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Alison Brie Discusses 'Mad Men,' 'Community' And Her Start In Show Business


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, Alison Brie, was in two TV series at the same time, each with a devoted following. On "Mad Men," she was Trudy Campbell, the wife of Pete Campbell. Pete became one of the partners at Don Draper's ad agency. On the acclaimed and frequently canceled series "Community," Brie played Annie, one of the students in the community college study group. Alison Brie does voices for the Netflix series "BoJack Horseman" and has been in the films "Get Hard," "The Lego Movie" and "The Five-Year Engagement." Now she's starring in the new film "Sleeping With Other People," directed by Leslye Headland. Alison Brie spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado.

Let's start with a scene from "Sleeping With Other People." The movie starts with Brie's character, Lainey, still in college. She has a one-night stand with Jake, played by Jason Sudeikis. And on that night, they each lose their virginity. Over a decade later, they run into each other again and find they're in a similar predicament. Both of them have become serial cheaters who can't sustain a long-term relationship. After the two of them go on a date, they decide they should keep it platonic since they're so bad at relationships.


ALISON BRIE: (As Lainey) We've got to just be friends.

JASON SUDEIKIS: (As Jake) Yes. That is the mature, responsible thing to do for each other and ourselves. Yes, I agree. OK, but then we've got to come up with a system if we're going to be friends, you know?

BRIE: (As Lainey) OK.

SUDEIKIS: (As Jake) And I want to be good friends, but we've got to have a system here.

BRIE: (As Lainey) That's fair. So maybe we come up with a safe word for if we're having sexual tension and then we'll stop whatever is creating the tension.

SUDEIKIS: (As Jake) So if you're doing something or I'm doing something sexy?

BRIE: (As Lainey) Or if we're feeling attracted we say...

SUDEIKIS: (As Jake) OK, but it's mutual? So it is mutual?

BRIE: (As Lainey) ...The word.

SUDEIKIS: You're saying it's mutual?

BRIE: (As Lainey) It could be mutual.

SUDEIKIS: (As Jake) That's a yes.

BRIE: (As Lainey) I may...

SUDEIKIS: (As Jake) That's a yes.

BRIE: (As Lainey) ...Or may not need to use the word. We'll have to see in the future what happens.

SUDEIKIS: (As Jake) Ok, well, all right - safe word.

BRIE: (As Lainey) We'll say - yeah, anything.

SUDEIKIS: (As Jake) Let's go. Come up with one. What do you got? I'll do anything. You pick it and - yes.

BRIE: (As Lainey) It's avocado.

SUDEIKIS: (As Jake) No, can't do that.

BRIE: (As Lainey) No? (Laughter). It was just immediate veto.

SUDEIKIS: (As Jake) Well, I mean, it's too sexual. It's too sexual of a...

BRIE: (As Lainey) Avocado is too sexual?

SUDEIKIS: (As Jake) Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, you've got to see the way I eat an avocado. You'd be like, that's, like - you know, do that to me.


BRIE: Thank you.

BALDONADO: The film is about adults who have problems with love and sex and relationships. And, you know, there is adult content in this. And I read that some of the sex scenes in the script, originally, were more explicit than they ended up being. And you said that that was something that was interesting to you just because it was different and also because it was a female director and writer, so maybe you can feel a little bit safer. Why was the edgier content something that was interesting to you?

BRIE: Well, the characters that I've played to this point - mostly Annie and Trudy - are a bit more conservative - Trudy just because of her era - not just because. I don't think Trudy would be sleeping around all the time. When I read this script, immediately I was drawn to the sexuality of this character. And knowing that Leslye had written it and was going to direct it, it felt like a safe way to explore that new ground. We had a lot of discussions about how the sex scenes would be shot before we even - before my contract was done. You know, you have to do a whole nudity writer and all that kind of stuff, so we had a lot of discussions about that stuff. And it definitely felt like a safe environment to get into that. Leslye is very, very anti-nudity in her sex scenes, which I find totally interesting.

BALDONADO: Why? Do you know why that is? I heard that you seemed more OK with it than she did.

BRIE: (Laughter). I didn't want to inhibit the scenes at all, so that was more where I was coming from. I wasn't like, I'm dying to show my breasts, you know?


