Although Sloane Caldwell is not the protagonist of Clea DuVall’s Happiest Season, as played by Alison Brie, there is not a single scene Sloane is in, where you don’t wish there was an entire film dedicated to her character. Sloane is the oldest sister of Harper (Mackenzie Davis, the lead) who throughout the years has developed a competitive relationship with her picture perfect little sibling, as they strive for the attention of their loving, but emotionally unaware conservative parents (played by Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen). Sloane has channeled her own imperfections into a life of make believe, she designs gift baskets for a living, and tries to maintain an illusion of cordiality at all costs, even when her own marriage is falling apart.
Little does Sloane, or anyone in the Caldwell family, know that Harper has a secret of her own that will mar her flawlessness, and while the film concentrates on what will happen when everyone finds out Harper is queer and in a relationship with Abby (Kristen Stewart), every time Sloane appears, Brie’s bittersweet smiles and longing eyes, craft a world of their own.
Sloane is one of four(!) performances in which Brie displayed her sensitivity and perfect timing in 2020. In Happiest Season she aces the comedy with tinges of melancholy, in The Rental she infused the horror scream queen with notes of existentialism, in Promising Young Woman she combined worldliness with naivete, and in Horse Girl delivered a pitch perfect performance inspired by people from her own life.
We spoke to her about her incredible array of projects, what the holidays mean for her, and what drink is best to pair with a viewing of Happiest Season.
I could have sworn that I saw some bits of Trudy Campbell [from Mad Men] in Sloane.
You know what you’re probably not wrong. I guess there are aspects of Sloane that could be like an updated Trudy, both of them care a lot about appearances. I guess Trudy had the luxury of evolving over the course of seven seasons, so you got to see her grow. I think season one Trudy has a lot of like Sloane at the beginning of the movie. And then she sort of goes through her own hardships, like trying to get pregnant and then having a philandering husband. I don’t want to give anything away for some of you who haven’t watched the show, but those things are not exactly the case with Sloane.
I agree that a lot of Sloane’s anger comes from unhappiness. And you know what, I don’t know if that’s totally true about Trudy… I’m really going to feel like I have to depart now from from the comparison in that yeah, I think that Sloane has some issues in her marriage, and she feels like she really can’t talk to her family about them, while Trudy is beloved by her parents. I would say that Sloane is loved by her parents, but she has parents who really don’t mind their daughters competing for their affection. And they’re so open about their disappointment that Sloane is no longer a high powered attorney and that she’s a mom who makes gift baskets. I think Sloane is trying to make efforts to be a happy person in her life. But then when she comes home for the holidays, she ends up reverting back to this other self because she feels like she has to impress her parents and that makes her really stressed out really unhappy and misery loves company. I feel like then she wants to make everyone around her miserable. Because she herself is miserable.
Although they’re obviously not your parents, does it add an extra level of wanting to impress these parent figures when they’re played by Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen?
I’m such fan of Mary and Victor. I sort of grew up watching them in movies. So I’m sure there was some level of wanting to impress them. But I would say everybody is so different from their characters. You know, we’re naming the top three people in this movie who are most different from their characters: me, Victor, and Mary Steenburgen. The vibe on set was really not at all like our characters. But I do feel like we felt like a family right away, everybody, the cast really melded very seamlessly together as a family unit, and it was really fun. But what you don’t see in the movie is every time Clea yelled “cut,” all of us just like bursting into raucous laughter and doing bits and making jokes and things like that. So I feel like, the three of us really had to suppress that for most of the movie.
You’re really wonderful in huge casts comprised mostly of women, who are all funny in different ways. It’s almost like a symphony of different styles of comedy. What do you find as an actor in this ability to riff off each other’s styles to create comedic beauty?
Yeah, I agree. I mean, first of all, thank you for the incredible compliment. And also, I do agree, I think comedy is obviously very rhythmic, and musical. It’s something that I got to know really well during my years working on Community, because that was another cast that jelled really well, we almost had our own language with each other. By the end of season one, we had our own inside jokes, banter and bits, and things like that. But everybody came in with different styles of comedy. Some of us were a little more silly, or kooky or physical, or, you know, Joel McHale, who’s known for being more sarcastic and dry and things like that. I think all of us were sort of learning from one another and like taking the best parts from everybody’s style of comedy.
One of my favorite things about being in a comedic ensemble is pillaging the group for their comedic secrets, but also finding that rhythm with people. There’s nothing more satisfying, especially you know, when working in comedy is really finding that patter. It’s kinda like the way that I think that everybody does in your friend group or when you’re in a relationship, you kind of develop a similar style of talking and joking and similar mannerisms. And I feel like we found that in our Happiest Season cast. It’s like everybody’s coming from different angles, but then we’re finding the common ground.
Kristen Stewart’s character starts the film not being a Christmas person. Are you a Christmas person at all?
I’m Jewish. I’m only a little Jewish. No, I mean, I’m like full on Jewish because my mom is Jewish, but my dad is not Jewish. So we definitely celebrate Christmas every year, but it’s alright. I feel okay about it. I would say I’m not the most Christmas-y person. I love Thanksgiving though. It’s my favorite holiday. I feel like what Thanksgiving is to my family is definitely just about hanging out, being together, being grateful, loving each other, eating a lot of food and drinking. And it’s it’s basically like all the best parts of Christmas without the stress of presence, and the striving for perfection and decorating, and things like that. But I will say I for a person who’s not a real Christmas person. I love holiday movies. I love holiday rom-coms and holiday movies. Full stop.
