One of my favorite things is when you discover an actor has an entirely separate career path from what you know them from. I’ve been fortunate enough to talk to directors who also act or also edit their own films or television shows, but I don’t think I’ve spoken to anyone like Brittany Allen. When The Boys received their first Outstanding Drama Series Emmy nomination, I started with season one, and I was immediately drawn to Allen Popclaw. She’s a live wire of a character who is written off too easily by some audiences. There is a sadness to her character, and I was so enraptured by Allen’s portrayal of a woman who felt left behind.
Color me shocked when I realized that not only is Allen a solid talent on screen, but she is an up-and-coming composer whose work on American Horror Stories is easily some of the best of its first season. “Feral” is a terrifying, woodsy nugget of an episode, and Allen’s experience on screen allowed her to tap into an emotional intensity to elevate the emotions of the characters in this particular episode.
Music was something Allen always came back to. When you are a trained theater performer, that music never truly leaves you. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. A musical theater training is of the most intense you can embark on and it becomes synonymous with who you are.
“Music was a part of who I was from a very young age. At the age of four, I was in the school talent shows singing and as soon as I was old enough, I was begging my parents to help me get on stage to help him be a part of musical theater within the school and in the community theater. I actually studied musical theater at a really great arts high school in Toronto, and then from there studied musical theater in college. So at the time, I really thought that my trajectory would be to go to Broadway. That was definitely a big goal of mine back then. Shortly after college, I booked All My Children and moved to New York, and then the show moved out to LA. I just kept in the lane and film and television and I turned my back on musical theater, I would say. For a number of years, I kind of denied the fact that that was such a part of my being. Throughout my twenties, I definitely felt the absence of some aspect of my creativity. And even on really good years, as an actor, I would hit the end of the year, and I would have this feeling that I wasn’t giving everything that I had to give that was inside.”
All My Children was amazing opportunity for Allen, and she has a Daytime Emmy on her shelf for her work on the beloved soap. Even though Allen was focusing on her acting career, she found herself taking mental notes of music and recording them on her phone. She wasn’t intimidated by not knowing how to play ten different instruments when she had a computer with flexible software at her disposal.
“I was recording all these voice memos, and there were a number of things that kind of lined up about five years ago that led me to open up my computer for the first time in a while. I realized that everything that I heard in my head, all of the ideas that I had, I could build if I learned the tools. I didn’t have to be an expert at piano playing, I didn’t have to be an expert guitarist. If I could become an expert at this technology, I could essentially play every instrument program, every instrument, and that was just so exciting to me. I wrote a tremendous amount of songs over the course of a few years, and then my partner and I set out to make our third film together, What Keeps You Alive. We threw around the idea that maybe I could try scoring it because I had gotten to the point where my music lent itself towards a cinematic vibe. But I think that a lot of what I’ve picked up along the way, my training in musical theater, especially makes me really suited to to do this. I just kind of went after it. And now and now I no longer feel like I have to only do one thing because I just don’t think that that’s what I’m built for.”
Allen and I talked a lot about how she connected with the music, and that’s such a unique point of view because she knows how to connect as a performer. She can instinctively put herself in the shows of the characters and understand their intention and what they want. How many composers can say they can connect with their story as much as Allen does?
“One of my favorite aspects about scoring “Feral” is that I can push my sound to the darkest, angriest most experimental place and I can really channel a lot of my own feelings into that. It’s just such a really fun process of discovery–finding that Sonic palette. I also come at the work always from a place of wanting to connect to the characters journey and emotionally translate their experience into music and and so for that process, I will kind of really soak up this the script and the story or the episode if I’m just viewing it. I’ll sit at the piano and just with all of the feelings inside of me and I’ll take my time to make sure that my heart is aligning with the character’s heart. My experiences as an actor maybe helps me do that. I’ll sit at the piano and from there, I’ll build out themes, musical themes, then I’ll just kind of let my hands guide me to find something that feels similar to how I think the characters are feeling. In the case of “Feral” I was so grateful to be given that episode, because it encompassed everything.”
“Feral” has every parent’s nightmare wrapped into a horror story set in the woods. Addy and Jay (Tiffany Dupont and Aaron Tveit) lose their son on an innocent camping trip, and their lives are never the same again. They return to the woods when it appears that their son might actually be alive. Allen wanted to create circular feeling since Addy and Jay were coming back to a very painful scene.
“There was a lot of opportunity to build some emotional, heartbreaking themes, but then it was also so freaking dark. I got pushed up that way too. I was thrilled. I like to introduce a theme at the beginning of a film that maybe is represents the state of things off the start, which is oftentimes in horror, everyone’s feeling good before they go horribly south. I’ll build a theme from there, that then can be just completely mangled by the end of the episode or the film whether it’s played with different instruments and played with different intentions and different aggression. It can, it can be carried from the beginning to the end. One of the first themes that I built was the moment where they enter the forest. This dizzying sense of what’s to come in that circular and unsettling way. It comes back again, when they lose their child and it’s gotten more panicked and it also comes back multiple times. At the end when when she gets really bad, I’ve got an opera voice singing it.”
A certain horror movie from 1972 was a huge inspiration for Allen’s score of “Feral.” Allen discovered a stringed instrument called a psaltery that played on the innocence of the lost child at the center of the story. When she tweaked it, however, she found the instrument leaned into the more sinister themes of the series.
:It was important to me to use organic instruments because I wanted it to feel like it could be made from them–they could be the creators of their own rhythm. Their own kind of battle song. Some of the early conversations around the musical inspiration that the team wanted for “Feral” included Deliverance. That film doesn’t have a score beyond that banjo, which is pretty amazing. I found that the dulcimer is an instrument that goes way back in that area, and it was an instrument that could be built for cheap. The psaltery, which actually is an instrument that was from medieval times, and the dulcimer is an ancestor of the psaltery. I listened to some videos online, and the first few videos that I found really had a great horror sound to them. I was trying to find the essence of what I was after, and everything just sounded way too light and way too pretty. It wasn’t until I clued into the fact that my reason for including this instrument is not to create one of the tragic melodic themes. I detuned it a ton.”
At the end of our conversation, we came back to Popclaw in our discussion of flawed women. Allen’s versatility in front and behind the camera is exciting, and I can’t wait to see what she does next. She is drawn to complicated women and stories and we left our chat with a sense of sadness for her character from the Amazon hit.
“I fell in love with her. I think that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to act way back was to was to step into the shoes of people who had been through something that maybe I hadn’t and to show the audience the human side of somebody that you might otherwise judge at first. Those characters are the most fun to play.”
American Horror Stories is streaming on Hulu and The Boys is streaming on Amazon.