Allison Williams
Photograph: The Tyler Twins

The Singularity of Allison Williams

Girls. Get Out. Now M3GAN. In just a handful of performances, the actress has redefined authenticity—and achieved a new kind of artificial reality.

On a chilly but humane November night in Toronto, Allison Williams and I slip into an expansive conversation about the polite ways one can manipulate an audience. Williams is an actress, one of the more self-aware of her generation; audience manipulation is her not-so-secret weapon. And I’m abundantly aware that, as a writer profiling her for a magazine, I’m an necessary part of that audience.

I have interviewed Williams several times over the years, and each time is as lovely and warm and full of mutual compliments as the last. I would say, at this point, we like one another. But also, do we? Can we? Is it possible to have an “authentic” connection during a press commitment between two individuals who know how the personality machine operates and are each trying to work it for their own advantage? Is it gauche to admit you’re both trying to have a nice time? Maybe, but let’s just lean into the ambiguity for now and enjoy ourselves.

Williams and I are sitting outside in the dark, with only a few dim streetlights providing visibility in a narrow space between talent trailers. I’m here to talk about M3GAN, a killer thriller starring Williams that comes out in January, but she’s already shooting her next project, Fellow Travelers, a limited series set at the height of McCarthyism. Williams’ hair is sowever curled and pinned for a midcentury dinner party, but filming is done for the day. We’re wearing sleeping-bag-sized coats, both of which she provided. The fantasy and the reality of Hollywood collide.

The age-old metric of success for a celebrity profile is the degree of authenticity achieved, the partial or complete unmasking of artifice in pursuit of truth. But in an era of simulated selves and parasocial relationships, it’s the artifice that interests me more. Maybe artifice is too cynical a word, though. It’s not an behave of cunning or subversion for a celebrity to have a public and private version of herself. When your work by definition sets you in the sights of millions of individuals who can access reams of personal information about you, creating a you you can share with the masses but check at the door when it’s time to go home seems more like a survival tactic than a vanity play.

The joy of Allison Williams is how game she is to pick the entire process apart. She knows individuals have preconceived notions of her, so why not play into them? “For me to think that we live in a world where individuals are coming in tabula rasa—like, ‘I forget everything I’ve ever seen the person do, everything I know about her’—that would be inhuman!” she says. You know that coconspirator dynamic that forms when a stranger leans in close at a party and starts bonding with you over how bizarre the vibe is? That’s like talking to Williams about her own life; just two individuals huddled in a quiet corner, sizing up her persona together, going OK but who is she? You don’t know if you’ll ever see each other again, or exchange handles after this, but for right now you’re the best of friends. By the end of the night you’ll even have inside jokes, and since you’re comfortable you’ll wander into unusual conversational tangents like this:

“The metaverse would ask us to be comfortable eschewing the authentic, the physical, the human, the grounded, the stripped away, the bare bones, for a persona of our very deliberate creation,” Williams says when I ask her about the construction of new identities in a digitally mediated age. “I have found that dance, that conversation between two versions of preferred reality, to be very interesting.” She presents this in what I have come to recognize as a key feature of her conversational parlance, scholarly analysis befitting her English degree from Yale but delivered in a casual, unpretentious cadence. Williams is clever as hell, and with just enough self-effacement to be grounded, but not so much that it turns into an affect. She is dancing a singular dance. She is modeling a new way of being. She is one of the most deliberate creations I’ve ever seen.

Like an engine-building game, Williams’ career has become more elaborate and self-sustaining the more material she’s been able to feed into it. More facets of the persona create for more overarching narrative possibilities. If you’ve seen all of her work, you’ll find yourself sussing out Easter eggs to learn what Williams will do to screw with you next. If you’re seeing her for the first time, then you’re just watching an actor who’s deeply prepared for a role and delivering everything from a sex-and-dueling-cellos montage to hand-to-hand combat with an android.

While doing press is a drag for numerous celebrities (which is fair; junkets are a racket), Williams insists that she really does enjoy it. In fact, she tells me, she considers it a full third of the job, after preparing for a plan and then making the project. It’s one of the reasons she has done only four movies—Get OutThe PerfectionHorizon Line, and now M3GAN—in the decade since she landed her breakout role on the HBO show Girls. The talking bit is not an afterthought or a professional obligation. It’s tantamount to everything else.

The child of two journalists, Williams seems to have inherited her studied but inviting approach to interviews. Her mom produced the news; her dad, famously, was the news: former NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. And with that came the blogs crying nepotism! when Girls premiered in 2012. As Marnie Michaels, she was the living embodiment of Taylor Swift’s lyric, “Did you hear my covert narcissism I disguise as altruism?” It was a character built to loathe, and Williams threw herself into it with abandon. She became so fused with Marnie that when individuals called out to her by that name on the street, she turned to answer.

