye!” And there was this stuff like that where I was like, “You guys, what?” If you gave me—I could make, like, five movies from the budget. But! People love this movie.
AVC: It’s a treasured film for kids of a certain age.
AP: People absolutely adore this movie. And it plays all the time and I’m super happy for that being a thing because, you know, I’m happy to be in that movie. I was in Trader Joe’s the other day and a young woman goes, “You look like Alison Pill,” and I was like, “That’s me. That’s my name.” She gave me a hug and she’s like, “I watched that movie so many times!” I mean, people grew up with it. It’s one of those. It’s such a cool thing to be a part of. But at the time, I was like, “Ugh, studios, man.” And then I went to Europe and shot a movie with Thomas Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier and I was like, “Okay, I can do this. [Laughs.] This whole acting thing isn’t so bad.”
AVC: It was this big-budget Disney film set, and you’d just come back from your first New York theatre role, so were you looking around like, “Does nobody else realize this is so frustrating and annoying?”
AP: Yeah, a little bit, yeah. It was just this feeling of like, am I a crazy person? Does nobody else think it would be idiotic to change the fact that we—you know, I didn’t mean to be a snob, but I am. I’m a dramaturge snob, okay? I love reading plays, I love plot, I love structure, I don’t write myself but… Anyway, to then be working with people who are like, “Age doesn’t really matter so much,” and, whoa, the difference between them being 15 and 16 is actually pretty significant. And I know you don’t care, but I do. And just in those ways people are like, “Eh! Eh, it doesn’t matter.” And most of the time, they’re right. It actually doesn’t matter. But you’re like—I want it to matter.
AVC: That’s a pretty understandable position.
AP: And there were just some little boops and blips that I was like, “Ugh, I wish we’d checked that.” But in the end, again, super fun movie. I haven’t watched it in years. But it was super fun.
AVC: Your part wasn’t huge, but it was one of the most memorable sequences in the film.
AP: Oh my God, I love that movie so much. I love that movie, I love director [Joon-ho] Bong—yes, we all call him “Director Bong,” which, at first you’re like, “That’s creepy and cultish,” and then within five minutes, you’re like, “Well, actually, he should be known as Director Bong.” And then there was working with a translator, because I would be looking straight into his eyes when we were discussing things, but we were talking through a translator a lot of the time. He’s pretty good at English, but sometime he would slip in and there was this seamless feeling. Also, what a cast.
And how good is Prague? It’s the best. I was there for a couple of weeks—as you say, it was only one sequence, so I wasn’t there the whole time. I did get to hang out with Chris Evans again because he was in Scott Pilgrim and he taught us how to high five. He knows such things.
AVC: When you say he “taught you” how to high five…
AP: No, seriously, if you cannot land a high five, look at the elbow. That’s a real piece of advice. You’ll never miss another high five in your life, if you don’t have great hand-eye coordination like some of us. You’ll never miss. It’s incredible. Greatest lesson in my life. [Laughs.]
But it was so cool. There was an entire graphic novel of what the movie would look like—of what the shots would be on what lines. So for our scripts, we had the script with just words, and then we had the script with storyboards for every single shot of the movie. Before we started shooting! There’s a way in which that could be seen as boxing you in or be like, “Wow, what if something else were…,” but it was absolutely the opposite! Since you know what will be on screen, you’re able to pick and choose your moments and craft them in such a way that it’s not just, “Well, whatever.” It’s exacting, but it actually allowed for a great deal of freedom within that. Which was really interesting. And so we’d cross off shots and the call sheet would be like, that shot is done for that line, and that’s the shot that will be in the movie. You don’t waste time. You’re not doing coverage on stuff that you’re never going to use because somebody has spent years planning ahead and that’s going to be the movie.
It’s great. That’s why Director Bong. You don’t eff with Director Bong. Also, Tilda Swinton’s a goddess.
AVC: She was fun to hang out with in between takes?
AP: Yes, she’s everything and more than you hope she is in terms of a magical being who can transform, but also the best conversationalist and so knowledgeable and artistic and creative and kind. Yeah.
I usually try and play it cool when I meet people, ’cause you just want to be like, “Yeah, let me treat you as a person,” but I couldn’t hold back because she did Orlando, the Virginia Woolf adaptation. I was a big Virginia Woolf—not “was,” I am a big Virginia Woolf fan, but most especially in high school. Ahhh! Obsessed. There’s a poster of her in my little craft hut currently. And how are you going to adapt a weird Virginia Woolf novel that is her most accessible but takes place over so many centuries and goes back and forth between gender and…? And she did it. And you’re like, “Oh my God, of course.” That’s all we needed. We just needed Tilda Swinton. I got to share how much it had meant that they had done this undoable thing. And then Billy Zane shows up at the end of that movie and it’s great. In maybe his best performance! He’s so awesome and you’re like, “Billy Zane! What!”
AVC: Another sister role, this time to Katie Holmes.
AP: Aw, yeah. That was my first permit to work in the U.S. of A.
AVC: Oh, congratulations.
