A mild-to-severe obsession with horses is but one of the elements that make up a personality type known as “the horse girl.” Every high school has at least one: a young woman, usually with long hair, who fully embraces denim and flower patterned flannel, and the more embroidered rainbow patches the better. Love Harry Potter and identify Hufflepuff? Big Horse Girl Energy. Lisa Frank trapper keepers in your locker? Huge Horse Girl Energy.
Alison Brie is not a horse girl, but for some reason, people have pegged her as one. Maybe it’s her big blue eyes framed by wispy brown bangs, which suggest an innocence belied by her sharp wit. Maybe it’s the fact that she articulates words with the precision of someone who finds them delectable. Maybe it’s that people confuse her with the characters she plays, who tend to project a shy sweetness.
“I've always traced it back to my really good posture,” she jokes in a phone interview with Refinery29 about Horse Girl, the Netflix movie she stars in and co-wrote with director Jeff Baena.
Horse Girl, now available to stream on Netflix, is Brie’s first screenplay. The actor and director (she made her debut in 2019, helming an episode of Netflix’s GLOW) plays Sarah, an isolated young woman who spends her time working in a crafts store, dropping in on her horse, Willow, and watching reruns of her favourite show, Purgatory. But what starts out as a quirky indie soon morphs into a twisted thriller about mental illness and possible alien abduction as Sarah’s dream life starts to merge with her reality.
Brie gives a searing performance as a woman questioning the very nature of her world as it spins out of control, grasping at small comforts wherever she finds them. And while she may not be a horse girl in real life, she does have a special connection to this trippy story.
Refinery29: First things first, were you a horse girl in high school?
Alison Brie: “I was not a horse girl, but people have always thought that I was a horse girl. They didn't think that in high school because there were other horse girls, and I was a drama nerd. That was more of my identity. But I would say post-college there's been this preconceived notion of me as a horse girl, and I'm not sure what the root of it is. I've always traced it back to my really good posture. Once I was on Mad Men, people associated me with Trudy [Campbell]. Trudy seems like someone whose family would ride horses or who grew up riding horses. I think that's what it was.”
“When you just said that I thought of Betty Gilpin from GLOW, who was a horse girl also...So, all Bettys, maybe. Betty or Sarah! We looked up the most common horse girl names and that's how we named the character Sarah.”
This movie starts out as a quirky indie and pivots to something very different. What was your process in shaping the story?
“The original impetus was my fascination with my family's history with mental illness. My mother's mom, my grandmother, lived with paranoid schizophrenia. I grew up hearing stories about her mental illness and how it affected my mother, and my aunts and uncle. The more I was analysing my personal fear about having this mental illness in my bloodline, the more I honed in on this idea of a girl who's going through something similar. And for her it becomes a bit of an obsession. I brought the idea to Jeff [Baena], whom I worked with on a couple of other projects. We wanted to approach it from a sci-fi, thriller side a bit more. What would happen if someone had mental illness in their bloodline and then some things started happening to them that they couldn't explain? What are the implications of the way that they see their own mental health? Does that start to become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy?”
There’s an interesting thread throughout that could be read as a commentary on how our society tends not to believe women. Was that something you wanted to highlight?
“Sure. I think the way that we've drawn this character is that she's very isolated, and she's almost cripplingly shy. So it's very hard for her to talk about something that's so stigmatised. Alien abduction and mental illness are both very taboo subjects socially. For Sarah, who is having trouble trusting her own mind, it's really difficult for her to reach out to other people, to reach out for help. That becomes very detrimental to her.”
Did you always want to write a screenplay?
“I guess I've always felt like I should write, it just took me a while to have the courage to do it. I've always wanted to write something about my grandmother and my mother. I had some other more literal, very straightforward ideas about just writing a story about my mother's childhood in which I would play my grandmother or something like that, but then I realised that we wanted to do a genre movie, or even a genre-bending movie. Another big part of it was watching my husband write. Dave [Franco] just wrote and directed his first feature, The Rental, which I was in. That was really inspiring to me. I was watching him write it with Joe Swanberg, and he was coming home every day so fulfilled. It made me realise that I had ideasI should write down, and maybe I wanted a partner to do it with.