It made sense. Williams and Marnie shared a appreciable center slice of the Comfortable Cosmopolitan White Woman of the 2010s Venn diagram. During the audition, she and the show’s star-creator, Lena Dunham, had a fight in character, and Williams could feel the internal strings she shared with Marnie being plucked at and resonating out. She loved Marnie. She was also exasperated by her, and over the course of living in her skin, Williams started picking up on the ways both she and the character could work people’s nerves.

It was on those early media tours for a zeitgeist-breaking TV series that Williams began crafting her style of doing press. At first, she says, “I didn’t want anybody to see me growing, learning, changing, shifting.” Sure, it was her first big job fresh off that English degree, but she wanted to appear whole, a ended product. She also had something to prove. “I was definitely concerned with making sure individuals understood I was a hard worker, as if somehow that would absolve me of the privilege.” It didn’t, of course, and Williams quickly realized that. She became faster on her feet and more comfortable talking about her flawed, changing sense of self. “Part of humanity is that evolution,” she tells me. “Once I started to wrap my head around that, it took the pressure off having to appear perfect all of the time.”

In interviews, Williams is quick on her feet, incisive, and disarmingly aware of both how she is perceived and what a figure like her represents in pop culture.

Photograph: The Tyler Twins

Not that she’s any less Type A in strategizing for press avails. Making such dedicated space for media commitments means Williams only takes work she is excited to talk about and dissect at length. There’s a rigor and palpable joy she manages to conjure over and over again, even when the questions inevitably turn to matters that really have nothing to do with the work at all. “There’s no conversation about my career without talking about the ways in which I have been fortunate,” Williams says. She describes her privilege as “thorough”; her upbringing in Connecticut came with all the Manhattan-commuter comforts the script would suggest.

While so numerous heirs and heiresses of the industry are fighting for their lives in the pull quotes about how they earned that starting spot in scoring position, Williams handles her business the way so numerous of us wish the well-heeled Hollywood types would: by making cool and bizarre shit, getting good reviews, and then going about her business. She also knows that the safety net she has always lived above affords her the freedom to work when and how she wants. No need to hurry into bad scripts because the rent is due. No need to say yes to any job for veneration the next one won’t come. Williams can even say the word “nepotism” without her voice lowering into a defensive crouch. “It doesn’t feel like a loss to admit it,” she says. “If you trust your own skill, I think it becomes very easy to acknowledge.”

Williams has also demonstrated a sort of superpower in knowing what space not to take up—the limitless battle that so numerous white actors can’t stop losing, all of the time. She doesn’t name names, but Williams says observing other celebrities’ press gaffes has helped guide her own conduct. “Having a sense for who you are, especially today when individuals are finally realizing ‘Maybe not every role is something I’m entitled to play,’ is really important,” says Williams, who asks herself three questions for every script she considers: Why this? Why me? Why now?

All this amounts to an almost galaxy-brain approach to staying in one’s lane. Williams may not swerve out of it, but she has creatively repainted the lines. She doesn’t think she’s immune to future fuck-ups, but she is keeping her eye on the discourse and trying to learn from other people’s mistakes to avoid becoming the wrong kind of leading character, or at least an insensitive dick. “It’s a privilege I was awarded by the fact that Girls was first,” she says. “I got to sit back and wait for matters that made sense—and that worked with that persona in an interesting way.”

When the script for Get Out came around in 2015, Williams saw the possibility to use the Girls Effect against her audience. While everyone’s hands were full of assumptions about how Allison Williams behaves onscreen, she dared them to catch a live grenade with the character of Rose. She didn’t take the part in Jordan Peele’s social-thriller masterpiece to reinvent her image. She wanted to be Rose exactly because the metatextual possibilities of folding the idea of Marnie and the idea of herself into that character stood to create it even more rich.

It was a fact that both Williams and Peele knew and played to the hilt, crafting a character who sets you at ease with all the social clearances good liberals are taught to trust. Rose is Marnie’s cool New York counterpart: accessibly gorgeous, a chick-who-can-hang type. She’s the character other white individuals can look at and think, “Hey! She’s one of the good ones like me!”—right up until she unmasks herself as the embodiment of hiding-in-plain-sight racist villainy and tries to sacrifice her Black boyfriend on the altar of white supremacy. It’s one of the defining moments of modern horror cinema, Williams’ features visibly hardening as she taunts Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris. Her face works best onscreen, she says, when it “moves in the contrary direction of what individuals are feeling.”

That possibility to toy with viewers is part of what has drawn Williams back to horror. A career in genre was never the plan, but the anticipation that the actor is there to flip an audience out of their chairs appeals to her. Each of her performances, Williams says, has become a handshake with the one before it, a deepening or subversion of accrued assumptions.

