Brittany Allen has achieved success in many different fields within the entertainment industry. She has worked as an actress and a composer, sometimes playing both roles on the same project. She received critical acclaim for her performance in What Keeps You Alive and appears in the enormously popular television series The Boys, as Popclaw. She also holds the distinction of having won a Daytime Emmy for her performance on All My Children. Her work as a composer is distinctive and experimental, and she will be bringing her unique sensibilities to the Netflix show Two Sentence Horror Stories.
We had the pleasure of speaking to her about the many exciting projects that she has been involved in.
Does working in so many different fields give you a better understanding of filmmaking on the whole?
Oh, definitely. I have worked as an actor for so many years and I think that has given me such a good understanding of the work that I need to do in order to emotionally connect to characters. I have also developed a process by which I can break down a story and understand narrative structures and character arcs. I think these are the biggest skills that I carry over from acting to composing. When I am composing, it helps if I envision myself as one of the main characters and try to channel their emotions when thinking of rhythms and sounds that might complement certain scenes.
I remember going to film premieres as an actor and running into the editor. They would come up to me and tell me that they felt like they already knew me. They had seen my face on screen for about six months and felt an emotional connection to the performance that I had given. After going through similar experiences as a composer, I very much understand how they felt. You’re watching an actor perform the same scene, over and over and over again, and you’re trying to capture something about their essence or do something that will support their performance. So I do think that having that experience on the other side of the camera has informed my approach to my job.
It sounds like you also work on films at different stages of completion. Do you prefer to work with a finished product or a work in progress?
Brittany Allen: I can work with both but it is beneficial to lay down some ideas before seeing the finished product. I know some people who claim that seeing the finished product robs them of a sense of spontaneity and excitement. Personally, I feel like I get enough clues from the script, story and the writer’s intentions to have a general sense of my own aims. However, I also think that so many pieces need to come together to create a complete feature film, that you have to go back to the writer’s vision. I feel like I am there to service the ideas that they came up with when they were first thinking about putting a project together.
There are so many times when something doesn’t click. Maybe the location wasn’t perfect or there was an issue with the weather. You hope that everything comes together to produce a perfect whole, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. For that reason, I like to look to the genesis of the project for inspiration. In many cases, the music can bring the finished film back to where it was originally meant to be. If there are one or two flaws in a scene, the music can help to return the scene to the tone that the writer was aiming for.
You do a lot of work in the horror genre. Do you ever find yourself trying to deviate from the conventions of the genre or avoid treading over the same ground that past composers had covered?
I do try to work around the expectations of horror fans and subvert them on some occasions. I never want to be seen to be emulating another composer too much. You will never find me sitting down and watching an entire film in order to gain some inspiration for one of my compositions. I think you run the risk of seeming like you are emulating another composer too much if you end up doing that. This is not to say that I do not appreciate the work of composers like the Flanagan brothers. I will also admit that I do find myself casually throwing on a piece of music to listen to in the background and that can open up many different possibilities. It gets me thinking about what others have done without making me sound like everyone else.
One of my strengths as a composer is that I was not formally educated as a composer. You could look at this situation from many angles and I am sure that many people who did go to school for composing have different strengths. Personally, I believe that going to school for anything artistic can be dangerous. You have teachers drawing lines in the sand and telling you what you can and can’t do. That seems to limit creativity and box people in.
You also have the distinction of working in both film and television. Are there significant differences between working in the two different mediums?
The time difference ends up being the biggest difference. When working in television, you have to deal with rolling deadlines. As soon as you have finished work on one episode and taken a moment to celebrate, it’s onto the next task. You freak out and realise that you only have five days to get back on the horse and finish your work on another episode. That was definitely the most challenging experience that I went through when adjusting to working as a composer for a television series.
I had previously done most of my work on independent films, and I was given a lot of time to settle in and develop new ideas on that sort of production. It’s completely different when I work on Two Sentence Horror Stories, a Netflix television show, because I am dealing with an anthology series. With most television shows or films, you spend a lot of time with the same characters and get to focus on the same themes. With an anthology series, it’s a wild ride. You have to constantly adapt to a different setting and different characters. It is almost like dealing with a mini-movie every week.
