Having been cast in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film Licorice Pizza without any prior acting experience, Alana Haim has been receiving high praise for her effortless performance and on-screen chemistry with Cooper Hoffman (son of late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.) Set in 1973 in the San Fernando Valley, Licorice Pizza explores the friendship and complicated love story of Alana Kane (Haim) and Gary Valentine (Hoffman), and in true PTA fashion, includes a slew of cameo performances from Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, Tom Waits, and Maya Rudolph. Here the musician and Golden Globe-nominated actor reveals how she nailed her breakout debut.
You and your sisters have collaborated with Paul Thomas Anderson on a few music videos. How did you get involved with this film?
“I would love to say that there was this crazy elaborate story, but it’s no secret that Paul is very secretive. My siblings and I are kind of the same—we never like to say too much about records coming out, we like it to be a surprise and keep our art very close to us until we are forced to let it out into the world. We had done a festival and Paul helped us with the stage stuff. During that time he said to me, ‘I think I’m going to put you in a movie one day’, and I was just like ‘okay.’ I don’t know what made him say that, maybe I had said something funny on stage and it sparked something in him, but I was just like ‘okay, I’ll be an extra, whatever you want Paul, I’m down. I’ll get coffees for you—I’ll be a P.A’. I just wanted to be on a movie set, I find them so glamorous and crazy.”
“Then over the next couple of years, Paul started sending me these newspaper clips from the ’70s about waterbeds and the opening of a pinball palace. All of a sudden, I was in London and I was insanely jet lagged and I got this e-mail from Paul that had no message in it, no subject line, it was a word document that contained the script. I had never been sent one either, but I remember reading it so quickly because it was just so exciting. By the time you got to the character of Jon Peters you’re like ‘Oh my god, how is this happening?’ and that’s not even the end. I read it so quickly and then immediately called Paul. I was so excited for the movie and that there was a character named Alana. Paul makes fun of me all the time because he’s like ‘How did you not know that I was going to ask you to play Alana? Who else can play Alana but Alana?’ I responded ‘I don’t know! I thought you were just using my name, I can’t assume anything, you’re Paul Thomas Anderson!’ He then asked, ‘Would you ever consider playing Alana?’ and of course I said yes, but then I hung up the phone and I wanted to die because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I was lucky enough to have Paul be my number one cheerleader, he always knew that I could do it. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, I had no experience to fall back on, but he had a gut feeling and I’m very happy that he did.”
Your chemistry with Cooper Hoffman is very effortless. How did you both develop your on-screen rapport?
“Day one was Bradley Cooper coming out as Jon Peters and us seeing him for the first time. We didn’t talk before we did the scene, there was no blocking or anything like that. We heard ‘action’ and it was game on, here we go. Bradley was tormenting Cooper saying ‘do you know who I am? Do you know who my girlfriend is, Barbra Streisand?’ We were so terrified throughout that whole scene, and Cooper was just nervous to say Barbra Streisand’s name. The next day I was driving everybody in this truck, I had to learn stick shift for this movie, I also had to learn how to maneuver a 70’s U-Haul truck and do it with ease as if I had been driving stick shift my whole life. I’m actually a terrible driver, which Bradley Cooper definitely did not know—he definitely thought ‘Oh, she’s got this’ and I was like ‘I don’t got this but I’m just going to fake it.’ That was really crazy because I’m driving these two people around, taking care of their lives in this large truck with a film camera strapped on one side and lights on the front. It was chaos for five days and then once it settled and the dust had cleared, I looked at Cooper and said ‘I couldn’t have done that without you, you couldn’t have done that without me, we’re a team.” That really did set the trajectory of the film and how we worked together, it was really the biggest bonding experience.”
You mentioned Bradley Cooper and obviously there are other great cameos in the film such as Tom Waits, Sean Penn and Maya Rudolph. Who were you most excited to meet on set during filming?
“I have to give it up to Tom Waits, it was just so nice to meet him. First of all, I’m a huge fan of his and also it was just nice having a fellow musician on set, even though I’m so bad when I’m starstruck—I can’t really speak. So, the only thing that I mustered up the courage to say after three hours of being in that booth with him was ‘I’m a really big fan’ and that was it. He’s such a good actor, it’s crazy how incredible he is.”
Music is an integral part of the film and the soundtrack is amazing. What song were you most excited to hear in the film?
“It’s a tie between “Life on Mars?” and “Let Me Roll It”, which was a big one because I’ve listened to the song since I was a child. We would always listen to it driving over Laurel Canyon with my parents and we also played it during breakfast. It’s such a great, crazy song and it comes at such a crazy point of the movie—I loved it.”
It is a great song. You mentioned the truck sequence as being particularly challenging. Is there another scene that was the most rewarding from an acting standpoint?
“It was the scene that we shot right after the Jon Peters saga. We moved to Gary’s house, which happened to be the fight scene between the two of us when I’m mad at him for playing with the pinball machines. It was still so early to do something that intense, and once we got through that scene it was very much me, Paul, and Cooper as a team getting through the rest of the film, which resulted in an enjoyable experience. I remember looking at Cooper during filming and said ‘We’re going to stumble through this process because we’ve never done it before, but at least I know I got your back and you got mine. I think we can do it.'”
Why do you think these two characters are so drawn to one another?
“It’s this unspoken energy; life is pulling them apart, but you can’t really pull apart a magnet, it’s just going to come back together and I feel like that’s what draws them to each other. They don’t know it when they meet at the school picture day, but you know it by the end of the film that their lives are forever changed in that moment. It’s a constant rollercoaster—you never know what’s going to happen with them, even after the movie ends.”
“When I met Cooper, it was at the editing house of Phantom Thread, Paul had to leave and he asked my siblings and I to get Cooper food. We had dinner with him and he completely worked the room at the restaurant. Even though he was from New York, he had never been to this specific restaurant that we took him to. He was ordering for me and my sisters and we thought to ourselves ‘Who is this fucking kid?’—he was so confident.
“You never know where life is going to take you, these conversations that you have, these random meetings that make you realize ‘Oh wait, my life changed 6 years ago when I met Cooper because now I’m here and I’m talking about this movie’. That’s very much Gary and Alana.”
I love that unspoken energy. In a recent interview, Paul Thomas Anderson said he’d put you in the same category as Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix. How do you feel about the praise your acting debut is receiving?
“It’s an honour, it literally leaves me speechless that Paul is giving me such great praise, placing me alongside someone like Daniel Day-Lewis or Joaquin Phoenix. They were my idols growing up, they’re the greatest actors of my time or of anyone’s time. They’re timeless, they’re classic, and I’m just honestly shocked and honoured. I don’t even know what to say about it other than ‘What? Really? Crazy.'”
Licorice Pizza opens in cinemas on December 25th.