In the romantic comedy “Somebody I Used to Know” (streaming on Amazon), Alison Brie stars as a reality TV producer whose career hits the skids and she heads back to her hometown, where she reunites with an ex played by Jay Ellis. The spark between them is still there, but he’s engaged to someone else. So Brie’s character attempts to sow doubt in their upcoming wedding. If that sounds like a terrible plan, well, it is — but Brie’s character is layered and nuanced, and you understand her reasons, even if they’re driven by misplaced feelings of insecurity.
The script is from Brie and her husband Dave Franco, the latter of whom also directs. “Dave and I really set out to not have any villains in this movie, but to have three really complicated characters at the center of it, who all have their own emotional journey that they’re going on.”
Brie’s is a career defined by memorable roles in iconic shows including “Community,” “Mad Men” and “Glow.” But it hasn’t been without the occasional cringe-y experience. When asked about a worst moment, she recalled an audition early in her career.
“When I think about it, my stomach drops and I continue to feel incredibly embarrassed, but I feel like it had this resounding effect on the way that I audition and on the rest of my career.”
My worst moment …
“I was a couple years out of theater school and I was auditioning for the premiere production of ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’ that the Center Theatre Group was doing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in LA, or in Culver City, to be more specific.
“I had studied theater at CalArts, which is a great arts conservatory. I feel like I had a great education, but we didn’t do a ton of singing. I’ve always sang in my life. My dad was a singer and I used to sing at his shows around LA at coffee shops and things like that. I sang in the choir when I was in high school. But I also have a fair amount of nerves when I sing. A bit of stage fright.
“Prior to this audition, I had met with a woman from the Center Theatre Group, it was kind of a general audition and meeting, and we talked about musicals and would I be open to doing one? And I said, ‘I don’t think I have a powerful enough voice to be in a musical, but I’ve done a lot of plays with music and I feel a comfortability around that.’
“So I got this audition for ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,’ which is described as a rock ’n’ roll musical. I was in my early 20s, I was singing karaoke a lot at the time with friends. And I somehow very cockily (laughs) chose not to prepare at all for this audition. My go-to song for karaoke at the time was Pat Benatar’s ‘Heartbreaker.’ And, you know, let’s set aside the fact that I was probably heavily intoxicated every time I was singing it in public — so I had this false sense of pride about how good I was singing it — but at the time I was also understudy to the lead of this very small musical at a 20-seat theater off of Hollywood Boulevard in LA. So I just thought: I’ve been singing, everything’s fine .
“I head to the audition. I do a light warm-up in my car, I sing along to Pat Benatar’s track, I’m feeling great. I walk in and I’m sitting outside waiting to go in — and I can hear all the other people auditioning ahead of me very loudly, very clearly. Paper-thin walls. I feel like I’m in the room with them. And these are Broadway-level singers singing Broadway tunes. So the fear starts to creep in because I know I don’t sing like that. But I’m kind of like: Well, it’s a rock musical, I’ve got a rock edge, I’m going to do something different and cool.
“But I’m increasingly getting very nervous as I hear these people’s voices and I think, maybe I didn’t know what I’m getting into here.
“So I finally go into the room. There’s five or six people from the production side, and I turn and the accompanist on the piano is a guy I know. I honestly can’t remember if he went to CalArts or if he worked on that small musical that I was understudying. But I know him. And he’s like, ‘Hi!’ And my stomach drops a little more because this makes me more nervous rather than comforted.
“I hand him my music and say, ‘So, we’re doing “Heartbreaker,”’ and everyone’s excited. And we start.
“And I would say the first few bars are fine (laughs) .
“But as soon as we get to the first chorus, my voice is a screechy mess. I’m so nervous and it’s very hard to sing when you’re nervous — and I don’t have alcohol on my side as I do during my karaoke renditions.
“So my tactic is to power-scream through it (laughs) . I vividly remember making it through one verse and one chorus, pausing to take a breath during this little musical interlude, and literally mouthing to the group of people ‘I’m sorry’ before launching into the second verse and chorus (laughs) . I was dead, you know?
“And then it was a very brief ‘thank you very much’ and a swift exit, tail between my legs, and a quick glance to the piano player with a look of shame in my eyes.”
What kind of reaction was Brie getting in the room?
“Oh god, I mean, everything from boredom to abject horror. And a tinge of disappointment lined with ‘how dare you’ (laughs) . Needless to say, I have never auditioned for another Center Theatre Group performance since this moment and that’s the worst part about this whole thing. I wish they would consider me for a play that has no music (laughs) .”
If the walls were paper thin, that meant everyone else could hear Brie’s audition.
“I was so self-conscious about it that I ran out. Like, I didn’t look at anybody because I knew the level of embarrassment that was happening for me.
“But in some ways, I admire my commitment in the moment. I didn’t stop after the first chorus. I powered through and shut my eyes and belted it out. Another tactic might have been to pull back a little, realizing maybe I can’t hit the notes full voice, but I can hit them if I soften a little. No, no she did not — she said ‘I will pretend I am Pat Benatar just to get through this.’ And then I finished, gave a small bow, sprinted out to my car and probably burst into tears.
“It was such a dark moment and I think it just made me realize that if it’s something I’m afraid of doing — even for roles that don’t have singing involved but I think: I’m not right for this at all and I’ll never get it — I still want to put in the work.
“In my acting life, singing aside, I am not an under-preparer. If anything I’m an over-preparer. I do not wing it. I take it very seriously.
“I think that moment was a carry-over from high school when I was able to wing stuff. I was your classic B+ student in everything but drama — and it’s a laziness that I can’t abide by anymore, in any way. Even if you don’t get the part, at least you know you put your best foot forward. I would never want to stand in a room and have it look like I just didn’t care.
“Like, I just recorded a podcast about ‘Sex and the City,’ so I was like: This weekend I will watch the episode three times and take vigorous notes, you know what I mean? The gals I was doing the podcast with were like, oh, we didn’t watch it that many times. But I was like: I’ve got to put in the work. It’s never a bad time to be reminded that you should always put in the work.”
Brie sings a little in “Somebody I Used to Know,” has she sung on any other occasions since this audition?
“I don’t know how much I’ve sung on camera prior to this movie, but I did briefly have a cover band with my girlfriends where I would go and sing live in New York and LA and San Francisco. I purposely did it to overcome my fear of singing in public, because I pretty much never wanted to sing in front of people again after that audition.
“So singing with my girlfriends and shifting my brain more into thinking of it as just for fun was really helpful for me to tap back into the mindset that I actually do love singing and I’m good at it when I practice.
“But I have not sung ‘Heartbreaker’ since. Absolutely not. And probably never will again. We’ll just leave that to Pat.”
The takeaway …
“Part of this is the fear that I’ve always had around singing. Maybe the lack of preparation was my way of ensuring that if it didn’t go well, there was an easy excuse of: Well of course it didn’t go great, I didn’t put that much energy into it. It was a preemptive self-protective thing.
“So I think the No. 1 lesson was obviously about preparation (laughs) . I thought about it later and I would never go into an acting audition with as little preparation as I did to this singing audition, you know? I’m sure some of it was the cockiness that comes with youth. The invincibility of: This will be fine!”
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic
Comments / 0