In working in all these different mediums, I have realised that there is something exciting about challenging yourself and trying something new. You grow as an artist and enjoy the experience of learning new information about your craft. I am often at my happiest when I have just finished watching a YouTube tutorial about a concept that I was not previously aware of. The learning process is incredibly rewarding.
You have also acted in several acclaimed films recently. You took on the starring role in What Keeps You Alive, and portrayed a woman who begins to worry that her wife may have homicidal urges. How did you approach playing this part?
I was mostly trying to put myself in the shows of a woman who was deeply in love with her partner. Comprehending the shock and insanity that this woman feels as she realises that she can’t trust her beloved wife, was one of my biggest goals. Rather than suggesting that my character has ulterior motives, I tried to come at the role from a very sincere place. My partner, Colin Minihan, wrote, directed and edited the film, and I think he created something beautiful that left people with many impressions after seeing it.
The film did seem to take a more naturalistic approach to telling a story that could have involved a lot of histrionics and emotional fireworks. Was it difficult to take on a role that asks you to go to such dark places?
I remember being very resistant to playing the role when the opportunity was first presented to me. I did not want to put myself through that or mentally go to that place. As an actor there is always that resistance to exploring things that are deeply painful. I have found that bringing out my inner self and acting out scary experiences can be very cathartic. Exploring different sides of yourself and being willing to expose your inner emotions to the camera can help your grow as an actor and as a human being.
When I play roles like this, in which my character is put through the wringer, I have to recognise the fact that there are stages to the pain and trauma that people go through. If you immediately panic and give a one-note performance, it becomes really grating and boring for the audience. It’s also just not believable because you know that energy would need to go somewhere else. If it looks like you are denying the devastation that the character experiences and refuse to ground the story in reality – you can end up looking like a hysterical mess.
The film also seems remarkable in the way that it sympathetically views its female characters, rather than presenting them as sexist archetypes.
That’s certainly an interesting conversation to have. My partner is a man and he has written several nuanced, layered roles for me to play. I always feel like he writes empowered female characters, so I get frustrated by the fact that some people think that you have no right to tell a story about women unless you are a woman yourself. He encouraged me to discover a new side of myself when playing this role. I was asked to cut my hair, deepen my voice and not worry about being pretty for a second. I was so excited to play a non-glamorous character and not have to deal with the constraints that come with playing a classic female character.
In the film industry, I often feel like women have to play a game and look ultra-glamorous in order to get roles. I look at old photographs of myself on the red carpet for the Daytime Emmys and notice the fact that I’m in a tight dress and wearing high heels. That’s not who I really am and I feel like I was playing the game, rather than embodying the person that I really am.
This role gave me the freedom and the safety to display the non-glamorous side of myself to the world. I am so thankful that I got to be part of a project that let me wear ripped jeans and running shoes. That’s a far more realistic depiction of womanhood.
As you work so frequently in the horror genre, do you feel that it is currently going through a Golden Age of sorts? It seems as though horror films are receiving an almost unprecedented level of critical acclaim.
I am quite thrilled by it, and I am so grateful to be rid of the horror movies from the 1990s that were just about clueless women with big breasts. Although I suppose there is a redeeming quality to that sort of popcorn entertainment if you’re still in high school. I just remember auditioning for a movie years ago and being told that I would have to agree to appear topless if I was going to get the part. I was just disgusted by the fact that I had to agree to do this before going into the first audition.
I am so glad that my career has moved past that point and I have the opportunity to play the sort of roles that I love. I have always been a fan of magical realism and the idea of using fantasy in stories to subtly include controversial or subversive content. The horror genre definitely allows for that, so it is a wonderful time to be tied to such a popular genre.
It’s great to hear that you are enjoying this Golden Age of horror as much as everyone else is. Thank you so much for speaking with me today.
I had a great time.