Alison Brie and Dave Franco Can Still Surprise Each Other
Listening to Alison Brie and Dave Franco in conversation—about writing, directing, and acting in movies—it doesn’t take long to realize that they love being married to each other. Brie’s latest role is in The Rental, a moody and modern thriller about an Airbnb gone wild. It also happens to be Franco’s directorial debut. Both actors are largely known for their comedic chops; Brie captured the world’s attention with her beloved roles in Community and GLOW. Franco, like his older brother, helped deliver cult comedy classics like Neighbors and The Disaster Artist. Though working together is no uncharted territory for the pair—they’ve previously shared screen time in The Disaster Artist and The Little Hours—The Rental sees the couple exploring their relationship as actor and director, as well as husband and wife. The melange is equal parts intensive and fun, like every movie-making experience. Below, Brie and Franco discuss all that, and, after a brief bathroom break, Franco puts his wife on the hot seat for a round of quick-fire questions. —ERNESTO MACIAS
DAVE FRANCO: Tell me a little bit about the movie and how you became involved.
ALISON BRIE: The movie is The Rental, written by Dave Franco and Joe Swanberg. It’s your directorial debut.
BRIE: It’s about two couples who go on a weekend away at a rental property, and things go awry. The cool thing about this project is that I got to witness you working on it and watching it evolve, while not knowing that I was going to be involved. I found it so inspiring watching you write with Joe. Every day, you would get home from writing, you’d be so excited and have all these new ideas. It inspired me to write Horse Girl with Baena [Brie], so that was a cool thing that was happening simultaneously. Getting to read all the different drafts of this script and see how you guys were honing in on the characters and sharpening them, and seeing how much care you took in creating these characters because you’re an actor. I don’t think I really gave you notes, but I think I got to give some feedback. It was very exciting when one day, you just turned to me in our living room, and you were like, “Maybe you should play Michelle.”
FRANCO: I always wanted you to play Michelle, but there was one iteration of the movie, where I was going to play one of the characters.
BRIE: Before you decided to direct it, you were writing it. You were going to act in it, but you were going to play another character or something. It was like, “Would it be weird if we’re in the same movie, and I’m playing another guy’s wife…”
FRANCO: I would’ve played your brother-in-law. Once I decided not to play the role, then obviously, you were the first choice for Michelle.
BRIE: Did you ever offer the role to anyone else? I was awake in bed last night, in the middle of the night, being like, “Did he offer this role to Kristen Bell or something, before he decided I should do it?”
FRANCO: No way.
BRIE: I remember feeling so excited and honored when you asked me to play the part. More than anything, I wanted to be with you for your first experience directing. Everything aside, obviously, the script was amazing. I think Michelle is maybe the best character. Objectively.
FRANCO: Michelle is really off on her own island for the second half of the film and gets to bring some much-needed levity to the project when things start to get dark.
BRIE: But not too much. You really wanted to keep it very grounded.
FRANCO: Speaking of, there’s a sequence in the film where your character is on drugs.
BRIE: On Molly.
FRANCO: Do you want to talk about how you prepared for that?
BRIE: Well, for the first half of the movie, she’s kind of the uptight wife and there’s a very sexy sort of love triangle happening with the other characters. She doesn’t want to party with everyone on the first night. The next night when there’s a lot of heavy shit going down, she’s on this drug. It’s a really fun aspect of her character.
FRANCO: How did you prepare?
BRIE: I’m getting to it. As you remember from our life together, I hadn’t done Molly since the night that we met, almost eight-and-a-half-years ago. So I may have procured some Molly, and you and I went away for the weekend. Then, as if mirroring the movie, our plan was like, “I got a little Molly. Let’s go to Ojai. We’ll both do a little for research.”
FRANCO: Strictly research.
BRIE: “Maybe we’ll film some stuff with our phones. We’ll take notes.” It was actually, I think, a nerdy approach. When we got to Ojai you were super-stressed out. You had a major thing going on with the movie.
