As part of a series called My Big Break, All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.
Before donning polka dots, pencil skirts, plaid and stylish retro hairstyles on Mad Men, Alison Brie was sporting a far less glamorous look.
She worked the children's birthday party circuit as a clown.
"We always had to drive to Compton first to pick up our suit and do our makeup in this warehouse, and then go get gas, like at the nearest gas station, dressed fully as Sunny the Clown," Brie recalls. "People were cool about it. They were just like, 'Sup girl?' And I was like, 'Sup?' "
Seven years later, when Brie auditioned for Mad Men, she had no idea how big that break would be. At the time, the AMC network didn't have any original programming.
"The role I auditioned for was a one-episode guest star on this show," she says. "So at the time, it also was not like, 'When I get this job it will change my career trajectory entirely. It was more like, 'Maybe no one will ever see this show but at least I would have good material for my reel,' or whatever."
Brie auditioned for the role of Trudy Campbell with the show's creator, Matt Weiner, and other producers, and she felt very confident. But then two weeks went by — an eternity in the world of TV — and she had heard nothing.
"I remember being so devastated that I hadn't heard anything about this job," says Brie. "Uncharacteristically so, because, you know, you audition for a lot of jobs and you don't get most of them."
After that period of suspense, she was offered the part.
Brie was able to see an episode of the show before it premiered. It was so good, she says, that it made her nervous. "I think I turned to my boyfriend at the time and was like, 'I don't think it's gonna last very long.' "
Of course, the show got great reviews — and Brie had a recurring role in all seven seasons.
Looking back, she says Mad Men was obviously her big break. It was the biggest job she'd ever booked. But at the time, it didn't set in.
"I didn't start working on Mad Men and immediately start getting amazing job offers," Brie says. "But I definitely had more confidence because I was working and I could quit my job at the front desk at the yoga studio."
She wasn't under contract for Mad Men, so when NBC's Community came along a couple years later, she seized the opportunity.
"That would be the second in my big-break list," says Brie. "And maybe ultimately the bigger break, because booking a job as a regular on a show does feel more like, 'Whoa!' "
She played Annie — a quirky, straitlaced student at Greendale Community College who was prone to meltdowns.
Her work on Community made people realize she could be funny, but Brie says her career still didn't instantly transform.
But those two roles did open doors and gave her more control over her life as an actor, she says.
"I can actually choose where my career might go," she says, "whereas, you know, when you're first starting out, I definitely took every job. Luckily, it was Mad Men and it was Community. It could have been anything."
TESS VIGELAND, HOST:
Ask "Mad Men" and "Community" star Alison Brie about her big break, and she'll tell you what it wasn't - her summer working as a children's party clown.
ALISON BRIE: Every time we did a job, even if the job was in Brentwood or Malibu, we always had to drive to Compton first to pick up our suit and do our makeup in this warehouse, and then (laughter) - and then go get gas like, at the nearest gas station dressed fully as Sunny the Clown. People were cool about it. They were just like, 'sup girl? And I was like, what's up?
VIGELAND: Seven years later when Alison Brie auditioned for a new show called "Mad Men," she had no idea how big that break would be.
BRIE: It was on AMC, which had no original content at the time. The role I auditioned for was a one-episode guest star on this show. So at the time, it also was not like, when I get this job, it will change my career trajectory entirely. It was more like, maybe no one will ever see this show, but at least I would have good material for my reel or whatever (laughter).
So then I auditioned for Matt Weiner and also just a room full of people. The first scene in the audition room was, I think, you know, we finally meet Pete's new wife, who we've heard about. So now she comes on the scene and has found this amazing apartment that she wants to rent that's very expensive. So there's a line about like, we can get help, Peter.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAD MEN")
VINCENT KARTHEISER: (As Peter Campbell) But if we put 10 percent down, that's an entire year's salary.
BRIE: (As Trudy Campbell) Sweetheart, we're not in this alone. We're a young couple that needs a little help.
BRIE: And I felt super confident. But two weeks went by - almost two full weeks - which in television terms is like you didn't get the job (laughter). And I remember being like so devastated that I hadn't heard anything about this job, and like, uncharacteristically so, because, you know, you audition for a lot of jobs, and you don't get most of them. And then the phone rang, and I got the job just out of nowhere.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAD MEN")
KARTHEISER: (As Peter Campbell) Don, I'd like you to meet my wife, Trudy Campbell.
JON HAMM: (As Don Draper) Don Draper, nice to meet you.
BRIE: So we shot the episode before the series started airing. And I was so nervous. After I watched it, I think I turned to my boyfriend at the time and was like, I don't think it's going to last very long. It's like it's almost too good. But the episodes started airing, you know? I was checking all the - all the reviews - people are reviewing the show and loving it.
Now that I talk about it, obviously that was my big break, and it was my first - the biggest job I've ever booked and all of that. I didn't start working on "Mad Men" and immediately start getting amazing job offers. But I definitely had more confidence because I was working and I could quit my job at the front desk at the yoga studio and (laughter) - but at the same time, I was never under contract for the show. So that's why when "Community" came along, that would be the second in my big-break list (laughter) and maybe - and maybe ultimately the bigger break because booking a job as a regular on a show does feel more like whoa.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COMMUNITY")
BRIE: (As Annie Edison) Good morning, boys. I'm Annie Edison. But people call me psycho, because I had a nervous breakdown in high school.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BRIE: I don't know. I think in my mind, a big break - it seems like it would be one job. You book the job and everything changes in that moment, you know? And that has not been what success has looked like for me. I think having worked on both of these shows has given me just assurance in myself to not feel like I have to take every job that could exist, but that I can actually choose where my career might go, whereas, you know, when you're first starting out, I definitely took every job. Luckily, it was "Mad Men" and it was "Community." It could have been anything.
VIGELAND: Alison Brie - you can hear her on the animated series "BoJack Horseman" on Netflix, and she stars in the new movie "Sleeping With Other People" out next month. You don't have to know Don Draper to have a big break. Email us your story at email@example.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.