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The Untold Truth Of Alison Pill

Watch out, everyone! Triple threat performers have been taking the world by storm for as long as we can remember, dazzling audiences with their astonishing ability to dance, act, and sing. But there's another kind of triple threat that might equally amaze you: the type of actor who's capable of conquering film, TV, and Broadway. One actor who has accomplished this impressive feat is Alison Pill (not to be vaguely confused with Kristen Bell).

Most casual viewers will recognize her from Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom" or for serving Starfleet alongside Sir Patrick Stewart (their characters are the only two to appear in every episode of the first two seasons of "Star Trek: Picard") — but did you know that she was also hailed as one of "Broadway's newest and brightest stars" as a young Tony Awards nominee? And that she was doused in corn syrup, chocolate syrup, peanut butter, and red food dye eight times a week for her part in the acclaimed production that earned her so much positive notice? Let's take a closer look at the wide-ranging career of this multi-talented thespian and uncover the untold truth of Alison Pill.

Broadway vs. TV vs. movies, according to Alison Pill

Already a seasoned veteran of the big screen, small screen, and stage, Alison Pill has devoted a good chunk of her career to mastering all three art forms — and she has no shortage of accolades to show for her performances. Among many other nominations, she earned a Drama Desk Award as part of the original US cast of the play "The Distance From Here" (2004), a Critics Choice Award for Oscar-winning film "Milk" (2008), and the San Diego International Film Festival's Virtuoso Award for Best Breakthrough Performance for "The Newsroom" (2012).

Of the three, which does she enjoy the most? Pill will always love the stage the most — because, as she sees it, she learns the most as an actor when she's working onstage.

"I've learned to do the work on the text that I think has made me a much better actor and a much better collaborator," she told 1883 Magazine. "We spend the week or so of rehearsals just around a table peeling apart at a script. The stage is the only place where the actor has final say. I don't have final say on my performances for any film or television work."

But it has its grueling downsides. "Theater is much harder and more tiring. It is a great and all-encompassing mistress, and therefore maybe too intense to do all the time," she admitted to Filler Magazine.

Keeping the energy up with backstage rituals

Theater's intensity weighed on Alison Pill's mind when she returned to Broadway after she had a child. "It was a thrilling change becoming a mom, but did nothing for my sleep habits or my emotional consistency. I was a human puddle of hormones, thrilled when I got to have a shower, let alone a conversation with my husband that didn't revolve around feeding schedules," she opened up in an intimate Glamour piece

During her run in Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women," she devised a strict pre-performance routine to fight burnout. "I do neti pot, drink Throat Coat tea, plenty of water, yoga in my room, I do make-up at the half-hour before the performance and clothes at 15," she meticulously recounted in a Playbill interview. But she didn't forget to let loose: Five minutes before the curtain rose, the cast met in Glenda Jackson's room to run lines and blow off a little pre-show steam together.

How theater saved Alison Pill's career

A loose-cannon, gun-crazed Irish terrorist ("The Lieutenant of Inishmore"), a sexual abuse victim confronting her rapist ("Blackbird"), and a sister locked in a bitter dispute with her other half over a rare stamp collection ("Mauritius") — these are three impressively formidable roles that Pill took on even before she was old enough to legally buy alcohol. Pill's run in New York City's theaters now spans roughly three decades since she left Toronto at 18, and she credits theater for the long success of her career, calling it a "saving grace" in her early years. 

"The roles that existed gave me a completely different thing to measure other roles against," she told Salon. "I was working with women directors, women playwrights, in women-driven projects in a way that I don't think I could've found in film and TV at that point. [...] I was working with astonishingly talented people and had an expectation that female roles should be complicated, fleshed out and not sexual objects."

Alison Pill's Interact-ive past

Surprisingly, Pill was never formally trained in her acting craft. She learned on the job, acting in movies and TV shows, as she shared in her portion of American Theatre Wing's roundtable discussion with Jonathan Groff ("Spring Awakening," "Hamilton," "The Matrix Resurrections," "Mindhunter"), Ashley Brown ("Mary Poppins," "The Sound of Music"), and John Lloyd Young ("Jersey Boys"). In particular, what taught her a lot was reading. "Reading everything," she emphasized. "Reading plays and books; great novels are perfect for trying to figure out human behaviors and desires and that's what we're trying to figure out every night."

