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Fantastic Fest

Fantastic Fest: Allison Williams is using her celebrity image to create screwed up characters

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Sep 23, 2018, 6:30 PM EDT

"What's really fun about being an actor in 2018 is that it's [suddenly] a meta-profession," Allison Williams remarked over the weekend at Fantastic Fest. And Williams is no stranger to the self-referential in her work, having begun her acting career by playing a character on Girls that many people assumed contained more than traces of Williams' real personality.

Williams made the observation while sitting next to director Richard Shepard as the pair sat with a few reporters in Austin to break down their new grindhouse thriller The Perfection, which celebrated its world premiere over the weekend. The film is an intricately plotted, non-linear, gore-filled thrill ride that challenges audiences to rethink its characters several times over its 90-minute runtime.

"It used to be that actors would disappear between projects, and then when the studio was ready for the world to see them again, they'd take Elizabeth Taylor, put some batteries in her, and send her out," jokes Williams. "If she were a celebrity today, she'd be on the cover of Page Six Every. Single. Day. because of her antics," explained Williams, who is using the current state of celebrity to help inform her roles.

"Now I get to sort of bring all of the Connecticut/Yale graduate sheen into the roles that I play and either deploy it to my advantage, which was the case for Get Out, or against type for something like this. I can't wash it off. It's just sort of in me innately, so I might as well use it and have fun with it."

Having worked together previously on Girls, director Richard Shepard knew firsthand what Williams was capable of as an actor, and had written the part of Charlotte with her in mind. "I crafted it for her because I'm not [always] sure what she's thinking as an actor, and if you use that correctly it can be hugely helpful," says Shepard. "Sometimes you can just see everything and [she] can show you that, but also pull it back so you're not seeing all the cards."

Once Williams got the script, she describes it as being as "crazy on the page as you can imagine." In the film, she plays a former cello prodigy on the hunt for her former mentor and his new star pupil. "I finished it and I was, like, 'First of all, [Richard], are you okay? Am I okay because I want to do this?' I mean, the weirder the script, the more dangerous and third rail or whatever, that's the way to get me onto a movie."

Beyond the challenges of working on such a winding narrative that changes audiences' perceptions the longer it goes on, Williams was drawn to the character of Charlotte, who she describes as having "such flawed logic but such a good heart."

"[She's] trying to fight her way back to a sense of right and decency in the world that has never been offered to her by. I just saw her as someone who's on a mission and has been stuck in a moment in a stairwell for her entire adult life and has been able to think of little else."

Williams adds that her prior role as Rose in Jordan Peele's Get Out would inevitably help to shape the audience's opinion of her character.

"We sort of needed the baggage, so to speak, of Rose from the minute you see me on screen," she said. "You can't trust me. You have to be like, 'What is she up to? She's not all there. I don't trust her.' I hope that even for people that have never seen me before, but especially for people who saw Get Out. It's like, 'Great, throw all of that baggage in there. Don't trust me at all.'"

"One of the things [Richard] does incredibly well is he takes people who have that sheen on them and just pierces right through it," Williams continues. "Which I love, because I grew up around those people. So, just for me, cathartically, all these people who present so perfectly, and then they go home and you just know there's like bodies or orgies or whatever, that's the version of them I want to see."

Part of Shepard's sheen-piercing approach comes from his directorial style, which features intense, extended close-ups of his characters dominating the frame. 

"If you're bullshitting in any way, it comes through. Especially if you're not doing it on purpose," says Williams. "But if you're bullshitting as a character when they're up close in a way that isn't visible to the naked eye, that's where Richard lives. He wants the audience to have that viewpoint into a very flawed but perfectly presenting person before the other characters in the movie get it."

The Perfection hasn't secured distribution as of this writing, and Shepard readily acknowledges the film could be a tough sell. However, both he and Williams knew that Fantastic Fest was the perfect place to unleash the movie on the world. 

"One of the reasons why I come to this festival was to start a conversation about the film in a very specific way so that people could hear, 'Oh wow, people seem to dig it,'" says Shepard, who's kept all details about the plot under wraps, with only a single image from the film in circulation. "We really didn't want anything [else] because we're in a way hoping that the people who tweet about it and start talking about it are, like, 'What is this movie?'"

But it's the kind of restrained enthusiasm that Fantastic Fest crowds are known for that let both Shepard and Williams know that it was the perfect place to premiere The Perfection.

"The best thing about this crowd at this festival: It's such a spoiler-sensitive group," says Williams. "I feel like everyone in the audience last night knows all the rules about what you can and can't spoil, whereas if we screened it for like a bunch of people in New York City being like, 'Hey, it's 3:00 p.m. on a Tuesday, you want to come see a movie?' They'd walk out and be like, 'Here's the plot to the movie I just saw.' So it felt like a really good fit, because we didn't have that concern of walking into the movie and knowing that the cat's out of the bag."

Williams also gives a shout-out to fans who kept the plot of Get Out during its theatrical run last year. "People were really respectful of that. So I have personally benefited from that before. If people know the whole plot going into the movie, it's a different experience. Watching it a second time is fascinating and awesome in a whole different way, but that first experience of just not knowing is such a great theatrical experience to have with a group of people in a theater. So I want to preserve that."

Be sure to check out all of SYFY WIRE’s Fantastic Fest coverage all through the week.