Alison Brie’s been dishing out a ton of relationship advice of late along the promo trail for her new film Sleeping With Other People, in which the Community star and SNL alum Jason Sudeikis play relationship-phobic New Yorkers who agree to stay platonic because they can’t see that they’re perfect for each other—a thoroughly modern millennial romantic comedy billed as “When Harry Met Sally, for assholes.”
“[Jason] and I were just joking about it because, you know, we’re not dating experts, just because we did this movie about people who fall in love,” Brie laughed during a chat with The Daily Beast on the eve of Sleeping’s debut.
“It doesn’t mean we know everything about love,” said Brie, who last month announced her engagement to actor Dave Franco. “Leslye wrote it! We’re just saying the lines that she wrote. But I do think that we’ve been giving some pretty good advice!”
“Leslye” is writer-director Leslye Headland, who followed up her acclaimed 2013 raunchy, warts-and-all ladybro comedy Bachelorette with a raunchy, warts-and-all spin on a once-bountiful genre the studios have long forgotten how to make: The rom-com.
In Headland’s world, would-be lovers Lainey (Brie) and Jake (Sudeikis) first meet as Columbia University collegemates who one night, in the aughts, lose their v-cards together in a messy, desperate rooftop fling.
Fast-forward a dozen years and they’ve grown into New Yorkers still trapped by their own intimacy issues: Lainey is an anxiety-ridden serial cheater who can’t help but keep banging the manipulative (and engaged) doctor she’s been obsessed with since college, and Jake is a serial womanizer who’d rather sleep with your sister than admit he’s just not that into you.
It’s a captivating role for Brie, and her first major lead in a two-hander. And it almost didn’t happen.
“I got an email at 10 o’clock at night from my agent saying, ‘The lead actress dropped out of this movie, it’s written by Leslye Headland and she’s going to direct it, Jason Sudeikis is attached—and she’s only in town for one more day, so read it tonight and if you like it we’ll set up a meeting tomorrow,’” Brie recalled. “I was about to go to bed and I said, ‘Eh, I’ll read 10 pages and see how I feel’… and then I couldn’t put it down.”
Gone are the days of bubbly Meg Ryan meet-cutes and hapless Katherine Heigl histrionics; Lainey is, to put it simply, refreshingly screwed up as far as romantic anti-heroines go. Playing Lainey’s toxic relationship with a cold fish gynecologist (Adam Scott) like a crippling addiction, Brie takes Lainey through dark and tortured terrain. And Headland directs her with the been-there insight of someone who’s felt the Earth spin at a sudden text or touch from the lover who broke their heart.
“I’m sure we’ve seen rom-coms where there’s a girl who’s broadly sobbing alligator tears over her ex-boyfriend until she meets the next guy, and you can see it coming from a mile away,” said Brie. “The way that Leslye writes, the way it’s explored in this movie is a bit darker and more realistic.”
The moment that hooked Brie in the script the first night she read it was a sex scene with Scott in which the screwed up psychosexual dynamics of their fling are written in Lainey’s every trembling move.
“It made me want to do the project,” she said. “Not because of the sexual content, necessarily. I like the eroticism. But it’s written in a way that’s exploring why this character is addicted to this guy, why she’s in love with him, what she gets from the sex, and how emotional it is rather than just surface gratification—there’s a darker need at play. I thought it would be a great challenge to play those layers while also doing basically the first sex scene I’ve ever shot.”
Thanks to scheduling demands, Scott shot all of his scenes at the start of production, frontloading Lainey’s intense emotional anguish.
“There were moments when Leslye and I would turn to each other and go, ‘Are we shooting an erotic thriller?’” Brie laughed. “Then Adam left and Day One with me and Sudeikis was friendly banter walk-and-talk on the streets of New York and it was like, oh, this is the movie! We won’t be killing ourselves the whole time in some dark sexual fantasy.”
“I spent most of the shooting process living in this highly sensitive, emotionally fragile place, and it wasn’t until the first time I saw the movie fully cut together at Sundance that I realized, oh, it’s actually much more accessible than I thought! It really is a romantic comedy.”
Sleeping With Other People might just initiate an audience who’ll learn how to love and date from Brie—her upcoming projects include another romantic comedy, the ensemble How To Be Single, “about single life and how people navigate being single in a big city.”
Offscreen, Brie’s also branching out as an executive producer on TVLand’s comedy Teachers, based off of a webseries by Chicago-based creative sextet The Katydids.
“They’re brilliant women,” said Brie, who’s also coming off of a run voicing ghostwriter/complicated lady pal Diane Nguyen on Bojack Horseman. “I just loved the material they were producing and creating so much, and I wanted to be a part of helping get their voice out there… it’s also just nice to empower women working in comedy and creating their own content.”
As for Sleeping With Other People, consider it a real-talk rom-com for the self-obsessed, self-destructive Tinder generation—even though nary a dating app is to be found in the film. These characters have enough dating drama to deal with without having to swipe left and right and sext strangers. “It’s a story about two people who don’t think that they’re worthy of real love, who don’t think that they’re capable of figuring out how to do that,” said Brie. “They don’t know how to get out of their own way… and helping each other helps them figure out how to do that.”