Alana Haim is growing up all over again
Entering a new era of her creative life, the musician tells us about starring in Paul Thomas Anderson’s nostalgic new movie, ‘Licorice Pizza’.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.
There is a scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie, Licorice Pizza — a joyful (though occasionally myopic) love story set in the warm-toned slopes of a 1973 San Fernando Valley — that at times is stressful enough to rival a sequence by the Safdie brothers. Circumstances aside for spoilers’ sake, Alana Kane (Alana Haim) is suddenly and urgently tasked with driving an enormous and fuel-less U-Haul backwards down a series of steep California roads. “Get in!” Alana snaps at Gary Valentine (her partner-in-crime and co-lead, played by newcomer Cooper Hoffman) as she lifts the brake and begins to steer the orange truck. They barrel down the hill in near pitch-black darkness for an agonising two and a half minutes, eventually coming to a safe stop.
“I named her Gertrude,” Alana reveals partway through our conversation in a Covent Garden hotel room. “It went that far. Every time I put her on, I'd rub the steering wheel and we'd have a full conversation.” The vehicle in question, a genuine 1970s model U-Haul truck, had not been an easy beast to tame. The first-time actor describes having to throw the full weight of her body behind shifting the ancient gearstick, having only driven automatic cars previously. “I think the second that I got it into reverse, I was like, 'I can do this movie. I can do it. If I can do it once, I can do it again.'”
The demands of a Hollywood movie set were outside of, though perhaps adjacent to, Alana’s wheelhouse — the then-28-year-old artist’s main gig was (and still is), of course, Haim, the Grammy-nominated rock band she plays in with her older sisters Este and Danielle. “I had been performing in front of a lot of people for a very long time,” she says. “The thing about music is when you play a show, it's done. You have one shot: if you fuck up, there's no going back.” Shooting a film, then, can feel like an unending purgatory of fucking up, trying again, and fucking up again. Especially when your director, a renowned auteur and close family friend, only has so many rolls of 35mm (“Paul only shoots on film”) at his present disposal.
When we speak it is mid-November, before the waves of critical praise in her favour — the New Yorker’s Richard Brody speaks of Alana’s “constant and instant focus even to riskily inchoate emotions”; The Independent calls her performance “a revelation” — and the Best Actress Oscar buzz. “I don’t think I have the mettle to say I’m an actress yet,” she says. Curled up on the sofa across from me, dressed off-duty in matching heather grey loungewear, Alana looks right at home in the city she considers a close “second” to her actual home: the San Fernando Valley. “Sometimes I even consider London my first home,” she adds quickly, as if concerned for the city’s feelings.
‘The Valley’ is an essential touchpoint for Paul Thomas Anderson’s creative relationship with the Haims, and indeed for Licorice Pizza. It is a California city that, according to one native writer, “seems lame and suburban on its surface, but is filled with Hollywood-adjacent weirdos”. In the film, this description holds up to an extent: Alana and Gary encounter a number of unsettling celebrity caricatures as they try to break into the industry and wrestle with the uncanny magnetism between them, but the suburban landscapes turn sun-dappled and sublime under Paul’s vintage camera lens.
From even the most cursory glance at his filmography, it’s clear that the Boogie Nights director has a great deal of affection for 70s LA as a setting. PTA told Variety recently: “Do I wish I had more range? Yes, I do.” Licorice Pizza is no exception to the evidence; in its anthological structure of loosely-related memories and anecdotes (many belonging to former child actor Gary Goetzman), the film is perhaps his funniest and most sentimental love letter to the San Fernando Valley — where all three Haim sisters were also born and raised. The filmmaker first met their mother, Donna Rose, as a child in her elementary school art class.
In traditional Hollywood fashion, the project is very much a family affair: Donna appears in the film alongside Alana, her other two daughters, and her husband Mordechai. It was during scenes with her family that Alana felt the most unlike her spunky Licorice Pizza counterpart. Alana Kane is a far more wayward twenty-something than Haim: sick of her dead-end job as a photographer’s assistant and her static love life, she is flighty, jealous and argumentative. “I had never yelled at my dad before,” she says, her eyes wide as she recalls the scene. “Yelling at him during that was something that really made me feel like: 'This is acting. I'm acting right now. I'm screaming at my father.’” She shakes her head. “Alana Kane would do that. Alana Haim would never.”
