Analeigh Tipton is kicking off a pair of black Chuck Taylors inside the Pasadena Ice Skating Center when she tells me that her 21st birthday party had a LARPing (live action role-playing) theme. “Basically, people came dressed up as knights, elves, gnomes, trolls, or gods or superheroes of any sort, and you have a point system and you embody that role entirely and put on a war.” She slips on a well-worn skate and complains about how hard it is to find a Renaissance or fantasy-based LARPing game here in Los Angeles. “It’s all dark vampire stuff that happens in the basement of different clubs,” she says, before shifting to a barely perceptible whisper: “They are sex parties.”
Welcome to the innocent and wacky world of actress/model Analeigh Tipton.
Following her breakthrough role as a teenage babysitter in Crazy, Stupid, Love. last summer (as well as smaller parts in The Green Hornet and on HBO’s Hung), The New York Times singled her out as one of their five “faces to watch,” describing her adorable unease before the camera as “coltish.” Tipton blushes when I remind her: “I have a lot of nervous energy and that often comes out in my hands and body posture.”
You wouldn’t know it by watching her on the ice. It seems like every pair of eyes in the skating center is locked on Tipton as she swiftly circles the arena to a soundtrack of ’50s doo-wop blaring from the old rink’s crackly speakers. How ironic it is that someone trained to eliminate every faint trace of awkwardness in the pursuit of grace is now building a promising career around poeticizing those very moments.
“Now I can fully be me with all of my quirks,” she says and, as if to illustrate the point, transitions into a breakdance backspin much to the bewilderment of several onlookers.
Born in Minnesota and raised in Central California, Tipton grew up as a competitive ice skater, twice competing in the U.S. Junior Figure Skating Championships. Her childhood was eccentric to say the least: She was homeschooled, obsessed with outer space (“I wanted to be an astronaut with all my heart”), and her three best friends were of the imaginary variety. At age seven, she was sent to “friendship classes” to hasten her socialization process.
“I would Irish jig to [Scottish folk band] Big Country on street corners and take my boom box with [Romantic pianist] Jim Brickman on it and just sit in the leaves and contemplate life,” Tipton says whimsically of her childhood.
“Analeigh would have been the sort of girl a Salinger character would have fallen for,” says Whit Stillman who directs her in Damsels in Distress, the director’s highly anticipated, first film in over a decade (due out this April).
Tipton joins a veritable alt-star dream team in Damsels—including Greta Gerwig, Aubrey Plaza, Adam Brody, and Alia Shawkat (Lena Dunham was also attached to the project at one point). She plays Lily, a girl-next-door-type who transfers to an East Coast college and is soon taken under the wing of a group of girls who run the university’s “Suicide Center.”
“My idea was that Lily is one of those people we assume is ‘really great,’ but, actually, isn’t,” explains Stillman. “I had imagined a man-magnet sexy beauty, fresh faced but at her core ‘plastic’ who would be Violet’s [Gerwig’s character] nemesis…. But Analeigh made the character more likable and difficult to place than I intended.”
Subverting expectations is nothing new for Tipton. Yes, she is a 5’10” model repped by Ford. Yes, she is a runner-up on Cycle Eleven of America’s Next Top Model. And yes, it was not too long ago that she splashed in a swimming pool for a Maxim photo shoot. But, Tipton undermines these moments with a precocious self-consciousness, one that’s especially on display in Damsels—whether batting her lashes while contemplating anal sex with a French grad student or parsing the word “doofus” as if it were of Latin origin. She has an awkward allure, a “slender, swelling, delicately blossoming beauty,” as Gerwig’s character puts it in the film.
“I’m attracted to the awkward, gawky roles. I like tics and little strange things I can play up,” she tells me when we move to a bench outside the skating center.
“I’m really uncomfortable in sexualized roles because I am kind of a tomboy sort,” she says, citing as evidence the 501 Levi’s boy jeans and old flannel shirt she’s wearing. “Now that I’m a 23-year-old woman, I’m having an easier time embracing the fun, sexy side of myself, whereas before, I tried to fight it.”
That doesn’t mean there isn’t an occasional moment that still feels kind of icky. While guest starring on an America’s Next Top Models-themed episode of The Big Bang Theory in which Tipton played herself, she was told to “dumb it down” by the director. “I hated that,” she remembers, before quickly changing the subject so as to not sound bitter. But finding roles that capture the dynamism of her personality is no easy task. Here is a young woman who is obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons (“I am a dark elf and I use a long bow as my weapon,” she confesses), is applying to a NASA program to become an astronaut, and purports to frequently dream in Klingon.
“A lot of girls in my shoes are self-conscious about their intelligence,” says Tipton. She tells me that it’s sometimes easier just to conform to the model stereotype than offer a truthful and nuanced depiction of who she really is. “When I bring up some of my favorite books in interviews (Broca’s Brain by Carl Sagan, for instance), I’m conscious of the character I’m putting out there.”
I ask her if it would be fair to characterize that character as “a nerd.”
“I don’t think I’m a nerd,“ she replies. “I don’t believe people should label themselves. When I was really young, for instance, I used to go around telling people I was mysterious until I realized that that was giving quite a bit away, isn’t it?”
When it’s time for us to say our goodbyes, Tipton slings a yellow canvas Hummer bag holding her skates over her shoulder (“I always wanted a yellow Hummer when, you know, the environment didn’t matter”) and heads towards her car. License plate: SO JEDI.
I can’t help but wonder whether it’s all one giant act—whether Tipton is simply attracted to cultural forms that throw her looks into the sharpest relief—that make someone who might otherwise seem larger-than-life feel a wee bit more approachable. The LARPing, the D&D, the Jim Brickman—is it all just one clever bit of branding?
The next day, she emails me a photo of herself dressed up as Hermione at a Harry Potter midnight screening with a note in Morse code: “.. .- -- ... - --- -.- . -.. .-.-.-” It’s at that moment when I realize that questioning her authenticity is sort of beside the point. Regardless of whether it is conscious or not, Analeigh Tipton is indubitably an original. She’s a breath of fresh air precisely because of her unabashed insistence, encased in her own Morse message: “I’m stoked.”