Alison Brie on ‘Community’s’ New Beginning, Dan Harmon’s Return, Nicolas Cage, and More
As Annie Edison, the ex-Adderall-addict turned studious community college student, Alison Brie has emerged as one of the most likeable actresses on television, let alone NBC’s Community. So, when it looked like the doors of Greendale Community College could be barricaded for good following the show’s lackluster fourth season—one that saw showrunner Dan Harmon depart acrimoniously amid a reported feud with star Chevy Chase—we feared we’d seen the last of the type-A screen siren.
Thankfully, Community was not only given a stay of execution, but also got Harmon—whom Brie describes as their “fearless leader”—back for its fifth season, which, if the first two episodes are any indication, sees the study gang firing on all cylinders.
The Daily Beast spoke to star Alison Brie about the show’s “dark” and “symbolic” season premiere, the return of Harmon and how the cast struggled to keep the show afloat during Season 4, Mad Men’s awards snubs, and much more.
So, Community is back. I saw the first few episodes, and it seems like the show has its mojo back. What was the first day of filming with Dan like? Was there a team-bonding night?
We like to pre-game, so the cast had gotten together with Dan and Chris McKenna, our other new-old showrunner, beforehand to—not hash everything out—but have a fun night where we addressed everything that needed to be addressed, and to more get ourselves pumped up for work. So by the time we started filming, it felt like the same-old. The energy all-round on set was better, and real positive.
Back to the pre-game party. What are we talking about here? Flip cup? Karaoke? How does the Community cast get down?
[Laughs] It’s usually in the back room of some place, and it’s mostly just drinking and a lot of jokes.
Really? I’m picturing outtakes from The Wolf of Wall Street.
Well, we do have that orgy, but other than that, I wouldn’t say it’s too similar.
I read the piece on showrunner Dan Harmon in The New York Times, and your co-star Joel McHale said of the show’s problematic fourth season, “The scripts don’t just come out of stories and jokes… they come out of real meaning, and real characters that crazy stuff happens to.” Did you share his feelings about the up-and-down fourth season of the show?
Yeah, Season 4 was a tough season. It’s tough to not have your leader that you’ve been following blindly for three years running the show and leading everybody. It was tough. I think we all felt, as a cast, a lot more pressure and responsibility to keep the character’s integrity. And we felt very protective of the show, so whoever came in to run it, it’s a normal, “You’re not my Dad!” instinct to protect it, and we’ve had such loyal fans that we get protective of them as well. We don’t want to give them a project that’s the same as what they’ve been used to, so yeah, that was a struggle for all of us last season.
With Dan and the other crewmembers back, did you feel the show got the cortisone shot it needed to run smoothly again? Get the magic back, so to speak?
Absolutely. We were excited that Dan was back, it’s some of the best work he’s ever done, and it just got more-and-more exciting. Our cast situation was also shook-up, but to very positive results. I’ve talked about this with Dan, and it’s crazy to talk about how the fifth season of a show is the show’s best work, but I really feel like that’s where we are. It was a great rejuvenation of the show, and to have Jonathan Banks on the show and Vince Gilligan [from Breaking Bad], it was such a professional set with everyone on their best behavior.
Was it a weird moment for the cast in the premiere episode to burn the study room table? It is very symbolic.
Definitely. It was interesting. Our return episode feels dark in that respect, but it’s this new beginning. It was like three o’clock in the morning, and we were all a little belligerent, so we were like, “Fire, fire!” channeling our inner Beavis’s while it was happening. And the new study table is so cool, so we were all like, “We’re starting anew… This is a fresh start.” But we’d had that study table since the pilot.
There’s a debate during the second-half of Community’s one-hour premiere that I think everyone who watches movies has had at some point: Nicolas Cage, good or bad actor? Where do you stand on this? And have you seen that amazing supercut of all the Nic Cage freak-out scenes online?
