Born Alyson Lee Hannigan, March 24, 1974, in Washington, DC; daughter of Albert Hannigan (a truck driver) and Emily Posner (a real estate agent); married Alexis Denisof (an actor), October 11, 2003. Education: Attended California State University—Northridge.
Addresses: Agent —Innovative Artists, 1505 Tenth St., Santa Monica, CA 90401. Home —Santa Monica, CA.
Actress on television, including: Free Spirit , ABC, 1989; Buffy, the Vampire Slayer , The WB, 1997–2001, UPN, 2002–03; How I Met Your Mother , CBS, 2005–. Television movies include: The Stranger Beside Me , 1995; For My Daughter's Honor , CBS, 1996; A Case for Life , ABC, 1996; Hayley Wagner, Star , Show-time, 1999; Americana , 2004; also appeared in episodes of Roseanne , 1990; Almost Home , 1993; Touched by an Angel , 1994; Picket Fences , 1996; Angel , 2001; That '70s Show , 2004; Veronica Mars , 2005. Film appearances include: My Stepmother Is an Alien , 1988; Dead Man on Campus , 1998; American Pie , 1999; American Pie 2 , 2001; American Wedding , 2003; Date Movie , 2006. Stage appearances include: When Harry Met Sally , Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, England, 2004.
Alyson Hannigan spent seven seasons as Willow Rosenberg on the cult-favorite television series Buffy, the Vampire Slayer . Her comic talents, however, found an outlet in the trio of American Pie movies as sexpot-flautist Michelle Flaherty. In 2005, she began appearing in a new CBS sitcom, How I Met Your Mother , and with this series the diminutive thespian stepped over the line into full-grown adult roles. Consistently praised by critics for her comic timing, Hannigan is contented to be known as the wisecracking but wholesome girl-next-door. "I'd much rather be funny than sexy," she told Robin Walker in England's Birmingham Post . "but it would be great if I can get to do both. It's not like I'm not going to do something just because I don't get to wear the best clothes and stuff."
Hannigan was born on March 24, 1974, in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Atlanta with her mother, Emily, a real estate agent, after her parents divorced when she was two years old. Her father, Al, a truck driver, settled in Missouri. Before she even began kindergarten, Hannigan was appearing in television commercials—a career path she chose herself. "For some reason, I always knew what I wanted," she explained in an interview with Garth Pearce that appeared in London's Sunday Times newspaper. "My mom was just following my wishes to act. I don't know why, because I never really think of myself as a confident person. But I had confidence in acting, even as a kid, and felt at ease."
Hannigan and her mother relocated to the Los Angeles area when she was eleven years old so that she could pursue her career in earnest. She made her feature-film debut the year she turned 14 in My Stepmother Is an Alien , a 1988 comedy that starred Kim Basinger and Dan Aykroyd. The ABC sitcom Free Spirit , about a good witch who helps out a family, was her next job, but the series aired only for one season in 1989–90. Subsequently, Hannigan decided to concentrate on finishing high school before committing to other jobs. She graduated from North Hollywood High School in 1992, and began taking courses in psychology at California State University's Northridge campus.
Before appearing on Buffy 's pilot episode in March of 1997, Hannigan appeared in guest slots on several top-rated television series, including Touched by an Angel and Picket Fences . She also found steady work in made-for-television movies, such as The Stranger Beside Me in 1995 and A Case for Life a year later. Her stint as Willow Rosenberg, one of the two friends Buffy makes when she moves to Sunnydale, took her through seven seasons, and she appeared in 138 of the 144 episodes of the cult-favorite series' run. Cast as the shy, brainy best friend, Hannigan played a character who evolved tremendously over the course of seven seasons: Willow discovers her own supernatural powers, becomes a lesbian, and turns into a destructive force that nearly destroys the planet.
Buffy earned impressive ratings during its first five seasons on The WB network, and was picked up by UPN for its final two years. The show gained a devoted audience, who discussed plot twists and speculated about various characters in Internet chat rooms and on fan Web sites. Even New York Times critic Joyce Millman wrote that Willow was "endearingly played by … Hannigan" and emerged "as the most complicated character on Buffy . Her discovery of her supernatural gift was linked to her lesbian sexual awakening. And since her success at raising Buffy from the dead this season, the usually sweet Willow has developed a provocative new edge of arrogance and recklessness, using her magic to manipulate, not heal." Playing a gay character presented no particular difficulty for Hannigan, as she told David Keeps in an interview for Teen People . "It's not something I ever experienced," she quipped, "but then I've never had to experience bringing back my friends from the dead either."
Hannigan was stunned that the show became such a hit with teens and adults alike, as she told Pearce in the Sunday Times interview. "We all believed in what we were doing, obviously, but suddenly to become this hot new cult show, with fans from all over the world, took our breath away…. I used to pester the show's creator, Joss Whedon, to tell me all the future stories. Then, a couple of years ago, he told me all his plans—and most of them did not happen." At one point, however, the show's fan base was linked to the source of some trouble when an Internet-generated rumor that Hannigan had died in a car accident spread to the press before she realized it. "It was horrible for my friends," she recalled in an interview with David Mathews in the Mirror , a London newspaper. "People were calling hospitals and morgues trying to find out if they had somebody of my description that had died in a car accident. It was bad."
In between Buffy seasons, Hannigan began appearing in the American Pie teen comedies. She was cast in the first, which arrived in movie theaters in July of 1999, as Michelle Flaherty, the unexpectedly risqué new paramour for Jason Biggs' Jim Levenstein. The plot centers around a pact made by Jim and three of his friends to lose their virginity by the night of their senior prom. Hannigan's nerdy Michelle, known for incessantly recounting incidents that begin with her opener, "This one time … at band camp," turns out to be a bit randier than Jim first assumed.