AP: Set me on the way to getting my green card. It was also—it was such a magical experience. I think the entire shoot was 14 days. So we shot our half in seven days and the crossover with Katie in eight, so it’s just this tiny thing. Most of that, you know, so much of the action takes place in the car. We had the process trailer, which is the thing that pulls the car and everything, for one day.
AVC: That must have been stressful. It feels like half the movie takes place in that car.
AP: So the rest of the time, one of the cast would have to get out, because there’s a camera in their seat. And then we’d wait on the side of the road in New Jersey for them to do a loop and then wait for the camera to get out and get into another person’s spot. It was really —
AVC: That’s insane.
AP: Yeah, and I still love that movie so much. I think Peter Hedges is a magical filmmaker and writer and is so filled with love of humanity in the midst of all the terrible things we do to each other. I just love it. It’s never mean, and it’s so easy to make a family movie, where… there are hateful people. Of course there are. My character, I get it, but I also am her? [Laughs.] The goodie-two-shoes person who’s like, “I can make it better! What about me?” And you’re like, yes, but that person is so desperate for love, please just give them a break. And Patty Clarkson in that movie was so stunning. Did she win an Oscar, or was she just nominated?
AVC: She was nominated.
AP: Yeah. See, who can remember these things? I can’t. In my head, she won an Oscar. Congrats to Patty. [Laughs.]
AVC: Also in that movie was John Gallagher, who you would go on to spend three seasons with on The Newsroom. Do you remember your first time meeting him?
AP: Yeah, I do. I mean, I just remember he was in a high school band called… What’s Up? I think it was called “What’s Up.” Sort of ska, folk, I-don’t-know-what mix. And he’s, I guess, two years older than me, maybe one. And so it’s just this thing of like, “Wow, that’s pretty cool, John Gallagher. You’re in a band.” But I just remember, neither of us had been in a movie with people of that ilk before, really, and it was so completely exciting. He’s just one of the sweetest people in the whole wide world. And we both had our moms around sometimes. We were still babies.
AVC: I have yet to meet an actor who doesn’t enjoy speaking Aaron Sorkin dialogue.
AP: Yeah, it’s super fun. Especially because all of us are theatre folk, pretty much. So, I had done two plays with Tommy Sadoski before the show, I had done a play with Jeff [Daniels], I had done the movie with John. I mean, it was the most comfortable, familiar kind of set to enter into, which was really important because we were all scared out of our minds. [Laughs.] It takes a while to work out your Sorkin muscle. And figure out how to make it work for you because—you know, you memorize it, you get it down pat, which is sometimes tricky because there’s sometimes numbers or highly technical language, but then also couched within all that is what the scene is actually about. Which is not whatever the fuck you’re saying.
It’s something underneath it. And so that’s the real challenge, which is so fun, is figuring out what the actual scene that you’re doing is trying to be and then get it beyond word perfect. It’s no lie, punctuation perfect. For real, you’ll be told that was a period and not a comma. But if you come from theatre, you’re used to getting that anyway because the script is a bible and it’s this unchangeable document that somebody spent years and years on.
AVC: When you’re making a film like that, where there’s this vibe of something really historically significant, does it make everything a little more somber and intense?
AP: It was somber. It was intense on set, but it was also the most wonderful environment. The thing was, we got to act like Harvey Milk wasn’t dead. He wasn’t dead. We were in the Castro shooting with Sean Penn, who was truly the embodiment of one of the most inspiring people in the last 50 years, you know? And so it was actually more inspiring than somber. It got really—so many of the people who were being played were dead already because of AIDS. So there were these holes in our experience of who we got to meet and who had already passed, which was really devastating. But having Cleve Jones there, who was played by Emile in the movie, and who started the AIDS Blanket and has done a huge amount of advocacy, he was there and brought so much life and meaning. Anne Kronenberg was amazing. So all of the set life was beautiful and important-feeling, and then when we would get back to the hotel, we just had the best time. We shot a really weird short film in our hotel. We also found it hilarious to switch pants. We were really into that.
AVC: Who among you?
AP: Me and all the dudes switching pants. Like me and Brandon Boyce switched pants. There’s pictures of us where we’re like, “Ha! Let’s switch pants!” No reason behind it. We just thought it was hilarious. There was a lot of dumb shit done by early 20-year-olds that was pretty fun. Like switching pants. When pants don’t fit, it’s hilarious.
AVC: You were the wife of Josh Brolin’s character. I assume this wasn’t a long shoot for you.
AP: No. This was one day. But it helped me quit smoking, so that was cool.
I’d been on tour—my husband and I went on tour with our friends, and then I got terribly ill, and I was four days away from shooting with the Coen brothers, which was—I mean, I can’t even. Has anybody made more perfect films than them? I don’t think so. I don’t think any living filmmaker’s going to be like, “Ah, well.” Not only are you prolific, but you’ve made more perfect films than any—you’re crazy, you’re crazy good at your jobs. So I just had this moment. I was super sick, I was coughing, I had a bad throat, and I just got to this point of like, “Really? Are you going to smoke cigarettes while you’re sick and not do everything in your power to be better by the time you shoot your one day with your heroes? Really? You’re going to tell your grandkids, ‘Yeah, no, I’m a little hoarse in that,’ and ‘Oh, I had to ADR that scene because I couldn’t stop smoking cigarettes.’” So I quit smoking, and then it stuck, and that was almost two years ago.
