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Alyson HanniganAlyson Hannigan - Guardian.co.uk Interview
By Gareth McLean
Monday 9 February 2004, by Webmaster
Interview: Ready to Slay ’em in the Aisles
Having an orgasm onstage in the West End version of When Harry Met Sally might be a daunting prospect - but after playing Willow in Buffy, Alyson fears nothing.
by Gareth McLean
There is a certain inevitability to Alyson Hannigan’s arrival on the West End stage. As Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she was part of a long-running TV show for seven years. Her likeness features on all manner of merchandise from fridge magnets to mugs, mouse mats and board games. "You know you’ve reached a certain point when your character has an action figure," she smiles, a poseable doll having been made in her image. Google her name and you get about 232,000 results. From Buffy she bounced into movies. Unlike her co-star Sarah Michelle Gellar, Hannigan eschewed horror (Gellar opted for I Know What You Did Last Summer), and in contrast to Katie Holmes, who went from Dawson’s Creek to Doug Liman’s Go, she also avoided indie. Instead, she chose comedy.
As Michelle in the smutty American Pie trilogy, she was known for her "One time, at band camp ... " proclamation, which for most of the movie, marked her out as a geek, until she finally finished her sentence saucily with a reference combining her flute and her nether regions. One of the few stars to weather all three films, she can currently be seen grinning out from phone boxes, billboards and posters across the country promoting the trilogy on DVD.
It is therefore - for such is the scheme of these things - about time she did theatre. And so here she is, in London in rehearsals for a stage version of When Harry Met Sally, alongside Luke Perry, alumnus of the original gleaming teen drama, Beverly Hills 90210. It will be her professional stage debut. "I might as well start big, right? Skip the baby steps and take a huge leap."
With much harrumphing about the Americanisation of the West End, there is also an inevitability to a hostile reception for Hannigan. Such is the pedigree of the production (a couple of American stars; a director - Loveday Ingram - with a track record in undemanding commercial work; jazz kid Jamie Cullum providing the music à la Harry Connick Jr), it seems unlikely that Nicholas de Jongh, the London Evening Standard’s theatre critic, will revise the opinion he aired when Friends’ Matthew Perry opened in Sexual Perversity in Chicago: "Producers should stop palming us off with third-rate plays that they believe can be decorated with any youngish, film-starry Americans."
When the play opens, Hannigan will probably need one of those protection spells employed so ably by Willow in Sunnydale. Critics, after all, can be demons.
And Hannigan is self-effacing and engaging, even when she is drooling over you. Especially when she is drooling over you, actually. I would like to take it personally, but really can’t. She is digging into a Wagamama bucket and, as she slurps, spatters my notes with noodle juice. She apologises with an impish grin. "You’ll be able to sell those on eBay now," she jokes, while I marvel at an American actress who actually eats. And noodles too. "I love my carbs," she enthuses, continuing to sing the praises of dough balls and wrinkling her nose at the mention of the Atkins diet.
Hannigan herself is upbeat about the play. She admits to being petrified but it has, she says, always been a dream of hers to appear in the West End. It has been one fostered by actor Alexis Denisof, her recently acquired husband, whom she met on the set of Buffy. He lived in the UK for 13 years and has a background in theatre. She is pragmatic about Theatreland’s so-called Americanisation.
"First of all, this play takes place in New York so I think it’s better with Americans. And, you know, a lot of you English people come to America. I think it’s give and take, and it’s a good sign. To come here is something that people view as a great thing in your career. I do understand that it’s becoming more and more popular, but I don’t care if you hate me for doing it. I wanted to come to prove to myself that I could do it."
And what about taking such a well-known film and putting it on stage, particularly as it is so well-known for that iconic scene in which Meg Ryan’s Sally fakes an orgasm in a diner? "I can see why people think it shouldn’t be tampered with because the movie was so wonderful. I think it’s going to be one of those things that’s going to have a life of its own for years and years and years. Like The Producers. It really works on stage."
Hannigan has, however, been avoiding watching the movie since she started rehearsals. "I don’t want to make the wrong choice just to be different from what Meg Ryan did, but, at the same time, I’m not doing an impersonation."
Inexorably, the talk turns to orgasms. "I’ve been practising and I have gotten over the embarrassment factor. Every time I do it, I get more and more confident and bigger and bigger. Now I have to learn how to do it from my diaphragm rather than my throat. I have been hurting my throat. I need to be more," she pauses, grasping for a word, "guttural."
There still is a problem though. "When I’m doing it, my ears get really hot and turn red. So I’m hoping my hair will be down."
As a performer who started in commercials at three years old, and did movies and various guest parts in sitcoms such as Roseanne before she landed Buffy, it could be that Hannigan doesn’t need to be worried. When her friend Anthony Head left the latter series, Hannigan landed the much-coveted "and" at the end of the opening titles, and having been part of an ensemble in the first two American Pies, she became, in effect, one of the third instalment’s two main stars, earning a reported £1m for reprising Michelle. Beneath her easygoing perkiness, you sense a steeliness and an ambition.
Testament to that is her development deal with NBC. Focused on working on her comedy ("In Buffy, we got to do it all, but towards the end, the comedy was farther and farther away. Once my girlfriends started dying, there weren’t so many chuckles.") She is doing a sitcom pilot for the American network. "I met with a bunch of writers and producers, listened to what their ideas were and then got to pick the one I liked the best. It’s pretty obnoxious, isn’t it? It’s amazing I’m getting sent scripts to choose one."
And having moved on to London, she is very excited about something most unexpected. "I love I’m A Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! English reality television is so much better than American reality television. I think it’s the self-deprecating humour," she says.
Whatever her reviews, you suspect that Hannigan might just weather whatever the West End throws at her.
· When Harry Met Sally previews at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, from Tuesday