Love, Family and Coffee: The Zen of Analeigh Tipton

When a beautiful woman has an unabashed enthusiasm for nerd obsessions—things like sci-fi cult movies, zombie survivalism, comic book conventions, and other pastimes of guys without girlfriends—it’s hard not to be a little suspicious. It usually feels calculated, an obvious attempt to make an otherwise otherworldly starlet seem more attainable and therefore desirable. It’s a means to make everyday Joes think, “She has strong opinions about the Star Wars trilogy and likes to dress up like Harry Potter characters? We have so much in common!” It’s a facade, but a profitable facade.

Analeigh Tipton isn’t one of those woman.

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The confusion is understandable. Judging by her resume, she seems like one of those flawless Hollywood stars-in-the-making, born camera-ready and never dating anybody who didn’t have a black AmEx card. The Minnesota-born Tipton is a former child figure skating champion, a third-place contestant on America’s Next Top Model, and an up-and-coming movie actress that the New York Times once predicted was a “face to watch.” She’s performed alongside household names like Steve Carell in Crazy, Stupid, Love, Seth Rogen in The Green Hornet, and John Malkovich in the upcoming zombie romance Warm Bodies, out in theaters on February 1st.

But there’s another Analeigh Tipton, the one who isn’t quite as sultry and urbane as her photographs might suggest. She’s the Tipton with a license plate on her car that reads “So Jedi.” The one who goes to Dungeons & Dragons parties in LA, and hosted a costume party for her 21st birthday where guests showed up dressed like knights and trolls. Yes, she was a figure skating champion, but she retired at 16 because she got too tall and gangly. Sure, she was a contestant on Next Top Model, but she lost because she was adorably clumsy and couldn’t say the sentence “easy, breezy, beautiful.” She eventually gave up on modeling entirely, because the lifestyle, in her words, “kind of sucks.” Even as a child, she was a fledgling nerd in the making. She grew up with three imaginary best friends (which convinced her parents to send her to “friendship classes” to help her become more social) and dreams of becoming a career astronaut or maybe the female Carl Sagan.

Tipton’s nerdy passions are hardly a contrivance or publicity stunt. Her public image may be a smoldering sexpot, but when nobody’s watching, she’s wearing elf ears.

I called Tipton to talk about her acting career, and our conversation organically evolved into a spirited discussion of zombie apocalypses, astronaut toilet habits, and her habit of befriending rodents in New York City ghetto apartments. I got the strange feeling that this is not an uncommon occurrence for her.

At least on paper, Warm Bodies sounds ridiculous. A zombie love story?

I know, I know.

It sounds like a bad Saturday Night Live sketch.

If you don’t know much about the story, I can see why anybody would be skeptical. It seems pretty laughable.

Did it take a lot of convincing before you agreed to do it?

Not really, no. I came around pretty quickly when I read the book, and I got the tone they were going for, which is fun and funky. And then when I saw who else was involved, well, I couldn’t say no. I mean, John Malkovich? Why wouldn’t I want to be in a movie with John Malkovich? I’m not made of stone.

You’re a big science fiction fan, right?

Huge.

Do you like your science fiction with a little romance thrown in?

Science fiction in general? Not necessarily. But there’s not too much romance in science fiction anyway. And I don’t think there are many zombie books or movies with a love story.

I can’t think of one.

Which is too bad. I think that makes it relatable. Love is universal. I can’t relate to being a zombie or killing zombies, but I can relate to being a girl and finding love in unexpected places.

What’s your favorite zombie movie?

One of my first experiences living in LA was at the New York Film Academy. They had a movie night where they got all the campers together and we sat in a pool and watched a horror movie. It was Night of the Living Dead, and it just blew me away.

Do you prefer fast or slow zombies? Do you want your zombies to be lurching or sprinting?

I like my zombies slow by nature. When they sprint, it becomes a little too real for me. I need to be able to run away and not have them catch me. If there’s ever a zombie apocalypse, that’s my weapon of choice. Running.

What happens if you get cornered? What’s your plan B?

I’ll throw a bunch of puns at them and see if they can figure it out.

Puns?

Yeah. Their brains aren’t really functioning at full capacity. Maybe I can confuse them with puns and wordplay. Doesn’t that sound like a good plan?

It sounds brilliant. You’ve clearly thought this through.

One time I memorized the Greek alphabet. So that could be pretty useful.

Against zombies? I guess so.

They won’t know what the hell I’m talking about. I’ll just start saying puns mixed in with letters from the Greek alphabet. No zombie will have the patience to endure something like that. I’m writing a zombie apocalypse tip book.

You are? Please let that be true.

Not really. But now I think maybe I should.

I’ve read things about you on the Internet, and it makes you sound like kind of a nerd.

What did you read?

Well let’s separate some fact from fiction. I’ll tell you a few rumored factoids about you, and you tell me whether it’s true.

