Allison Williams breezes into Café Grumpy on West 20th Street in New York, the Chelsea incarnation of the coffee shop where her character, Marnie Michaels, and creator Lena Dunham’s Hannah occasionally work on Girls. It’s a chilly March afternoon, just prior to the third season finale of Girls, and despite the fact that the place is full of twentysomethings who look like the neurotically flailing Marnie, no one seems to recognize the 25-year-old actress, who is currently clad in workout gear. Which is just fine, as fans of Dunham’s critically acclaimed comedy tend to hate on Williams’ character.
“I got Marnie on BuzzFeed’s ‘Which Girls Character Are You?’ quiz, and so did Lena [Dunham],” Williams says, almost conspiratorially, as she sips a cappuccino. “I love that Lena got it the most because I’ve always suspected she was more like Marnie than she wanted to admit, and this kind of sealed it.”
Although, Williams implicitly understands why Dunham — or many of the show’s fans — would pause at being compared to a character best described as an insecure passive-aggressive narcissist. “Marnie would drive me crazy if we were friends in real life,” she says, matter-of-factly. “But I have to put that out of my head in order to play her. Like, sleeping with Elijah (Andrew Rannells) is crazy, sleeping with Ray (Alex Karpovsky) is crazy, furiously hitting on Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) when he mentions his girlfriend in their first conversation is crazy; but I have to be on the couch with her and Elijah hoping they fuck, I have to be in that apartment with Ray kinda wanting it to happen, and I have to support her quest for Desi.”
But there has been one choice Marnie’s made over the course of Girls’ three turbulent seasons that Williams truly struggled to understand. And that was sleeping with conceptual artist Booth Jonathan (Jorma Taccone) in Season 2. “I was fighting that the whole time as Allison,” she says, with a sigh. “I did not want her to go down that road. I thought Marnie was better than that, but she wasn’t, so I had to be OK with it too. I had to believe Booth was a genius when I walked out of that TV tower, whereas I, as Allison, couldn’t stop thinking, It puts the lotion on its skin.”
Pop culture references (like that Silence of the Lambs quote) are par for the course with Williams, a self-professed entertainment nerd, who — over the course of a 90-minute-long interview — vows to audition for the role of Anna if Disney’s Frozen truly does make it to Broadway, dissects her obsession with audiobooks (she’s currently listening to Middlesex), and gushes over a dozen shows (Scandal, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, True Detective, House of Cards, Nashville, The Following, The Mindy Project, Downton Abbey, Mad Men) in a matter of minutes. “I think I watch so much TV now because I wasn’t allowed to watch any as a child,” she says of her Connecticut upbringing.
Born in 1988 to Bloomberg Radio producer/host Jane Gillian Stoddard and NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, public television was the only kind young Williams was allowed to consume. And that was a blessing in disguise as she recalled a childhood spent communing with the environment instead of being glued to the television, watching Captain Planet. Williams was a self-described “weird nature kid,” whose weekends were spent “picking up poop and trying to figure out what animal it came from based on what was in it.”
And while she happily adhered to her parents’ rules, like any child, Williams eventually found admittedly small ways to rebel as her 13th birthday approached. “One time, my babysitter was watching the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue special and I saw the whole thing from in between the hinges of a door,” Williams recollects, half-whispering as if her parents could retroactively admonish her. “I remember seeing women in bikinis and thinking, basically, This is porn.”
Williams readily acknowledges the irony: One decade after mistaking that swimsuit special for porn, the girl who wasn’t allowed to watch TV is starring in one of the most frank series about female sexuality to ever exist. But unlike critics who’ve attacked Girls’ nudity quotient, Williams steadfastly believes every inch of flesh is earned in the pursuit of portraying the Girls characters’ truths.
And she is flummoxed that she and the rest of the cast and crew are still, in Season 3, fielding questions about their bare bodies. At The Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in January 2014, Girls executive producer Judd Apatow and reporter Tim Molloy shared a very public war of words after Molloy directed the following question at Dunham:
I don’t get the purpose of all of the nudity on the show, by you particularly, and I feel like I’m walking into a trap where you go, Nobody complains about the nudity on Game of Thrones, but I get why they are doing it. They are doing it to be salacious and, you know, titillate people. And your character is often naked just at random times for no reason.
“That was a really strange experience,” Williams says. “The thing is, we were there to answer questions and any question is fair game. But it just felt like a lazy question, and he worded it to be deliberately provocative. We’re trained to deal with the nudity question, so my only regret is that Lena didn’t get the chance to properly answer it because she has a very eloquent response.”
(Dunham’s response at the time was uncharacteristically antagonistic, rather than cerebral: “It’s because it’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive, I think, and I totally get it. If you are not into me, that’s your problem, and you are going to have to kind of work that out with whatever professionals you’ve hired.”)
