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Licorice Pizza, 2021 (Film still)

Alana Haim on Her Role in Offbeat Coming-of-Age Film, Licorice Pizza

The Paul Thomas Anderson-directed film is a freewheeling ode to the sun-baked suburbs of the San Fernando Valley. Here, the musician and actor shares her experience of filming Licorice Pizza

Lead ImageLicorice Pizza, 2021 (Film still)

Alana Haim is more used to being on the airwaves than onscreen, as one-third of sibling indie-rock band HAIM. “I don’t have this much luxury in my other job,” she says, gesturing around the suite of a plush Covent Garden hotel where we meet. In fact, her heart belongs to a stickier venue: “After seven years of trying to get signed in LA, we got signed here, and one of our first concerts was at Dingwalls in Camden,” the musician says. “It was the best show of my life, and the first time we heard a crowd singing the words back to us. We cried.” 

But today Haim is minus her two older sisters and here to talk about a solo project: her superlative film debut in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1970s-set Licorice Pizza. A freewheeling, endless-summer ode to the sun-baked suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, at its core is an offbeat not-quite-romance between Alana Kane (Haim), a strong-minded, speed-talking 20-something, and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a precocious child actor ageing out of his vocation into entrepreneurial hustles that include a waterbed business and a pinball arcade.

Echoing Anderson’s epic jigsaw of intersecting lives and raining frogs Magnolia – named for one of the Valley’s east-west arteries – and the low-rent, hardcore porn milieu of Boogie Nights, Licorice Pizza unfolds in the suburban expanse where Anderson grew up, long dismissed as a cultural dead-zone and the butt of jokes about traffic, heat and Mallrats. The director’s latest is as sprawling as the Valley’s stucco-filled streets, and Altman-esque in its vast scope, looping from Hollywood Hills celebrity to downbeat trade fairs, from local politics to the watering holes of once-legendary actors. But where Magnolia and Boogie Nights were filled with broken or breaking lives, Licorice Pizza is warm-hearted and wistful, albeit with an undercurrent of violence that threatens to explode like an overloaded circuit. The 1973 oil crisis, the Nixon administration, heavy doses of sexism, racism and homophobia, all forecast the unvarnished adult world its two young leads are hurtling towards. “I think it’s weird that I hang out with Gary and his 15-year-old friends all the time,” Alana says at one point, pulling on a joint. But the adults in Licorice Pizza make a strong case for her reluctance to grow up: there are cautionary tales in the shape of Sean Penn as a lecherous, fading Hollywood idol, Tom Waits as a barfly director and Bradley Cooper as Barbra Streisand’s paranoid, monomaniacal one-time boyfriend Jon Peters. They allow Anderson to veer off on multiple side alleys into LA subculture, but it’s Haim and Hoffman who form the film’s emotional core – a pair whose personalities are still muddy at the edges, not yet fully shaped into the adults they will become. They pinball off each other to perfection, crisscrossing the Valley on misadventures large and small, their neon-drenched nights and magic-hour walks all captured on gorgeously tactile 35mm.

“I fell in love with the script because it really is a love letter to the Valley,” says Haim. “When you think about LA, it’s movie premieres and the ocean, clubs and paparazzi. That was not where I grew up. Everyone in LA thought the Valley was cheesy. We were like, well, you can stay on the West Side – we love it here. At parties you’d always seek out the Valley kids and band together with them.”

It was a shared love for their sunshine-and-strip-mall home turf that brought Anderson and Haim together in the first place. HAIM have channelled its particular atmosphere in their music (Este and Danielle even cut their teeth in a band called Valli Girls) and when Anderson heard them, something clicked: “A friend who gave me my first job singing jingles for a company when I was 16, called us and said, PTA wants you guys to email him,” says Haim. “Paul reminds us all the time, ‘It took you guys three days to email!’ But we were so nervous!” When the trio finally pressed ‘send’, the director volunteered to become something like the band’s unofficial cinematographer. He has helmed several on-the-fly music videos for them, shot in car washes and diners, tracking the band around historic Valley landmark Valentine Studios or peeling off layers of clothes on relentlessly sunny Californian streets. “We come to Paul and say, ‘We have four dollars, 24 hours and it’s due in three days,’ and he has always been game: ‘Let’s do it!’”