How does it feel when one of the world’s most influential filmmakers says he’s written a film, and a lead part, especially for you? Alana’s response is giddy disbelief, struggling to characterise the experience past the word “crazy”. She was PTA’s Valley girl muse. “He gets mad at me because I'm always like, ‘You didn't write for me!’ and he's like, ‘I did. You need to believe it at some point.’ And I don't think that I ever will.” Performing for almost 15 years next to her older sisters, Alana had settled into her identity as Baby Haim (the family’s “doll”) a long time ago. Now under a solo spotlight in indie cinema, she’s looking at a new creative career (relatively) apart from them. But in her strong best-friendship with co-star Cooper Hoffman, she’s found another industry life partner. “I read with a lot of different Garys and there wasn't even one that was even close to when I read with Cooper,” Alana says. “Paul made Cooper read a bunch of times. But I think I knew it from the first. I knew that Cooper was gonna be my Gary, I could just feel it.”
Gary and Alana’s easy chemistry would lend itself well to a more straight-forward romance in a more straight-forward movie, but Licorice Pizza is not that. Online audiences have expressed some discomfort at Gary and Alana’s close relationship: the former is just 15 years old, mature for his age and completely besotted with Alana, a much younger-seeming 25. There is “no line that’s crossed”, as the director told the New York Times, though their bond has an undeniable sexual edge. But Paul’s aim is to explore a different, more complex kind of profound emotional connection. As Vikram Murthi writes for The Nation: “These two have made an indelible impression on each other, and even if they’re not meant to be together, they’re still bonded for life.”
IRL, the pair connected over their mutual lack of on screen experience, and Cooper’s encyclopaedic knowledge of 70s music. The playlist they made together — “it was a lot of Dr Hook & The Medicine Show, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Joni [Mitchell], Freda Payne… I think “Hooked on a Feeling” was on there?” — played on repeat behind the scenes, alternating with the mixes Paul would occasionally send the cast. If you’re wondering what Alana K’s character anthem is, it’s what Alana H would listen to every morning of shooting, to pump herself up: Freda Payne - “Band of Gold”. “Music is my safe place.”
Expectedly, there are a number of skills she’s managed to carry over from her “actual job”. In a conversation with John C. Reilly for Interview, the singer-guitarist explains that she is able to keep rhythm in her acted dialogue thanks to “a metronome in [her] mind that’s constantly ticking”. “The thing about the metronome is true!” she says. “[Acting] really is like making music though. You don't want to step on anybody's toes. You don't want to talk too fast.”
In the film, her musically-informed performance is one of great emotional nuance and impressive comedic intuition. In one especially memorable scene, Alana’s unfortunately Atheist love interest (Skyler Gisondo) upsets her Jewish father by declining to perform a Shabbat blessing. “What does your penis look like?” she asks, quietly and poisonously, simmering with anger as they leave the house together. “Is it circumcised?” Skyler’s character, bless his himbo heart, nods yes, still pleasant though lightly confused. “Then you’re a fucking Jew!” Alana spits back at him, and tears back up the driveway toward the house.
Though it’s a fresh set of skills to hone, Alana has been subconsciously preparing since she was a child opting to play the Wicked Witch of the West (“full green paint, the whole thing”) not once, but twice: in both her middle school and her high school’s productions of Wicked. “I never liked parts that were 'pretty'. That's not me,” she says. “I mean, I was never that growing up. I always wanted to make people laugh. I wanted to be Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.” The 1968 musical comedy was a Haim household favourite, along with “a very edited version” of Boogie Nights. It was, in fact, her first “Paul movie”. She faux-swoons in front of me: “Right now, my heart is with Paul. My world revolves around Paul.”
When asked about her favourite films, Alana proves loyal, listing There Will Be Blood, Punch-Drunk Love and Phantom Thread (“Jonny Greenwood's score in that movie is insane. It's insane.”). She has a final recommendation, though. A Baby Haim special. “People make fun of me, but my favourite movie is A Goofy Movie.” She adds, gravely serious: “If you haven't seen it, you need to watch A Goofy Movie. It's the best movie of all time.”