FRANCO: I still didn’t have a first A.D., and we were running out of time. I was literally taking phone calls with different first A.D.s pulling my hair out.
BRIE: But you were still like, “Maybe I’ll do a little.” And then I did a good amount, and you didn’t do it at all.
FRANCO: I did a tiny, tiny bit, but it didn’t really affect me.
BRIE: Then I was Michelle, dancing around our hotel room for the rest of the night, by myself, while you filmed me.
FRANCO: It was pretty informative. We asked the rest of the cast if they wanted to see the video of you on Molly so that they could apply it to their own performances when they are on Molly at a different point in the film. We found out after the fact that they’ve all done Molly before. They knew exactly how to play it.
BRIE: No one needed to see that video, but they did enjoy it.
FRANCO: We all got a good laugh out of it.
BRIE: I was kind of self-conscious and wasn’t sure if my Molly performance was too subtle, but we realized when I was on Molly that it’s not the way that you normally see in some of these broader comedies, where people are like, “Whoa. Dude.” I was just happy and wanted to dance and move.
FRANCO: It truly is the sequence that most people bring up after they’ve seen the film. It’s a fan-favorite. We had worked together before as actors, and it was really fun, but were you nervous at all for us to work together in this new capacity?
BRIE: I was not nervous at all. That was a really freeing way to approach this whole project. This experience of making this movie was ego-light for me, because the priority was you and your experience directing. So I wanted to do a great job in this role, but I just wanted to provide the best environment for you.
FRANCO: Do you think that got you out of your head as an actor and allowed you to be looser than you normally are?
BRIE: I think that aside from the fact that I love you, and I always want to support you, I had just directed an episode of Community, and that was the first thing I had directed before we shot this.
BRIE: God, I’ve been watching so much Community that it’s just on my mind. I never directed Community. I directed an episode of GLOW in our third season, and it was maybe a month before we shot this movie. I had just gone through this experience of realizing the myriad of things a director is in charge of. Obviously, it’s very different on television than it is in film, but that already gave me this great perspective of “Don’t be a high-maintenance actor.” I think I was actually way more nervous the first time we acted together on The Disaster Artist. Because we’d never really been on a set together before, and I wasn’t sure if our on set personalities, if our working styles, would be the same.
FRANCO: The other actors in the film would comment on the fact that I was more serious than they expected, and I think that’s because it was my first time directing. I wanted to make sure I was over-prepared and ready for anything. Do you think I’m different on set than I am in our everyday lives?
FRANCO: Okay. So I’m just way more serious than anyone thinks. I’ve been living this movie for the past year-and-a-half.
BRIE: But the thing that they didn’t know and what people don’t know about you—and truly, I probably didn’t know the full extent of it—is your perfectionism and how meticulous you are. When you’re an actor, you have no control over any part of it, and I’ve always admired the way that you empower yourself as an actor to get in the writer’s room, or go into the edit bay with directors. I would never ask that. Honestly, I don’t have a major interest. When I’m just an actor in something, I do not have a strong desire to sit in the edit bay and watch different cuts of scenes of myself.
FRANCO: I was curious if my approach to acting changed after having directed this film, and part of me thought that I would be excited to just be an actor and leave all of these other responsibilities to everyone else. But of course, I can’t help myself.
BRIE: I think it went the other way. I think the next thing that you acted in, you were even worse because you were so used to having full control over this movie.
FRANCO: I try not to overstep my bounds. When I’m acting, but I am curious about every stage of the process, and I have opinions about everything.
BRIE: When I directed the GLOW episode, I finished directing my episode on a Tuesday, and then Wednesday, I was back on set, just acting. I felt super bored.
FRANCO: As an actor, we can all be very naïve about the whole process and how much work is going on behind the scenes. Now I’m much more aware of the director’s temperament, where before, I was just in my own blissful acting world. I was only worried about my performance. I’ve always been prepared and tried to be punctual, but now I really go above and beyond to try to make the director’s job as easy as possible.