Like Michelle, American Pie proved an unexpected surprise, too: The movie cost just $11 million to make, but went on to earn more than ten times that at the box office. Hannigan was the only female actor of the original American Pie movie to have gone on to attain genuine professional success; stardom had been predicted for Tara Reid, Natasha Lyonne, and Mena Suvari, but their careers eventually stalled. Hannigan reprised her character in a successful sequel, American Pie 2 , which revisited the characters during the summer after their freshman year of college. She returned for American Wedding in 2003, now preparing to marry Jim and still delivering lines in Michelle's inimitable cadences. "All of her lines had a question mark at the end of them," Hannigan explained to Anthony Breznican of the Bergen County, New Jersey, newspaper the Record about getting into her character when she read the first American Pie script. "I sort of just fooled around with it for a few minutes, and just immediately heard her voice. And, of course, now it will never leave my head."
NBC signed Hannigan to a development deal, but no series came out of it. After Buffy ended its seven-season run with a spectacular finale, she decamped to London, England, to begin work on the stage adaptation of the romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally in early 2004. A remake of the hit 1989 Meg Ryan-Billy Crystal movie, the play paired her with former Beverly Hills, 90210 heartthrob Luke Perry and had a successful run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. It was Hannigan's professional stage debut, and she avoided watching the original film version once she was cast in the role. "I don't want to make the wrong choice just to be different from what Meg Ryan did, but, at the same time, I'm not doing an impersonation," she told Gareth McLean in an interview for London's Guardian newspaper. Though critics were initially wary about a project that put American teen television personalities in a frothy romantic comedy, the live version of When Harry Met Sally scored some surprisingly enthusiastic reviews. "Hannigan's goofy naivety fits the role splendidly," asserted Michael Portillo in the New Statesman . "She's beautiful to watch, graceful and light around the stage," and he also commended her on the story's infamous restaurant scene, in which Sally claims she can convincingly fake sexual satisfaction. Portillo wrote that she "plays the scene with all the gusto of Meg Ryan's memorable screen performance. She's just as funny."
Hannigan returned to television when she was cast in a new sitcom, How I Met Your Mother , which debuted on the CBS network in September of 2005. The show opens in the year 2030, as a father is recounting his romantic travails to his two teenage kids when he was young, single, and hoping to settle down. His character, Ted, was played by Josh Radnor, and is eager to marry once his best friend Marshall (Jason Segel) becomes engaged to Hannigan's kindergarten teacher, Lily Aldrin. The series also starred Cobie Smulders and Neil Patrick Harris, and was a hit with critics and viewers alike, regularly pulling in an audience of ten million on Monday nights. Newsweek 's television critic, Marc Peyser, singled out Hannigan in his accolades for the show, describing her as "delightfully goofy," while Entertainment Weekly 's Henry Goldblatt called the four leads "one of the most crackling, entertaining ensembles on television…. The characters reside on a mysterious island (Manhattan), and much of the entertainment comes from watching them in poignant, enlightening, and scary flashbacks."
Hannigan landed the How I Met Your Mother job thanks to one of the legions of Buffy fans. Craig Thomas was the new series' writer and executive producer, and had loosely based it on his own relationship history; his fiancée was an ardent Buffy fan, and urged him to cast Hannigan to play her—even demanding that the wedding would be put on hold if someone other than "Willow" was hired. Hannigan's own romantic escapades also dovetailed with her Buffy work: In October of 2003 she wed actor Alexis Denisof, who had played Wesley Wyndam-Pryce on the Buffy spin-off, Angel . The pair met when he appeared in a 1999 Buffy episode, but their relationship took some time to emerge from a platonic friendship. "He didn't want to date somebody he was working with," Hannigan explained in the interview with Breznican for the Record . "But we became immediate friends and flirted with each other shamelessly."
In 2006, Hannigan appeared in her first starring role in a feature film, Date Movie . A spoof on the romantic-comedy genre, she played a hapless single woman, Julia Jones, who hires a dating coach to help her win Mr. Right. Hannigan wore a "fat suit" that added several sizes to her frame. The movie was panned by most critics, including Variety 's Joe Leydon, who called the movie "stupefyingly unfunny" but conceded that "against all odds, Alyson Hannigan struggles mightily to brighten the dreary proceedings."
In public, fans of the American Pie movies sometimes yell "Band camp!" at Hannigan. Her Buffy character, meanwhile, continues to live on via cable-television reruns, assuring her a steady accretion of new devotees for the series and those who identify with Willow's travails. "I just think high school is so hard," Hannigan conceded in an interview with Ted Cox, television writer for the suburban Chicago newspaper the Daily Herald . "It was an overwhelmingly depressing period of my life. And my friends and I obviously were attracted to each other because we were all misfits and we were going through all these changes and we didn't much understand it. 'Where do we fit in with the world' and all that? You experience that and then, you know, get through it and then you're happy to be out of it."
Birmingham Post (Birmingham, England), August 13, 2003, p. 12.
Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), May 11, 1999, p. 3.
Daily Variety , June 8, 2006, p. A14.
Entertainment Weekly , February 27, 2004, p. 104; October 28, 2005, p. 42; May 19, 2006, p. 66.
Guardian (London, England), February 6, 2004, p. 4.
Mirror (London, England), August 15, 2003, p. 5.
New Statesman , March 1, 2004, p. 44.
Newsweek , September 19, 2005, p. 60.
New York Times , November 18, 2001.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), August 3, 2003, p. E7.
Sunday Times (London, England), July 13, 2003, p. 14.
Teen People , June 1, 2002, p. 95.
Variety , February 27, 2006, p. 32.