The Girls and Get Out Star is No Longer the Smiley Ingenue
People used to come up to Allison Williams in the street all the time, expectantly, certain they knew exactly what she would be like. They had watched her as Marnie Michaels from Girls and, because they knew the character, they felt like they really knew her. “It was a total familiarity thing. I’m Marnie’s age,” Williams says of the prim and privileged, tightly wound millennial. “So the people coming up to me were also my age. It felt like we could play the name game and we could come up with people that we knew in common. It always felt like, ‘Oh, you just went to SoulCycle and now you’re at [frozen yoghurt chain] 16 Handles and we get each other.’”
It’s only to be expected. Girls premiered in 2012 and was immediately the sort of lightning in a bottle, cultural Rosetta Stone that defined the generation it so intelligently skewered. The show, created by Lena Dunham, followed four women as they came of age in Brooklyn in messy, horrible, raw and hilarious ways. It won Emmys and Golden Globes, and Williams became “People magazine wedding announcement, stop you on the street” famous for her portrayal of Marnie. For six seasons she became inextricable from Marnie’s characteristics and more notorious moments from the series: her selfishness and naivete, the time she sang a cringey a cappella version of a Kanye West song, and the third season premiere episode, which found Marnie rebelling against her primness (and Williams against her own reputation) in a scene that showed her involved in an anal sex act with a hirsute, hippie musician.
The reasons people stop her now have shifted. They no longer stop her expecting Marnie. In fact, they might cross the street after her turn in Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning horror movie Get Out, her first non-Marnie role, in 2017. Now Williams is known as Rose Armitage, the seemingly perfect white liberal girlfriend who leads her boyfriend, played by Daniel Kaluuya, into a horror movie scenario that makes The Shining look like a fairy tale. Now people don’t see Marnie, they see another perky white woman, only this time one far more sinister. “I try not to make too much light of it, because Rose was f****** terrifying and the worst person in the world,” she says.
Today, Williams, 31, is less Rose, less Marnie even, more “regular, non-murderous woman who has just come home from a party and wants to decompress on the couch”. She greets me at the door of our cover shoot location — the largest New York penthouse apartment I’ve ever seen — with a hug, and leads me to the smallest room. She gestures to a comically large, low corduroy couch and suggests we sit there. While other people have to whale flop around to get on the couch, Williams flicks off her moccasins and glides into a sitting position, with her legs curled under her and a coffee cup balanced on the knee of her ripped jeans.
Barefoot, and reclined, her photoshoot false lashes widening her normally saucer-sized eyes to full-on dinner plates, she still exudes the same earnestness and upper-crust elegance that Marnie did, but Williams feels like she has left the character far behind. She sips her coffee, reminiscing about the show’s end in 2017. On the last day of filming, she posted “crying selfies” on Instagram. Though she admits now that they were a bit maudlin, the act demonstrated how much the show meant to her and how it had shaped her post-college life for almost a decade. When it ended, she felt slightly at sea. “I was cast in the pilot at 22 and it ended basically when I was right about to turn 30,” she says. The show defined her own transition into adulthood. “What an odd thing to try to absorb — this thing that had been a huge part of my life up until then in terms of the people and also my job, my identity, everything, is just not coming back,” she explains.
After Girls, Williams gave herself time to settle into her life in New York, with her husband, Ricky Van Veen, the co-founder of the comedy website College Humor, and their wide group of friends from college and the cast and crew of Girls — she’s still close with Dunham, and recently joked in an interview that she would love to do a Girls movie. She married Van Veen in 2015, at a ceremony in Wyoming that was officiated by Tom Hanks, a family friend. She describes their life as normal. Sundays are spent either in the country hanging out — husband, family, dog — or in New York; spending time with friends, who, she jokes, “have babies that are starting to infiltrate the barbecues”.
She has this new party trick of looking the husbands of her expectant friends in the eye and demanding they take paternity leave — not just let their wives take maternity leave. “I’ll say, ‘You must take time off. For feminism, it’s very important that you take time off.’ Because male actors are never asked, ‘How do you do it all? When are you going to have a baby? Are you ready?’ People don’t assume it’s part of their decision matrix.” She eventually does want kids, she says. “It’s a privilege to be able to have them.”