BRIE: Same. I’m much more conscious of when I take my bathroom breaks.
FRANCO: I feel like you were able to show some different sides of your personality in this film. Before doing this project, did you have a desire to work in the thriller/horror genre?
BRIE: Sci-fi, I think, is something that I would want to explore more. Some of my all-time favorite movies are the original Alien, with Sigourney Weaver, or Silence of the Lambs, and Jodie Foster‘s incredible performance. I know that people think of me more as a comedic actress, even though I worked on eight seasons of Mad Men and have done some other dramatic films. I’ve worked a lot more in comedy, and I’m super comfortable there, and I love it.
But this last year when we made this movie, I think for both us, we were in this phase of kind of feeling a little bored or underwhelmed by opportunities that were coming our way and felt this need to create our own opportunities. The things that we both made, The Rental and Horse Girl, surprised a lot of people. I’m dying to do some kind of action movie because I love the physical aspect of GLOW. Just put me in John Wick 4 already, because I love the training. When I watch Keanu [Reeves] training videos or Charlize Theron‘s training for Atomic Blonde—to see people doing their own stunts, I’ve gained great respect for that kind of thing. And thrillers, you’ve convinced me. You’ve helped win me over for the genre because I get so scared of watching scary movies. There are really artistically well-made genre films, and that’s what you were striving to make. You made a list of movies for us to watch, to do research. Thank god you watched them all with me because I couldn’t have watched them by themself. Some of those movies, like Goodnight Mommy or Blue Ruin, are just so beautiful and well-done. For an actor, you get to play these really heightened emotions and be in these really crazy scenarios, but in a fun way that doesn’t feel melodramatic.
FRANCO: It’s interesting that you are inherently so scared of these types of films, but they’re a few of your favorite movies of all time.
BRIE: Rosemary’s Baby.
FRANCO: When you take a step back and look at Rosemary’s Baby, Alien, and Silence of the Lambs, they’re these really smart thrillers with strong female leads.
BRIE: I was trying to list my top-five favorite movies to you the other day, and I was like, “They’re all so different.” But they all have strong, amazing female leads.” Working Girl. There’s a through-line.
FRANCO: You’ve given some of your best performances recently in Horse Girl and The Rental. Do you think you’re just becoming more confident in your abilities, or do you think it has anything to do with the fact that these are projects that you have more of a personal connection to?
BRIE: Honey, thank you. I think it’s both. I would say that in the last few years, certainly since working on GLOW, it’s been a real life-changing job for me and in the way that it’s connected me with my body and helped to build self-confidence. It always bothers me a little when people underestimate the show, or go, “Oh, yeah. That’s some comedy that you’re working on.” But in the last couple of years, I’ve started to let go of expectations: my own expectations for my career, or expectations for what other people expect from me as an actor. Writing Horse Girl, which again was totally 100% inspired by watching you write movies, I connected to this artistic expression. That has been really freeing for me as an actor.
FRANCO: I can say that your confidence has grown exponentially, just as a creator. A couple of years ago, you couldn’t even wrap your head around trying to write a screenplay. Now you have multiple screenplays in development…
BRIE: Some with you.
FRANCO: One of them with me. And you’re constantly yearning to do even more. It’s like you’ve got a taste of it, and you see how fulfilling and nice it is to have a little bit of control over these projects.
BRIE: People always say, “write your own material.” Like anything in life, I think you don’t come to it until you it’s the right time. You can’t force things. Horse Girl is an idea I’ve probably had in my head for 10 years, but I felt so self-conscious about saying it aloud to anyone. I started to take control of my own career, which is a little bit addictive. That is empowering, especially right now, when we’ve been sitting around in quarantine. It’s a really helpless time—nobody knows when we might even go back to work again, and it’s been so nice to have writing as a thing.
FRANCO: You’re starting to venture into directing. I’m curious about what specific things you’ve learned from some of your favorite directors that you’ve worked with that you want to apply to your own work.
