Listening to the actress Allison Williams enumerate what she considers her flaws made me want to pinch her silky cheeks. It was just so touching that this dazzling 24-year-old, who plays the tightly wound Marnie on the HBO series Girls, is also modest. So bright and articulate is Williams (Yale, class of 2010), so polite and present (she apologized to my photographer for not anticipating his lighting needs), so at the beginning of everything (her Wikipedia page is still a stub), that I almost wrote her parents – Brian Williams, the NBC Nightly News anchor, and Jane Stoddard, a television producer – a tear-stained note of thanks for helping to produce such a blessed creature.
We were in the screening room of a Toronto hotel. Williams, wearing a chic tweed jacket and nosebleed-high stilettos, was treating a line of journalists as if she’d invited them to an intimate party and was personally responsible for their having a nice time. She talks at speed, hopscotching deftly from concept to concept. And her “flaws” were adorable.
There was, “I have trouble with time management” – which she defined as not finishing the papers she wrote as an English major early enough to edit them properly. There was, “Sometimes I’m not very co-ordinated,” and, “I’m terrible at sleeping.” At this point, Williams may have sensed that I was trying not to beam at her like some crazed auntie, because she wrapped up the list: “Oh my gosh, there are so many other things. There’s just a lot; there’s really, really a lot.” And then I had to beam at her, because she said “oh my gosh.”
The second season of Girls begins Jan. 13, and already uncountable pixels have been devoted to the ways its four heroines – Hannah (Lena Dunham, who writes and directs the series as well), the hapless, blunt-tongued Everygirl; Jessa (Jemima Kirke), the cool, reckless one; Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), the anxious innocent; and Marnie (Williams), the most seemingly together one – embody the zeitgeist. Or at least the specific zeitgeist of twentysomethings in the hipster heaven of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, circa now, as they work the menial end of glamour jobs, sleep with boys who baffle them and try to figure out who they are.
“I can imagine how you, as a parent, want me to reassure you that we’re exaggerating things,” Williams says with a grin that puts toothpaste ads to shame. “But I think Lena’s tapped into something very, very real. She’s almost journaling as she creates the show. Anthropologically, I feel this could be left behind as a piece of evidence of this current culture in these apartments in New York City.”
The series’s strength is that it delves into, in fearless and often unflattering detail, all the things that young women really do, say and think, especially the ones they’re not supposed to. But I only had 10 minutes with Williams, so I focused on two areas that seem specific to her generation. First, these girls seem much more entangled with their parents than I was at 22.
Williams agrees. “I ask my friends, ‘When something exciting or terrible happens, who is your first phone call?’” she says. “They all answer, ‘My parents.’ And we don’t expect that to change after we get married.” Williams’s relationship with her own parents is “very, very close” – she’s even watched her show with them. “Though I wouldn’t recommend it,” she says, laughing dryly.
Which brings me to my second observation. Though the Girls are sexually free, they frequently subjugate their desires to their partners’. In the whole of Season 1, the only orgasm any of the foursome has is the one Marnie gives herself, masturbating in a restaurant bathroom. What’s up with that?
“That’s not an accident,” Williams replies, as game to talk about this as she was to act it. “In most shows and movies, sex scenes end the same way” – with the woman quickly being satisfied – “and very vocally so. That was something that, without attacking or being angry with those, Lena was like, ‘I’m just going to show the other way this happens, and see if that resonates.’ A ton of girls have told me it does, and it makes them feel better. Because the others instill in girls this feeling that there’s something wrong with them.”
By the end of Season 1, Marnie was unravelling – she’d broken up with her long-term boyfriend (he was too nice), left her job and moved out of her apartment. Williams, on the other hand, has yet to make a misstep. Though her parents wouldn’t let her act until she’d graduated, practically the moment she did, a video she’d made (of herself torch-singing Nature Boy to the Mad Men theme) caught the eye of Girls producer Judd Apatow, just as he was casting Marnie. Williams also plays Kate Middleton in a Funny or Die series.
“I wanted to be an actress before I understood anything else about my life, before I went to school” – she grew up in New Canaan, Conn. – “before I understood what it is that my dad does,” Williams says. “It was innate. Everything, everything that’s ever happened in my life happened within the framework of my knowing that this was where I was going to end up. So in school, I could learn purely for the sake of learning. It gave me this almost gluttonous sense of intellectual curiosity. I never want to stop learning.”
She launches into a longish story: At Yale, she once asked for an extension to take a psychology exam because she was too immersed in a play to study. Her professor granted it, but recommended she take the test on time anyway. “He said, ‘Allison, you already know where you’re going. So if you get a C on a psych test, it’s not going to be the end of the world. The choice is yours.’” Her wide eyes widen further. She loves this story.
“It was one of the most empowering, thoughtful things I’ve ever heard from someone,” she continues. “The fact that our actions can tell us what we want. You realize, ‘Oh, I must care about this, and not about that.’ I think about that daily, I really, really do.” I really, really believe her.
“This is the time when you realize and recognize some things about yourself,” Williams says, summing up both the appeal of Girls and this period of her own life. “And then the question is, Are you woman enough to deal with them? To live the rest of your life being aware of your flaws, and dealing with them on a daily basis – correcting the ones that affect other people, and working around or learning to love the ones that don’t.”
I have no doubt that Williams is woman enough. She took that exam on time, of course. She did better than she’d thought she would.