Okay.

You went to a Harry Potter movie in full costume.

Well that’s not entirely true. I actually went to all the Harry Potter movies in costume.

Wow. The Internet downplayed the embarrassing truth. That’s a first.

I also dressed up for the midnight releases of the books.

Do you dress as a specific character, or do you like to mix it up?

I usually go as Hermione, because one of my favorite hair tools is my crimper. If I did it again, I’d probably go as Dobby.

Here’s rumor number two: You play Dungeons & Dragons.

That’s absolutely true. I love D&D. My character is a dark elf with a long crossbow. I’ve had her for about two years. She’s not that powerful, but she’s witty.

Do you have a group of friends that you play with?

There are meet-up groups around LA where they have tournaments. I go to one in Pasadena at an old comic book store, and some of the tournaments last for almost eight hours. Sometimes I just go to watch. It’s so incredible to see all these people using their imaginations.

Here’s the last rumor, and this should pretty much confirm whether you are or aren’t a nerd.

I’m kind of afraid to hear this.

You dream in Klingon?

Umm…

That’s true?

Not exactly. I think I said that to somebody to emphasize how much I really do love Star Trek and Star Wars and anything space related. But I’ve never actually had a dream where people were speaking in Klingon. I wouldn’t know how.

You’re not fluent?

I’m not. I wish I was. Maybe that’s telling. My big ambition is to learn Klingon so I can dream in the language.

I hate to break this to you, Analeigh, but you’re a huge nerd.

That’s not surprising news. [Laughs.]

Is it surprising to other people? They must have preconceived notions about you.

All the time. It makes dating difficult. I get way too excited about things that I probably shouldn’t be excited about. There’s a good and a bad to it. I can understand any girl who doesn’t wear her loves on her sleeves like I do.

You’ve seriously scared away guys because you’re too enthusiastic about nerdy things?

Yeah. I think so. But it’s not just the nerdy things like science fiction movies and D&D. I’m a hardcore science nerd, too. I love space and I love string theory and I love Carl Sagan books. When I was a girl, I was more obsessed with Stephen Hawking than Mickey Mouse. But for me, one side feeds the other. Stephen Hawking makes Star Wars more interesting. It’s the truth in a lot of the magic. But that’s a lot to explain on a first date. [Laughs.]

It really is.

“I know I’m getting super-excited about Star Wars, but here’s why.”

“It all dates back to the Stephen Hawking poster I had on my wall as a girl.”

[Laughs.] Exactly, yeah. No guy wants to hear that. So I just try reassuring them. “I love to dress up like an elf, sure. But I promise I’m not going to make you wear a Gandalf beard tonight.”

Didn’t you originally want to be an astronaut when you were younger?

Completely. I went to Space Camp when I was kid, and then after that I went to Aviation Camp. I tried in high school to join the Air Force Academy, which seemed like the best route to being an astronaut, but I couldn’t get the application to apply. Did you know that you have to apply for an application?

I had no idea.

There are so many hoops you have to jump through. And I have too many heart conditions, they’d never let me in. So instead I just read about it and fantasize. I have a NASA app on my phone.

I interviewed Buzz Aldrin a few years ago.

Oh wow.

And for some reason, I thought it was a good idea to ask him how he peed and pooped in space.

Well sure. It’s the most obvious question.

Do you know?

They have bags, right?

That’s right. “Blue bags,” they’re called. He told me about being on Gemini 12 and almost colliding with three bags of his own excrement on a return trajectory. These are things about astronauts that don’t usually get reported.

And they should. One of my favorite movies growing up was RocketMan. It was a Disney movie, and I don’t think anybody even remembers it. I have it on DVD. I forget who was in it. There’s a chimpanzee, that’s all you need to know.

You’ve sold me. I need to see this movie.

They go up in space, and the chimp has some gas. His space suit slowly blows up. It gets bigger and bigger, and he becomes this huge floating bubble of his own gas. And all the other astronauts are just absolutely disgusted. But he thinks it’s great, because now he gets to bounce around the spaceship.

These are legitimate concerns. What actually happens if you fart in zero gravity?

That’d be my first question. If I became an astronaut, I’d be like, “So you have a bag for this, you have a bag for that. What about gas?” Everybody talks about number one and number two. What about the thing in between?

What number is a fart?

I think it’s just a decimal. If pee is number one and poo is number two, a fart would be like .5, right?

If you had a chance to interview Buzz Aldrin or any other astronaut, what would you ask?

Besides the poop question?

Yeah, besides that.

[Long pause.] It would be so personal that I know it’s something they could never answer. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be outside of the world looking down on everything, on your own existence. But that’s what I’d ask. I’d want to know about that private first thought, when they look at the earth and see everything all at once.

What about space tourism? Richard Branson is selling tickets to Virgin Galactic, which will apparently take passengers on a suborbital cruise.

