For someone who’s only been a professional actor for the last four years, Alexis Dziena has racked up a pretty impressive list of credits. She’s worked alongside Bill Murray and Jim Jarmusch in Broken Flowers, she’s improvised with Amy Sedaris in Strangers with Candy, and her brief appearance on Joan of Arcadia reduced millions of fans to tears by coming between the title character and her darling boyfriend Adam.
Alexis has now landed on ABC’s Invasion, a show about a possible extraterrestrial takeover of a sleepy south Florida town. Her character is the teenaged daughter of the local Sheriff – played with creepy perfection by William Fichtner – and she’s struggling to figure out where she fits into a family that may or may not be predominantly populated by otherworldly beings. On top of that, she’s dealing with the usual teenaged angst: What do you do when you lose faith in your father? How do you cope when the guy you’ve been making out with isn’t the guy you thought he was? How do you convince everyone that you aren’t a kid anymore?
We were lucky to catch Alexis on a break from her busy Invasion shooting schedule, but sadly, we still aren’t any closer to understanding what’s lurking in the waters of the Everglades National Park. (Damn those sneaky producers, who keep their actors in the dark on important plot points.)
You started acting in the fifth grade, so you must have had an idea pretty young that you wanted to do it.
That was the first thing that I did. I had never acted before or anything like that, so I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but then I ended up loving it.
And then you did it through high school?
I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts throughout high school, so I did a bunch of plays there. But not too many at my actual high school, because I was so busy at American Academy. And then I went to NYU for a little while and while I was there I did a bunch of student films and some off-, off-, off Broadway productions.
You started getting professional work when you were 18, is that right?
Yes, my first job was actually on my 18th birthday.
Are you kidding?
No, no. It was really nice. They got me a cake and everything, which was really sweet, but I sort of didn’t know anyone and I had this giant cake in front of me. I was like ‘Does anyone…want some? What am I going to do with this?’ (laughs) But it was really fun. It was a great first experience.
You seemed to get hired professionally pretty quickly. Since there are thousands of young women trying to become professional actors, why do you think you were able to break through so quickly?
Basically there is this woman, this casting director named Lori Eastside, and we sort of became friends. She did a lot of extras casting and she did principals on a film called Bringing Rain, which was one of the first things I was cast in. After that she was on the phone a lot with [talent agency] ICM because some of their clients are in the film, and she was sort of like ‘I have this girl I want you to meet’ and somehow through some kind of grace of God they agreed to meet with me and we clicked and things kind of spiraled from there. So I got really lucky.
Is there something you see young actors doing that keeps them from getting a foot in the door? Or does it just come down to luck?
It really is so much a lottery. You can have all the talent in the world and never have it be seen. It’s so tough, there are so many talented people and there are so few jobs. I don’t think that ever really ends once your foot’s in the door or not.
Was there a point where you thought to yourself that you were really going to be able to make a living as an actor?
Once I got my first job I was just kind of like ‘Wow! People are going to pay me to do this? I can eat and get to make believe all day long?’ That’s kind of great, you know? I guess the first time you see a paycheck it’s kind of unbelievable. I’m still hoping I get to make a living off of it for a while. You are never quite sure; it’s a really risky venture.
How did your parents feel about you going into acting? Did they freak out about it?
No, they were really supportive and happy and proud. They love it and tape everything I do. It’s nice.
Prior to its cancellation, you were on Joan of Arcadia, playing the girl who comes between It Couple Adam and Joan. Had the show stayed on the air, do you know if they planned to keep Bonnie around?
I honestly have no idea. When I first went on to do it I wasn’t even sure if I was going to do a second episode. I don’t know if they were sure where the character was going to go, but who knows. Hopefully if it would have gone on, maybe I would have come back. It was a lot of fun.
Did you get any flak from Joan and Adam fans for this role? They’re kind of crazy.
Yeah. I think there were some crazy things on the Internet and stuff. I heard somebody say that when I was on set but I never heard anything personally, and nobody ever said anything to me.
On Invasion you play Kira Underlay, the teenage daughter of the local sheriff in a south Florida town where aliens are quietly infiltrating the community. Are they really aliens? It just seems to be an assumption at this point.
