“You can’t make Funfetti cake without the box,” Allison Williams informs me, cheerfully, about 15 seconds after we meet. She doesn’t cook, she says. Or: She cooks only things that come in a box with the recipe printed on the side. Which is why she wanted her wedding cake to be Funfetti cake—not a riff on Funfetti, not a winking, uppity, artisanal, pastry-chef-y take on Funfetti, but the thing itself, baked from the boxed mix. “They tried to put homemade cream-cheese frosting on it,” Williams says of the well-meaning caterers. “I told them they weren’t allowed to make it more fancy. You can make it beautiful on the outside, but it has to be trashy on the inside.”
There is, needless to say, nothing remotely trashy about Williams, outside or in. The word resists her even as she tries to claim it. “I drink dirtbag coffee,” she says—but with such a grinning, winning, impossible-to-even-consider-resisting zeal that I’m immediately #teamdirtbag.
We’re walking around an art space on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and she draws my attention to a portrait in pink of Marilyn Monroe. It’s notable less for its style and more for the method of its making: It was airbrushed using a repurposed asthma inhaler and pink Kool-Aid.
The picture is part of an affecting group show by incarcerated LGBTQ artists. In some cases, the work was created in secret, against prison regulations. The show, “On the Inside,” at the Abrons Art Center, was conceived by Tatiana von Furstenberg, daughter of Williams’s friend Diane von Furstenberg.
“I missed the opening because of work, but I’ve been so excited to come see it,” she says, later adding, “There’s a lot of overlap with the work I do around education, incarceration, and HIV/AIDS with RED in Africa.”
Williams’s commitment to what she calls “my extracurricular passions” runs deep. As easy as it is to roll your eyes at beautiful, famous do-gooders, in Williams’s case, the altruism is entirely genuine. Recently, she has been touring prisons while researching a documentary series “covering the span of the American education system.” And her connection to Horizons National, which provides academic-enrichment programs to low-income students, began—give or take—at birth. Her grandmother taught at the school where Horizons later started; her mother was a scholarship student at the same school. Both remain active in the cause along with the rest of the Williams family, and her husband, Ricky Van Veen, who serves on the Horizons board of directors. Later this afternoon she’ll be raising money for Horizons.
“That’s why I’m dressy today,” she says of her blazer, turtleneck, and leather skirt. Chic enough for a fund-raising call but not too flashy for a Lower East Side gallery. And what about her nails, studded with sparkly little gems?
“Oh, these?” she says, jokingly admiring her own bedazzled hands. “These were from a photo shoot I did yesterday for a magazine called Allure. I’m famous—did I tell you this? I should have mentioned this before.”
Williams has been prepping for the spotlight since at least the age of four—when she precociously informed her parents of her intention to become an actress—and possibly even before that.
Deciding we need coffee, she graciously holds my digital recorder while I put on my coat. “I feel like I was probably handed one of these in my crib just to get used to it,” she says.
Through her parents, TV producer and radio host Jane Stoddard Williams and longtime NBC newsman Brian Williams, she was exposed to the world of overexposure and, she hopes, inoculated against its common side effects, such as elephantiasis of the ego and bad manners. As a kid, she met presidents and walked on red carpets.
“I’m very practiced in coming down from something really exciting, [something] that makes you feel maybe more important than you are,” she says.
She acted in school plays and went to drama camp. After summers working the bread, pesto, and mozzarella stand at the New Canaan farmers’ market on Saturday mornings (“Pesto really gets in your teeth, so trying to sell things and also tasting your samples can lead to some mortifying moments”), she graduated to behind-the-scenes gigs on movie and TV sets.
But her parents forbade her from acting professionally until she’d completed college. “I was annoyed at it for, like, a second, but then I kind of leaned into the idea. The summer before my senior year in high school, I was a production assistant [PA] on A Prairie Home Companion, Robert Altman’s last movie, with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline. It rocked my whole world.”
We’ve found coffee now—not of the dirtbag variety, but it’ll do—at a sweet little place on Canal Street called, sensibly, Little Canal. Williams inquires about the doughnuts, but they’re uppity doughnuts (passion fruit, cacao nib, dulce de leche), and she’s a regular-doughnut gal.
“Anyway, I’ve had my doughnut today. I have a doughnut every morning. The same kind, from a street cart. Vanilla frosted with sprinkles on one half, weirdly. How hard is it to sprinkle the whole thing?”
She sets her phone on the counter and notices me noticing the case. “It’s a mirror with Belle stickers on the back,” she says. “I’m an adult; it’s fine.”
More on Allison Williams:
- Allison Williams Knows How to Face Weight Rumors Head On
- Girls Star Allison Williams Dishes Her Flawless Skin Secrets
- Allison Williams Talks to Allure About Flying and Playing the Anti-Marnie in Peter Pan Live!
We take our coffees to the stools by the window looking out onto a gray, rainy Canal Street, whereupon we forget for a while what we were talking about and go off on a long, multitentacled tangent about Yale secret societies (she was in one, St. Elmo), semicolons (“People don’t use them correctly!”), and the two people she was most freaked out to meet.
“Julie Andrews. She is, like, why I exist. The second is this guy named Alan Menken. He wrote the music for The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. I recognized him on a plane, which is pretty deep nerd-dom. I was too nervous to say hi, but I got his email and wrote him later. Now we’re pals, and it’s no big deal—he just scored my life, essentially.”
