You know those people who brag about not having a television? Girls’ Allison Williams has a handy response for ’em. “I always say very dryly and very honestly, ‘You should invest in one. I’m not even saying you would necessarily like our show. But TV is so good right now.’”
Williams’ awareness of the number of great performances under consideration this Emmy season makes it all the more “exciting and unbelievable” when her name gets floated as a possible contender for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. And while she’s quick to credit Girls creator and star Lena Dunham — as well as the show’s writers, directors and hair and makeup staff — for helping her bring to life the rudderless Marnie Michaels, Williams admits that “it’s a really fun challenge to play someone who seems to have it all together and yet has this anxiety bubbling beneath the surface — an anxiety she isn’t necessarily aware of herself.”
TVLine caught up with Williams to get the blow-by-blow on some of Marnie’s most memorable Season 2 moments.
TVLINE | How did you view Marnie’s Season 2 journey overall?
It was really hard. I really feel for her. We are certainly different, but we have enough in common that I look at her and I root for her and I want the best for her. I wish for her that she had something that she was passionate about so that in moments where everything else seems to be unraveling, she could turn to those things that she really truly loves and believes in. But that seems to be another thing that she’s lacking in her life.
TVLINE | One of my favorite Marnie moments of the whole season was during Hannah’s Pad Thai party. At one point, she’s so clearly baiting her ex Charlie’s new girlfriend Audrey — “Where do you get your headbands?” — and others where she brilliantly defends herself. When Audrey says to her something like, “Oh, you’re hosting a slam poetry night or an open mic night?” and Marnie responds, “No, I’m a hostess.” Is it fun when Marnie scores these little victories, where she’s also communicating so much with Charlie just through a glance or a gesture?
I live for those tiny, tiny victories, I really do. A lot of times Marnie is holding back, because good manners demand that she not to say all those things that are going through her mind. But she assumes that Audrey is such a non-threat that she just lets those comments fly. Those are the moments where we get to see Marnie’s humanity because we know what she’s thinking. We’ve all been in that situation where you’re at a gathering and you’re trying to send dog-whistle frequency signals to someone across the table. Either they’re not receiving them on purpose or they just can’t hear them, and it’s frustrating. Marnie leaves [the party in a huff] knowing that Charlie is going to follow her to the rooftop. She’s pleased that he tries to kiss her. She’s pleased even further that she’s the one who says, “I’m seeing someone,” when she’s just been sitting at a table with the person who he’s very clearly seeing also. All of those things are victories for Marnie. Some of them are selfish and some of them are just her expression of the way that she looks at the world.
TVLINE | One of the more shocking moments of the season was when famous artist Booth Jonathan takes Marnie home from her hostessing job and locks her inside his art instillation — a tiny box with walls made of TV sets. Afterward, Marnie has sex with him. How do you approach a scene like that? As comedy? Horror? A little of both?
The scenes of her crawling into and out of the booth were shot about two months prior to the scene inside the booth — just a little fun fact. The craziest thing about that latter scene was how those old-school TV sets emit quite a bit of static and that sound is unmistakable. And of course, those images on the screens were just gross. But I’m the kind of person that has to fast forward parts of True Blood. I get easily queasy.
Anyhow, we shot Marnie’s emergence [from the box] in so many different ways. There was one where I came out and sprinted away. There was a version where he kissed me afterward. But I loved that the one they chose was where Marnie is like, “What the f***?” You know, total PTSD, and then she says, “You’re so f****** brilliant.” I don’t know if she really means that. She just knows that that’s what she’s supposed to think. She values his perspective on the world because he [verbally] takes her down, and Marnie has always had this perverse love of people like that.
TVLINE | Let’s talk about that heartbreaking scene after Booth tries to pay Marnie for hosting his party, when she thought she was his girlfriend. We see Marnie at the top of the subway steps and she’s bravely lying to Hannah that everything is perfect and happy.
I felt like that was one of the most realistic scenes that has ever existed on our show. I’ve had phone calls like that where neither of you is being honest. You can both hear it in each other’s voices, because you’ve known each other forever. But you don’t probe because there’s just too much built up and it’s just not time to get into everything.
Marnie’s pride is featured very prominently in that scene. If she were to call Hannah and say, “You were right, Booth was terrible. I want to come over and snuggle with you. I’m flailing, everything in my life is wrong,” she just wouldn’t be Marnie. She’s more about, “Keep your chin up, everything’s fine if you pretend it is.”
One of the reasons I thought that scene was so heartbreaking was that Marnie is wearing the skeleton of this [expensive] dress that she had clearly bought to try and impress Booth. She realizes how silly it is, and she’s so distraught and completely stripped away of all of her dignity. It was really, really hard to shoot that moment, and it was hard to watch once it was edited together.
TVLINE | We also have to dish the scene where Marnie goes to see her ex-boyfriend Charlie at a work party celebrating his huge success, and she grabs the mic to give the most oblivious performance of Kanye West’s “Stronger.” How did that scene come to such vivid, awkward life?
I knew I had to sing it decently, but not as if I were performing at Carnegie Hall. And what ended up in the episode was recorded live in the moment. It’s not like I recorded it in the studio and then lip-synced it on set. So it was as agonizing as you’d imagine, except I was wearing an earwig, which means I was the only person there who could hear the [music] track. All those extras who were standing there for every single take, they could only hear my voice a cappella. The looks on their faces were very organic. It looked like a crazy person just got up and started singing an a cappella version of Kanye West’s “Stronger.”
This is what Marnie thinks is a nice thing to do for Charlie. She calls his success premature and launches into this insane song. One of the writers came up with, “You can be my white Kate Moss tonight,” which is just a hilarious tweak [to the original lyric]. I don’t even know why, but it makes me laugh so hard now. “Stronger,” though, anytime I hear it now I just have this Pavlovian response: Music, blush, embarrassment.
A version of this interview first appeared in the pages of TVLine’s print sibling Awards|Line. The specialty Awards|Line editions canvass various facets of the Emmy and motion pictures awards season and include deep coverage, analysis and interviews with the leading contenders and industry players.