A couple of years ago, a jet-lagged Alana Haim received a script from director-producer-screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson. Still adjusting to London time, Haim was excited that he had named a character after her, but said she didn’t grasp that he had also written the role for her. It was only once she called him that the pieces started to click into place.
“Everything just goes over my head,” Haim told the Globe in a video interview earlier this month. “I wish I could have gone back and seen the hints that he kind of dropped, like little bread crumbs everywhere.”
Now, Haim is starring in “Licorice Pizza,” in theaters nationwide on Dec. 25. The sprawling, ’70s-set film is Anderson’s latest flick and by far the most laid-back of the “There Will Be Blood” director’s filmography. The film follows teenage Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and 20-something Alana Kane (Haim) through their various misadventures in the San Fernando Valley after a chance meeting on school picture day.
The story doesn’t pursue any one specific track and indulges most in being a meandering period piece, harkening back to an era of waterbeds and pinball machines. Iterations of Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) and Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie) make memorable supporting appearances throughout the film, but Haim’s performance is earning the bulk of the accolades. In addition to Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominations, Haim received the best actress honor from the Boston Society of Film Critics. She credits Anderson with identifying and supporting the actor inside of her.
“[He] really did make me feel like I deserved to be there, even though I had no acting experience and no reason for why he would ever hire me as an actress,” Haim said. “He saw something in me that I didn’t see for myself, [something] that I hoped one day would maybe come out.”
In hindsight, she said, Anderson had been angling to put Haim on the silver screen for years. The filmmaker directed several music videos for Haim’s namesake rock band, which she performs in alongside her older sisters, Danielle and Este. (The Grammy-nominated trio return to tour in 2022.) While working with the band on their 2018 Coachella performance, Anderson told the youngest Haim that he was going to put her in a movie one day.
“I just laughed,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘OK, you’re gonna put me in a movie one day.’ OK, it’s not gonna happen.”
In “Licorice Pizza,” Haim plays impulsive, immature, and frustratingly enamored with ease. No one else is quite as irritated as she is by the fact that she spends her days with a business-savvy teenager who can’t drive. Her sisters and Gary’s mother seem unperturbed with how she occupies herself, and when she lashes out about her lack of direction in life, it’s often at her own reluctant prompting. Her parents are most upset when she finally brings a boy (Gary’s slightly older, more age-appropriate co-worker) home for Shabbat and he proudly announces that he’s an atheist.
Her character is probably 25, or maybe 28 (“we never know,” Haim quipped), and stuck in an in-between phase of youth and adulthood. Haim could relate to the 20-something anxieties revolving around purposefulness and growing up, and noted that it’s “impossible” to not go through that.
“I still wake up some days like, ‘What is going on?’” Haim said. “You kind of have this false sense of confidence when you’re growing up. I remember being 13 or 14, being like, ‘25 is the year that I’m old.’ And then when I got to 25, I was like, for lack of a better word, ‘What the [expletive]? I still feel like I’m 16. This sucks.’”
Haim, who turned 30 this month (and celebrated with a joint birthday party with musical collaborator Taylor Swift), said that she still feels that way. As a kid, she assumed that the milestone would mean a white picket fence, a regular job, and having a life that’s “all figured out.”
“I’m still like, ‘What left turn did I just take?’ Now, I’m in a movie,” she said. “It never ends, and I think that’s weirdly comforting.”
For comparison, Haim looked to her parents, who were already raising three kids by the time they were in their 30s. As a child, she assumed that they had everything worked out, but came to realize that “they were just fully learning on the job,” a mind-set she embraced while filming. Haim said she remembered the moment when she felt that she might be able to pull it off: the second week of shooting, when she and Hoffman filmed an intense and intimate fight scene.
“It was terrifying coming in that day,” Haim said. “I think I remember both me and [Hoffman] looking at each other, being like, ‘Oh, God, we don’t have Bradley Cooper to distract people.’”
But the scene eventually came together, under the guidance of Anderson, and Haim felt that her work on the movie had begun.
“It was a crazy experience, and that gave me so much confidence,” she said. “And I think that really set us up for the rest of the journey of ‘Licorice Pizza.’”