So Hail, Caesar! got me to quit smoking. It put things into perspective because nobody fucks with the Coen brothers.
AP: The start of that magical experience began when I got onto my flight to Paris and did a quadruple take looking over at the people sitting across the aisle from me on the plane, because it was Jay Z and Beyoncé.
AP: They were across the aisle. Yes! This is like, oh, this is just going to be the most surreal part of your life ever, and I feel like the entire experience from that point on was a dream and people who are like, “I love Midnight In Paris,” I’m like, “You saw that? That’s real? That really happened, huh. That wasn’t just a crazy fever dream I had where I shot a Woody Allen movie and flew next to Jay Z then hung out with the Seine with Marion Cotillard.” Like, what? OK, great. And Tom [Hiddleston] and I reading Zelda and Scott’s letters to each other wrapped in bathrobes at our fancy Parisian hotel. I’m like, none of this is real! It was absurd! It was amazing. That was something where I was like, wow, great, okay. Thanks to whoever.
AVC: Did you have that normal Woody Allen audition experience where he doesn’t really say anything and then it’s awkward, but then you find out you got the part anyway?
AP: Yeah, totally. I went in, shook his hand, and I think I was doing a play at the time, and then I went back to his office and found a letter left for me along with just my scenes. And the letter, which I have somewhere in one of my scrapbooks, it’s on his letterhead, typed, it’s just like, “Hi, I’m making this movie, you would, of course, be crazy Zelda Fitzgerald, Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard are doing this, so if you like it, you should do it. And if not, keep things secret. Thanks.” So I read the scenes and walked out and said, “Hell no, I won’t do your movie!” No, I didn’t say that. I said, “Okay, cool, see you in Paris.”
AVC: Is that what led directly to you also doing To Rome With Love?
AP: Yeah! I went to meet with him again and he was like, “People seemed to like that movie.” [Laughs.] Yes, they do. He makes so many movies people like or don’t—it’s funny, because then people are like, “Ugh, To Rome with Love, what was that?” and I think it’s hilarious!
You know what I mean? I had such a good time watching that movie. And so, his response to critics in general and everything is, “Oh, they like that one and they don’t like this one,” and when you’ve been doing it for as long as he has, with as much success and as many sort of duds as people perceive, you’re just like, whatever. And that’s a really inspiring way to be. Some things people like, some they don’t. Inexplicable.
AVC: How was that experience on your second film with him different from the first?
AP: Well, I got to see him perform. He’s a great physical comedian. And also, I was calm enough, and not in a star-dazey way—[In a stoner voice.] “What’s happening?!”—that I was actually able to take in the science of his comedy. I had played Judy Davis’ daughter once before.
AVC: In Life With Judy Garland.
AP: When she played Judy Garland, yeah. So it was so wonderful to see her and be there and have a little more breath in my body to be able to take in what was happening. Watching him work, I mean, watching him do every take, and he knows how to turn on the Woody Allen-ness of it, and it’s hilarious. There were times when I had to stifle laughter. I really want to see the Woody Allen movie where he plays every part because that’s how it’s imagined in his head. It would be amazing. I really want to see that movie. Where he just has a lot of wigs.
AVC: What do you remember of doing that experience with Judy Davis?
AP: It was wild. She’s so good at acting. Like, my golly. She personified this very famous person in a way that was human and understandable and just wasn’t—you know, watching people not do impressions but become another person is a really special thing to be a part of—and also just to be part of the family therapy for Lorna, to exorcise her demons and be part of her story, it was an emotional and special time.
AVC: When you were shooting, were you just trying to be as intense as possible with it?
AP: It was pretty upsetting a lot of the time because of the weight of somebody who you love who has such severe mental illness and addiction problems. It was more of a heavy set. But then we got to do “Me And My Shadow” together, the musical number, and that was the best day ever. Getting to record a song and perform in this magical, nonexistent, heavenly sort of performance area that’s not necessarily reality, but it had that feel, and so just to do that song, which is such a great song. It was pretty special.
AVC: Is this is the film that the most people come up and geek out to you about?
AP: It’s funny because I don’t get recognized for it because I don’t look like me. It was a red wig, I had fake freckles, so it’s not one of the more recognizable things—once people know that it’s me and have had a chance to check my IMDB page, they’re like, “Oh, you were in one of my favorite movies!” And then, yes, totally. People love that movie. It’s funny because I don’t look like Kim Pine in my day-to-day life. But I got to learn how to play the drums, which was pretty rad.
AVC: Are you still able to sit down and play drums if there’s a set in front of you?
AP: Um, I haven’t tried for—I don’t know. I haven’t run into a set of drums in a while. I’m not like, “Oh, hey, drums.” I have no idea. I’d like to think that I would be able to, but I really wasn’t the best at it.