Alana Haim talks acting debut in ‘Licorice Pizza’

Scene from the film Licorice Pizza
Focus Features/Courtesy

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It’s not every day that you get a call from Paul Thomas Anderson, or PTA, asking you to star in his latest film. 

For Alana Haim, one of three sisters who make up the Los Angeles pop-rock band HAIM, playing the lead in a PTA movie was the opportunity she never knew she wanted until she had it. Though Haim has frequently collaborated with the acclaimed director for her band’s music videos, carrying one of his films alongside a veteran ensemble cast marks a drastic step up for the rocker turned actress.

Watching “Licorice Pizza,” you wouldn’t be able to tell that it’s Haim’s first time in a starring role and her feature debut. Not only is she a natural star with an abundance of charisma, her performance as the fictional Alana Kane joins the list of all-time great PTA characters, and she absolutely steals the show. 

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Haim recounted a moment working with Anderson which led to her eventual star turn. As she recalls, while working with HAIM during one of their festival appearances, Anderson told her that one day, he’d put her in one of his movies.

“I was like, ‘Okay, you’re gonna put me in a movie one day, like what? I don’t — that’s not gonna happen,’” Haim said, her own Valley girl charm flashing. “Like, how — why would I assume Paul Thomas Anderson would want me, as a musician — I’ve never acted in anything before, that’s insanity!”

The conversation, which happened years ago, was one she would barely come to remember, but she would go on to hear bits and pieces of stories revolving around the San Fernando Valley and the director’s secretive work. 

“I was in London one day, because we were about to release ‘Summer Girl,’ which we did with Paul, and I got this email, and it had a Word document in it,” Haim said, smiling as she remembered the moment where it all came together. “And it was an untitled Paul Thomas Anderson script. And I read it, and one of the first names was Alana.”

Haim’s character is a 25-year-old floating aimlessly through a ‘70s Encino and eager to leave the San Fernando Valley for bigger dreams just about anywhere else. On a chance encounter during picture day at a local high school while working as a photographer’s assistant, she meets Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a 15-year old child actor with enough sense of purpose to  sincerely believe the sky’s the limit. The friendship between the two, in turn, brings out the most honest versions of each other.

Hoffman, as Gary, makes his on-screen debut alongside Haim. Yet, the search for a suitable co-star didn’t always start with a fresh face in mind. After reading alongside many experienced young actors, Anderson and the Haim sisters decided to go with the son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whom they had met some time earlier. Upon their initial meeting, Hoffman stood out, his engaging personality leaving a lasting impression on the director and Haim.

“All three of us were like, ‘Oh my god, like how did we not? That’s so obvious!’ ” Haim said. “We had dinner with Gary Valentine two years ago, like, he was Gary then!”

It makes sense that the electric on-screen chemistry between Haim and Hoffman is the crux of the film, bringing to life a plot strung together from a series of memories that shape the contours of their connection. Haim says their newcomer status was crucial to solidifying the relationship of the pair’s characters. 

“We just had that connection in the sense of like, it was so comforting to be with someone that also had never worked before, because I was so insecure, and so was he — in a good way. It really did band us together just being like, okay, I have your back and you have mine,” Haim said. “And that’s really what it was. I mean, it was, it was really us against the world, because we didn’t know any better. We stuck together because we were, you know, untrained.”

“Licorice Pizza” is one of the most blissful, hilarious films of the year, a rare sunny two hours of coming-of-age and emotion truly seen in the effervescent Encino sun. For Haim, the experience behind the camera is just as memorable as what audiences see in front of it. 

“I mean, we had such an incredible time making this movie, and I hope when people leave the theater, they have a big smile on their face,” Haim said. “Movies are slowly coming back and it’s kind of like my life motto. I just want to make people smile and laugh. I want to make people happy.”

“Licorice Pizza” is now playing in theaters.

Contact Vincent Tran at [email protected].