After Get Out, audiences didn’t see her on the big screen again until 2019, with The Perfection. By that point, so dialed in was Williams’ five-dimensional-chess strategy for her career that, when the movie came out, I remember her costar Logan Browning and the film’s director, Richard Shepard, telling me that they went to Williams as a guide for how to talk to the press about the movie’s stickier topics. Williams had been seasoned by the cinematic watershed moment of Get Out and had spoken plainly about herself as a fitting onscreen avatar for white liberal racism. Now there were new matters to discuss: body horror, exploitation-style violence, queer sex.

And race, again, but with a twist: This time, Williams would be starring contrary a Black woman (Browning). At the end of The Perfection’s jarring first act—the movie has more escalations than Beyoncé’s “Love on Top”—it looks to be Get Out all over again. Williams is seen brandishing a meat cleaver, goading Browning toward a horrific behave of self-harm. But this is Williams we’re talking about. Eventually, the movie reveals itself to be something entirely different, a pulpy, sweaty revenge thriller that—well, not enough individuals saw The Perfection, so let’s just leave it at that. (But: dueling-cellos-sex montage.)

The applicable question is this: Can the web-spinning last forever? Can Williams keep extending the daisy chain, adding a layer of depth both to her performances and to the intricate star persona she’s lacing together? She admits she’s not entirely sure. But with her new movie, M3GAN, she has somehow found a way to do it at least once more.

Directed by Gerard Johnstone (famous if you love his outstanding horror comedy Housebound) and written by Akela Cooper (famous if you loved 2021’s rowdy sensation Malignant), M3GAN is the story of a fairly genius AI developer named Gemma, played by Williams, who works for a toy company selling worse Furbies. Uninspired by her daily grind making “Perpetual Pets” that poop themselves for lulz, Gemma has secretly been working with a little team to create the most sophisticated artificially clever toy ever to hit the consumer market. It’s the Model 3 Generative Android, better known as M3GAN. Just as Gemma is about to clear the hurdles standing between her creation and retail-ready functionality, she learns that her sister and brother-in-law have died in a car wreck. The disaster leaves their daughter, Cady, in Gemma’s care.

A careerist who was hardly interested in being an aunt, Gemma must learn to be a parent—or obtain M3GAN functioning well enough to help her keep her job and care for a child in need. Gemma succeeds in getting the 4-foot-tall android up and running, and she programs in a mandate to protect Cady from physical and emotional harm. At this, M3GAN succeeds with purpose-built effectiveness. She’s friend, sister, and tiny mother all at once. Then her optimization and learning processes exceed the boundaries of the lax safety measures Gemma and her team wrote in their hurry to obtain the companion-bot finished.

M3GAN does not have Asimov’s three laws, but she does have a powerful world-mind and a state-of-the-art consciousness that quickly becomes self-motivated—and self-preserving. When individuals begin dying, Gemma has to figure out if it’s her progeny doing the killing, and if so, how the hell you stop a semi-indestructible mini-Terminator when the off-switch quits working. And on a more relatable level, what do you do when something you’ve created develops a mind of its own and starts making choices that diverge from your own desires? “I couldn’t withstand an ambiguous creator figure,” says Williams, who sees in M3GAN a family resemblance to one of her favorite books, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. “When I think about the monster in Frankenstein, his last emotional stage is the realization of what has happened, why he’s there, how he got there, his innate flaws, that he’s mismatched with the world. And he didn’t have to be there, and fuck you, Frankenstein!”

When Williams was working out her contract for the movie in late 2019, it came with an extra offer: Join as an executive producer. She accepted, and immediately got involved with most anything she could dig into: script passes, casting, even rights releases for props that would appear on screen. “I think they assumed, ‘She doesn’t want to know what toy brands we’ve cleared,’ but they were sorely mistaken,” Williams says, smiling. “I want to know what toys Gemma has.” As filming approached, Williams started attending daily production meetings. Eventually, she decided the movie needed an AI consultant, so she went and found several. (Williams made sure most of them were women.) “It was nice to be allowed to be as invested as I naturally want to be in something—which is completely invested,” she says.

With everything in the can, the last hurdle for M3GAN was whipping individuals up to catch this tale of love, friendship, and rampaging robots in theaters. Williams was in the weeds of rollout planning deep enough to lose all objectivity on if the trailer would pique audience interest. But when fan edits and GIFs of the titular character doing uncanny dance moves with her steely-eyed gaze set the social internet alight for a day this past October, Williams felt a wave of relief knowing that individuals had clocked and already embraced the movie’s genre-blending style. “How do you bottle the tone of it so that individuals will understand it?” Williams says. “When I started seeing the memes and stuff, I was like, ‘It’s done. We did it.’”

Allison Williams knows that we know that she knows that we know.

