Looking for a Fight

Photo: Andreas Laszlo Konrath; Hair by Andre Gunn for the Wall Group; Makeup by Rebecca Restropo for the Wall Group

You won’t hear anyone accusing the Tony-nominated actress Alison Pill of chewing scenery. But destroying it? Definitely. Piper Perabo still vividly remembers the first rehearsal of reasons to be pretty, the 2008 Neil LaBute play in which the two co-starred, when a stage direction called for Pill’s character to slam a door in the midst of an argument. “It was one of those prop doors in a frame,” Perabo says. “She pulled the thing off its hinges. That told me something about her right off the bat.”

“I’ve broken a lot of sets,” the actress—who is about to start previews as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker, opening March 3—admits with a shrug, recalling her handling of a breakaway ashtray in pretty that “got obliterated. I mean, it was dust. And they’re like, Maybe we can just give you a normal ashtray. I guess I don’t know my own strength.”

“Alison was young and small and somewhat fragile, but she could pour on such vitriol,” says LaBute, who also cast Pill in 2004’s The Distance From Here and is something of a connoisseur where vitriol is concerned. “There’s a waiflike thing to her, but she’s really fucking tough,” agrees playwright Warren Leight, a show-runner for HBO’s In Treatment, on which Pill played an architecture student refusing to come to terms with her cancer diagnosis. “At a cold reading, she would go places another actor wouldn’t get to in six weeks of rehearsal,” adds Leight, who’s also cast Pill in staged readings of his own work. “You watch her saying your words and think, ‘Wow, I must be Albee.’ She’s one of those once-in-a-decade talents.”

Jeff Daniels, who co-starred with Pill in the blistering drama Blackbird, playing a sex offender confronted fifteen years later by his victim, was equally impressed. “She would just throw herself into the part, so by the end she just had nothing left,” he says. “We had to rip out our guts every night, and she was fearless in doing that. It was us holding hands and jumping off the cliff into hell.”

Whatever dark places she accesses onstage, there’s little evidence of them when the actress meets me for coffee in the East Village on a Saturday morning, wearing a golden imitation-fur jacket—“My faux,” she says with mock hauteur, noting proudly that she picked it up on sale for $35. Pill has a winking, sardonic sense of humor and a charmingly goofy laugh. “She uses her smile like a weapon,” LaBute says. “Sometimes it can be an absolute ray of light, and other times it can scare you silly.” Her open, doll-like face can pass for a decade younger than her 24 years, making the psychological intensity of her performances all the more unsettling. Her other noteworthy turns include playing the daughter of a recently deceased stamp collector battling for her inheritance in Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius and a trigger-happy Irish militant in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, for which she earned that Tony nomination.

This spring, Pill returns to Broadway as the scrappy governess who cares for and breaks through to the young Helen Keller (Abigail Breslin). What her roles seem to have in common is that “they’re all people clawing for whatever is theirs,” she says. “I think everyone does that. But you don’t see it often enough in female characters, and when it comes along you want to jump at it.”

Pill admits that she didn’t immediately realize what a layered piece her new project was. “I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s The Miracle Worker … she works miracles!’ ” the actress says (there’s that big laugh again). “But it’s an incredible play. It’s really dark. Yesterday, we were doing a radio spot and I was supposed to say, ‘It’s triumphant, it’s joyful!’ Which it is … but, I mean, in the end.” Sullivan, she points out, had her own struggles before arriving at the Keller home, having lost much of her own eyesight to trachoma and been abandoned by her father to a brutal poorhouse, where her younger brother died. “It’s astonishing that she survived, let alone went on to become what she did.”

Pill, who has been acting since she was 10—her lengthy rap sheet of early TV and movies ranges from You’re Invited to Mary-Kate & Ashley’s Camping Party to the Naomi Judd vehicle A Holiday Romance—seems as surprised as anyone by the ferocity that characterizes her more recent performances. “I grew up a happy kid in Toronto,” she says, noting that she talks to her parents every day. “I’ve never suffered. I’ve never even had a real job! But I understand sadness and striving, and those two things tie into all the roles that I’ve played.”

Having arrived in New York at 17 to appear in the Off Broadway play None of the Above (she was still enrolled in school, and spent each afternoon in the reading room at the New York Public Library, doing her homework), she has been largely on her own ever since. Recently, she moved to the Upper West Side after six years in the East Village. “I’m over needing to be stumbling distance from bars that take my fake I.D.,” she says. “Now I have a dishwasher and storage space. Friends come over for wine.” She has a boyfriend, an actor, but most nights, she says, “I just sit on my couch and knit and watch something brainless on Hulu, like an episode of Bones.”

Whatever her taste in entertainment, don’t expect to see Pill in a procedural anytime soon. “In Treatment was different, but in general, I won’t do TV,” she says, preferring projects that allow her to work closely with a director and dig into the emotional life of a character. She made an exception for this summer’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a big-screen adaption of the cult graphic novel starring Michael Cera. “I was like, ‘I’m tired of doing big hard things, and I would like to do a big easy thing,’ ” she says. “Plus, I got to learn to play the drums.”

Does playing these often-dark roles affect her psyche? “I never feel it till it’s over. But when I was doing Inishmore, every time I got drunk, I’d turn Irish. I was like, ‘It doesn’t affect me at’all!’ ” she says, adopting a bright lilt. “ ‘What’re ya talkin’ about? Shut da fuck up!’ ” Then she lifts an imaginary pint and takes a swig.

The Miracle Worker
By William Gibson.
Circle in the Square Theatre.
In previews February 12.

Looking for a Fight