I don’t want this to sound like some terrifying question, but you know, having been by myself in my apartment since March I kept thinking in so many ways you and the cast of this film, are probably going to be the only companion that many people will have during the holidays. And I wonder have you thought about that and what it means as an actor to be invited into people’s homes in 2020? No pressure!
Oh, but the pressure? No, I’m kidding. Oh, what a year.
You know, I haven’t thought about it that way, if I’m being totally honest. But I do think that that’s something about holiday movies that’s great is that they find a special place in people’s hearts, right? And you become very close. Like, if you ask almost any person what their favorite Christmas movie is, a lot of people, even people who don’t celebrate Christmas, will say It’s a Wonderful Life, or A Christmas Story, or for me Scrooged or Home Alone. There’s something about it, especially when it becomes tradition. So if this is the year that we’re the Christmas movie that people get to spend the holiday with, and it finds a special way into their hearts, then I would be very touched and grateful.
This year we got to see Alison Brie in basically every genre, from Promising Young Woman, to The Rental, Happiest Season, and of course Horse Girl. You showed us all the range, all we were missing this year from you was a musical.
I was just thinking about this the other day, and by the other day, I mean, yesterday. Also, I’ve been thinking about it a lot actually over the course of the year because I think I’ve had more movies come out this year than ever before in my career, and yet, the world and our countries specifically are falling apart. And there’s been so much tragedy this year. So it’s been an interesting balancing act, just kind of reconciling those two things. And I guess, kind of giving myself permission to experience the joy of one and also the sorrow and the sympathy and the empathy that comes along with the other and the, you know, depression and things like that. But, I did have a moment of pride yesterday and in kind of realizing that I’ve never been in a big Christmas holiday rom-com and I do love them so much. And I was like, checking that off of my career bucket list. I’ve checked the horror-thriller off of my career bucket list. I was like this was a good year where I’ve been really, really checking those off.
I love what you did in Horse Girl which you wrote based on your own grandmother’s story.
Yeah, I mean loosely. Horse Girl was a huge, huge thing for me because it’s the first movie that I wrote, co-wroting it with Jeff Baena, who directed it. And it’s a very personal film for me because my grandmother was schizophrenic, and so I’ve sort of lived my life with this knowledge of that disease existing in my bloodline and kind of a fear of, if and when that might sort of show itself in my life. So the making of that movie, the writing of it actually, was a really kind of profound bonding experience for me with my mother because I got to just talk to her a lot at length and really interview her and about her experiences with her mother living with this disease and how that affected her and how it sort of affected my aunts and my uncle and everybody in their family. And how my mother has that same fear when she had two daughters and how it would affect them and how she has the same fear about my nephews, her grandsons.
When I first thought I wanted to make a movie about my grandmother’s disease, I kind of thought it would be more literal, but it ended up being a lot more abstract, just more sort of reflection of my own experience of fear and paranoia and kind of what that might be like for someone who doesn’t have a support system, like I do.
It’s like an impressionistic gift that you gave your parents, right? A part of their history is forever saved, rescued. And before I go, I wonder if you have picked up any new skills during the quarantine?
We got to do ice skating lessons. I now realize this was more like a quarantine question. But I didn’t really pick up any special skills during quarantine. Although I’ve been writing a lot more with my husband and cooking like everybody, but out of necessity. Right prior to the lockdown, I got to learn how to ice skate for Happiest Season and took about a month’s worth of lessons and learned how to skate backwards. I hope I remember how to do it when we come out on the other side of this because I’ve never been prouder than to like, do a cool stop on the ice. So it’s really something!
I am terrified of ice skating, being from the tropics and all.
I mean, it’s a little bit scary. I know. It’s a little bit I feel like even with all the lessons that we did, every time I would go get to the rink and get on the ice. It would still take me like 20 minutes to find my legs on the ice again and be like: Oh, okay! Oh, yeah. But now I do have this fantasy of sort of like, low key inviting someone ice skating with me like it’s not a big deal. And then we get out on the ice and I’m like busting a double Axel. I can’t, for the record. I did not learn how to do a double Axel. But I can slowly skate backwards in swizzle formation.
What would be the perfect meal to watch Happiest Season?
I haven’t thought much about it. But I just learned about a Cranberry Margarita, which sounds very festive and like it would be a good cocktail match for the movie which is lime juice, cranberry juice, a little simple syrup, and tequila. I guess those are the ingredients. I’m like, is there a splash of something in it? Maybe you throw in a little seltzer water or a little champagne. Or if you’re making a mocktail omit the tequila and just put in a little Martinelli’s.
And then you get a little popcorn, and then have a little caramel corn and while you’re watching it you can do one of those things that I always see people doing in movies but I’ve never done it where they make decorations for the tree out of popcorn on a string.
I love Sloane just came out and you’re going all Goop meets Martha Stewart with an edge.
It evolved as I started talking about it. I was like, I’ve never thought about it, but actually now that I have you could dye it too, you could take food coloring and dye some of the popcorn green and red, or blue and silver if you’re Jewish. Although if you’re Jewish, I don’t know where you would hang the popcorn. You would just hang it from the mantel.
Happiest Season is now available on Hulu.