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Alison Pill on Devs, Picard, and Monopolizing TV’s Mysterious Scientist Roles

Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Does your spring TV show need an affable-seeming super-scientist who might just be working a second angle? Alison Pill is here to help. On CBS All Access’s Star Trek: Picard, Pill has gone to space with Patrick Stewart as Agnes Jurati, a cheery cyberneticist with curly hair and concerns about the future of AI. On FX’s (by way of Hulu) Devs, she’s the sterner Katie, who spends her time holed up with Nick Offerman in a San Francisco tech lab researching … well, the show hasn’t quite revealed that yet. Oh, and she has straight hair. “I do feel like the slightly mysterious scientist market is mine,” Pill says over the phone with a laugh.

Sci-fi might not be exactly where you’d expect Pill to end up after a run on Broadway in Three Tall Women, but she’s wholeheartedly embraced the genre, and thoroughly read up on the heady concepts her characters have to explain. Pill talked us through the abstract concepts she’s thinking about in Katie’s Devs close-ups, the way she understands Jurati’s actions on Picard in relation to the current political climate, and her favorite memories of playing another sinister-sweet sci-fi character in Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer.

How does it feel to have cornered the market on TV sci-fi scientists who are maybe more sinister than they first appear?
I do feel like the slightly mysterious scientist market is mine. I don’t know that anyone else is gonna take that one over this year.

What was Alex Garland’s pitch to you on Devs? It’s such a complex show, I’d imagine it’d be hard to explain.
He actually saw Three Tall Women and it was put in his mind that I might be good and terrifying as Katie, that there was some quality in that performance he saw. [To her daughter] Can you work on your cutting and your gluing? Sorry, my daughter’s home sick from school today!

Anyway, Alex emailed me and included all eight scripts and he told me to get through to at least four — I’m probably not gonna struggle to get through your scripts, Alex, but thank you! — to get a sense of what Katie is like. I did read the eight scripts in two nights and they were just mind-blowing, and so uniquely him with these giant concepts told in this very character-driven way.

That must’ve helped for a character like Katie, who is so reserved when we initially meet her that we know little of what’s going on in her head.
Alex has said, “Nobody in the history of the universe has a worldview like Katie’s,” which becomes clearer in the context of the whole show.

Do did you have to read up on the physics described in Devs to understand the character?
Quantum physics and about other scientific concepts that [mumbles] we’re not allowed to talk about. They come up in later episodes. I will never understand most of these concepts. Having looked at the books, it’s truly Greek to me, there are Greek letters — that’s not an equation I learned in high school calculus! But I read David Foster Wallace’s book on infinity, which is excellent. I read A Briefer History of Time, just to sit with these concepts that are so seemingly irrational. Katie has been thinking about things on that level for so many years. Her downtime is just, What is the nature of the universe?

In those shots of Katie’s blank face, when she’s gazing out of a window or something, are you thinking about infinity?
I’m literally thinking about infinity! I’m like, Alex, Alex! Infinity! The physics of the observer! The electron changes if you observe it! What the fuck!

Katie has a close relationship with Nick Offerman’s Forest, and he’s working in a very different mode from his Parks and Rec role. What was it like figuring that out?
Terrible. I hate that man! No, he’s the best human. We all deeply loved and admired each other on that set. We all drank the Kool-Aid. It’s such a gift to have that when you’re going to these crazy places. [Pill’s daughter briefly interrupts again after finishing an Octonauts episode.] Sorry, she got introduced to Octonauts, we never do iPad except on an airplane, or when she’s home from school and mama has an interview!

It’s okay! You shot Picard right after Devs, right?
We had just gotten home in March [after shooting Devs] and I was like, please just give me a job where I don’t have to move. Then in May, I got a call about possibly doing Star Trek and I was like, “Heck yeah! Patrick Stewart’s coming back? Sign me up!” And the team they put together, [showrunner] Michael Chabon’s one of my favorite novelists. If I just get to talk about Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, I’ll be set.

From what I’ve read, you weren’t a massive Star Trek fan going in. Did you feel an obligation to watch a bunch of Next Generation episodes?
We got a list from [Picard writer] Kirsten Beyer, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek. She’s the queen of lore. Being a kid in the early ’90s, I knew all those characters. Then just watching them again, it was like, wow, Whoopi Goldberg was amazing on that show. It was crazy to remember how important it was. I didn’t watch every episode, but it was really helpful to go back and see it. It was such a ballsy show for that time. To open with Q!

A few episodes into Picard, Jurati kills Bruce Maddox, which is a real twist for such an innocent-seeming character. What was it like to shoot that scene?
I talked to [creator] Alex Kurtzman when he gave me the first two scripts and then told me what all happened and I was like, oh no, no way, she did what!? More context will be provided for Jurati’s decisions, as insane as they seem. But it’s really interesting to play an innocent manipulated by bigger forces. It looks at blind allegiance to authority, and the kind of questions globally people have been having about their own institutions. This is the first time in Star Trek that we’ve really seen a questioning of Starfleet. It feels like that’s happening all over the world, where we just don’t feel like Starfleet is Starfleet.

Are there Star Trek–style acting techniques you need to learn for the show? Like a ship jumping to warp speed, for instance.
Our chairs and the whole console will shake! We have them on motors, it’s pretty crazy. But spaceship fights are their own thing. We really do have to choreograph them and it’s all your imagination. Patrick and I got to do one, and I was just like, “Watch my right shoulder because that’s when I’m gonna go this way.” I love pretend spaceship fights.

I was thinking of other times you’ve done sci-fi roles, and Snowpiercer came to mind, where you got to play a similarly cute but actually sinister character. Did you have any favorite memories of working with Boon Joon Ho on Snowpiercer?
I love director Bong so, so much! He choreographed that dance! And he would do it with me. He was also obsessed with the fact that I did this weird eye roll. He was like, “How do you even do that?” Because I’m a freak, director Bong! Just for you. My favorite was when we had a Skype meeting and he was like, “I was thinking that teacher should be eight-and-a-half months pregnant,” and I was like, “Yeah, of course! Let’s just make it that much weirder.” It wasn’t even scripted. I know it was in his head, but he hadn’t brought it up until then.

I couldn’t love that man more. When he won those awards I was like, oh, the world is gonna be okay. It’s the year of Bong, we’re gonna be alright!

Alison Pill Has Monopolized TV’s Mysterious Scientist Roles