Allison Williams Talks Going Drag For Peter Pan
It”s no wonder NBC gave Allison Williams the Peter Pan Live! leading role without a traditional audition: she was made to play the part. Firstly, she”s obsessed with the boy who won”t grow up — and she even Instagrammed a childhood photo of herself dressed up as him. Then, there”s the fact that she looks the part. Electric-blue Disney cartoon character eyes are framed by her porcelain-doll skin on her animated face. Her toned, lithe physique seems strong and light enough to fly through the night sky like a shadow. And her enthusiasm is magnetic. After talking to her about the live show, which airs tonight, we learned just how much this casting means to her.
“It”s just been the most fun,” she gushed. “I wish I could come up with a better adjective, but it”s truly a dream job. When you”re an actor, this is exactly what you hope for. You hope that someone with a creative mind is going to look at you the way you are, and think, “I feel like you can be Peter Pan.” She added that she knows it”s a 180-degree turn from her current claim to fame: playing Marnie Michaels, the preppy, type-A character on HBO”s hit show Girls. We quizzed the humble actress on all things Peter Pan, including going drag, facing the fear of performing live, and protecting a story that”s close to so many people”s hearts.
On rocking a pixie as Peter: “A couple of things about the pixie. I definitely mentioned the option of cutting my hair. I was like, “Listen, Peter”s got a pixie . . . finish that sentence.” And [the producers] immediately said, “We”re putting you in a wig anyway, because we need to hide the microphone under it since you”re flying.” If I wasn”t flying, I probably would have cut my hair. I decided to leave it blond because I am not done playing Marnie, and I know the other girls have vastly changed their hair. I feel like she [should be] a brunette. So when I lightened my hair and cut it short this season, I felt like it didn”t look like Marnie.”
On wearing makeup to look more masculine: “The craziest thing is that the makeup artist on Girls is the makeup artist on [Peter Pan]. He did it on The Sound of Music, it has nothing to do with me. So this one guy who has been making me look like Marnie for four years is now about to make me look like a boy. He did the makeup in the promo shoot, and it”s very subtle. You just make the brows unruly, which is not hard because mine are always climbing over my face. You chisel everything out and emphasize the chin dimple. [To take care of my skin,] I am just washing it obsessively and just trying to keep it clean as possible. We”re sweating 10 hours a day during rehearsals!”
On being a storyteller: “[I was one] before I knew how to put it that way — like from birth. If you have kids and they feel like performers, you know very early on, apparently. Every picture of me when I was little, my mouth was wide open and I was always singing, talking, or wearing costumes. So [I] was always telling stories. I used to read storybooks to the camera, my parents, or stuffed animals — so [it was] literal storytelling very early on. The Sound of Music and Peter Pan were my first realization that people could play two parts. I was like, “Oh my god, that”s a job? You can be both of those things?” . . . I Instagramed myself at 2 1/2 [years old] wearing a Peter Pan costume. It”s been a real lifelong journey.”
On how her friends and family reacted to her casting as Peter Pan: “Their reactions were very specific. I called [Lena Dunham] the night before it was announced, and she said, “Oh my gosh this is the coolest thing. It”s the best possible thing you could have told me just now. It”s so subversive, you”re going to be in drag.” It was such a classic Lena reaction. A lot of my friends cried. It was sweet and also troubling, because I had never shut up about being Peter Pan and if they knew me long enough, they knew how much I want to do it. My mom and my family members cried. My grandparents weren”t surprised. I guess when your friend is an actress, there really isn”t a phone call you can make that will shock them.”
On the fear of getting bad ratings for Peter Pan (like The Sound of Music): “I wasn”t scared. My instant reaction was: of course I”ll do this. This is a dream, so yes. No fear yet. And even now when I get these feelings of nerves, it”s, “Oh, I want to remember to deliver the line that way.” It”s a little adjustment but not the macro-fear, which is probably protecting me from a panic attack.
