By Murat Oztaskin | Photography by Diego Uchitel | February 2, 2018 | People
Owning her body, her range, and thus her career, Alison Brie has Hollywood in a headlock.
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"I’m sorry, I’m calling a couple minutes early.” Sitting in her parked car outside a West Hollywood gym, Alison Brie is conspicuously energetic for having just finished her last training session before GLOW—Netflix’s hugely popular, hairspray-heavy portrayal of women’s wrestling in 1980s L.A.— begins shooting its second season, which is due out this summer. “It’s a fun tactic I use to throw journalists off their game.”
“Does it work every time?” I ask. “Every time,” she says.
It’s the kind of endearing good humor for which the actress has cultivated a reputation. From her early roles as bubbly Annie Edison on NBC’s Community and the perfectly polished Trudy Campbell on AMC’s Mad Men to late-night talk show appearances where she would freestyle rap (surprisingly well) and laugh about her clothing-optional college (more on that later), Brie’s public persona has largely exuded a slightly spicy goody-two-shoes kind of image. While she’s played it up, she also knows it came to typecast her as that generically “type-A, funny, pretty, straight-man girlfriend” sort of character. So, after Mad Men and Community both aired their finales within a couple of weeks of each other in late spring 2015, Brie waited patiently to get back into TV. “I wanted to look totally different on the next thing I did,” she says.
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She didn’t pass her small-screen hiatus idly, instead completing several film projects, including 2015’s Sleeping With Other People, opposite Jason Sudeikis, and 2017’s The Little Hours, which sent Catholic groups into a rage at its promiscuous depiction of horny medieval nuns. But then GLOWcame along, and with it a chance to challenge her popular image. The series, which aired its first 10 episodes in June 2017, imagines the making of a real-life cable TV show called Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, or GLOW for short. Its ’80s mix of grit and glitter, female-led cast and production, and preliminary script had Brie hooked. Only one problem: “They didn’t want me,” she says, referring to the producing team that was after “someone more unknown” for the lead role of Ruth, a down-and-out young actress in 1985 Hollywood who impulsively answers an ad for women wrestlers in order to keep her artistic dreams alive.
That left Brie, who had spent the entire pilot season turning down ready-made offers, going in to audition alongside hundreds of others. She won out through perseverance. “I just beat them down. They tried to make me jump through hoops, and I was happy to jump through those hoops. Give me more hoops!” Eventually, the producers realized they had their star. “They said, ‘You were becoming the character the more you were coming in, the more you were determined to get it.’”
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GLOW also gave Brie an opportunity to flex her muscles—literally. “In my adolescence, I didn’t have an athletic bone in my body, but the last six years, I have been working with a personal trainer,” she says. “I felt that was a side of me that seemed unexpected to the outside world.” Inspired by her friend Emily Blunt’s physical transformation ahead of her role in 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, Brie says she “set a private goal” to book an action movie. “But what if I have to change my body so I look the way they want me to look?” she wondered.
But with GLOW, “our producers didn’t want us to change our bodies at all. They said, ‘We want all shapes and sizes of women to be represented on this show. We love you the way you are.’” That put an onus on training not for body image but strength-building for the show’s acrobatics, “which was incredibly empowering,” says Brie. The athleticism translated to the set in other ways as well. “People would finish scenes where there was no wrestling, just dialogue, and the girls would applaud, pat each other on the back. It’s a really loving, encouraging environment, and that has made it easier for everyone to put themselves in vulnerable positions physically and emotionally.”
Brie grew up in South Pasadena, Calif., the youngest of two daughters to an education administrator mother and a singersongwriter- turned-entertainment journalist father. Despite it being a quiet L.A. suburb, studios shot many movies in South Pasadena “because it looks like Any Town, USA,” Brie says. “I was always excited to pass a production on the street or to drive by the house where they shot Old School or to know that I could watch the original Halloween and see my [high school] locker.” But it wasn’t the area’s Hollywood effect so much as a naturally performative disposition that set Brie’s eye to acting. “I was such an annoying little performer from the time I was a small child,” she admits. “But it just sort of demands creativity, I think, being [in] a small town.”
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Her parents supported that creativity by putting Brie into classes at the Pasadena Playhouse while she was still in elementary school, as well as summer theater programs at the Jewish Community Center in L.A. At South Pasadena High School, an unusually strict drama teacher helped solidify the budding actress’ vision. “By the time I was 15, I [knew] this [was] what I [wanted to] do for a living,” she recalls. “This was my passion.” She continued honing her talent at California Institute of the Arts, a prestigious private conservatory some 25 miles north of Hollywood. “I feel like I have done CalArts an injustice by talking a lot about nudity at the school and [saying] that it was hippy-dippy,” she says. “But actually, it’s an amazing conservatory for all different types of artists. And very strict—there was no kidding around when it came to the work we were doing in our métier.”
Some six months after graduating, Brie started landing gigs, scoring an episode of then-red-hot Hannah Montana, as well as the lead in “a terrible B-horror movie called Born. I had a crazy fake stomach on because my character was impregnated with a demon fetus.” Everything changed shortly afterward: While performing in a 2007 production of Hamlet at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre, she was booked for an episode of Mad Men. “And the rest is history,” she snarls, with a mock-menacing laugh.
It’s that drive that landed her in GLOW as well as her latest film, The Post, Steven Spielberg’s look inside The Washington Post’s role in uncovering Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, which hit theaters the Friday before Christmas. “I found it so relevant to today,” she says. “I think it’s really important that a movie like this gets made now, to remind people of our country’s history and why it’s important to have a free press.” It also gave her a chance to work with an all-star cast, including Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, one of Brie’s idols. “There are so many points in my life where I’ve [thought]: Now I’m living the dream,” she says. “And then you’re standing there, in the middle of a set, taking direction from Steven Spielberg, in a scene with Meryl Streep… No, now I’m living the dream. Talk about setting the bar high,” she adds, laughing. “I guess I’ll never do another movie ever again.”
But Brie knows it’s one more rung on a ladder that reaches higher still. She also knows her professional success is simply part of a larger contentment. “Being in my mid-30s, I’m feeling satisfied in life,” she says. “I got married earlier this year [to her Little Hours co-star and longtime boyfriend Dave Franco]. I think there are a lot of [areas] where I figured out what I want. I know who I am,” she adds, “and I’m proud of it.” Hollywood’s finally starting to find out.
Photography by Diego Uchitel