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'I've always wanted to be able to make people laugh'

By Kaleem Aftab

Once a self-styled 'very serious actress', Mad Men's Alison Brie now finds she can make a living out of the way she has always joked around with friends.

As the cheated-upon wife Trudy Campbell, Alison Brie played the most moralistic character on Mad Men, but in person she is far more like the sharp-witted and gregarious personality seen on her Funny or Die videos. She is arguably the star of the popular internet channel and is now transferring her talents to the big screen.

The 33-year-old recently got engaged to actor Dave Franco, and when I meet Brie in London she's sporting a bling ring. The Los Angeles native has just finished shooting Victorian-era costume drama Doctor Thorne, a TV mini-series adaptation of Anthony Trollope's novel, scripted by Julian Fellowes and produced by Harvey Weinstein.

"I was excited because Julian was telling me he was a fan and wanted me to do something of his," says Brie.

"I love Downton Abbey and I've never done something like that before. I worked on Mad Men for seven years, but it's a different period. So it's exciting coming from a theatre background to do anything where you get to wear very interesting costumes."

So she swapped her girdle for a corset, and says of the experience: "On day one, I thought I was going to die!"

In Doctor Thorne she plays an American character, Martha Dunstable, and is the only American in a cast that includes Tom Hollander and Ian McShane.

Yet it's a state that she's used to. Back when she was studying theatre, she spent a semester at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, where she soon got used to local stereotypes.

"It's in Glasgow, so I was getting down and dirty man and I know how to kick someone's teeth in, just like that," she laughs.

And those from Edinburgh?

"So posh, not my style."

Brie is always looking for the angle that will create laughs and there are a lot of them while we chat. She has a killer knack of being able to play to the crowd. Trying to get her to be serious is more of a battle.

But, at one time, Brie thought she wouldn't display this comedic side in her work. When she left school she saw her career being dominated by drama:

"Coming out of theatre school and doing a lot of roles in theatre, I considered myself a very serious actress. It wasn't until I started working on Community for NBC, that I realised that this is fine, the way I joke around with my friends, that you can also make a living doing that."

In the cult TV show Community she plays compulsive overachiever Annie Edison, but having lit up TV screens for years, she's now being chased by movie directors. I point out that her fiancé must be asking some questions, given that her two upcoming films are called Sleeping with Other People and How to Be Single. It's the only time she goes stone cold serious.

"Well that's what is great about what we do, it's all pretend. It's actually very interesting," she says about Sleeping with Other People.

"Jason Sudeikis and I, we didn't really acknowledge this until after we got the movie, but we both made this movie while we are in very strong relationships.

"We have a bit of distance from when we were single and going through some of what the characters are going through. I feel like it would have been a different experience if I were single shooting this movie, it might have been a little bit too dark."

In Sleeping with Other People her character suffers from a sex addiction.

"It was very different from Mad Men. I like how contemporary the script was and the way people talk about sex feels very current to me. It's very different from America in the 1960s where so much was unspoken. Here people are, like, I'm going to ask and I'm going to tell you everything, and even if you don't ask, I'm going to tell you everything."

In the Valentine's Day date movie How to Be Single, Alison plays a woman with questionable techniques on how to land the right guy.

"She's a type-A personality and really trying to find her husband. She's happy in work and life, but on about 10 different dating sites and has developed an algorithm to find the right guy.

"She's not going to sit in a bar and meet a guy, she's going to sit at a bar with a computer and find the perfect combination."

Looking back at Mad Men she says she never got bored.

"Trudy was a totally fascinating character to me, but she was always changing, that was what was great about the show. If they were going to spend time with a character, even if it was for one episode, they were going to be a fleshed-out character and have depth."

Brie was born in Hollywood, both literally and figuratively: "I came out of the womb singing."

Her mother works at a childcare agency, while her dad is a musician.

"I would do plays in the house for everyone. I used to put on almost vaudeville-style singing and dancing shows. When my parents would have friends over, I would get all my friends together and we would come up with skits and they were always kind of dirty. We would get a hotdog and make it into a penis, and I would put a big trenchcoat on and we would do these ads for wieners, that were like your penis and also you can eat it. This is me at seven or eight years old."

And how did her Jewish mother, and her Christian-Hindu father react?

"They were drinking and laughing, they thought it was hysterical. I think I always had this need to perform and looking back I did like to make people laugh, and I guess it did start with the comedy more than anything."

  • Sleeping with Other People is at cinemas now. How to Be Single is out on February 19. Doctor Thorne will air on ITV later in 2016

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