In the aftermath of the altercation, there were dozens of meaningful think pieces about misogyny in the media, a debate that raged on, independent of Girls or its stars.
“I’m incredibly proud of the show because it actually has something to say and for good or for bad, you saw it in that moment,” Williams adds. “I would absolutely be OK with Girls serving as a time capsule for this current generation. I feel contained in it and I feel my friends are contained in it; I have been out to so many dinners where there have been so many conversations that are basically transcripts of our show. It’s meaningful that Girls is able to be successful in that way.”
The divisiveness of that TCA controversy, and the ensuing coverage, also perfectly represented the two enduring schools of thought when it comes to Girls:
One: It’s a boundary-annihilating piece of pop culture that’s so significant we’ll be talking about for decades.
Two: It’s a tacky excuse for titillation starring a host of entitled actors that play utterly unlikable characters who do nothing but take their clothes off.
Williams herself falls into the first camp, but she’s also incredibly understanding of the show’s detractors. “I think it’s a hard show for some people to figure out because they don’t know what character to root for at any given moment,” she says, tucking a loose strand of hair back under her Yankees cap. “But that’s the current era of television. Look at the cast of House of Cards. Who is good on that show? No one. None of them … well, besides Cashew. But I can appreciate people feeling that way. I have always been aware that Marnie is divisive, and I feel like we leaned into that this season. I mean, Marnie is probably the closest I will ever come to playing a villain without actually killing someone.”
Turning into the skid with Marnie’s less alluring moments (from refusing tacos to making embarrassing YouTube music videos) resulted in the character’s most compelling arc to date. But Marnie’s seemingly endless emotional upheaval took a toll on Williams. “I completely fell apart at the end of the season,” she reveals. “Filming all of those scenes where Marnie is being made fun of but doesn’t know was painful. For example, during the dinner scene in ‘Beach House,’ I actually started to cry when everyone was making fun of my duck and couldn’t figure out if I was crying as Marnie or crying as Allison.”
She continues, “As an actor, you have to wholeheartedly be in you character’s corner and I’ve been in her corner for four years now. In this weird schizophrenic sense, it’s painful to watch someone go through such hard stuff because I feel for her. There’s a confrontation scene in the finale that was so hard to endure because Marnie just sits there and she takes it. On the last take, I asked Lena if we could do a version where Marnie fights back. I knew we would never use it, but Lena indulged me, which was so great because after an entire summer of being hurt through her, I needed to stand up for her.”
With the Season 3 exhaustion now long behind her, Williams is looking forward to stepping back into Marnie’s shoes (Season 4 begins filming later this year) — but she’s also looking to expand her résumé. To that end, she’s begun to look for film projects to shoot in between seasons of Girls, but has yet to hone in on one, partly because she’s been mildly disappointed by her options. “I’ve been sent a ton of scripts, which I’m so grateful for, but every one of them is basically another version of Marnie,” Williams says.
Her frustrations, while legitimate, are not uncommon in Hollywood, where everyone fights to be seen as more than a one-trick pony. “Actors are like Swiss Army knives — we’re ready to use any lever at any moment. But I learned long ago that, unfortunately, this industry only sees the one thing sticking out that they know us from and that’s the only thing they can imagine,” she says. “The idea of putting Marnie away and pulling out someone, like a recovering meth addict, is impossible for them to visualize. The fact people don’t believe I can be another person literally means they don’t believe that I’m acting [on Girls], which is bananas.”
Bananas, sure. But, at the same time, Williams grasps why it happens. “Because we’re all playing girls who are so grounded in reality, there’s a 50/50 chance whether fans will call me Allison or Marnie if they approach me on the street,” she notes. “When they call me Marnie, it means the writers, the actors, and everyone involved with our show has made it genuinely possible for people to believe they could be bumping into Marnie on the 4 train. It’s an odd compliment. But it is a compliment whether they know it or not.”
Though Williams is steadfast in her convictions, she readily seeks to understand the opposition; whether it’s people who hate her character, people who dismiss her show, or people who underestimate her talents. That boundless optimism can be chalked up to a lesson she learned long ago: Never define yourself with the opinions of others. (It’s one of the reasons Williams simply can’t be on Twitter.) And the only thing more apparent than her assuredness is her authenticity. So when Williams — without a trace of irony — says things like, “I honestly and truly feel like the luckiest girl in the world,” and a blindingly bright smile crosses her face, it is impossible to see even the slightest hint of Marnie’s narcissism or her negativity. And, unlike Marnie, Williams is content: happy to stay the course with her television career. She isn’t rushing to be in the movies because of some ill-gotten notion that it’s what she ought to be doing. “When the right thing comes along,” says Williams, “I’ll jump in.”