There’s a case to be made for Alison Brie being one of the most influential television stars in Hollywood over the last decade-and-half. From the complex evolution of Trudy Campbell in Mad Men, to the comedic delights of Annie Edison in Community, to the epic highs of wrestler Ruth Wilder/ Zoya in GLOW, Alison’s characters have been special in more ways than one.
However, the American actor, who was first known for her off-beat characters in rom-coms like Sleeping with Other People and How to Be Single, truly became a global star when she joined the cast of Bojack Horseman in 2014, the animated dark comedy that would go to become one of the greatest television shows of all time. Voice-starring as Vietnamese-American feminist writer Diane Nguyen on the show, Alison was instrumental in bringing several themes such as depression, sexism, racism and sexuality into the forefront of mainstream consciousness through her character, as the series garnered international attention and numerous awards during its run until 2020.
She also lent her voice to other animated projects such as Lego Movie 2 and the English version of Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You, even as her critically-acclaimed turn in the Netflix comedy-drama series GLOW saw Alison enter a new phase in her career, focusing on more experimental projects.
That led to the psychological drama Horse Girl and comedy-thriller Spin Me Round, both films on which she served as writer too; Alison the fledgling filmmaker had also arrived.
Next up, she headlines (and co-writes) the rom-com Somebody I Used To Know, directed by her husband, actor-filmmaker Dave Franco, which also stars the likes of Jay Ellis, Kiersey Clemons and Danny Pudi among others. Alison essays the lead role of Ally, a frustrated TV producer who runs into an ex-boyfriend during a trip back to her hometown; the meet-cute leaves her wondering about her choices in life and if she’s really happy... but is the ex also hiding something?
Over a conversation on Zoom, Alison looks resplendent, and is every bit as warm and funny as her previous media appearances have made us believe, quipping that Somebody I Used… will be a nostalgic, feel-good breath of fresh air. Excerpts from an exclusive interview:
There have been many fantastic movies in this niche genre; of someone going back home, experiencing that nostalgia of growing up all over again, and meeting a special person. ‘Garden State,’ ‘Young Adult,’ ‘Elizabethtown’, to name a few... was this feature inspired from visiting home at some point, or well, running into somebody you used to know?
(laughs) It was a little bit of everything. Part of the inspiration was, just wanting to make this movie that feels nostalgic — like all the different titles you listed — the comfort watch, the rom-com, the adult coming-of-age story… those are the movies that I find myself going back to, to watch over and over again when I’m in a funk.
Dave and I really wanted to make something hopeful and optimistic to put out in the world. At the same time, there are a couple of different themes that we’re exploring; I was thinking a lot about this idea of the one that got away. When I was in my 20s, long before I met Dave, I was in a lot of on-again off-again relationships; we’d break up, we’d get back together, and so on. I was just fascinated by this idea of how, after you break up with someone, you might have this sort of ‘relationship amnesia,’ you know?
There are all these reasons that you broke up, but then the second that you start to miss that person or feel lonely, you want to get right back together with them and forget all the bad stuff. So we wanted to play a bit with that aspect of it. And then also, going back to your home after a while; we came up with the idea when we were actually in Dave’s hometown in Northern California. When you see people from your past, it kind of makes you think about your own life and kind of assess where you’re at… and if you’re happy with where you are.
Your husband Dave Franco directs you for the second time now after horror feature ‘The Rental’. How has he evolved and progressed as a filmmaker?
I love Dave’s confidence and self-assuredness. His direction in The Rental was so confident; he really did come in knowing exactly how he wanted that movie to look and feel. The finished product showed so much restraint on his part and was built in a very nuanced way.
This movie is kind of the same; it’s very character-driven and grounded. . I trust Dave more than anyone, and it was great to see him come back for a second time and see how mindful he is about vetting the crew and all the people involved in the production.
You also co-wrote this film with Dave; what are the pros and cons of making a film together with your husband?
I think the best thing is just getting to be together more. As actors, we spent a lot of time apart, early in our relationship, when we were shooting stuff in different cities. So now it’s great to work on something top to bottom, just be together through it all and have that emotional support system. Exploring this different side of each other creatively is really fun.
The only downside is that sometimes it’s hard to set boundaries in the household; we try to set time aside for writing, and then time for just hanging out. But ever so often, those lines blur, and then we have to take a break and watch an episode of Seinfeld. (smiles)
Danny Pudi’s also part of the cast, and ‘Community’ fans are absolutely ecstatic at this unexpected reunion of Annie and Abed (their characters from the hit comedy). How was it to work with him again, and is your infectious banter still intact?
We wrote this role for Danny and then begged him to do it. We hadn’t been on set together since Community, but Danny and I have stayed close friends over the years. The whole cast is still pretty close — Danny and I especially so — and we just fell right back into it. It was like we hadn’t skipped a beat, and as if we had been walking off the sets of Community onto the sets of Somebody I Used To Know; our banter is exactly the same!
Dave let us riff and have some fun with it, and a lot of that makes it into the movie, and it’s nice because we want the narrative to feel lived-in. We want people to connect with the characters, their inside jokes and their world. The natural chemistry that Danny and I have just comes from a history of being really close friends.
Your work on television over the years has consistently resonated with audiences. But I’ve got to ask you about playing Diane Nguyen on ‘Bojack Horseman’; a role (and show) that has been acclaimed globally for its depiction of mental health. You followed that up with the underrated drama ‘Horse Girl,’ in which your character Sarah battles mental illness as well. Can you talk about these roles, and is there a bit of Alison in them?
Thank you so much for saying that, by the way; this means so much to me.
Horse Girl as a project was so near and dear to me — it’s the first film that I co-wrote with Jeff Baena. Mental health as a topic really interests me; I have a familial history with mental illness, so I have sort of this fascination with it and my own fears pertaining to it. I guess, with every character I play — and Sarah and Diane specifically — I always need to find a way to connect with them, even if the character is very different from myself.
Some of the struggles that those characters are both having are certainly things that I’ve been through myself. I love that, today versus even when I was a teenager, people are much more openly talking about their mental health struggles.
When we look at the difference between a character like Diane on Bojack Horseman and Sarah on Horse Girl, Sarah is a character who had no support system at all and nobody to talk to about what she was going through. That leads her down a really dark path. Meanwhile, Diane really seeks help, is open about what she’s going through, and that has a really positive effect on her life. So I love exploring themes like that, and I hope that people can connect to it and take something from it.
You have also dabbled in direction a little bit, helming episodes of ‘GLOW’ and ‘Marvel’s 616’. Can we see you direct a full-length feature or television show at some point?
Definitely! I would love to direct more on TV for now… I feel like TV is my home; it’s so cozy as I’ve worked in television for so long. I know what a massive time commitment it is compared to acting, or even writing and producing. But it’s interesting that I’ve co-written three films that were all directed by the co-writer and I’ve gotten to be very involved with the making of those films. Sometimes I’m relieved that I’m not directing the project, and other times, I think, oh, I’m so close to doing it! I want to take that next step soon, and it’s just about finding the right opportunity.
Somebody I Used to Know premieres February 10 on Amazon Prime Video