Born and raised in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, Alana Haim is a Valley girl. “Through and through,” she said in a roundtable interview with The Harvard Crimson on Jan. 24. The critically acclaimed musician, known primarily for her role as guitarist and vocalist in the band Haim, was discussing her acting debut in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest effort. The character she plays in the Oscar-nominated, nostalgia-driven love letter to the ’70s that is “Licorice Pizza,” is also a valley girl. Where Alana Kane (her character's name in the film) is “a little crazy” and “a little frantic,” Haim is less so, she assures. Both Alanas, though, are ride-or-dies for their loved ones. “She's very protective over the people that she cares about. I definitely can see myself in that aspect,” Haim said.
The film follows Alana, 25 years old and frustrated with her dead-end job, and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), an entrepreneurial 15-year old who, from the moment he sees Alana taking class pictures at his high school, becomes wholly fixated on her. He chases her and traps her in (at first) unwelcome flirtations at every opportunity. What ensues is a saccharine romp through Anderson’s vision of a Los Angeles overflowing with quirky celebrities, romantic lighting, and braless women. “We basically lived in the ’70s all the time,” Haim said of filming on a set kept pure of modern technology like cellphones. “It was all very much like we were living in that time.”
Amid the collage of incongruous vignettes of Gary and Alana’s adventures that drive the film, Haim’s performance soars. Save for a few stints as the Wicked Witch of the West in school productions, “Licorice Pizza” is Haim’s acting debut — and a stellar one at that. The New York Times has cited her “expressive range” as crucial to the film’s success. In a review of the film, The Crimson praised her “magnetic screen presence” — the true mark of a performer. In a film saturated with self-referential nods to its auteur, Haim’s character (in spite of the overdone Valley Dream Girl mold Anderson set up for her) is both a point of light, and a breath of fresh air. Her performance is honest and generous. “I just got to, you know, dive into this deep end and kind of immerse myself in this process and just try to do my best,” Haim said of filming her now-celebrated debut, before adding, “I couldn't have done it without [Paul].”
Still, Haim is better known for what she does on stage than on screen. For over a decade, she’s been guitarist and vocalist for the band she shares with her older sisters Este and Danielle. Like the band (also named Haim), “Licorice Pizza” is a family affair. Haim is joined on screen by her sisters and parents, all of them taking on roles as part of the Kane family. “For the longest time it kind of felt like this weird, family vacation movie that we all kind of made. But I never really thought anyone was gonna see it,” Haim said of the film and its many connections to her real life, the life that Anderson was inspired by. “Now people can see it, and they like it? It's an honor.”
It was through her band with her sisters, too, that Haim first got to work with Anderson. He directed the band’s music videos for “Summer Girl,” “The Steps,” “Valentine,” and other songs — all of them on film (“Paul is all film, everyday”). Just this week, the “Licorice Pizza” official Twitter account announced a new Anderson-directed Haim music video, titled “Lost Track,” which will play in theaters before every screening. “I did feel like I kind of had a cheat sheet, being with him on music videos,” Haim said.
The working relationship between the musician and director began when, nearly 10 years before “Licorice Pizza,” Anderson emailed Haim asking to direct their videos. They agreed. He had no idea at the time that the band’s mother had been his art teacher in grade school.
That type of spontaneous relationship is what Haim sees at the heart of Alana and Gary’s story: “You never know who's gonna come back into your life, stay in your life. And I think that's very much what happened in 'Licorice Pizza,’” she said of the film . “Alana [Kane] could have met Gary and it could have been a five minute conversation and they never see each other again, and their lives go [on], whatever. And really,… they don't know it yet, but their lives are forever changed and they go on these crazy adventures.”
As with any gauzy ’70s film, it's the soundtrack to these crazy adventures that pushes the story forward. Songs like The Doors’ 1970 funk-filled psychedelic track “Peace Frog,” David Bowie’s iconic “Life on Mars?” and “The July Tree,” a heart wrenchingly bluesy ballad by Nina Simone, plant audiences squarely in the decade of love, bell bottoms, and, for Alana and Gary, water beds. “The songs that are in 'Licorice Pizza' are all songs that I love so much,” Haim said. “When [Paul McCartney and Wings’] 'Let Me Roll It' plays, it's one of my favorite songs of all time…. The first really big part of the movie is when that song plays, and it was an honor.”
Indeed, the music of the film is also its life force — a skilled exercise in scene setting that allows the film to explore its many intersecting plot lines without getting bogged down in the weeds of world building. According to Haim, music also played a big role in keeping the actors themselves immersed in the upbeat energy of the film. “Music was constantly playing [on set], and it plays a huge part because it kept the vibe going,” she said. “[It] kind of reminded me of being on music videos, like it really did keep the vibe high.” And Alana Kane’s musical mantra? “So much Freda Payne. Every morning, Freda Payne 'Band of Gold.'”
Alana Haim doesn’t know yet whether or not she’ll keep acting, but it seems a career will be waiting for her if she does. “I haven't really thought about the future. I'm going on tour, so that's pretty much the next thing that I'm thinking about,” she said. Haim’s world tour starts late April and will run through the summer, keeping the newly-minted acting family busy for the next few months.
“I hope I can act again. That would be really sick,” Haim said, before adding, “If I don’t, and this is it, this was the best experience I could ever dream of.”
—Arts Chair Sofia Andrade can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @bySofiaAndrade.