BRIE: I think from directing, the main thing is this idea that on a set, the best idea wins. Again, it’s this balance of ego that I’ve been doing, which is sort of a weird thing. As I’ve tried to detach from my ego more, I’ve gained confidence.
FRANCO: That’s the Seth Rogen school of thought. I’ve learned a lot from him and his collaborators. They create such a safe, comfortable environment on set, and they really do encourage everyone to speak up if they have an idea that they think will help the project in any way.
BRIE: You truly couldn’t do it without them. It was so great getting to watch everybody witness what a great, amazing guy you are and kind of see the birth of this new talent in the world of directing. We talked about being a perfectionist and being painstakingly meticulous about every element on the set-top to bottom. But it’s never at the expense of anyone. It’s so endearing.
FRANCO: You see the final product, and you realize what I was trying to accomplish.
BRIE: The worst feeling is being on a set, having a director make you do tons of takes, and you have no idea why you’re doing another take, what they’re looking for. If you’re not sure what they’re making or if they’re capable of doing it. Feeling like a ship not being captained by anyone is a horrible feeling as an actor, and we did not feel that way.
FRANCO: There were certain scenes where we did a lot of takes, and that had to do with technical issues a lot of the time. Because there’s just been so many times where I’ve been on set as an actor, where we would do a bunch of takes, and no one would tell us why. Allison tried to sneak to the bathroom. I think she mentioned earlier in this interview that she pees a lot. It’s more than you could ever…
BRIE: Oh, my god. Honey, you so didn’t need to out me. We’re recording this through the phone. [Silence]
FRANCO: I’m distracted knowing what you’re doing right now. I had to just say it out loud.
BRIE: I’m back. Next question.
FRANCO: What do you think your biggest strength is as an actor?
BRIE: I think I’ve always had a knack for characters who maybe read a little cold, or type-A. I think I have a knack for rounding them out, giving them depth and humanizing them. That’s sort of becoming a weird little niche of a certain type of character that I play.
FRANCO: Were there any moments during the filming of The Rental where I would give you a note that you didn’t totally agree with?
FRANCO: Correct answer.
BRIE: Not only did I agree with all your notes, I think that half the time I knew your notes before you said the notes.
FRANCO: Well, that’s interesting. Do you think there’s something to be said about the fact that we know each other so well, that it was almost more difficult for you to act in a way that felt—
BRIE: False? It made me feel like I was doing some of the best work of my career, because I was like, “I mean, you can’t get more grounded than this.”
FRANCO: I felt the same way when we were on set, acting together, where if I did anything that felt false, I almost felt embarrassed because I knew that you recognized it.
BRIE: I think it started when we worked together on Disaster. When we did The Little Hours together, I feel like we got to do more together then, because I had such a small part in Disaster Artist. Those romantic scenes were so fun to film because of that reason.
FRANCO: We were able to really improvise on The Little Hours. I think that got us out our head a bit too, where we were really just kind of playing off of each other, and it felt very natural.
BRIE: But with this, the movie really was written in the way that you and I talk to one another. The way that Michelle talks, it’s almost like you wrote it for me, but never told me.
FRANCO: I mean, in addition to you making my job very easy because of how good you are as an actor—
BRIE: Go on.
FRANCO: It was very comforting to have you there with me in general. Because as a first-time director, there were definitely moments where I would feel a little insecure or doubt myself, and it was nice to have someone there to build me up in the right ways and remind me that we were on the right path and that we were doing good work. On that note, we are going to finish with some quick-fire questions.
BRIE: You know I’m nervous.
FRANCO: Don’t overthink your answer.
BRIE: I’m going to overthink them. I’m overthinking it already. There needs to be under ten. Oh, my god.
FRANCO: Who is the most impressive actor you’ve ever worked with?
BRIE: Betty Gilpin and Jeremy Allen White.
FRANCO: Wow. Amazing. He’s one of the most naturally gifted actors I’ve ever witnessed.
