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Allison Williams comes of age on ‘Girls’

Actress Allison Williams, from HBO's "Girls," potrays Marnie, the uptight one in the group of four main characters.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Allison Williams, one-quarter of the coming-of-age female confederation in HBO’s “Girls,” finds herself at the center of a heated discussion, at least among the show’s modest but fervent audience: Is Marnie a bad friend? Or is Hannah a bad friend?

The culturally polarizing comedy spent much of its debut season redefining sexual parameters and narcissism for the millennial generation. But friendships are at the core of the Lena Dunham-created series, and they’re experiencing growing pains. The on-the-surface unusual bond between Williams’ Marnie (the uptight friend) and Dunham’s Hannah (the carefree friend) no longer has the tape of college keeping their friendship together as they transition into the scarier world of adulthood.

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And the troubled relationship, which produced a simmer-to-boil screamfest at the end of Season 1 over who was a bad friend, has been the driving undercurrent of the show’s sophomore term and the talk of the blogosphere.

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“This morning, I sneezed and someone that was in the apartment next to me said ‘Bless you’ through the wall,” Williams said. “So it’s weird to think I’m part of a larger cultural conversation. It’s all about Team Marnie or Team Hannah.”

The show, which wraps its second season March 17, has become a cultural touchstone whose every move has invoked passionate study from those who love it and even more from those who loathe it. And its characters have secured their place in the “Which character are you?” query that was once a hallmark of the “Sex and the City” era — this despite an audience that hovers around 700,000 viewers.

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Looking very Marnie-esque in a prim, just-below-the-knee mint-colored dress and sling-back pumps in the casual setting of the Brentwood Country Mart, the 24-year-old actress (and daughter of NBC News anchor Brian Williams) confesses that she hasn’t let go of the Craigslist-found Santa Monica apartment she moved into when she first left the East Coast three years ago to pursue acting more earnestly. She’s been preoccupied.

Williams, whose only prior TV credit was a blip on NBC’s “American Dreams,” landed an audition for the HBO comedy shortly after moving into the thin-walled apartment. Though the famous parents of the cast (Jemima Kirke’s dad drummed for Bad Company; Zosia Mamet’s dad is playwright-director David Mamet) has spurred criticism of spoon-fed success, Williams can’t thank her dad for the gig. Instead, comic juggernaut Judd Apatow and his obsession with all things “Mad Men” merits the gratitude.

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Williams had performed and recorded (in one take) a twist to the AMC drama’s instrumental theme song, set to the lyrics from “Nature Boy” and posted it online — complete with elbow-length gloves and a demure smile. Apatow was responsible for one of the more than 906,000 views it has amassed since its October 2010 posting.

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“I thought she would be the perfect counterpoint to Lena,” said Apatow, an executive producer on “Girls.” “A girl who seems to have it all figured out who is classically beautiful and wound a little tight.”

Dunham needed more persuading to cast Williams as the gallery girl with resolve. “I thought ‘gorgeous voice, great hair, what else is new in Hollywood,’” Dunham said via email. “I had to meet Allison to understand just how cheeky and intelligent that video really was, and just why Judd felt so strongly about her.”

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Now viewers are feeling strongly about Marnie. The first season painted a portrait of a Type A know-it-all who gave the appearance that she had it all together; the one who schedules her friend’s abortion appointments. The one who has sex with her bra on. That person completely unravels in the second season: She’s jobless, boyfriend-less and bra-less during sex. And not always a likable person, which Williams acknowledges.

“I don’t always think, ‘God, I wish I could be friends with her,’” she said. “I think it would be a little frustrating. But I also sort of know how I would handle her. I would be like, ‘Don’t manage any of my life. Don’t try to control me.’ I think I’m half-Marnie. But I’m a lot more like Hannah — she’s steadfast with her passion.”

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Despite her parents’ news background — her mother is a television news producer — Williams never considered that as a career path. A 1939 film had been too alluring as a young girl.

“I was about 5 when I saw ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” she said. “I just thought it was so amazing that they all played two characters and I was like, ‘What kind of job is that?’ Once I realized it was acting, I knew I wanted to do it. I wanted to play a farmhand and a cowardly lion in the same movie. I wanted to play the wicked witch and a mean neighbor on a bike.”

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But while her parents now gather ‘round to watch her sex scenes (and the other ones too) on the HBO series, they had a strict no-acting-until-you-graduate-college policy in place (with the exception of “American Dreams”). Cruel and unusual punishment for Williams, particularly in 2004.

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“When ‘Mean Girls’ came out, I just thought Lindsay Lohan was genius. I didn’t understand how I could ever come close to that if they didn’t let me start young,” she said. “I’ve come to realize it’s not a zero-sum game. When I see performances like Jennifer Lawrence’s in ‘Silver Linings Playbook,’ I think, ‘God, what a great role.’ But maybe, just maybe, she watches ‘Girls’ and maybe, just maybe, she wishes she was on ‘Girls.’”

Instead, Williams would attend Yale and sample the acting world in other ways during the time lag. She worked as Tina Fey’s assistant the summer the “30 Rock” star was shooting “Baby Mama” (she doesn’t deny that her father’s connections helped her there), she served as a utilities stand-in for the “Boardwalk Empire” pilot, and she was a production assistant on Robert Altman’s last movie, “A Prairie Home Companion.”

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“I wanted to learn the technical side of lighting and sound because, again, I wasn’t allowed to start acting until I graduated college,” she said. “I wanted to know the drill. I wanted the first time I went on-set to act to be totally stressless, except for the acting.”

Williams, who was part of Yale’s improv group Just Add Water, would get most of her time in front of the camera appearing in Web shorts. She got some folks clicking with her muted cover of Kesha’s lyrically absurd “Tik Tok” song. And she wrote a series of Funny or Dies sketches, in which she played Kate Middleton.

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“It’s the new way of getting seen,” she said. “And I didn’t want to not be ready when I could finally try out for the bigger stuff.”

It’s clear the actress is just as prepared and well organized as the character she plays. And it’s something her boss seems to admire.

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“I call Allison ’20 Questions’ because she’s an academic, a research fiend, when it comes to her role,” Dunham said.” A lot of people would rest on their laurels because they’re playing someone their own age, in their own time period and general socioeconomic bracket, but she refuses to be lazy.”

But Williams tries not to overthink Marnie too much.

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“The way I play her is with a very thin veneer of ‘Everything’s fine. Every. Thing. Is. Fine. I’m fine. Everyone around me is struggling, but I am fine,’” she said. “It is crucial to playing her, and so I can’t overthink her. But sometimes I do wonder: What is going to be the thing that just really gets her jazzed? What is it going to be?’

“I don’t know the answer to that question yet. I’m still hung up on the Team Marnie and Team Hannah conundrum.”

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yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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