BRIE: I think it was more like, I'd rather not be nude, but I'd want the scenes to feel organic. I don't want it to seem like I'm weirdly wearing a shirt when he's totally naked or (laughter), you know, something like that. I didn't want there to be an imbalance. And she had said something to me about how she just doesn't love nudity. She finds it distracting for an audience, and I get that - that it sort of can take you out of it. The sex scenes in this movie are like musical numbers in a musical, I feel like, where, yes, we're - now we're singing and dancing, but only so that we can continue to move the story forward, to move the plot forward, so you can have a deeper understanding of who these people are, versus, oh, Alison Brie is showing her boobs for the first time in this scene. Oh my God, we're looking at her boobs, you know, which may happen one day. I don't know (laughter). But for now, it seemed nice to let the audience stay in the world of the characters, and also it did seem a bit more realistic.

BALDONADO: Now, a lot of our listeners know you from your role as Trudy Campbell from "Mad Men." How did you get that role, and what were you doing, acting-wise, at the time?

BRIE: I had recently graduated from college - not that recently, but recently enough that I was still living at home with my mom. And at the time, I was doing theater. I was doing "Hamlet" at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura County. And I auditioned for "Mad Men," and I - the show had not - it had been picked up to series, but no episodes had aired yet at that point. So I really didn't have a point of reference except for the script. And I just - you knew it was good. The script was good. And I felt really strongly that I was going to get the part, and I went in and auditioned for just the casting directors. And I got called back to come in for Matt Weiner and the director of the episode and a few producers. And I - you know, I remember feeling great about it, like, I know I'm going to get this. And about two weeks went by. I was back up in Ventura, and I was so crushed because two weeks is an eternity in TV. Everything gets made so fast, and it normally would mean that you definitely didn't get the part. Maybe it was just under two weeks, but it was a while because they actually ended up - Matt told me later that they had a whole other casting session. And then they were down to the wire and needed to cast the part, and it was Matt who kind of went back and was like, where's that Brie girl? Find the tape for that Brie girl. And then I got the call.

BALDONADO: In those early seasons, I always felt like Trudy was - you know, of the company wives, she was the best one. You know, she knew who to talk to at a party. She knew what she was supposed to do to help Pete sort of advance in his career. She knew she was supposed to have the bosses over for dinner. And I want to play a quick scene from season five. Trudy really wants Don and Megan, his wife at the time, to come over for dinner at their house in the suburbs. So Don wants to cancel. He kind of wants to get out of it, so he gives Trudy a call - Don, obviously played by Jon Hamm. And here you are. You're on the phone. You're feeding your daughter in the background.


JON HAMM: (As Don Draper)Trudy, I'm glad I got a hold of you. I have some bad news.

BRIE: (As Trudy Campbell) No you don't. We're building the whole party around you.

HAMM: (As Don Draper) You see, I'm afraid we're not free.

BRIE: (As Trudy Campbell) Don, do you want to go down your list of excuses and I'll combat each one individually, or should we just skip to the end? If you can't make it Saturday, I will reschedule. It's going to happen. And I promise you'll have a good time.

HAMM: (As Don Draper) It's too bad your husband can't close a deal like this.

BRIE: (As Trudy Campbell) We both know he's doing just fine - 7:30.

BALDONADO: That's a scene from "Mad Men." Is that how you saw Trudy, as this great company wife, you know, who also had ambitions herself?

BRIE: Had ambitions herself, but just in that supportive way, I think, of her husband. I think all of ambitions were funneled through Pete and geared towards him. I mean, I love that even in that scene, she won't allow Pete to be criticized. It's like no, no, this isn't about - you know? Don't even say I'm better than him because we're a team. And he's great, and I'm also great. People have referred to Trudy as a Lady Macbeth-type character, and that, I love (laughter). I love that analogy, and I couldn't agree more. I think it's very true that she has some of that to her, where she wants to be the one steering the ship behind the scenes, but she's really the one in charge. But we also see, over the seasons, the power kind of shift back and forth between the two of them.

BALDONADO: Now, I've read that you had the option of - to become a regular on "Mad Men," meaning you would only do that show, and you had to be ready to shoot whether they needed you or not. And you decided to turn that down. Why did you make that decision at the time?

