Dianna Agron comes off as remarkably calm, cool, and collected. Now 37, she seems sure of herself in ways she perhaps wasn’t when she exploded onto the scene in 2009 as Quinn Fabray, the head cheerleader on Ryan Murphy’s culture-shifting musical-dramedy Glee.
She isn’t interested in examining her past relationships — while balancing an Arnold Palmer at the Swan Room, an Instagram-ready lounge in what interlopers are now calling Dimes Square — but is looking forward to the many exciting things she has in store.
“With experience comes more opportunity,” she says, citing her desire to direct.
First is Hulu’s Clock, a body-horror thriller from Alexis Jacknow that follows a young Jewish woman (Agron, who is Jewish) who is pressured by her family and friends to enroll in a program by a biotech start-up run by Dr. Elizabeth Simmons (Melora Hardin) that promises to fix women’s biological clocks. Needless to say, things get very weird very fast.
Then there is Acidman, director Alex Lehmann’s drama about a woman (Agron) who tries to connect with her estranged father (Thomas Haden Church) whose mental health is deteriorating. The film’s father-daughter relationship holds similarities to Agron’s own, as her father, a former Hyatt hotels GM, began losing his faculties after falling ill with multiple sclerosis and suffering a stroke when she was a teenager. It took Agron, who also produced the film, and Lehmann eight months to put together the project, from building the script to pitching it to financiers.
And then there is The Chosen One, a Netflix adaptation of Mark Millar’s graphic-novel trilogy American Jesus that she stars in alongside Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’s Tenoch Huerta.
We talked about all that and more over the course of our hour-plus-long conversation.
How has navigating the pandemic been for you as an actor?
Well, I’d come off of doing a film weeks before it started. So, that felt good. As the first month started to set in, and everyone was trying to understand what would happen, I started thinking more about what I would like to be exploring as far as material.
I had asked and thought I was ready to take on some father-daughter heavier material. I had an important, really long journey with my father’s deteriorating health over the years since I was 15, and while a decade ago that wouldn’t have been something I would have wanted to deal with, I had been having so much peace around how those relationships shift and what it means to have a parent that you lose pieces of over the years.
I was thinking about that a lot, and I had made it known earlier in the year to Alex Lehmann that I really enjoyed his work and knew his process involved a lot of improvisation, which I thought was really interesting. A month into the pandemic — this time, three years ago — he sent me the script for Acidman and said the film was originally a father-son piece and he started tailoring it to be a father-daughter piece. It was wild timing and a nice thing to hold on to because it was buildable in those first months of quarantine and Alex brought me on as a producer. It kept me going.
You’ve been exploring more Jewish films and roles on screen in recent years, since Shiva Baby.
It’s something I’ve been very happy to fold in.
That crucifix necklace you wore on Glee has turned into a Star of David.
I grew up Jewish and had a wonderful, hilarious Jewish grandmother, Joyce, who was very encouraging of anything I wanted to do but would always tell me, “You’re a performer. You can do it all. You’re everything.” And it was funny because when I started my career she would say, “When are you going to play a nice Jewish girl?” And I’d say, “When the industry will start seeing me as one.”
Quinn was very religious in Glee and in Novitiate I played a nun. I remember talking with Emma [Seligman] about working together on Shiva Baby and she loved that Kim was this shiksa wife. There’s this line where one of the mothers says, “Well, I’ve heard her father’s Jewish,” and the other woman says, “That doesn’t count.” That was a joke that we had worked up from our first meeting.
My father’s Jewish and my mother’s not, so when I go into somewhere like Crown Heights I tend to get that same line.
It was such a part of my upbringing. I went to Hebrew school. I was bat mitzvah’d. It was the only thing. I didn’t celebrate anything else. I was Jewish. No Christmas. I remember my mom joking one year that we would have a Hanukkah bush and put ornaments on it, but no. So, it’s funny that Shiva Baby opened the door and allowed me to run into all these Jewish characters.
Your real-life grandmother sounds very different from your grandmother in Clock, who’s this terrifying specter of a Holocaust victim stalking you from beyond the grave. You deliver this powerful speech in the film, too, about why the Holocaust tends to occupy a larger space in the imagination than other horrible tragedies.
Oh my god, yes. We made that film exactly a year ago today. There’s a point in that speech where, as she’s explaining all of that, she points to doctors and patients. What Melora [Hardin] is putting my character through in that moment, and asking her to trust her, there’s that [Holocaust] parallel in that moment. And there was no improvisation. It was exactly like a play and we hit beats. This movie was very personal to Alexis Jacknow, there were so many heads of department that were female, and it was a fun experience having so many people believe so fully in what we were exploring. We were also shooting this right in Texas as Roe was overturned, so it was charged. It felt emotional being on set, telling this story, and thinking about people who are having their choice completely stripped away from them.
