Actress Allison Williams sat down with Josh Horowitz and “Happy Sad Confused” to discuss her new Jordan Peele–directed horror satire Get Out, her bittersweet feelings about the end of Girls, and how she wanted the role of Belle in Beauty and the Beast.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
I love your movie, Jordan’s movie.
Allison Williams: Thank you.
Get Out is his directing debut, it is your feature-film debut, it is a thriller, there is comedy in there. I wouldn’t call it a comedy but it has —
Williams: It’s right when you need it. It comes up right when you really need a release.
I remember when I talked to [Peele] for Keanu, he was in the middle of production, and part of the thing he wanted to do, and [what] I think gets under a lot of people’s skin about horror movies or thrillers, is that you never see somebody act how a human being would actually act.
Williams: One hundred percent. They never do what you’re yelling at them on the screen to do.
Yes, and in this movie, there is that. You get to see some people actually act like human beings.
Williams: Yeah, and I would say there’s actually only one moment [when] Chris, the protagonist, does something that the audience [disapproved of], because I saw it again last night with an audience, which is, like, quickly becoming one of my favorite things to do.
You’re addicted, give me more!
Williams: Well, no, because it’s a really interactive experience, and it’s amazingly predictive. Or predictable. So people, I could mouth along with the audience in anticipation of what they’re going to say, because people react identically every time and it’s really remarkable. Because that’s all Jordan. He knew exactly what he wanted out of the audience at any given moment, and that’s how he directed us. By saying, like, "We need the audience to feel this way in this moment." And us being like, "OK, cool, I can help execute that. "
But I think there’s only one moment where people were just yelling at the screen, other than just randomly throughout the movie, telling him to get out. Everyone was just yelling like, “Get out, dude! Leave!” People figure out where the title of the movie comes from immediately.
When they screen Girls in front of big audiences, like the premieres for each season, do people react in the audience as well?
Williams: Huge. But there’s so much in-humor. Like, I remember in the first episode back this season, and there’s a bunch of Paul Krugman jokes. That’s really niche, but for a New York Girls premiere, that went over huge.
“Is that a Thomas Friedman cameo? Amazing!”
Williams: Exactly, exactly. But it played really well. Again, that’s a very skewed [example]. But then I saw it again two nights later with a group of girlfriends, we watched it together, and it also went over really big with that group. But I was also there.
I don’t think I know what it’s like objectively, but for Get Out, I sneak into the theater when it’s already dark. If they see anything, they see, like, a flash of blonde hair, but they’re looking up at the screen at a brunette, so they don’t even make that association. I sat next to this couple that had no idea I was sitting there. They were just living the movie.
Were you just whispering in their ear, popping up from behind?
Williams: Like seeming like a prophet, like I knew what was coming? No, I just sat and enjoyed it. It’s really fun to watch people watch it the first time.
One of the last times we chatted, you came in and did a fun sketch with me and Will Forte. And I remember you told me off-camera [that] you were really excited. You were like, “I think I can tell you this ...”
Williams: Yeah, you weren’t allowed to say anything about it, but I took the risk and I told you about it.
You could trust me. And you had just gotten this role, so I mean, I can imagine why you were excited. I can imagine Jordan is borderline genius, if not a genius.
Williams: I fully think, like, after reading the script, reading his revisions, shooting the movie, watching the edits, and then now watching him promote it, there’s no doubt in my mind. I mean, I came to that conclusion, like, a year ago, but it’s just been becoming more and more solidified as time’s gone on.
So give me a sense of how this one came about. Did he approach you directly about the project?
Williams: We’re both CAA clients. He went through my agents, but it was very flattering. He was basically like, “I can’t really see anyone other than you in this role, I just want you to read this and we’ll talk about it afterward.” And so I read it, and the disclaimer came from my agents that it wasn’t a comedy, but they didn’t really know quite how to describe it. And at this point no one else was involved, other than Shawn, who’s one of the producers. There wasn’t Blumhouse, there wasn’t Universal, there were no other cast members. It was just Jordan and Shawn.