Was this a way for you to take your own career in a new direction? Were you not fulfilled with the roles you were being presented with?
“It was less about not getting roles but definitely wanting to take control of my career narrative, and create a character that was different than characters that I've played before. Give myself an opportunity to work out some different acting muscles.
Why sci-fi? Is that your favorite genre to watch?
“I love sci-fi! Horror movies get a little too scary for me. They have to be vetted by Dave — he tells me which ones are good enough to be scared. But I've always loved thrillers. I'm obsessed with the original Alien with Sigourney Weaver, and also, Silence Of The Lambs is one of my favourite movies. Because of the heightened nature of the genre, there's so many juicy emotions that you can play with. And it's just a little more fun.
We need to talk about the fake show in this movie, called Purgatory. I would watch that show IRL!
“It's maybe my favourite part of the movie. We had so much fun shooting that stuff. It's the only fully scripted dialogue in the film. We felt like Sarah would be obsessed with shows like Supernatural or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, things in that vein. Jeff is good friends with Matthew Gray Gubler and Robin Tunney, who have both worked on procedural dramas. It's a real homage to them. Our dream would be to take this out and sell it to the CW.”
I would watch!
“I think so, too. And I feel like Gubler would be down to star in it.”
There's a pivotal scene where Sarah wanders into the craft shop naked. When do you decide when nudity is necessary or not?
“In this story that [scene] is the height of Sarah's disorientation and vulnerability. It's where we wanted to merge these ideas of her waking life, where she's seemingly keeping it together, and her dream life, where she's losing time and waking up in strange places. I can speak from the experience of shooting the scene that there's really nothing more vulnerable than standing soaking wet and fully nude in front of a room full of strangers. It felt really important for this character's story because we've seen her in some other vulnerable situations, and we just wanted it to be as heightened as possible in that scene. I hadn't done nudity until I started working on GLOW, and that was the first time that it felt really relevant and vital to the story. It's a show about women's bodies and how they use them in every different type of way. That cracked open something in me, a reminder that I love my body. I'm happy to use it artistically when it's meaningful to the story. The question of when to do it is definitely just about, ‘Is it absolutely necessary? Is it vital to the story we're telling and to what this character is going through in the moment?’ Also ‘Do I feel comfortable with the people I'm working with? Do I feel like I'm in a safe environment?’ “
“My sister was at Sundance with me, actually, my sister and my brother-in-law. They saw it and were very moved. They cried.”
How have you talked to your mom about it?
“I did a lot of interviews with my mom while we were writing it. She was very aware of the film and that I was writing something that it's a major departure from her actual life, or my grandmother's life, or things like that. More recently I think I just keep trying to prepare her for how strange the film is. And really how non-literal it is to her life story, like, Mom, this is artistic expression. This is not a reflection of how I feel about you or things like that. But she's very excited about it.
On some level, this movie reminded me of Honey Boy and The Farewell, both based on real experiences that the filmmakers and/or actors were trying to process. Was it therapeutic for you?
“Absolutely. This movie is totally an artistic expression of my personal fear of having mental illness in my bloodline. That's the jumping off point, and then we take it to some strange places.”
How do you feel about aliens? Are you a believer?
“I think it's real. I have read a number of accounts on Reddit and another website and listened to podcasts. I have some books about it and there's a lot of through lines. There's a lot of stories that I believe, and there's other stories that are not as believable. I can't imagine in the vast universe that there's no other life forms that exist outside of Earth. That seems crazy. I think they'd probably have visited this planet, but maybe not quite as much as some people think.”
Do you want people to come away from the ending with a sense of closure, or do you want the endless internet debate?
“Both. I am here for the endless internet debate. We crafted it that way on purpose. I think most importantly, whatever you believe is happening at the end of the movie, it's mostly about having a blissful surrender for our main character. A real moment of self acceptance — that's the most important thing.”