Interview: Alyson Hannigan on American Pie

She started as Buffy’s sleek but geeky sidekick, but couldn’t resist repeated helpings of Hollywood’s most enduring sex comedy. Alyson Hannigan tells Siobhan Synnot why she likes to make ’em laugh

In 1999 Alyson Hannigan was part of the Buffy universe. Don’t pretend you don’t remember Buffy The Vampire Slayer, a long-running TV show about demons, vampires and a Californian Valley Girl chosen to despatch some, and fall for others. Hannigan played Buffy’s best friend Willow, who started out as a shy geek who was good at computers, not so hot on boys and high-fashion, yet evolved into a powerful lesbian witch.

Then came this one time? In movies? Where she was offered a role as a musical nerd in a smutty teenage comedy? “All her lines had a question mark in the script,” says Hannigan, adding regretfully: “And now it will never leave my head.”

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American Pie and Buffy are the two series that the public still associate with Hannigan, almost ten years on. Followers are easily distinguished; a Willow fan will offer a sincere discussion of arcane Buffy lore. If it’s American Pie, it’s “Hey, Band Camp,” shouted across the street. Hannigan is also the subject of two songs: Alyson Hannigan by Juvenile Wreck and This One Time… based around her American Pie catchphrase.

When she first appeared as Michelle, who does unmentionable things with her flute at band camp, even Hannigan thought she would only sustain one slice of Pie. “I was shocked that I was in the second movie, just because at the end of the first movie Michelle leaves him there,” she says. “I just figured it was nice to be a part of such a great movie.” Apart from flute abuse, Michelle is the one who finally stops Jim (Jason Biggs) taking out his frustrations on pies. The film became a box office sensation, generating £600m worldwide. So naturally they reunited the cast for 2, where Michelle and Jim fall in love.

By the time they tied the knot in American Pie – The Wedding (2003), Hannigan was about to get hitched herself. Other Pie sequels carried on without her, seemingly doomed to go straight to the DVD bargain bin, while Hannigan has become a strong, consistent TV presence. For seven years she’s been one of the stars of the hit C4 sitcom How I Met Your Mother, a role she landed without an audition because the co-creator’s wife was a huge Buffy fan.

Although the latest American Pie film functions as an excuse to bring back most of the original cast, Hannigan admits she wasn’t keen on a reunion. The three earlier films were shot while Hannigan was still working on Buffy, and although she had no problem keeping the characters separate, the work schedules frequently overlapped to the point that during the second film she sometimes worked for 27 hours at a stretch on both productions. Unlike American Pie co-stars Tara Reid and Chris Klein, Hannigan still had a lot on her plate in 2012.

“I definitely had to be talked into American Pie: Reunion,” she says. “I was hesitant because I’m on a show and I felt, ‘I’m happy. I’ve got my family.’ But then I met the directors, who also wrote it, and once I read the script I was like, ‘OK, sign me up.’ ”

A reported £2m salary probably helped seal the deal and the only reason Hannigan is in Los Angeles, instead of on the road with the cast on the American Pie global promotional tour, is that she’s expecting her second child with her husband Alexis Denisof in June, which precludes long-haul flights.

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Her pregnancy seems to dovetail nicely with the current storyline on How I Met Your Mother, since her character Lily is also expecting a baby. “My character is a few months further down the road so we had to pad out my bump a bit,” she explains. “Pad plus bump means it’s a bit tight around there.”

The show centres on five thirtysomethings in New York, with Hannigan and The Muppet Show’s Jason Segel as Lily and Marshall, the most stable couple, provided you don’t count Marshall’s experience of unemployment, Lily’s shopping addiction, and Marshall raffling Lily’s breasts in a bet. “But I love that they have a healthy relationship,” Hannigan says. “Sometimes you watch couples on television and ask yourself, ‘Why are these two people together? They hate each other.’ ”

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Like Hannigan, Segel has a life outside How I Met Your Mother. He wrote and starred in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and can be seen next month in Jeff Who Lives At Home. But Hannigan is particularly proud of his work reviving The Muppet Show. “I keep thanking him for bringing them back, and I had to take my three-year-old daughter to visit him on the set. Satyana had to see Miss Piggy and she still talks about it.”

Hannigan’s husband has also appeared on How I Met Your Mother as Sandy Rivers, a TV news anchor who supplements his income by plugging hot sauce during on-air banter. It’s one of the series’ many in-jokes, along with sneaking Buffy actors into guest spots and casting pop culture icons like Katy Perry and Britney Spears as wacko girlfriends. “Britney was just a nice, normal person,” says Hannigan. “However the first time she did the show, a helicopter followed her to work.”

Hannigan started out in commercials aged four. Her first film role was in My Stepmother Is An Alien with Dan Aykroyd and Kim Basinger, and she had short appearances in TV shows such as Roseanne. However she also managed to have an ordinary life at high school where her classmates were unimpressed by her screen roles. “I always pined for the guys who didn’t know I existed,” she says. “Looking back now, the friendships are what mattered. My best friend is still a girl I met in junior high.”

She met her husband on the set of Buffy when he played awkward, British demon-hunter Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. “He was playing it cool because he didn’t want to date somebody he was working with, but we became immediate friends and then flirted with each other shamelessly.”

Hannigan says she would love to work with Buffy creator and current Avengers’ director Joss Whedon again, but thinks a reunion is unlikely – although she did put in a word on behalf of How I Met Your Mother co-star Cobie Smulders, who appears as Nick Fury’s catsuited assistant Maria Hill in this month’s Avengers Assemble. Nowadays the sitcom hours suit Hannigan better than the 14-hour shifts of Buffy. It was while she was growing up that Hannigan discovered a gift for schtick; “If I could make my mother laugh, it was a good way of getting out of trouble.” But funny or quirky women often get sidelined. In one photoshoot which gathered up the leads of Buffy, Charmed and Dawson’s Creek to stage a glossy tableau of pulchritude, she was overlooked entirely.

“Do they think I’m a boy?” she quipped at the time, but went on to have the last laugh by exhibiting more staying power than contemporaries such as Sarah Michelle Gellar, Katie Holmes or Shannen Doherty.

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Hannigan’s strength lies in a sly under-the-radar versatility. Everyone thinks she’s their personal discovery; a smart, relatable, self-effacing woman. It is Hannigan’s deft timing and daffy energy that have some drawing parallels to leading American sitcom redhead, Lucille Ball. “I don’t mind being the funny character rather than the glamorous one,” offers Hannigan, then reconsiders. “Although, I’m happy to do both.” «

• American Pie: Reunion is in cinemas from 2 May

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