Away from show business, Pill also had an unorthodox schooling journey. She was a student of Vaughan Road Academy's Interact Program, specially designed for students with professional commitments, like in sports, music or entertainment. (Fun fact: Elliot Page, from "Juno" and "The Umbrella Academy," was an alumnus too.) Not only did it help her better grasp the work, but it also took into account her rehearsal and performance schedules and didn't dock marks for missing classes. "Until I found Interact, it was really hard to get through the system. The whole program was amazing. It would have been impossible for me to pass high school without it," she gushed to the Streets of Toronto.

She could teach you a thing or two about quantum mechanics and the multiverse

Like most actors, Alison Pill puts in enormous dedication and effort that she commits into studying and preparing for her parts. "It's made me a jack of all trades. It's fascinating!" she joked to Screenslam. This is perhaps most evident in the science fiction thriller miniseries "Devs," in which Pill portrays Katie, the chief designer of the eponymous secretive quantum computing technology. In addition to Richard Feynman's renowned lectures, she tackled Stephen Hawking's behemoth book "A Briefer History of Time" and David Foster Wallace's "Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity."

After deftly explaining Niels Bohr's intimidating double slit experiment, Pill heartily recounted to Thrillist: "I would go into rehearsal one day and I'd be like, 'Alex, Alex. Physics of the observer! What the eff!!' I read David Foster Wallace's book on infinity. You know what's crazy? Infinity! What does that even mean? What does that even mean? What does infinity mean? Right? It doesn't make sense in our physical world. We can't believe in infinity, so everything is near infinite. Okay, so if everything is near infinite, what does that mean? There's an end to the universe? What does that mean?" 

Fortunately, writer-director Alex Garland was definitely helpful, Pill said to Variety, going over stuff she didn't understand with her and with whom she had "fascinating conversations about politics and gender and quantum physics."

Alison Pill, rock star

Not all of Alison Pill's roles are as mind-boggling as complex concepts of theoretical physics. Sometimes, preparing for a role is simply pure fun. Since her character in the action-comedy flick "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," Scott's first girlfriend Kim Pine, was the drummer for her band Sex Bob-omb, Pill decided she needed to learn to play the drums properly. She started out with the basics, beating her couch in New York, before rehearsing for three weeks with rock band Sloan's Chris Murphy, awestruck the whole time as she had grown up listening to the fellow Canadian's music.

After that, she and her cast mates enjoyed many "odd jamming sessions," bestowing their mixtapes weird names such as "Maxwell 1, 2, 1, 2" and "The Half-Mother." Speaking to Collider, Pill recalled, "We've had some odd jamming sessions. Including this ... Johnny [Simmons] insists on plugging in this weird red flashing police light. It was just like this little strobe. So we plugged that in just to ... play. I think we would be around the same level as Sex Bob-omb."

She's got another musical talent to mesmerize you with

While Alison Pill put in an impressive amount of work in order to become a convincing big-screen drummer, that isn't the only musical skill in her repertoire. She's also a talented singer — something that goes all the way back to her childhood, when she was a ten-year-old member of Toronto's renowned children's chorus. (In fact, this was how she was pulled into a career in the entertainment industry: A CBC radio employee heard her narrating one of her choir's performances and scouted her to read some audiobooks he was producing.)

A New Yorker interview revealed her unwavering love for karaoke — Shania Twain, Alanis Morissette, and "other angry Canadians" are her go-tos — as she belted some lyrics in a New York bar in between questions about her thriller drama "The Family." "Done wrong, karaoke is an off-key bachelorette party being incredibly irritating," she said. "But I see it as one of the last vestiges of communal storytelling."  

Pill's vocal ability was put under the spotlight professionally when her Star Trek character, Dr. Agnes Jurati, found herself, quite literally, under the spotlight at a NASA Gala, dazzling attendees with Pat Benatar's "Shadows of the Night" in the midst of her tense conflict with the Borg Queen. Many praised her performance (yes, it's really Alison Pill singing in the episode) as show-stopping and powerful, and she has director Jonathan Frakes, with whom she shares a common theater background, to thank for calming her nerves and helping her ace the showmanship of the big musical number.