I think they are referring to them as EBEs, [extraterrestrial biological entities]. There are these things under the water and they kind of couple themselves with humans. The term the show’s been using is hybrid. So it’s not quite an alien taking over a body like an Invasion of the Body Snatchers thing. It’s more like they become one thing, but there is still a very human side to everyone whose been touched by the creatures.
What was appealing to you about that role?
I think it’s kind of interesting when you see something that’s got a very science fictiony kind of feel to it and the plot line is very science fiction, but then when you read the script the characters are so fleshed out and it’s really not about a vague sort of science fiction plot at all. It’s about how it affects these particular characters, and the dynamic of all the family members is really interesting to me. Being 16 and having your life in upheaval and at the same time this crazy paranormal thing is happening… It’s unique to see that in a script and not have it be crazy or unrelatable.
I think it’s also interesting how you have these two extended families with step-siblings and step parents. You don’t see that a lot on television.
No, you don’t, and it’s portrayed in such a realistic way, I think. And they really give it it’s time due in each script.
Do you think Kira is a bit naive about her sexuality? She doesn’t seem to understand the impact she has on the other men in the show, from her step-brother Jesse, to poor, one-armed Deputy Lewis.
Yeah, I think definitely she is just starting to explore her sexuality and hasn’t quite got a grip on what it means to be an adult and all that. And she also grew up without a mother, so that kind of makes it twice as hard for her, as opposed to kids who maybe have grown up with their moms telling them everything about becoming a woman. So, I think, yeah, she’s definitely a little naive, but she’s also very curious and she has a pretty good head on her shoulders.
Elizabeth Moss, who plays psychopath baby-killer Cristina on Invasion, also played Zoey Bartlett, the president’s youngest daughter on The West Wing. Had you seen her on that show before you worked together?
No I hadn’t, I have to say honestly.
Zoey was spunky, but demure, and Cristina is totally crazy. Which character is Elizabeth more like in real life?
She is the exact opposite of what you see on Invasion. She is sweet and nice and very friendly and personable. She is just very talented and once the camera rolls, she all of a sudden switches to this terrifying girl that is so separate from who she is.
It’s weird watching her on Invasion because she is so nice and likable on The West Wing. You see her on Invasion and you’re like ‘Oh, my God! She’s crazy!’
I think that’s what we all aspire to hear about ourselves as actors, you know?
Right. So, some critics of the show have questioned how long Invasion can drag out the suspense. If the show is picked up for a second season, where do you think the storylines will go? And are the kids ever going to go back to school?
The kids are going to go back to school. (laughs) Probably in the next episode or two.
It’s hard for me to say where it would go because I’m constantly surprised. They don’t tell us things very far in advance, we get the script a few days before we start shooting and we are all constantly surprised. I can say that there is so much meat they could go into about the conflict of whether or not these things are good or bad and how they are affecting everyone. There is a lot more psychological stuff they could delve into next year, if it’s not all suspense. There is so much more that they could do, so I’m not worried about them running out of material.
You were in Broken Flowers, a Jim Jarmusch movie. Can you tell me some funny story or little tidbit of information about him?
We were both staying at the same hotel, which was the Holiday Inn, while we were shooting. I remember coming in, neither one of us knew the other was staying there, and I came on to set and he was saying ‘Oh, you’re staying there! You should have come over last night and watched the Cartoon Network.’ And I just thought that was the most endearing, charming thing in the world. To think that this brilliant man is sitting around watching Cartoon Network at night.
That is sort of a funny thought.
Yeah, it is, and it’s such a sweet thing. He is such an enigma, but in a very hands-on kind of way. He is very open and friendly and that comment just made me laugh. And I was thinking ‘God, I really missed an opportunity to go watch Adult Swim with Jim Jarmusch!” (laughs)
Were you a big fan of his movies before you did that one?
Oh, yeah. Definitely. Dead Man was probably the first one I saw. I’m a huge fan of him and Johnny Depp, and after that I had to go and see everything. He’s fantastic.
You have appeared on screen with some very successful actors like Bill Murray, Tom Selleck, Sharon Stone, Marcia Gay Harden and William Fichtner. How has working alongside that caliber of actor affected you,?
I think every single one of them has given me a great nugget of something that has become such a huge part of who I am as an actress. When you first hear that [you’ll be working with people like that], and you are new in the business, your first instinct is to be kind of nervous and be like ‘Oh gosh, I can’t believe I’m going to be working with them.’ And then you say ‘Hi, I’m Alexis’ and they’re just totally normal people.
