She may be of average height, but Alison Pill is a singular woman.
The 32-year-old Canadian returns to Broadway in the Tony-nominated revival of Three Tall Women, Edward Albee’s autobiographical 1991 drama, directed by Joe Mantello. She towers alongside acting giants Laurie Metcalf and Glenda Jackson as one wealthy socialite, inspired by the late playwright’s adoptive mother, at three different ages.
On break between two shows, Pill shares the short but sweet scoop on the multiple queer women she’s played in projects like Milk, American Horror Story: Cult, and the upcoming Dick Cheney biopic.
In Three Tall Women you play C, the youngest version of a woman portrayed at three stages in her life. Basically, you grow up to become Laurie Metcalf and Glenda Jackson—and isn’t that everyone’s dream?
[Laughs] Very true. It’s so amazing to be able to watch Glenda and Laurie do their thing close-up every day. It’s also a joy to be in a show about women of different ages, because that’s such a rarity.
This production made me confront my own mortality. How has it impacted you?
There’s that increased awareness of mortality, sure, but also this terrifying idea of dying alone, unloved and forgotten quickly. The play examines the choices this woman made leading up to her final moments, and you see how it could’ve gone so differently. But the things that come up for me more immediately have to do with motherhood.
The mother-son relationship was based on Albee’s own relationship with his estranged adoptive mother. This character is very cruel to her gay son, who disgusted her. How do you rationalize that cruelty?
She was cruel to everybody. I don’t know how much of her cruelty had to do with his homosexuality, to be honest. Even Mr. Albee has said he was impossible to raise, so I think they had a conflict of personalities more than anything. It was a complicated relationship for sure. The play is really about the thwarted ambition of a smart woman, her failures and disappointments, and the bitterness that builds from that. In another time and place, she and her son might’ve really liked one another.
As a homophobe and racist, she isn’t a typical dramatic heroine. How have you made her relatable and likable?
Even the most hated people in the world have origin stories, because we aren’t raised in a vacuum. Albee actually wrote in an introduction—and I’m paraphrasing—that nobody liked this woman in life, but he wrote this play and now everybody finds her fascinating: “Heavens, what have I done?!”
Speaking of complicated women, you play Mary Cheney in Backseat, Adam McKay’s upcoming biopic about former Vice President Dick Cheney. What’s something interesting you learned about her?
It’s very helpful when you’re playing a real person to have a memoir written by them. It’s such a tragic story because, in my opinion, she had more of a political brain and greater potential for a political future than her sister. You can see the path the Republican Party could’ve taken with her, but the betrayal within that family and larger national structure is fascinating and horrifying. She had such a complicated relationship with her family. She came out in her teens and was accepted by her parents, which isn’t the expected reaction from such conservatives.
The Cheney family tried to keep Mary’s sexuality out of the conversation during Bush’s presidential campaigns, but she still became a political pawn.
Yes, a pawn on both sides, politically and in the media. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to become a symbol when you’re just a person, especially with a wife who’s notoriously anti-publicity. The expectations people had for this woman were crazy.
I saw some paparazzi photos of you in character as Mary looking pretty butch.
Yeah, and that hair was grown out from my lesbian haircut in American Horror Story, so it was a pretty easy transition, hair-wise.
I’m guessing this wasn’t a situation where you sat down with Mary before shooting.
[Laughs] No, we did not meet with the real people we were portraying. But I’d love to meet her. She seems like a really likable woman and mother.
You did meet Anne Kronenberg, the LGBT activist you portrayed in Milk. How did it feel to represent the lesbian community in a film about the gay rights movement?
I felt a huge amount of responsibility, especially in educating a younger LGBT audience who maybe didn’t know much about Harvey Milk. And then when the movie came out, Prop. 8 happened. Here we are making this movie as a celebration, naively thinking we’re moving forward, and there was another unbelievable roadblock. It suddenly felt so much more immediate for us to be spreading our message of equality. It was a special experience for me.
Did Milk inspire your own activism?
I’ve always had a lot of queer friends, so LGBT rights were always real for me. But projects like Milk have created a platform that make issues like LGBT rights easier for me to talk about, which has been amazing.
You also use Instagram as a platform to support numerous causes, particularly women’s and animal rights. Why is that important to you?
I try to keep my private life private, but the causes I promote don’t feel private; it feels like it would be crazy not to talk about them publicly. There are issues I literally cry over some days, so if I don’t say anything, I carry them around in a deeper way. It still feels ineffectual, honestly, like a tiny drop in the bucket, but at least it’s something.
As a Canadian citizen, particularly during these times of political insanity, do you ever shake your head at us silly Americans?
There might sometimes be an element of that, yeah. But my husband’s American, my daughter was born here, and I’ve lived here my entire adult life, so I can’t exactly shrug my shoulders and say, “You can have it!” There’s so much about America that’s awesome, and so much of what I do would be impossible without this country. I just hope our shared frustration keeps building toward serious change.
You played another lesbian role on the ABC series The Family, but she was very religious and closeted. What was it like to play someone so repressed?
Willa was very complicated. I related so much to her perfectionist need to keep everything together and shut down tight, so I loved that she finally gave in to this thing she didn’t even know she wanted. I believe she was a virgin before she had that sexual experience with a woman, so it was cool to see her blossom. I really felt for her.
You got lucky with Supergirl’s Floriana Lima as a scene partner for Willa’s blossoming.
This is true. And then I got to make out with Sarah Paulson in American Horror Story, so I guess I’m doing okay.
AHS: Cult reminded audiences that lesbians can be horrible people, too. Wouldn’t it be scarier if LGBT characters couldn’t be villains?
Absolutely. Once we get to the point of real parity, it won’t be shocking to see imperfect, sexualized queer characters. It’s okay to have a gay character who is just an awful person, because we should know that’s not representative of all gay people. People are people.
You also appear in Ideal Home, an upcoming comedy starring Paul Rudd and Steve Coogan as a gay couple raising a child. In an early trailer, your character gets a crash course on gay porn.
Oh, that’s amazing! I haven’t seen a trailer yet. I play their social worker. It’s a small part but I had such a blast on that set.
Looking at your career choices since Milk, it seems like you’re hellbent on becoming a gay icon.
[Laughs] I would certainly love that. Just to be clear, I also played Lorna Luft in the miniseries Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, so I’ve been working toward this goal from an early age.
Why do you think you’re repeatedly drawn to queer characters?
I was lucky enough to grow up in Toronto and attend an arts school where being gay wasn’t very notable, in the best way. It was an aspect, not a defining trait. I’ve always seen love and all the craziness that comes with it as universal, not something signified by gender, sexuality, or what’s in someone’s underpants.
At 17 you starred with Lindsay Lohan in Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen. In hindsight, does that feel like a professional fork in the road where you chose the wiser of two paths?
Well, I basically finished that movie and did a Thomas Vinterberg film [Dear Wendy] written by Lars von Trier, and then I moved to New York to do theater. I don’t think I was ever successfully going to go down another path, because I fought really hard for that Vinterberg film but didn’t fight to be in another teen movie. Sure, there were definitely moments when I was 17, thinking, Why aren’t I the lead? Why aren’t I in magazines? But now I’m beyond grateful to be working with amazing people, making a living acting, but still being able to go about my business like a normal person. I couldn’t be happier with where I’ve ended up.
Three Tall Women runs through June 24 at the John Golden Theatre in New York. Ideal Home is out June 29 in theaters and on VOD. Backseat is out December 18 in theaters.