We remember what we were talking about—acting!—and get back on track. What did she learn from those years of watching others do it?
“I did a lot of creepy watching, which conveniently is kind of your job as a PA,” she says. “The ultimate win as a first-team PA is to be able to answer when someone asks, ‘Does anyone have eyes on so-and-so?’ and you’re like, ‘Yes, they just went to the bathroom, and now they’re getting Twizzlers at craft [services]!’ ”
The actors she talked to over the years agreed on one thing: college first. The thinking was, she says, that otherwise “you’re not going to be a full person. And you need to become a person before you can be a person in front of other people.” The person most of us will recognize her as is, of course, Marnie Michaels, the judgy and harshly judged imperfect perfectionist now in her sixth and final season of Girls. And now we have Get Out, Jordan Peele’s racially charged, politically savvy horror film. Williams makes her big-screen-lead debut as Rose, whose life gets extraordinarily messy when her African-American boyfriend Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya) meets her lily-white suburban family. A horror film is a minefield of potential spoilers, so it’s not safe to say much more, except that it’s a role that more than satisfies Williams’s desire “to flip the script about what I’m capable of as an actor,” she says.
“My first thought was, This is going to be very loud, this movie,” Williams says of reading the script. “It’s going to make a lot of noise.”
Playing on and against stereotypes, presenting a paranoid vision of racial malevolence and psychological manipulation, it’s a film that feels all the more regrettably relevant post-election.
“The day Philando Castile was killed, I said to Jordan, ‘I wish this could come out now,’ ” Williams says. “And he said, ‘Well, it’s depressing
to say this, but it will still be relevant in February.’ I remember having this kind of full-body shudder, like, Uggghhhh.”
As to what she’s doing in a horror film at all, Williams says the choice was mostly a function of her desire to challenge herself and change up the tempo after the extraordinary out-of-the-gate success of Girls.
“I love Marnie, but I don’t feel like I need to play her a million times.” As she mentioned earlier, “I wake up every morning thinking I need to be edgier.” Slightly dejected if half joking: “I read very one-note. Teacher’s pet, Goody Two-shoes. I’d hate to be annoying. Who wants to see movies with someone annoying in them? But it’s hard for me to paint myself as anything but whatever it is I come across as—which is pretty together. It’s not that I’m hiding stories about being drunk on Sunset Boulevard or something. It’s just genuinely how I’m wired, and it’s why I was right to play Marnie—because I do want to do everything right and in the best way possible. And abandoning perfectionism was a real struggle that I had to go through when I realized it’s not possible. But I’m a big note-writer, a big gift-giver. It’s how I’m wired, and it’s so boring and annoying.”
And here’s the part where the charmed writer must stand up for the charming actress and proclaim in print and for the record: Reader,
she’s not boring. Nor does she fit that beautiful imaginary tribute of so many well-meaning celebrity profiles: “normal.” Williams has led an interestingly abnormal life. To her credit, she’s not deformed by fame or self-regard. But she also doesn’t waste a lot of breath trying to pretend to be an everywoman. She eats street-cart doughnuts, but her assistant picks them up for her. “It’s relatable, right?” she jokes. “Everyone has an assistant who brings a doughnut to them in the morning?”
It’s almost time to go talk to the bank people to raise money for education. “The fact that I’m working on all these other things means that I’m not spending my spare time in a spiral of anxiety. Because ten milligrams of Lexapro is not enough to keep me sane about the amount of worry that I have about all of it. It feels much better to work tirelessly on all these other things that are kind of unsolvable and thus deeply satisfying than to just sit somewhere and think, How do I harden myself publicly? How do I make myself seem edgier when I truly lead an un-edgy life? I mean, then I got married, and now I have this dog who’s perfect. It just gets worse and worse.” The Uber SUV arrives. The driver is either not a Girls fan or too polite to say anything.
“I don’t want to be any more interesting than I am,” she continues. “I love the life that I get to live, which is one of real independence and privacy and autonomy. And I get to experience the city in a way that—if I may name-drop for a second—someone like Katy Perry, who’s a really good friend, doesn’t get to. She doesn’t get to do what we just did. That’s not a universe she can experience anymore.”
I’m struggling to imagine a universe in which Katy Perry is bummed about not having coffee with me on the Lower East Side, but I take her point. We talk about her going blonde for this story. I gently accuse her of being a traitor to her roots (pun intended).
“I think if I’d used my middle name professionally—Howell Williams—I’d have a totally different career. I’d be an indie darling. I’d be fighting with Greta Gerwig for parts,” she says. “I’d have gone blonde earlier.”
But Williams is herself, comfortably so. An energetic actress possessed, so she claims though I can’t see, of two different-size eyes (“This one is a little later to the party”), a breakout TV series almost behind her, and a promising film career ahead—and enough extracurricular interests to keep her from losing her head along the way.
The SUV crawls through rainy Manhattan traffic. She mentions that one of her life goals was to see the bonobos of the Congo up close, something she was able to do recently during a trip to Africa. Now the topic turns, somehow, to one of her focuses at Yale, anthropology, and Williams is talking to me about “Lucy, Australopithecus afarensis” and the freaky sex life of bonobos.
“Oh, God, how did we get on this topic?” she says. “This is what it’s like to live in my mind. This has been a weirdly representative tour of
my brain, which goes from prison to education to my job, then onto the great apes and anthropology.” She smiles. “We’ll see where it’s gonna go next.”
Go behind the scenes of Williams’s photo shoot: