Her departure from social media went like this: Allison Williams—who continues to be best known for her debut performance as the delusional and high-strung Marnie Michaels on Girls—used to run annual fundraisers for the education-focused nonprofit Horizons National on Instagram and Facebook. (She is a brand ambassador.) “It was a whole thing,” she says. She responded to individual Instagram comments. She filmed kooky videos. Williams’s effort was lo-fi—part of its charm. But in 2017, when she kicked off the fundraiser as usual, skeptical comments poured in. Was Horizons even getting these funds? Was it a scam?
“There was so much bad faith throughout,” she says. “I’m someone who cares a lot about being understood, and the fact that people were…even planting those seeds. I was just like, ‘In what world?’ ”
It’s no great revelation to discover that the internet is a cesspool, but it is rare for someone in Williams’s position to do what she did next. She bowed out. “That was the beginning of the end.” She posted on Instagram three times over the summer of 2020 and not once since.
When Girls went off the air, in 2017, Williams had seemed the likeliest of the cast to achieve conventional star status. She swanned down red carpets in Ralph Lauren and Giambattista Valli. She headlined Get Out, a bona fide blockbuster. A romcom or three seemed inevitable. So did several glittering ad campaigns.
But Williams surprised her fortune tellers. She moved from New York to Connecticut, a few minutes from her parents, the journalists Brian Williams and Jane Stoddard. The pandemic descended. She didn’t tweet. She didn’t start a podcast or form a book club or unveil a line of serums. There were no romcoms.
Here is some of what Williams did instead: After Girls and Get Out, Richard Shepard—who directed several episodes of Girls—tapped her for his Netflix thriller The Perfection, in which she gave dimension and nuance to a woman with a terrible secret. She shot A Series of Unfortunate Events, the action flick Horizon Line, and her latest feature M3GAN, a horror movie about a demonic doll. The trailer went so viral in October that people dressed as the film’s main character for Halloween—a full three months before M3GAN was due in theaters. For the first time Williams is an executive producer, a position that gives expression to both the critical thinking skills she honed as an English major at Yale and her admitted control freak tendencies. Oh, also: She got divorced from entrepreneur Ricky Van Veen, began dating her Horizon Line co-star Alexander Dreymon, and welcomed a son in 2021.
“I didn’t think, ‘This is what I deserve.’ For some reason, I understood it wouldn’t be like that forever.”
So when we meet in a diner about an hour west of Toronto, where Williams, 34, is on the set of her new limited series, Fellow Travelers, we have a lot of ground to cover. “I didn’t go into a Han Solo kind of carbonite situation,” she says, laughing. “Instagram was just poisonous for me. Some people can do it all, and it doesn’t seem to bother them. For me it was an impossible task.”
Her exodus means she can spectate like the rest of us. She is a news junkie and podcast devotee who implores me to listen to her favorite House of the Dragon recap show, House of R. She is devouring Love Is Blind. And, of course, she knows all about the #nepobabies discourse.
There’s a bit of lore about how Williams landed her breakout part. She had just graduated when Judd Apatow—who was looking to round out the cast for Girls, which he produced—saw a semiviral video she had made in which she performed a twist on the Mad Men theme song and nailed it in a single take. I had heard that the role was hers within a week and a half of her audition. Williams grimaces: “It’s worse than that.” She got the audition—and thus the part—within a week and a half of moving to Los Angeles. She bagged an HBO show in less time than it takes sprouted seed bread from Erewhon to go bad.
Girls premiered in 2012, well before TikTok discovered nepotism but long enough after the advent of Wikipedia that it took people no time at all to discover that each of its four stars had well-connected parents. Williams brings it up of her own volition: The four of them weren’t “random, like from towns where there’s no one else that has ever broken through.” It wasn’t fair, and it costs her nothing to admit it. “For someone with no connections to our business to get to the place where I was able to start, skill aside—that’s what people mean. And that’s legitimate.”
Still, despite whatever quibbles internet sleuths had about the cast—or perhaps because of them—people tuned in. For the antics and the wacko costumes. For the vicious one-liners. Rita Wilson, who has known Williams since she was a teenager (the two met at a party in 2005) and guest-starred as her mother on Girls, calls working with Williams “one of the highlights” of her career. In one memorable episode, the two perform together after Marnie’s musical partner arrives too high to string two notes together. “It was delicious,” Wilson recalls. “We laughed so much.” Wilson admires Williams’s knack for improvisation and her ease on set, but it’s her willingness to commit to the bit that impresses Wilson most. “She has no fear.”
For six seasons Williams went where the plot sent her, even when it made her look ridiculous. When the show ended after 62 episodes, no one—least of all Williams herself—knew what she would do next. How does one follow a role that spawned listicles like “The 18 Most Embarrassing Things Marnie Has Done on Girls”? “It was a loud show,” Williams says. “It may not have had the viewership of a Game of Thrones, but it was just loud.” Rewatching it a decade later, I laughed harder than I expected to. Did we know when it aired that it was satire?
Where its quartet of leads was concerned, the public didn’t seem sure. Girls helped mint a microgeneration of talented male actors, Adam Driver, The Bear’s Ebon Moss-Bachrach, pre-Atlanta Donald Glover, and Riz Ahmed among them. People understood that the men were in a fictional show. The women were assumed to be in a docuseries, “rolling out of bed with a camera crew there,” as Williams puts it. The double standard still depresses her.