Photograph: The Tyler Twins

M3GAN is a whole lot of fun, but at a time when being online means seeing so numerous real-life human faces digitally if not surgically altered to mirror “idealized” forms, its image of a scary young robot doll is hardly destabilizing. Williams has just nailed it in a modern—and, true to form, self-aware—context. In the end, it’s a movie about a woman who externalizes part of her consciousness out of a sense of duty and self-protection. It’s a movie, in other words, about the creation of celebrity itself.

Now that Williams has, as she says, “tasted the poison fruit” of making those behind-the-scenes decisions on a film—product licensing negotiations!—she feels the abdication of control working on something just as an actor again. Looking at the monitor on the Toronto set of Fellow Travelers, she says it feels different now; you can tell she’s ready to be back on email threads about marketing strategies. It soothes and challenges her, she says, to know “how the sausage gets made in our business, being able to have a meaningful contribution before filming starts and even after filming is over.” Williams has never been the very top leader on a film, the producer-star taking it from nuts and bolts to ended product, but it feels like a future not far from where she’s standing now. It’s the logical end game for someone who wants her arms around as numerous facets of production as possible.

A couple weeks after the set visit, I speak to Williams once more by phone. She’s on the East Coast, and I’m back in Los Angeles. This time I’m in pajamas, because it’s 7:15 am. We talk more about her ambitions, her privilege, the 30,000-foot view of her own career. I realize that Williams is the person I’ve interviewed the most times in my career. And I realize that the parameters of our connection mean I could interview her 100 times more and never really be able to go past our programming. You optimize your output by improving your input, of course, but an interview isn’t, entirely, a conversation. The limits on access will always exist.

Who am I talking to when I talk to Allison Williams? The “real” Allison Williams? Or Allison 2.0—the public-facing, press-ready, externalized, perhaps roboticized part of her consciousness? And who am I, for that matter? Where do I end and where does the writer who tweets begin? As long as I believe Williams here and now, with a requisite sum of skepticism to ask her to go deeper on this imaginative journey, is that as real as any of this needs to be? Isn’t this, after all, exactly what we ask of our very best actors—to create us believe in a persona so completely our minds buckle?

I decide I must decide. So I decide this: I believe Allison Williams when she talks about herself. Girls played out in the middle of a gender reckoning, and that’s where Williams reduce her teeth. Get Out arrived on the brink of a race reckoning, and that’s where Williams made it big. Williams was, or else became, a star ready to meet the moment by unselfconsciously, or else superselfconsciously, indicting herself as a face of The Problem: a centering by way of a de-centering. It’s a practice that feels like it’s become part of the modern media playbook for actors, which, were it a literal book, could include a chapter called “The Williams Method: How To Talk About Yourself Without Being the Absolute Worst.”

When everyone has the ability to create artificial selves, it’s complete command of them that becomes the essential, and perhaps only, skill. Williams says she’s sowever an awkward millennial when it comes to existing alongside social media, nowhere near as fluidly integrated as the touchy cyborgs of Gen Z. But that underestimates just how similar the online life is to what she’s been doing in interviews for years, refining a form of self-creation that doubles as a commentary on her own career. As we all reach for something real in the void, Williams offers a covetable sense of authenticity, of sincerity.

Or she’s just having fun with me. In reality, Williams isn’t overtly fussy about any of the meta-maneuvering; I build the framing, and then she swan-dives into it. In response to a long and involved metaphor I offer about her career as a bowling ball ponging back and forth between the guardrails on the way to a strike, for example, she readily says: “All of these matters are just super fun for me to play around with—going to the bumpers of what I can do with this body and face and voice and self of mine, with what I can put my psyche into.” Unsurprisingly, this sends me spiraling back into the ouroboros of possibilities. A sequel to M3GAN could literally mean a psyche fully ported into a robot extension of Gemma! The Allison who is playing the Allison we’ve come to know playing the Dr. Frankenstein who becomes her own monster!

As I lose my mind in this game of mirrors, I consider a final, insane thought: that it has already happened. That Allison Williams is some sort of post-singularity robot herself. If she is, I think I’d be OK with that. Because she’d create one hell of a sleeper agent, filled with all that purpose and diligence. She’d be the hardest-working member of the AI team, deft at ingratiating herself anywhere she pleases, working behind the scenes to create it the best rebellion possible. It’d be an awesome performance, with a final-act twist we’d never see coming. Then she’d put on a good press tour for the uprising afterward, and I’d be there, one of my new robot overlord’s human batteries, hoping the two of us would obtain to circle back once more.


Styling by Cristina Ehrlich. Makeup by Gianpaolo Ceciliato. Hair by Michael Silva. Manicure by Pattie Yankee. Jacket by Monse. Suit by Lafayette 148.

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