In Clock, women’s reproductive systems are being controlled by a biotech start-up, which sadly doesn’t seem all that dystopian.
Totally. And I think this character, and I’ve experienced this a lot in my own life, it’s so bizarre to be this person where I feel really comfortable in my own skin, in my career, in my community, and yet all of that can be diminished by one comment. It’s strange to me how often someone will place judgment on your life choices or expect that you would be moving closer to choices that they see fit. It’s so wild. There’s this “normal” timeline that people think everyone should stick to. My mom had me when she was 30.
I’m 37 and have no children. I also have friends my age whose parents had them when they were 40 to 44 years old, but that was not as “normal.” Somehow, weirdly, 37 years later it is still not very “normal.” And, whatever choice you’re making, I don’t understand somebody — especially a stranger — feeling that they need to wake you up out of your fever dream as if you don’t know what choices you’re making.
Does that happen to you at family functions?
It doesn’t happen to me at a family function, but I was so surprised that it happened to me at a work event. It was an event surrounding the Tribeca Film Festival and there were a few journalists outside. One of them said to me, “Your mom’s name is Mary. So, is it at the top of the list?” And I said, “What list?” and she said, “For children.” And I said to her some version of, “We’re here to celebrate everybody’s work.
I am so not comfortable speaking about that, and I’m very surprised that you asked me that here of all places.” It was weird. And I said it kindly, but I said it because that was how I felt and I’m more comfortable saying how I feel in situations that make me uncomfortable, and there was no registering that that was perhaps inappropriate. It was just on to the next question. And that blew my mind.
That’s super weird. What was it like growing up Jewish in the South?
I was born in Savannah, Georgia, and my father is in hotels, so we traveled a little bit growing up. I was born living in a hotel, and then from the ages of two to eight we were in San Antonio, Texas. I was Jewish, and none of the other kids were Jewish, and I chose to do ballet as my extracurricular, so I was this weird kid that was teased and not exactly let in in the same way that I was when I moved to San Francisco.
When I moved there, there weren’t many Jewish kids at my immediate school, but there were in the community, and I realized it was nice to have some people who could understand you and not just judge you. From eight to almost eighteen I was living in a hotel in San Francisco.
At the airport, right?
Yes. It was a unique experience, and it’s also why I’m really comfortable in hotels. You could observe so many things, and the daily life was very unusual, observing the comings and goings at that hotel. I think that experience also wanted and aided my desire to tell stories because I saw so many things happening. You saw people coming in from all over the world. I had strict parameters as far as how I was able to use the hotel facilities. I couldn’t order whatever I wanted or run around terrorizing people.
Then you move to LA and start playing all these shiksa characters. Was that odd for you?
I really moved to Los Angeles to find a musical. That was my dream. I actually had a dance agent before I had an acting agent, and I would go on these auditions and ask anyone who would listen, “Where are the musicals?” People would tell me to move to New York, but I somehow had this staunch belief that I was in the right place. It’s funny, looking back, that is my most desired thing because of my actual reality. It was a full musical show. We did so many dance numbers I lost track.
What is it like looking back on that Glee period?
It does feel strange because we were such young people. If I see footage of myself from that period, I see my youth and I see the heart and community and family we had with each other. It’s emotional, nostalgic, heartwarming, and career-affirming. That experience opened up so many doors, and I’m so grateful that that’s how I learned everything. I hadn’t done TV for almost a decade, but we shot this series last year for Netflix [The Chosen One], which is an adaptation of a Mark Millar graphic novel.
The boy who plays my son is 13 years old, and he and his friends, who are this Goonies/Stand by Me little bunch, are all between the ages of 13 and 16, and they hadn’t acted before. Watching them interact with each other, I was reminded of the curiosity, enthusiasm, intrigue, and discovery that we had on Glee. It allowed me to reflect a lot on it.
Are you glad Glee didn’t exist in today’s chaotic social media landscape?
We were right at the beginning of it. I remember our studio executives suggesting that we could participate in Twitter. That was such a funny, weird thing for us, because between Myspace and things like Napster, we had experienced very low-level internet developments, so by the time Twitter came around, we didn’t really take it seriously. We didn’t anticipate that it would become as prominent in people’s lives as it is now.