Everyone that I’ve worked with has been extremely humble and extremely supportive. Every time I would maybe have a hard scene, or something that seemed like it might be kind of frightening to do, I’d get a little whisper in my ear from one of them saying some little thing that would immediately put me at ease. It’s kind of impressive to watch them, you learn a lot just being around them while they are working, let alone working in the same scene with them.
You also appear in the movie Strangers With Candy. Do you know anything about it getting released soon?
I don’t know. You know, honestly, I haven’t even seen the movie. I know it was at Sundance and it did well there and I know it was bought by someone to distribute, but there was some kind of… whatever slows that kind of thing down.
What’s your part in that movie like?
I’m one of those bitchy high school girls who likes to torment the odd girl, which is Amy Sedaris in this case. And that was a lot of fun because she is this beautiful, sweet, amazing woman and then she puts on all this makeup and a fat suit and immediately goes into this crazy character. She likes to improvise a lot, so we were constantly surprised and sort of in awe of her the whole time. In the meantime, we had to be really mean to her and make fun of her. It was a blast.
So did you have to improvise, too?
A little bit, yeah. I remember at one point we were sitting in a classroom and we were all facing the camera, it was pretty much right in my face, and I felt something on my back and playing with my hair and I’m like ‘Oh, is that a bug? What is that?’ but I didn’t want to move or laugh because the camera was rolling. When they called cut I turned around and Amy was pulling on my hair and playing with me during the scene. It makes you kind of stay on your toes. That was one of the first comedies I had done and I wasn’t used to that environment, so it taught me a lot.
Did you find doing comedy an easy transition to make?
In the few instances I’ve done it I’ve had kind of an easier time at it than I would have thought. But I do think that generally comedy is so much harder than drama. I think that it’s just harder to make someone laugh than to cry. So, I really applaud actors who can do that.
Do you think you might do more of it in the future?
I hope so. I’d love to do more comedy.
Is it true that you are an aspiring playwright? What kind of plays have you written?
I’ve written a few things, a couple of one-act plays. Nothing that I would ever want to have anyone read at this point. They are kind of those things that you write, then put away for a while and open up again in a year and try to judge whether it’s complete crap or if it’s any good, you know? A long time ago I wrote an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland that I had a lot of fun with. We got into the stages of rehearsing it, but never completely put it up. It’s hard to have time to do that and be working on a television show, so it’s a little bit on hold right now.
Besides acting, you also play a few different instruments.
Yeah, I’ve played piano since I was three and I play cello. That is something that I’ve not been doing as much lately, because it’s really the kind of thing you need to have lessons for. You can’t pick up a cello and expect to improvise. I haven’t been taking lessons with that for a while. Now I’ve picked up the drums, which my neighbors don’t like at all, and I’m not very good at it. But I’m trying.
Do you have a whole drum set?
I do. I have a full drum kit in New York and out here [in Los Angeles] I’m getting electronic drum pads so people don’t kill me, because I’m in a small apartment and you can hear everything. So, I’m going to keep practicing on those.
What kind of music are you listening to right now?
I’m really eclectic in my taste in music and I really do like a little bit of everything. I guess mostly what I listen to is indie rock.
Any newer stuff?
I guess, because I don’t drive, I don’t really listen to the radio that much. So I kind of have a few CDs that have been on a loop for several years, like the Pixies and the Cranes. I’m getting back into Depeche Mode. They’ve sort of sat on a shelf for a while and now I’m revisiting them.
Let’s say that sometime in the near future talented and attractive young actresses are no longer fashionable in Hollywood and you find yourself out of work. What line of work would you go into?
So, you still don’t have your driver’s license?
Driving seems like the bane of the native New Yorker.
I know. We have so much trouble with that. Luckily I’m living in an area where I can walk to do everything that I need to do, like grocery shopping and all that. Otherwise, I call friends or somebody to come get me if I have to do something that requires me to go far. It’s tough, I mean I failed a few times, taking the driving test.
Out in California?
Yeah. Once in New York as well. It’s an experience thing, you know? And I’m just extremely nervous behind the wheel and very much a spaz when it comes to that. I’m not the kind of person you want driving you around.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.