BRIE: Well, I was about to test for another show. It was prior to "Community." I didn't book that show (laughter). But I was - it was really my first time sort of doing pilot season, which, as an actor - a lot of actors in LA, during pilot season, go out for tons of shows. And then they test at the network level, and they test at the studio level. And it's this huge thing that happens every year. I had never really experienced it. "Mad Men" was one of my first jobs ever. It was my second job ever on television. And I loved working on "Mad Men" so much, but I think I felt like the character would always be someone's wife. It's such a large ensemble on that show that I just - I think I sort of felt like, I don't know how much more they would even be able to do with me. Like, so, it seemed like a silly decision to give them full control of my schedule for about the same amount of money (laughter) when I could do that at the same time and have some freedom to do other things. Of course, I didn't book the show that I tested for, and I immediately regretted the decision. And I spent the rest of pilot season like, oh God. I hope something else comes up because did I just close this massive door? And what's going to happen? And then "Community" came up very quick - so quickly that I think we didn't even have time to kind of run it by the folks over at "Mad Men." I didn't - I don't think that went over too well. But luckily all of the producers on "Community" were big "Mad Men" fans, so they were pretty open about letting me continue to recur over there, which is - it's not unprecedented, but normally, the contracts you sign as a regular on a network show like NBC or CBS or ABC, they limit the amount of guest star appearances you can do to two or three or one. So every year, we did have to ask permission from NBC, and sometimes it was more difficult, and sometimes it was a little easier. But every year that I was working on "Community," we did have to kind of get their approval for me to keep going back over to "Mad Men."

BALDONADO: Well, at the end of the show's run, Matt Weiner, the creator of "Mad Men," he didn't do that many interviews, but he did talk a little bit to the press. And someone asked him who he would want to check in with decades later, like, who he would want to have coffee with. And he said Trudy Campbell.

BRIE: Wow.

BALDONADO: Did that surprise you, or did you know that?

BRIE: (Laughter). I did not.

BALDONADO: Yeah, he said, quote - or at least I think, quote, "I just think she'd be a dynamite old lady." Does that surprise you?

BRIE: I couldn't agree more.

BALDONADO: How does that make you feel? (Laughter).

BRIE: It doesn't surprise me at all. It makes me feel great. It does not surprise me at all. Trudy is a great character. And I think all along, when we were shooting the series, that Matt was always pulling from people he knew - qualities from his parents, his friends' parents and other people growing up. It's wonderful to hear that she had a special place in his heart. She is a dynamite character.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview that FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with Alison Brie. Brie stars in the new movie "Sleeping With Other People." They'll talk about her role on the series "Community" after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with Alison Brie who stars in the new movie "Sleeping With Other People." Brie played Trudy Campbell in "Mad Men." On the comedy series "Community" she played Annie, a student in a community college study group. Here she is in the first season talking to a professor played by John Oliver.


BRIE: (As Annie Edison) Professor Duncan, Professor Duncan - oh, sorry. Annie Edison, I'm in your 101 lecture.

JOHN OLIVER: (As Ian Duncan) Hello.

BRIE: (As Annie Edison) I've heard about your special psych lab.

OLIVER: (As Ian Duncan) Oh, the Duncan principle.

BRIE: (As Annie Edison) Yes. And I know it's limited to second-year students, but I had a 4.0 at Riverside High. And I'm not looking down at this school at all, but I'm only here because of a brief addiction to pills that I was told would help me focus. But they actually made me lose my scholarship and virginity.

OLIVER: (As Ian Duncan) Right.

BRIE: (As Annie Edison) If you would let me take your lab early, it would be a real feather in my transcript.

BALDONADO: Now, while you were doing "Mad Men" you're obviously also on this other huge, you know - a show where the fans are totally rabid, "Community." And there were times where you're shooting both shows at the same time. Was it weird going back and forth on these two shows? Did you ever have to shoot on the same day or is that something that all actors do, sort of go from one job to another?

BRIE: There were only probably a couple days that I shot on the same day because that's crazy. I don't think a lot of people do it. There are other actors who work on two shows, so I can't really speak to what their schedules are like. But it definitely felt kind of crazy in the moment especially because over at "Community," our hours were very long. And the characters were usually all together. It was very seldom that storylines were broken up and having characters just in twos and threes. It was like the whole study group together all the time. So it was hard to find time to get away at all, which is why sometimes it had to be on the same day where they'd be like, OK, we can give you the morning, but you have to be here by 3. To me, those days were just very exciting. It was really exciting. These were my first two big jobs. They're still my two biggest jobs. And it felt like how I had always imagined in my romanticized version of being a working actress what it would feel like, you know? Got to dash off to my other job, get back into hair and makeup, now I'm a totally different character. It was exciting.