Well, now it’s being ruined.
[Laughs] What do you mean? It’s perfect!
What was it like being a young female star on a hot show during that era?
I think it was a sliding scale of appropriate to terribly inappropriate, and especially if you’re playing a character who people find to be attractive, or you are a young person who people find to be fit in a box that they would like to put you in, which is “young and sexy.” That was the hardest thing for me to reconcile with. I was a pretty nerdy kid and not much has changed, so I didn’t ever really feel comfortable dolling up or expressing my sexuality in that way, because I didn’t even fully understand how I felt about my own sexuality. I really came of age on that show. I was 22 when it started. There were things that happened where I had to learn how to use my voice to advocate for myself, and I wish people would have had more of awareness to support me or ask my permission.
This was the Maxim and lad-mag era, where so many young female stars were being pressured into being shot in bikinis and stuff.
The very first photo shoot I had, which I love the photos from, actually, and it was a serious magazine, I showed up and there was a rack full of bikinis. I said, “I wasn’t told that this was the direction the shoot was going in and I’m not really comfortable. What else is there?” And then she pulled up some really lovely pieces.
It’s weird to me that that was my first experience and I’d found my voice, and then years later, we had a photoshoot with GQ, and it was with Terry Richardson, and there were no other clothes, our reps were not there, and we were just told, “This is what you have to do for your show.” I remember feeling strange after the whole thing.
Was Terry a creep on that shoot?
He was not. It was a woman on set that played a role in the photo shoot, but he was kind. I remember when we shot the cover of Rolling Stone. That was a fun day. It is so strange to think of all those moments and the full spectrum of experiences you’ve had over 16 or 17 years of doing this. But I do feel that this is just the beginning. I feel so comfortable in myself, and in the work, and I’m able to access so many things that I wasn’t able to access in years prior. I think that the roles that I’m being presented are getting more and more fun — not to take anything away from the past jobs I’ve had. I’ve been waiting to play characters my own age, and that happened a few years ago.
How did you feel about the end of your tenure on Glee? There was much written at the time about how you were barred from the Cory Monteith tribute episode.
Not true. I think there are so many false pieces of information out there. That’s the weirdest thing that you have to learn in this industry — you don’t comment on things that are untrue, because that gives them more space. Maybe at the end of my career, I’ll write a book and go into detail on everything that was very true and very untrue.
There’s been a lot of exploitation of the history of Glee, like the recent trashy docuseries The Price of Glee.
Right. I’m sure, which is really sad and unfortunate. At the end of the day, you can’t control what other people do. I’ll leave it for when I write my book at the age of 89. I picture this in Italy. Lunchtime consists of really delicious pasta, dinner consists of really delicious pasta, and I’ll sleep in a little. From 10:45 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. I write. Then I lunch. Then I take a sea dip. Then, from the hours of 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., I edit what I wrote. And then I do it again.
And you’re a New Yorker now.
This is my place. I’ve lived in New York for eight years now. I used to split my time between New York and London.
I studied abroad in London during my junior year of college. The indie music scene was pretty fun back then. It was when the Arctic Monkeys were first blowing up.
I think the only fights that I ever got in with my mother during my 13th or 14th year was that I always wanted to go to concerts on my own. That was the most contentious thing. There would be moments when I would be in my room saying, “You’re ruining my life!” It is funny to think back on, but there was a time when I really thought, “If I don’t see this show, my life might be ruined.” And you had no filming devices back then, so it wasn’t about showing people you had gone. I needed to feel the music within every inch of my body. I started lying to my family and was always sleeping at my friend’s house but then going to shows.
Who were you seeing back then?
Oh my god, it varied. Sometimes it would be Warped Tour, so whoever was playing that year: AFI, Blink 182, Sum 41, Gwen Stefani, Weezer. I saw Arcade Fire at the Bowery Ballroom last year, and it was incredible to see them in a small venue because I had only seen them in big ones. It was so special. Give me music that I love in a venue and the ability to be free with movement and dance, and that’s my happiest place. I want to be dancing eighty percent of the time, though that’s not what I actually achieve.
You have inspired music as well since you’re in the liner notes as one of the inspirations for Taylor Swift’s song “22.”
Me? Oh, if only! That’s more because of a friendship than being the inspiration for the song. But I would not be the person to ask about that. I cannot claim that!
How do you feel about the way that friendship was covered in the media? You two were shipped.
You two were made out by the media and some fans to be in a relationship.
That is so interesting. I… I mean, there have been many stories about my dating life that are so wildly untrue. That’s funny.