But the offer of a starring role in Licorice Pizza was for Alana alone – when the script dropped into her inbox, there was something of a dead giveaway in the character’s name. The real Alana might not be as chaotic as Anderson’s fictional one, but it was clearly written with her in mind – in person she has the same impulsive energy, screwball comic timing and gawky, determined stride. “But I’m not as hot-headed as her,” Haim says of her character. “I love how fearless she is. She is down to get into the trenches, whether she’s selling a waterbed or trying to be a politician or reversing a truck down a hill.” 

If Haim appreciated her character, she also relished the amber-hued 70s setting – all polyester shirts and wedge sandals. Having grown up immersed in the LA musical folklore of their parents’ generation, it’s no secret HAIM’s music has been influenced by the era. “The 70s are so not far from my brain,” she says. “When I was a kid, my mom and dad were very particular about listening to K-Earth 101, this radio station that would always play 70s music.” Music also helped Haim shoulder an acting role that plenty of Hollywood’s established young players would have lined up to audition for: “The confidence of standing on my two feet in front of a bunch of people and not being super-intimidated I had from music,” she says, partly explaining why her performance feels far too assured to be a debut. “Also, when you’re having a conversation with someone it is like making music – there’s a rhythm to it. There’s a metronome constantly in my head. You can’t be stepping on people’s lines, you have to take your time.” 

Her co-star Cooper Hoffman, son of Anderson’s late, treasured collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman, equally had all the self-possession needed, despite never having acted before. “Funnily enough, I had met Cooper before – I babysat him when he was 13,” says Haim. “Paul was editing Phantom Thread in New York and we’d asked him to direct the Little of Your Love video. We got to the edit house and on the floor, with film everywhere, was this kid. Paul had to leave, and he asked me and my siblings to keep Cooper occupied for a bit, go get him food. And he was just like his character in Licorice Pizza – he sat down at the table of this restaurant as if he owned the place, ordered for us, asked us questions – he owned the room.” Reunited onset, they built a camaraderie in the face of their joint baptism of fire. “Cooper is like my little brother. We speak all the time. Onset it was us against the world. We had this bond that no one could break. Because it was intimidating. We never saw dailies. I would have cringed.” 

Still, Haim wasn’t entirely without the support of her family: Anderson recruited Este, Danielle and their parents to play the fictional Alana’s comedically combustible family. In a strange twist of fate worthy of Magnolia, it wasn’t the first time Haim’s mother had met the director – turns out she was his art teacher when he was in primary school. “Growing up, whenever Boogie Nights would be on TV, my mom would say, ‘I taught him!’” Haim says. “When we first met Paul, my eldest sister blurted out that our mom was Miss Rose, and his eyes lit up. He went into his son’s room and brought out this painting of the mountain from Close Encounters of the Third Kind that he’d made with my mom and kept all these years. He was like, ‘I loved your mother!’ She was teaching at this very prestigious private school, Buckley. All the other teachers were grey-haired, and my mother was a hippie, had a record player in the classroom, always brought her guitar. She was something like Miss Honey from Matilda, she’s still the same way. And I am the spitting image of my mom when she was my age. So that was the beginning of our relationship with Paul.” The close-knit bond between Haim, Hoffman and Anderson might partly be responsible for the general feeling that Licorice Pizza is the director’s most personal feature to date. But all his films are family affairs – when an actor piques his interest, from Daniel Day Lewis to Julianne Moore to John C. Reilly, they tend to regularly return to his set. With the Oscar buzz gathering around Haim, there seems little doubt she too will find herself in front of his camera again – it’s a collaboration that was clearly meant to be: “I’m so happy this has happened,” she says, “It feels like we’ve been orbiting around each other for our whole lives.” 

Licorice Pizza is in cinemas now.