BALDONADO: Now, "Community," at least on paper, sort of started out as kind of a take on workplace comedy - you know, like a group of diverse people together at a community college. And then it sort of became this, like, odd, magical show that was super meta. When you first saw the script or when you guys first started making the show, did it feel that odd? You know what I mean? Like did the meta-stuff sort of come as you guys started making more episodes?

BRIE: Yes, definitely. The pilot episode was pretty straightforward, and I was drawn to it - Joel was attached, Chevy Chase was involved. It was incredibly well written, but it wasn't until maybe about the sixth episode of the show that things started to really gel with the cast and with the writers, and then they started to get real weird. I'd say the sixth episode - I'm pretty sure that's what it was. Our Halloween episode, which I think a lot of us would pinpoint as the episode where things really started to come together. I think there was a little bit of time at the beginning where the writers were learning what our strengths were as actors and sort of how to write to that and all of us sort of gelling together as a cast. And also I think there's like a trial period. It's a new show. I'm sure Dan was very aware of writing a show...

BALDONADO: Dan Harmon, the creator.

BRIE: Yes - to appease a network. A show that a network is going to like and want to keep on the air that feels accessible. And the show was sort of initially accepted by NBC, (laughter) though never adored. Then I think just more and more of Dan started to seep into the show.

BALDONADO: So you grew up in South Pasadena.

BRIE: Yes.

BALDONADO: What was it like growing up there because, you know, it's Southern California so you're sort of closer to the TV and film industry? Does living, you know, in close proximity make acting seem like a more attainable career?

BRIE: I think so, yes. Well, one, my father worked as an entertainment journalist, and also he's a musician, and he's a singer songwriter and was always writing music and performing. So there was that sort of artistic thing happening in our family all the time and me sort of being like oh, you know, my father dropped out of law school to be a musician. So that's an acceptable thing to do just already as an example in my own family. But also in South Pasadena, because it looks like it could be anywhere in the U.S. - it looks like a very quaint, small town - a lot of movies are shot there. So while Hollywood wasn't on my radar as a kid - like I definitely didn't want to act until I was an adult. I wanted to go to high school and go to college and then start working. But it was - you know, I do remember when I was in middle school walking home, and they were shooting this movie called "Bye Bye Love" that stars Matthew Modine and Paul Reiser.


BRIE: And some AD, you know, some assistant stopped me and asked if they could - like paid me 10 bucks to use my binder in the movie (laughter). They like bought my folder from me. And it was exciting. I remember feeling excited - wow, they're shooting that movie down the street at - next to Sarah's house. And, you know, my binder is going to be in that movie. It just sort of was a cool thing. At my high school, they had shot the original "Halloween" there and you could see my locker - at the time you could. They've since demolished and rebuilt the whole school, so it doesn't really look like it looked when I went to school there. But there were cool things like that. They shot "Old School" right down the street from my high school. So we would occasionally, like, drive past the "Old School" house. And, you know, the actor that played Steve Urkel went to my high school before I went there. And so did - you know, they shot the "Beethoven" movies, you know, the ones about the dog. That mythology was all there. You'd hear these stories about people acting and doing that kind of stuff. So it seemed like it was within reach.

BALDONADO: Alison Brie, thank you so much.

BRIE: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Alison Brie spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. Brie stars in the new movie "Sleeping With Other People."

Last night was the first edition of "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert." Our TV critic David Bianculli will review the premier after a short break. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ann Marie Baldonado is an interview contributor and long-time producer at Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She is currently Fresh Air's Director of Talent Development. She got her start in radio in 1997 as a production assistant at WHYY and joined Fresh Air in 1998. For over 20 years, she has focused on the show's TV and film interviews. She became a contributing interviewer in 2015, talking with comedians, actors, directors and musicians like Ali Wong, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cho and Jeff Tweedy. In 2020, Baldonado hosted the limited-run podcast Parent Trapped, about the struggles of parenting during the pandemic. She talked to Julie Andrews about encouraging creativity in your kids, and comedian W. Kamau Bell about what to watch with them.