BRIE: He’s such a good actor. It made me want to write something else for us to do with him.
FRANCO: Scariest or most difficult part you’ve ever played?
BRIE: Probably Lally Graham in The Post. I was acting opposite Meryl Streep, playing her daughter and a real person.
FRANCO: Directed by Steven Spielberg.
BRIE: My first day on set, before shooting anything, I was just there for a costume fitting, and they let me come to set to meet Steven and watch this scene that Meryl was shooting that was so beautiful. I sat behind the monitors, and Steven Spielberg turned around to me, in awe of Meryl’s performance, and I was like, “I can’t believe what’s happening to me.” I met her for the first time, and she held me so tightly and said, “We’re playing real people. It’s such a responsibility.”
FRANCO: What acting role of yours have been the closest to who you really are?
BRIE: Probably Ruth on GLOW.
FRANCO: What role have you played that is the furthest from who you are?
BRIE: Sarah in Horse Girl. A close second, I would say Annie on Community.
FRANCO: Wow. I think that will surprise some people. Number one director you want to work with? I know who you want to say. I’m not going to feed it to you though.
BRIE: Spike Jonze.
FRANCO: That’s the one. I agree. Number one actor you want to work with?
BRIE: Gosh. That’s a tricky one. I would say Frances McDormand or Holly Hunter—some of my all-time favorite actresses.
FRANCO: Soft spot for that Holly.
BRIE: I love Holly Hunter so much.
FRANCO: What is your favorite classic horror film?
BRIE: Well, Rosemary’s Baby, but I would also say The Shining.
FRANCO: What is your favorite acting performance of mine?
BRIE: Oh, really? Way to put me on the spot. Let me think.
FRANCO: Don’t think too hard.
BRIE: Maybe Neighbors.
FRANCO: You do quote Neighbors a lot. Whose career do you model yours after?
BRIE: Allison Janney. I’m attempting to. I think about Allison Janney a lot.
FRANCO: How would you make a living if you weren’t an actor?
BRIE: Dead. Because it’s like I’m nothing. These days, because I’ve gotten so into physical fitness, sometimes I think I would train to be a personal trainer.
FRANCO: I see that. What movie makes you cry more than any other?
BRIE: What do you think?
FRANCO: I mean, you cry in everything we watch.
BRIE: Working Girl. There’s just such a resplendent, triumphant ending, and I could it turn on and just watch the last five minutes.
FRANCO: Who would you want to play you in a movie about your life?
BRIE: I’ve been asked this question before—not who would I want, but who do I think would. And I said Anne Hathaway. Then I got a lot of shit from Kevin Smith—that’s who was interviewing me, and he was like, “What? Why?” I wasn’t sure what he thought I was implying by saying it. I don’t know. Is that vain? Is it not vain enough?
FRANCO: I think Hathaway could play a great you. Who would play me in that same film?
FRANCO: We’re remaking—
BRIE: Love & Other Drugs. I’ve always felt like that was our love story.
FRANCO: What person has made you the most starstruck?
BRIE: Jon Stewart. I got to do The Daily Show one time when he was still hosting it, and I did not realize I was so starstruck by him. I think his intelligence and his natural charisma were really intimidating to me. When he came back to meet me, I was blushing. I turned beet red. All these words came out of my mouth. I’m getting flushed just talking about it. And Paul McCartney, who I met once. And also, the aforementioned Kevin Smith. Now I’ve seen him since, and I kept my cool. The first time I met Kevin Smith at Sundance, I really fan-girl-ed out on him, and he was not about it. But Kevin Smith’s movies were so important to me in my adolescence. They were super dangerous. We would have friends rent them for us when I was in middle school, and we would watch them when our parents were already asleep.
FRANCO: Are you sad that this interview is over?
FRANCO: I thought you were going to say “Yes,” and I was going to say, “We did a good job.” Well, that’s all I got, but I guess we’re going out on a whimper.
BRIE: I still have the ability to surprise you.