Williams grew up in the upper-crust prep schools and drama camps of New Canaan, Connecticut, a haven of manicured lawns that in 2008 had the highest median family income of any community in Connecticut. Her parents, the TV producer and radio host Jane Stoddard and longtime NBC newsman Brian Williams, introduced her to red carpets and celebrities early on. Before she was allowed to act professionally, she struck a deal with them that she would attend college, so she went to Yale University and was part of St Elmo, an invitation-only secret society (a big Yale tradition for the wealthy).
Williams graduated straight into her first acting gig on Girls, which made good use of her natural breeding, the fact that she had the bone structure and swishy hair of a Ralph Lauren model and the sparkling, toothy smile of America’s incumbent sweetheart, Julia Roberts. I ask Williams if she has always been this aware of her fortune. “Pretty much since I was born,” she says. “I think I grew up in a house where that was a constant topic of conversation, a thing that my family wanted me to be aware of. Not that simply, but also just that I grew up in a really fortunate situation and how lucky I was. And if I was born into those kind of circumstances, then who wasn’t? Who doesn’t have access to that?”
She then slips into a story she has told before, because of the impact it made, her voice taking on the cadence of a musical theatre student rehearsing a monologue. She tells a tale about a class trip she went on when she was younger, through the landmarks of the civil rights movement in the south. One stop she remembers was this little town called Glendora, Mississippi. “I’ll never forget. It was one of the poorest places I’d ever been in. I’ve since been to some of the poorest places on earth. It just shocks you. It’s in our country. This country that has so much wealth. I’m sitting in this town picturing my home town in Connecticut, where there’s just… I mean, it’s unimaginable. Just trying to absorb that and think.” She’s wound up now, shifting to a sitting position. “You got me on a topic that I’m very happy to talk about,” she says.
During Girls, she used to be sent scripts that only focused on the swishy hair and Roberts smile, which she declined, waiting for the right role to come along. Get Out was such a huge phenomenon (beyond the critical and Oscar success, it grossed more than $255m at the box office worldwide against a production budget of $4.5m), Peele’s wholly original horror vision reshaped what the genre could do, what a movie about race could look like and, for Williams, the role totally rewrote what her career could be. No longer was she the smiley ingenue, but something slightly more complicated. Now she receives the weirdest scripts for characters who “mask their motivation” and she’s revelling in the prospect of defying expectations and turning her own portrait of white privilege on its head.
Her latest role, as Charlotte in the Netflix film The Perfection, is no different. There’s a meat cleaver, and a lot of screaming, and suspenseful music, and, yes, Williams seemingly going full-murderer again. “I expect that when people sit down to watch The Perfection, they immediately won’t trust me, or trust a word I say, or want me to go on a solo trip with a black girl,” she laughs. “One of these days, I’ll have to just do a straightforward here’s-the-plot-of-the-movie movie,” she says. “[But] this is a moment where so many people’s voices are being added to the creative conversation in a way that I love so much. And for someone like a white girl from Connecticut, who comes from the world that I come from, my participation in my business can,” she pauses, “should be, I think, much more thoughtful than it always has been.”
While on Girls, Williams was part of a representation controversy that has affected how she sees her career, and determines how she’ll make choices in the future. In 2012, critics and viewers pointed out how few characters of colour appeared on the show. Williams won’t be drawn on that specifically today, but does give some insight into the topic in general. “I think the danger happens when you don’t have a variety of points of view in your decision- making process,” she says. “I think that’s when I’m constantly thinking, ‘Do they not have any blank friends?’ ” she says, leaving the fill-in-the-non-white-non-cis blank to me. “ ‘Do they not consume any media by people who aren’t like them? How did no one tell them this was a bad idea?’ And it’s usually not from a place of malice, it’s just from a place of not knowing better.” She pauses again. “I’ll never know best, but I’m trying to do right by the business I’m in,” she says. “I want to be caught trying to know better.”