That notion that Williams and Marnie were interchangeable informed the opportunities that came to her, offers she describes as “variations on a Marnie theme.” That’s what made Get Out such a revelation. It gave her the chance to swerve. “Allison has some of the best judgment I’ve ever seen about what she is right for,” says Jason Blum, who produced both Get Out and M3GAN. “She advocated for Get Out.”
Her part in the film was a character wrapped in a trick. Williams looked like the same kind of well-intentioned if borderline narcissistic white liberal that audiences knew from Girls. But as the villainous Rose Armitage she weaponized the trope. Get Out director Jordan Peele insists that Williams still “doesn’t get enough credit for how vitally important she was to the success of Get Out.”
“Without Allison’s take on Rose, the whole thing falls apart,” he says. “Her performance is working on multiple levels and meticulously calculated in every scene. It’s a testament to Allison as an actor. She got it and put in the work to pull it off.”
Williams knows what kind of career people expected her to chase. But America is crowning fewer sweethearts than it did when she was little. Even as Girls dominated water cooler chatter, Williams could see that the show was anomalous. “I didn’t think, ‘This is what I deserve.’ For some reason, I understood it wouldn’t be like that forever.” Now she feels grateful she knew when to pivot. “You have to be able to redirect your dreams and your goals in a direction that isn’t the initial one.”
Williams has continued to choose projects that let her subvert her post-Girls type-casting—her perceived innocence, her all-American good looks, those cheekbones! In Fellow Travelers she nabbed the part of the daughter of a powerful U.S. senator. Not a bad send-up from one of the first viral #nepobabies.
“I love Marnie, but that assumption that I’m going to have zero self-awareness— that was less fun.”
“I love Marnie,” Williams says, “but that assumption that I’m going to have zero self-awareness, that I’m going to be cringe selfish—that was less fun. From a performance standpoint, people see that I’m in something and, going into it, it’s like, ‘I don’t know how this is going to go.’ ” She flashes a disarming smile: “That sense of openness is so fun.”
Can M3GAN be described as fun? The titular M3GAN does at one point break out into a hilarious rendition of David Guetta and Sia’s “Titanium” dance before embarking on a murderous rampage. The scene went over so well with test audiences that the sound team had to build in an extra beat of silence to pause for laughter. In the film Williams is Gemma, M3GAN’s creator, a genius robotics engineer who builds the doll to serve as a child’s ultimate companion—both friend and quasi-parental stand-in. When Gemma’s sister and brother-in-law are killed in a car crash, her niece moves in, and Gemma—having no clue how to raise a child—brings M3GAN home to fill in the gaps. Terror ensues.
Williams, for her part, acknowledges that her “status as a mom” changed while she was working on M3GAN, but she made no announcement. She has never spoken publicly about her divorce or about her subsequent relationship with the father of her child, although in December, Dreymon referred to her on Instagram as his fiancée, and Williams confirmed the engagement to T&C.
“I became a mom, and that made it all much more interesting, because that’s Gemma’s whole arc,” she says. When the film starts, Gemma has zero children. Then she has two, “one that she created from scratch and the other that she inherited, who, while sharing her DNA, is not her own. That was going to be complicated, but it also became more interesting as a performer to bring this person to life, having a greater appreciation of the stakes of that.”
For most of the film the audience is made to feel that awareness is something Gemma lacks. She doesn’t do what we expect of women: drop all other personal and professional obligations to become a caregiver. She doesn’t redefine herself according to her new role. “Which is one of the things I loved about her,” Williams says.
Williams has some friends for whom work became a chore after they had kids and others who couldn’t wait to escape to the office. For her there’s pleasure in both realms. She loves coming home. She loves heading out the door in the morning. She seems to have become less jaded as she has gotten older. Parenthood has made her more sensitive to the real and genuine wonder of the universe.
It’s almost embarrassing to cop to such a cliché, but not long after Williams gave birth, her dog Moxie dragged in a rabbit. It was bleeding to death when Williams saw it. She was postpartum, emotional, and raw. “I’m thinking, like, This rabbit had a mom who carried it.” She has been a vegetarian ever since.
Is that too Marnie cringe? Perhaps. But Williams had made peace with where she and the character overlapped. There was, as she puts it, “a resonance” there. She too tries hard. She cares a lot. She is a perfectionist with a side part who cites the writer Allison P. Davis when she opines that “the vibe shift has happened” and that she is “committed to being left behind.” She has noticed the return of Y2K fashions, a resurgence she is experiencing with visceral terror. Here is where Williams and her onetime alter ego differ: She knows herself. She saw bell bottom jeans for the first time since 1992, and it was resolved: “I’m sitting this vibe shift out.”
Hair by Brent Lawler for Act+Acre. Makeup by Benjamin Puckey for Clé de Peau Beauté at the Wall Group. Nails by Megumi Yamamoto for Deborah Lippmann at Susan Price NYC. Set design by Michael Sturgeon at Monday Artists
This story appears in the February 2023 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
Mattie Kahn is a writer who lives in New York. She covers politics, style, culture, and dangerous women. As far as she's concerned, candidates come and go, but the Oxford comma is forever.