Oh yeah! I watched it with Danny [Pudi] when he was preparing for his Nicolas Cage freak-out scene in our Nicolas Cage episode. Oh, Nic Cage… I think Nic Cage is a very talented actor who has done a lot of great work in the past, and who is very brave—if not reckless—in his choices sometimes. I would not question his talent; I would more question his recent choices.
Your co-star, Donald Glover, will only be in five episodes this season, and is leaving Greendale. Was it sad to see him go, and did the cast throw him an epic going-away party?
Well, Troy’s farewell episode is one epic goodbye party. I think Donald’s actual final moment on set was a totally nothing moment. He was alone, wrapped at six in the morning, and the rest of us had wrapped earlier and were like, “Well, bye, goodnight!” But the goodbye episode itself is a loving goodbye to the Troy/Abed relationship, and everything it brought to the show. One of the best TV bromances! But I have [Donald’s] new CD, and I’ve been listening to it a lot—it’s great.
As far as Dan’s exit goes, and his dicey relationship with Chevy Chase, did you ever witness any of that hostility between them on set? And was it the sense of the entire cast that it was getting to be too much, and a change needed to be made?
Honestly, I don’t really have much of a take on it. I think it gets really blown out of proportion in the media. I don’t think Dan leaving was definitively something that had to do with Chevy, nor does Chevy leaving definitively have to do with Dan coming back. These were network-level decisions that were in a totally different realm outside of my working knowledge, but in the media, everyone wants to play it up like it’s this rivalry. And I wasn’t at the wrap party that year when some of that infamous stuff went down.
The character of Annie was very unpopular in high school, and I’m curious: what were you like in high school?
[Laughs] I was fairly nerdy in high school—not that bad. I had drama friends! I was a drama nerd. Someone recently said to me, “You must have been exactly like your character in high school—really type-A,” and I wasn’t. I was somewhere in between. I was kind of nerdy and by senior year was President of the Drama Club, and because I was in drama, I had to have good grades so I could do the plays. And because of drama, I really liked high school! I had fun.
Did you have any odd jobs prior to becoming a full-time working actress?
Well, I worked as a clown performing as children’s characters.
What! Is that where the Elmo voice came from in Five-Year Engagement?
[Laughs] No. The characters were more like Snow White, or Cinderella, or the Power Puff Girls, and I had to wear a big head with a chinstrap. I hated that one the worst because you had to balance this big, awkward head on you while wearing a miniskirt, and you’re making balloon animals and painting kid’s faces.
What was the worst experience you had as a clown? Any Damien-like kids?
The kids were not so bad! Honestly, the worst part—and again, it goes back to the Power Puff Girls—was being ogled by strange dads. That was weird. It’s like, “I have a huge head on! You don’t even know what I look like, so stop looking up my skirt!”
So creepy. By the way, where does the monkey from your amazing Twitter avatar come from?
It’s so random. I was with my sister shopping for my nephews and we were just in some baby store, and I fell in love with a monkey. But it was unrequited—he didn’t really love me back, so I had to leave him at the store. But I’ll always have that photo.
Was Hannah Montana your first professional acting role in TV or movies?
Yeah, it was! [Laughs]
She’s changed a lot since then, but we don’t have to go into that.
Oh yeah… oh boy!
You also star on AMC’s Mad Men, and it’s baffling to me how this show continues to get screwed when it comes to awards. The fact that Jon Hamm wasn’t even nominated for a Golden Globe is totally crazy.
It’s true. It’s very strange… very strange. I think he’s so good in the role, and the role requires such subtlety, that sometimes it doesn’t come off as flashy as other roles. And it’s the most difficult thing to do that kind of subtle work—to have it be naturalistic, and very grounded in reality. That boggles my mind every year. Then again, Community’s never been nominated for anything, either!
You’re also in this band, The Girls, that’s getting some buzz. Are we going to see a record from the group anytime soon?
Well, we’ve starting writing some originals with the guys in Jones Street Station, so we’re thinking of recording an EP. It’s in the works!