I don’t think that’s something I could justify. Isn’t it ridiculously expensive?

Tickets are $200,000. But isn’t that a typical paycheck for a Hollywood movie?

Not for me. [Laughs.] Even if it was, spending it on something like that would be so self-indulgent. Let me take this huge amount of money and use it to go look at a blueberry in the sky.

Isn’t that something you want?

As an astronaut maybe, where you’re not just up there to gawk at the scenery. On a space tourism flight, I wouldn’t be contributing to anything. I’m just paying for the view. It would be such a waste.

Even though you love it that much?

I do. But $200,000 for that? There’s nothing else I could spend $200,000 on? For people who can throw that money around, go ahead. But I want to do something more meaningful with my money.

Your father’s a mathematician. Was he supportive of your acting ambitions?

He was, to a degree.

The unpredictability of acting is scary for any parent, but especially a parent who’s all about numbers and logic and A leads to B leads to C.

Acting is none of those things.

As an actress, you could be eating ramen noodles one night, and buying your third home in Miami the next.

And then back to eating ramen noodles.

Exactly, yeah. It’s the worst possible career for anybody who wants their life to follow a predictable trajectory.

My sister is a lawyer, and she went by the book doing everything that should be done, and she did it incredibly. I convinced my parents that I was going to take my shot in LA not as an actor or a model but as a writer and director.

And that seemed less terrifying to them?

It did. That was more logical to my father. Working behind the camera was something that was tangible. There was control over how much you created with writing. Or at least that’s what he thought.

There’s more control in a writing career? That’s hilarious.

It didn’t seem as precarious and unstable to him.

Has he met any writers?

I don’t think so.

I’m not even sure if I’ll be paid for this interview.

Right? A writer’s entire existence is about not having control. But they supported me becoming a writer. It seemed like a much more structured path. The day I told him I wasn’t going to school anymore to be a writer and I wanted to be an actor, that wasn’t an easy day.

You might as well have told them you wanted to be an astronaut.

It would have been easier. Even when it started to work, it was surreal trying to explain to my dad, “I got a role in the Green Hornet movie. I’m playing ‘Hot Chick’.” We all laughed about it, but I don’t think they really understood. For my dad, it was like, “Well, the next role you have should be bigger than this one. And then the role after that should be even bigger.”

Oh boy.

That’s not how it works.

Not even close.

When I went from a big Hollywood movie to a small cult movie, I had to explain to my parents that independent films are not what they used to be. It has nothing to do with quality. They see the big movies that have the big openings, and anything else they’re very skeptical of. But my dad is learning. He’s learning to support me and believe in me, even when the logical side of his brain doesn’t like what he’s hearing.

There’s plenty for your parents to worry about even when things are going well. While working on the movie Damsels In Distress, which got a wide release last year, you moved to New York City and lived in a crappy little apartment under the Queensboro Bridge between a strip club and a preschool.

That’s right. I’ll never forget that place.

Were there times when you thought, “What the hell am I doing here? This is insane!”

Oh sure. I was so incredibly lonely and kind of scared. New York is a big city. And I was living alone in an apartment where it was just me and a mouse.

A mouse? Are you sure it wasn’t a rat?

No, it was just a mouse. He was my roommate. I named him Pedro. But hearing his little feet click across the floor every night, it was comforting. Just to know there was something else living in this little place with me, it brightened everything. Everything felt a little warmer. Which is maybe kind of odd.

It’s definitely odd.

I don’t think I would say the same thing about a cockroach. But because Pedro was a cute little mouse, it felt different. And I discovered later he had friends.

The place was infested?

No, there were just two of them. But they filled my luggage with little gifts.

They crapped on your clothes?

Yeah, pretty much. I smelled like mouse shit for a year. But then I discovered Febreze.

As an actress, you’re always in a new city, flying to a new location. Have you found a secret to living in strange places, and never feeling like anywhere is home?

In the last few years I’ve learned to travel light. One bag with two t-shirts and a toothbrush. And I never actually move in anywhere, even if I’ll be living there for two months. Because the mentality of trying to leave, of trying to re-situate yourself to a new environment is exhausting.

You’d rather just live like a gypsy?

That works better for me. I’ve simplified my life so much. I’ve boiled it down to the essentials. It’s the only way to keep your head on straight. I’ve lived in New York, Montreal, Seattle, Michigan, and then New York again. When it gets to be too much, I just remind myself of the basics. There are three things I need to survive. Three things I need to remember to keep balanced. I just tell myself, “You’re happy, you have a loving family, you have your coffee.”

That’s it?

That’s it.

That’s pretty good, actually. You could build a religion on those three things.

I think so too. I really do. Just give me happiness, my family, and a cup of coffee. Everything else will work itself out.

(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the December/January 2013 issue of Malibu Magazine.)