Allison Williams: Ivy League Siren
Allison Williams has become famous for starring in a show about young women flailing aimlessly through their twenties. For the Connecticut-bred, Yale-educated daughter of news anchor Brian Williams, the world of Girls couldn't be further from reality.
In October 2010, Allison Williams was putting together Ikea furniture in the kind of Santa Monica apartment where you can hear your neighbor yawn through the wall. Like endless hordes before her, she had traveled west with the intention of becoming an actress. Her professional experience was limited to 10 episodes of a super-low-budget web comedy called Sean & Meghan. In the few months since graduating from Yale, where she majored in English, she'd been sleeping on the couch at her parents' Manhattan pied-À-terre and working on small projects with friends, including a video, shot in one Scorsese-style take, in which she's dressed in an evening gown and white gloves and singing "Nature Boy" in a crystal clear voice over a live orchestral performance of the Mad Men theme. The plan was to send the video around to the Hollywood types she had met throughout her young life, hoping that it might lead to an audition or two. In the meantime she had signed up for some tutoring jobs and volunteer stints in L.A. to fill the inevitable swaths of free time. "I had, like, eight months of dinners with family friends lined up," she says.
But within a couple of weeks she was meeting with Judd Apatow about the role of Marnie, the best friend of Lena Dunham's Hannah character on what would become the acclaimed, zeitgeist-defining HBO series Girls. Williams's strategy had worked: Her Mad Men video had gone viral, and when Apatow, who is the executive producer of Girls, saw it, he thought its beautiful, pulled-together, sassy-prim star would make a perfect counterpoint to the freewheeling, eccentric Hannah. The audition seemed to go well, and afterward Williams called a family friend who has been something of a mentor, and who also happens to be the actress Rita Wilson, to recap. Wilson told Williams that no matter the outcome, the audition itself was cause for celebration--after all, even small victories can be few and far between for aspiring actresses. "So Rita and I went on a hike and ate cupcakes, which is our tradition," Williams says.
There would be lots of cupcakes with Rita ("very small ones," Wilson clarifies) over the next two years. The victories would pile up, until Williams arrived at the best one yet: this year's Golden Globes. Because her dad is Brian Williams, the anchor of NBC Nightly News, she has attended no shortage of black-tie, boldface-name-filled events in her life, but this time she was not there as "the daughter of." It was an unforgettable night. Williams walked the red carpet, looking elegant as always, in black J. Mendel. She marveled at Claire Danes's post-baby waist and tried unsuccessfully to get near enough to Ben Affleck to tell him how much she admires him. She giddily snapped photos of herself with the actor who plays Abu Nazir on Homeland, and she laughed at Amy Poehler's jokes. And then, suddenly, she was onstage next to her costar Zosia Mamet as Dunham breathlessly accepted their communal award for Best Comedy Series. And for what seemed like the first time since the world's most self-possessed 25-year-old first came into the public eye, she actually appeared flustered. "I was looking out at the audience, and I saw Daniel Day-Lewis and I was like, 'What is happening?' " she says. "Like, what crazy hijinks have I pulled off?"
A few days after that epic evening, Williams is at a Soho restaurant, cautiously eating a bowl of matzoh ball soup garnished with flecks of dill, none of which will end up in her Crest commercial smile. It is noon, and her Golden Globes gown has been replaced by Rag & Bone jeans, a Vince sweater, and a Barbour coat, but she somehow looks just as impeccable. She is quick-witted and fun in casual conversation, but she talks about her childhood and aspirations in a thoughtful, careful manner. She seems genuinely in awe of her good fortune.
"I mean, if you think about all the things that had to happen in order for this to work out!" she says. "I had to make this video, I had to release it at the right time, Judd had to go to Huffington Post or wherever he saw it that day, my agent had to have agreed to sign me back in college... It's unbelievable."
In fact, nothing is less plausible than the idea that serendipity is responsible for the rise of Allison Williams. The Connecticut native knew she wanted to be an actress by age four, and she immediately set to work. She mimicked people and characters, she tried out for plays, she took classes in the winter and went to drama camps in the summer. "My childhood was stamped with this one certainty, that I knew what I wanted to be, which I realize now was very unusual," Williams says. "Most of my friends are still figuring it out. I only knew one other kid like me; she wanted to be a singer, and in first grade we'd have sleepovers, and she dressed up like a Beatle and I dressed up like Marilyn Monroe." That friend (Laura Zax, a musician who has a band called the Nighttime Adventure Society) was Williams's roommate for the few weeks in L.A. before Williams graduated from the "aspiring" category and moved back to New York to begin filming Girls.
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