I read it and immediately loved it and felt desperately like I needed to do it. Which, the aligned situation of someone wanting me to be in something and me also wanting to be in it hadn’t happened yet in my career, in six years of doing Girls and reading scripts and thinking about doing movies. So it was really exciting, and I talked to him, and in the process of talking to him, I became more and more confident that it truly didn’t matter that this was the first thing he was directing, because he just knew what he was doing.
In your conversations, did you talk about the fact that it operates on a number of levels? It works simply as a thriller, but also it’s a good conversation starter. It’s about racial politics, and you could just make a meal of the film in that way.
Williams: A lot of different things. And that was the first time I realized how interesting and fun and just informative the process of making the movie was gonna be from that conversation. Because we so quickly and easily started just talking about race more generally, and that just ends up happening. Daniel [Kaluuya] and I, even just promoting the movie, find ourselves talking about all of it. And it’s not something that a lot of people have been conversing about.
One of the great things that Jordan did with this movie is that he’s giving people a way to talk about race that’s kind of unavoidable but also not as difficult as it otherwise is. Because, as he says, the way we talk about race is kind of broken. So why not put it in this context and see if that works?
For me, it was a multitude of things that made me drawn to this. I loved Rose, I loved the person that I was gonna be playing. I loved her relationship with Chris, and just watching it shift from an urban setting where diversity is just sort of given, to a suburban area, where suddenly she’s seeing her family through her boyfriend’s eyes, rather than the other way around.
And so that became kind of one of the things that I was really obsessed with. But also I read it, like, four or five times before I saw everything. So then I became obsessed with how layered it was.
Yeah, I’m excited to see it a second time.
Williams: Oh my gosh, when you see it a second time it’s a completely different movie.
And we’re tiptoeing around a few things here.
Williams: I know, I know! Welcome to the process of promoting this movie, it’s so hard.
And, without ruining anything, I think for a number of the actors, including yourself, there are ways to play these roles … there are different levels to these performances.
And that must be both challenging and exciting for you, as an actor.
Williams: Definitely, and as the stakes change. Also keep in mind this was my first movie. My first situation where I was introducing a character, not over the course of six years or three hours, where I was the protagonist and it’s a character everyone already knows, like Peter Pan.
So with Girls, Marnie was a slow burn, she shifted over time. With Get Out, I was suddenly faced with the pressure that, like, I need an audience to know Rose deeply within 15 minutes, within a couple scenes. And that’s not something I’ve ever done before. I worked really hard to prepare prior to going, because I had never done this. I wanted to be really ready because I didn’t know what to expect on this end of it. I’d been a PA on a movie, I’d been an assistant on a movie, but I’d never been in a movie.
You’ve obviously spent thousands of hours on the set of Girls, which, [like] every TV show, especially one that gets the run for a number of years, settles into a groove and has its particular way it works. Was there something specific about the way Lena [Dunham] and Jenni [Konner] ran that set that’s not necessarily the norm on other sets?
Williams: I need more data. Still. Because, here’s the thing. I’ve been so lucky, and this is partially why I didn’t want to just do a movie to rip the Band-Aid off, because I’m really protective of how perfectly the idea of what I do is framed in my mind.
You know it’s not gonna be 100 percent, you’re not only gonna do amazing films. There’s gonna be one dud at some point.
Williams: Of course I know that, but it felt really important to me that the first one be a good experience. More than anything else, if the movie itself wasn’t great, that’d be a bummer, but that’s OK. The experience itself really mattered to me, because the experiences I’ve had on set — I was a production assistant on Robert Altman's last movie, A Prarie Home Companion; I was Tina Fey’s second assistant the summer she was shooting both Baby Mama and 30 Rock; I was the utility stand-in on the pilot of Boardwalk Empire, directed by a young, up-and-coming Martin Scorsese. Then I was on Girls, and I did a couple episodes of my friends’ TV shows, which were super fun. And then I did Peter Pan, and then I did this movie. And each of those experiences were unreal, and the set feelings were really positive. And I’ve been so protective of that.
And then Get Out comes along, and it’s really risky in a lot of ways. We’re going to Fairhope, Alabama. I move myself, my assistant, and my dog, and we get a house. And I just move my life down south. And it was phenomenal, I just didn’t want it to end.
