On the cover: Newcomer Allison Williams talks about Girls, her famous family and saying no to nudity
It’s 26 minutes and 11 seconds into the third episode of HBO’s Girls. A struggling writer named Hannah Horvath, played by the show’s 26-year-old creator/star, Lena Dunham, is in her bedroom staring at a laptop. She’s just endured the most hellish month of her adult life: Her parents have stopped paying her rent, her doctor has diagnosed her with HPV and her former college boyfriend has let her know that her “handsomeness” helped him realize his attraction to men.
Instead of having a breakdown, Hannah decides to throw down. She double clicks an MP3 of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own,” jumps off her bed and swings her tattooed arms to the gunning beat. Her impeccably put-together roommate, Marnie, played by 24-year-old Allison Williams, catches Hannah’s impromptu dance party and joins in. Together in their tiny Brooklyn apartment they hair-flip the pain away, share a hug and make the tragic magic. The credits roll.
“That right there is my all-time favourite scene of the season,” Williams says, sipping a bowl of latte in a café in New York’s Chelsea district. “Lena and I cried our eyes out after we did it because it was so beautiful. That song has a deeper meaning for the four of them,” she adds, referring to the quartet of twentysomething girlfriends the series focuses on. There is Hannah—the show’s sardonic, forever-at-a-crossroads heroine—and her best friend/flawless foil, Marnie, a posh gallery assistant whose life is seemingly all worked out. Then there is Jessa, a British drifter/jetsetter who serves as the show’s girl-gone-wild, and her cousin, Shoshanna, a sheltered NYU student who is obsessed with losing her virginity. “It seems all the young female characters on the show have moments when they feel like they’re kind of unwanted by the world, so I think ‘Dancing On My Own’ is their song,” says Williams. “It is so unabashedly about being vulnerable and rejected and having the strength to keep going, to keep fighting to get noticed.”
In contrast, the show—and Williams—has had no trouble getting noticed since the series debuted on April 15. In fact, Girls is the only new HBO project that has been able to heartily feed the 24-hour news cycle; its comical, taboo-riddled scripts are laden with enough issues and tissues to keep pundits laughing, weeping and, sometimes, raging. Even VanityFair.com has three critics (Bruce Handy, Juli Weiner and Sarah Ball) debating the show’s characters as if they were a UC Berkeley women’s studies panel. Yet the show’s main hook is really the lives of these four extremely dissimilar New York gal pals. Stop yourself if you’re thinking this sounds remotely like Sex and the City. There are no Carrie Bradshaw–esque shoe-shopping expeditions, no diner brunches and no dishy relationship questions answered on a Mac Powerbook, wrapping up the message of each episode with a silk bow. Watching a scene Dunham has written is like listening in on a private conversation, which is probably why Judd Apatow—the man who produced Bridesmaids and wrote and directed Knocked Up—signed on as executive producer. “It’s not at all like most television out there,” Apatow says via phone from Los Angeles. “It’s not easy and it’s not safe. Lena is not afraid to show women—warts and all. Their beauty, their madness, their ridiculousness, their stupidity, their strength. That’s why some people get thrown by it. It is controversial because it’s really frank.”
Part of the discussion is how Marnie has become one of Girls’ most popular—and polarizing—characters. Working in a trendy art space in Manhattan, Marnie wears the chicest, most ladylike outfits of the bunch, furthering the gap between her polished, attractive life and Hannah’s often slovenly, haphazard one. Marnie is the Mary Tyler Moore to Hannah’s Rhoda.
Williams says that she, like Mary and Marnie, is a classic A-type personality. “She has this instinct of keeping everyone protected—she needs control and she needs to know that her friends are OK at all times. She’s like a sheep dog, trying to safely herd everyone around her. I was able to connect with that. On the other hand, she’s a deeply scared and insecure perfectionist, which is so not me. Marnie hasn’t yet realized that perfection isn’t a real, attainable goal.”
Christopher Abbott, who plays Marnie’s sheepish ex-boyfriend Charlie, says there is a method to Williams’ persuasive performance. “Allison filled in all the blanks,” Abbott says. “She wanted to talk out what Charlie and Marnie’s relationship would be like before hitting the set. She wanted all the answers. It was like studying for an exam sometimes!”
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