“But I will say about the live thing and about last year: today”s audiences like to watch things cynically. I am on a show [Girls] that is mostly cynical, so I”m no stranger to that. “Hate watching” is a thing. You cannot watch Peter Pan cynically. If you do, you”re going to hate it, there”s no question. It falls apart instantly. There”s a three-dimensional shadow! Like, where do you ever begin? What are the rules of this place?
“The same audience watches Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games, which have all these rules and lands. So I have faith. People will hear the opening strings of music and know deep in their heart — it”ll make them nostalgic and make them become a kid again. And they”ll crumble. They might get one hate tweet out, really quickly, and then we won”t hear from them for a while because they”ll be reluctantly sucked in to the scent memory that will be Peter Pan.”
On filming the show live: “People keep asking me where they can get tickets, and I”m like, “There aren”t any.” I”ll be very clear: I am doing this once, it”s two and a half hours of my life, and then it”s over. You have to watch it then. I think it”s exactly when this should be happening, because in my experience of watching television — and I watch a lot of it — it”s on my own time. I just started Sons of Anarchy, and I can do it on my own time. That”s what we”re used to.
“The only thing that brings us together is live events. The World Series, The Super Bowl — things like this. It”s live. No one can get an early release and no studio head can get like a watermark DVD of Peter Pan Live. No one has an upper hand. Everyone is seeing it for the first time, and even if you watched it during a dress rehearsal, you”re not going to get the same performance. It”s so cool because people have to be watching.”
On learning to fly: “It”s one of those things where the way you leave the ground determines the rest of your flight, which is intimidating. If you”re slightly dragging your feet, you”ll turn around. If you happen to jump a little, the cable will bounce and look weird. The temptation in the beginning was to jump into the flight because that”s how it feels like it should look. But what you have to learn is to squat like you”re about to jump, and then let the cable be the rest of your jump, so that”s what requires the most practice. The most fun thing is when you go up for the first time because you don”t know the rules. I watched the boys do it. I wish that everybody could have that experience.”
On getting advice from Peter Pans past: Sandy Duncan and Cathy Rigby: “I asked them a hundred thousand questions. We were talking about flying tricks and little tips, and I asked them what parts they enjoyed the most. And they said, “I wish you could have kids in the audience, they”re always so vocal.” We don”t have any kids in the audience. They”re like, “Have some kids in the dress rehearsal and channel their voices.” And I said, “OK, that might work.”
“We just talked, talked, talked. It”s such a weird little connection to have with them and we will be bound together in this forever. They, much more so, because they did so many performances. I feel like Cathy Rigby did like 3,000 of them. That”s a lot of fairy dust. And Sandy Duncan did it hundreds of times.
“So how do you keep it fresh for that long and keep it exciting? They gave me so much advice, and it was such an honor because I”ve been a fan of them both. The one thing they did say to me — something I already knew but is a bummer confirm — [they said playing Peter Pan] was the highlight of their careers. And I was like, “OK cool. [At] 26, that feels like a good time to be on top and call it a day.” But I don”t see how it could get happier than this.”
On preserving the integrity of playing Peter Pan: “Everyone has some relationship with [the story] and [people are] protective of Peter Pan. I prefer that . . . If you love Peter Pan you”re going to be in his face and in his thoughts up close with all of us for the first time ever. You”ll get to see what we”re thinking in these little moments, and it”s going to be a real privilege in this medium of theater and television.
“When I heard [NBC was] doing Peter Pan, I had that instinct like, “Whoever does this better know what she”s doing. I hope they take good care of the role.” And now that”s on me, I promise to take good care of it. So now when people say, “Oh you”re playing Peter Pan,” the first words out of my mouth are “I will take good care of him,” because I want them to know that I know what a gift this is and how grateful I am to play this role. It doesn”t come along often on this stage and platform so I am very aware of the responsibility.
“I think people will feel a real connection to Peter Pan, and it occupies such a nostalgic place in people”s hearts. People come up to me on the street, and they are like, “Oh my god, Peter Pan is my favorite thing!” I recently met Patty Smith, who is the coolest person alive, and she was like, “Peter Pan, huh? Good luck. I love Peter Pan.” And I was like, “OK, Patty Smith.” She believed I could pull it off and she saw I was ready.”