I told my agents, if something comes in that seems too weird for any of your clients, just send it to me. Because selfishly, I just like to keep myself guessing. I feel like I’ve done Marnie. I did kind of what I think is the best version of her, the one written by Lena Dunham and the Girls writers, so I don’t feel the need to play someone in her realm again for a while.
How many things [have you] gone up for that you really wanted that for whatever reason just didn’t work out?
Williams: The thing that comes to mind most quickly did not even come to me. It didn’t even come my way because it had already been taken by someone. But it’s Belle [from Beauty and the Beast].
Williams: I’m just getting to a point where I can watch the whole trailer, because — no, don’t laugh! Belle is on my retainer. There are Belle flowers on my iPhone. These come from a Belle sticker pack. It’s fine.
[Joking] Why are there tears coming down your face? What’s happening?
Williams: No, no, no, it’s like ... I feel like I am who I am because of her, but maybe that’s too much.
Williams: She was a bookworm, and that allowed me to feel like reading was cool when I was little, aside from a couple of bruises here and there from trying to read and walk at the same time, which Belle can do because she’s animated, and I couldn’t do because I was bipedal and just dealing with gravity. Still am, by the way, bipedal. Not quadruped just yet.
So when I heard that the movie was being made, I heard at the same time, either because I was late to the news or whatever, that Emma was playing [Belle]. And I had this thought that if anyone has to play Belle, it’s gotta be her. You know? She feels like Belle to me.
Where are you in the grieving process at the end of your day job? How are you doing?
Williams: I’m still in a place where I’m on a group chat with the girls and we just kind of say, “I love you” every once in awhile, in a way that feels like we just broke up, but we’re trying to stay on good terms. It feels really weird.
Well, when did you stop shooting?
Williams: That’s the thing, we shot until around September? And then it’s just been a normal yearly cycle, and so now we’re promoting it, and that’s —
So it’s gonna get weird when it’s time to go back.
Williams: It’ll get weird when it’s time to go back. Like a migrating bird that my body is like, OK, time to go to Silvercup [Studios]. I may just find myself at Silvercup for a table read that doesn’t happen.
Oh, I pity the security guard there that finds you.
Williams: No, they’re gonna know. There’s gonna be, like, a corner for Girls cast members where they collect us. I feel like Zosia [Mamet] will just be crouched there, and I’ll be like, “You too?” She’s like, “Yeah, it just felt right, you know?” It’s strange, but it’s a long goodbye.
The experience of wrapping the show, even. We don’t all wrap at the same time, which was very unsatisfying to me. I wanted the whole thing to wrap together, I wanted us to say goodbye to everybody at the same time. So that was really hard. Promoting it is fun, because we see each other sporadically, but it isn’t like, again. There’s one definite last moment where we’re all gonna be together. So it’s weird, but I don’t know yet, I don’t know.
So in looking back — because that’s what all this press has been about, a chance to reflect — do you think about [how] that show and Lena herself became a lightning rod for people to, like —
Williams: [joking] No!
Really? You didn’t notice?
Williams: It’s been real, it’s been intense.
So did any of the weird backlash, any of the “controversies,” catch you off guard more than others?
Williams: The one that tickled me the most was the nepotism one, just because it displayed a fundamental lack of understanding about the way that business works. That HBO would risk their money and airtime on a bunch of, I guess, parents who just called the network and said, “Please! She’s so nice!”
“Ten episodes won’t kill you!”
Williams: Yeah, exactly! It’s just funny to us, because we were like, if only that were the way it worked, we would be huge celebrities. If, like, a news guy could call up a studio head and be like, “Here’s the deal, Plepler.” So that one tickled us. The one that felt most serious and real was the criticism about the diversity.
But as Lena said, she just wanted to write an experience that she knew she could write with authority. And the idea of trying to affect someone else’s experience made her really cringe-y, which, I agree. I think that would have felt very weird. So it was about making it a more diverse group of people that put the show together.
So that was a major one. But a show that shows four women being fully real, warts and all, is always gonna be controversial because that in and of itself is not something that everyone wants to see.
Like, it’s amazing to me that people will still get mad at our show for not having, like, soft-lighting sex scenes with negligees, and everyone’s in perfect hair and makeup when they wake up in the morning. Like, if that’s what you’re looking for, an aspirational version of what life in your twenties in New York is like, this isn’t the place for you.