Lily from AT&T has entered werewolf country.
Actress-comedian-director Milana Vayntrub plays Lily Adams, customer-service person extraordinaire, on those entertaining AT&T commercials that pop up so often on TV. Thanks to Vayntrub’s charisma as the ever-helpful Lily, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen these ads; they’re almost always more entertaining than the shows they accompany.
Now Vayntrub has a starring role in the horror comedy “Werewolves Within,” and don’t be surprised if it launches her to major movie stardom — if she chooses to pursue it. (The film opens June 25 in theaters in Brookline, Cambridge and Fall River, and will be available for rent online and on cable starting July 2.)
Directed by Josh Ruben (“Scare Me”), “Werewolves Within” is set in a snowy Vermont town where a werewolf might be terrorizing its nutty inhabitants. Sam Richardson (campaign aide Richard Splett on HBO’s “Veep”) plays Finn, a newly arrived forest ranger, and Vayntrub is Cecily, the town postal worker who shows Finn around and just might help him forget his ex-girlfriend.
“I love Josh Ruben,” Vayntrub, 34, says during an interview via Zoom when asked what attracted her to the project. “He’s been a friend of mine for many years, and I would work with him in any capacity at any time. Sam Richardson has been a friend of mine for many years. So once I knew they were involved, there was kind of no way to get me not to do it.
“Then I read the script (by Mishna Wolff), and it felt fluid and easy and fun, and was something I could just flow with. And then to add on to that, there were so many layers of meaning, (which) I don’t want to give away, but there’s depth to the movie. It’s not just a romp, even though it’s also just a really good time.”
Vayntrub and Richardson head an ensemble cast that includes Michaela Watkins, Glenn Fleshler, Wayne Duvall, Cheyenne Jackson, Sarah Burns, Michael Chernus, Catherine Curtin, Harvey Guillen, George Basil and Rebecca Henderson. Vayntrub says the shoot with them was “absolutely the best experience.”
“If you’re not nice and you’re constantly working in a group setting, then you’re probably not working that much anymore,” she says. “These people are just the funniest, kindest, most generous — it just easily became a family. Everyone was included. We all wanted to make sure everyone was at every dinner and every hang-out.
“Also, there’s a real magic to going on location to shoot something because we are together morning, noon and night, and, because everyone is so funny, we’re just constantly playing make-believe, we’re constantly dancing and doing bits. And because everyone is so talented, it’s like, ‘OK, now Wayne Duvall is going to sing the Avett Brothers,’ and ‘Harvey and Sam are going to sing every TV theme song we’ve ever heard.’ It was just so much play.”
Her life isn’t all play. While on vacation in Greece five years ago, she heard about the influx of refugees arriving in boats at the Greek island of Lesbos to flee the Syrian Civil War. A former refugee herself — when she was a young girl, she and her Jewish parents immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union to escape persecution — Vayntrub traveled to the island to volunteer, helping the people coming off the boats by handing out food, changing babies’ diapers, whatever she could do. She also made a short documentary addressing the situation and co-founded a website, Can’t Do Nothing, to encourage people to help refugees and others in need.
Vayntrub also, not necessarily by design, has emerged as a vocal opponent of online sexual harassment and bullying. With the success of the AT&T commercials, she has become the target of online trolls commenting on her appearance, her body, on social media in ways that she’s found hurtful. She’s addressed this on social media herself — there’s a video of her, for instance, trying to reason with people to be more respectful. Even during the video, people continued to post inappropriate messages, and she finally politely said she had to end the conversation and did.
“I believe people have good hearts,” Vayntrub says on the matter. “That’s why I keep trying to reason with them. … I think the reason why they’re reaching out to hurt me — because that is the intent — is because they’re hurt themselves. So I’m continuing to do the work on myself, to heal myself, and then hopefully heal other people just by being kind and remembering that they’re just human beings going through something. …
“Also, I’m just so lucky in so many ways, to have such a rich personal life and (be) fulfilled by my work and (have) so many other blessings, that it gets to me less and less the more mature I get.”
She is quick to point out that she realizes she can be guilty, to a degree, of online insensitivity, too. She gives an example of how she recently responded negatively to a TikTok video on an acting technique, was sorry she did, and sent a note of apology.
“I’m totally imperfect, and mess up, and I’m just trying really hard to be the person I want to be.”
Moments later, she uses some of the same words to describe AT&T’s Lily when discussing the character’s appeal:
“I think it’s because she tells the truth, and if she doesn’t tell the truth she lets you know that she’s joking. She’s an honest person; I really think that’s part of it. And she’s capable and she cares about her job, and she cares about the people she talks to.
“And she’s also imperfect, and messes up, and makes fun of herself. So that self-effacing honesty.”
Most people might be happy simply to rest on the ongoing success of Lily and the commercials. Vayntrub also has her work as a director, a comic and a voice actor (she’s Squirrel Girl for the “Marvel Rising” franchise). She has her activism. She has her TV and film work, with smaller roles in such movies as the 2016 “Ghostbusters” reboot leading to her starring role in “Werewolves Within.”
Where does it all lead? Is she just going with the flow and seeing what comes up, or does she have definite goals?
“I just want to be happy,” she says. “My goals are to love my family and be healthy and have quality relationships with people. Then if I get to make something that makes people happy and pays my rent, that’s a great, great, great perk.
“I wouldn’t say I have a goal to be a giant movie star, or a goal to just do Broadway. I am taking jobs day by day and listening to my gut, and thinking about how it affects my life as a whole.”
So far, it seems, so good.
** Click here for Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **
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Tim Miller is a Cape-based member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He and Tony Raine host “Tim ’n’ Tony’s Rock ’n’ Pop Show” from midnight to 3 a.m. Sunday nights/Monday mornings on WOMR (92.1-FM), WFMR (91.3-FM) and womr.org (archived shows at https://womr.org/schedule/broadcast-archive/). He also teaches film at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.