One of Alison Pill's greatest fears

One of Pill's recent standout roles came courtesy of the seventh season of Ryan Murphy's horror anthology series "American Horror Story" as Ivy Mayfair-Richards. While all seems quiet on the domestic front with her partner Ally and son Oz, malicious hatred and seething jealousy drips beneath as Ivy deeply resents Ally for being able to bear and love their child. Catalyzed by Ally voting for a different candidate in the 2016 presidential election, all of this comes to a head when cult leader Kai Anderson preys on her insecurities to lure her into joining his ranks, turning her dangerously against her own family.

As the Mayfair-Richardses deal with creepy cults and horrific murders, and Ally is wracked by several crippling phobias, one might expect Pill herself to be pretty fearless — except it turns out she's more like Ally than Ivy in real life, at least when it comes to one particular phobia. According to the Advocate, Pill's deathly afraid of moths because, as she put it, "They're terrifying."

Alison Pill takes her parts to heart

In addition to her stint on "American Horror Story," Alison Pill dabbled in the terrifying via her role as Betty Wendell on the Amazon Prime Video horror drama series "Them." Dripping with malice and hatred, Pill's Wendell leads her affluent pack of affronted neighbors to drive out a new Black family that has recently arrived in their Los Angeles community. Starring in this exploration of systemic white supremacy and insidious racism took its toll on Alison — not just physically but emotionally too, as she admitted when she opened up to Black Girl Nerds.

"Unwinding after acting out these horrifying things that actually happened, the weight of being on a street surrounding [a Black family in] a car with hundreds of white people, all of these things live on in the body. When I finally took off the costume for the last time, the last day, I came home and had like a crazy flu exorcism of having to lie down and feel like, 'Wow this actually did take more of a physical toll than I even knew was happening inside my body.'"

Humor is essential for Alison Pill

With so much darkness around some of her characters, how does this seasoned actor work through the constant heaviness around the uncomfortable topics explored in her work? One of her "primary defenses" is humor, she told Complex, in an interview about "All My Puny Sorrows," in which she and Sarah Gadon ("A Dangerous Method," "Enemy") play two Mennonite siblings (Yoli and Elf, respectively). It's a role she definitely needed some lightness to remedy; the film centers around Yoli's desperate and emotionally raw attempts to convince her sister that life is worth living, even after bleakness has engulfed Elf and she wants to commit suicide.

"I think finding the funny in everyday existence and finding not only the funny, but the silliness or the absurdity of life, with people is really essential to survival," Pill said. She's often captured laughing in interviews, and it's not hard to see how such a radiant life philosophy translates into her bubbly and effervescent personality.

A great nickname for the great Sir Patrick Stewart

Here are two things one would never expect someone to manage in the same sentence: acknowledging the inimitability of the great Sir Patrick Stewart while also calling him by a quirky nickname. Yet Alison Pill did just that on KTLA 5 Morning News when she touched on the experience of acting opposite him in "Star Trek: Picard." "There's the gravity of P-Stew himself, which is significant," she mentioned nonchalantly like an old friend, later adding that she calls him P-Stew to his face, to the flabbergasted expressions of the anchors.

Dr. Agnes Jurati and Captain Picard's friendship runs deeper than just nicknames and shared screen time. Pill had tremendous admiration and respect for the legendary actor; working with someone this kind, funny, and self-effacing was one of the great joys in life, she wrote in a Guardian tribute.

"He read 'Questions from a Worker Who Reads' one day," Pill recalled. "And while sitting at someone's knee listening to poetry seems to be something of another age, it simply feels right when the knee at which you sit is Patrick Stewart's."

Alison Pill wants to be back on Broadway

What's up ahead on the acting road for Alison Pill? With so many independent and lower-budget projects under her belt, one would imagine that Pill is setting her sights on starring in a big-budget blockbuster with some Hollywood giants or leading the cast of a streaming service's next big show. Yet when she was asked by 1883 Magazine if there was a list of films or shows that she'd really like to work on, she answered that "they're all theater," including Chekhov and Shakespeare. Specifically, Hedda Gabler, because "she's just such a fascinating character whom I'd like to spend some time getting to know."

In another universe, future Pill might've been found knee-deep in the library vaults of a university instead. Wading into politics or academia and getting a degree in English are things she's dreamed of doing had she not become an actor, she confessed to the Observer. But theater is her "enduring love" after all, as she told Filler Magazine, and although we should expect to see her on television and the big screen for many years to come, she clearly has no intention of staying offstage for very long.