Paul Thomas Anderson was born and raised in San Fernando Valley, which means that the director is fond of depicting the lifestyle and ambiance of his hometown in his films. First, it was Boogie Nights, next Inherent Vice, and now with Licorice Pizza. The latest title has received major critic buzz since screenings began in late November, and the National Board of Review (NBR) named it the Best Film of 2021. If these insights aren’t enough to keep you guessing, the characters and cast portraying them might bump up the hype for Licorice Pizza. From first-time actors to household names within Hollywood, this handy guide will explain who plays who and where you have you seen these familiar faces before.
Before delving into this breakdown, here is a brief synopsis of what Licorice Pizza is all about. Set in the 70s, a 15-year-old named Gary Valentine is still trying to make it past high school while trying to land a promising career as an actor. During picture day, he meets Alana Kane, a woman in her mid-20s working as a photography assistant. The two bond over their hopes and dreams, leading their partnership to extend to platonic love.
Alana Kane (Alana Haim)
Alana Kane is one of the leads in Licorice Pizza. She is a photography assistant with a whole lot of wit and drive. She becomes Gary Valentine’s love interest as the two spend more time together in their many business endeavors throughout the film, such as poking her feet into politics and selling waterbeds. Even though she is 25, the more Alana hangs out with Gary and his friends, the more she learns about adulthood.
Marking her acting debut, Alana Haim stars as PTA’s leading lady. Popularly known for playing alongside her sisters Danielle and Este Haim in the indie-rock band HAIM, the musician has worked with Anderson previously on some of the band’s music videos before being slated to perform in Licorice Pizza. Haim admitted in an interview with Cleaveland.com that she would constantly think that she would be fired during the shooting process. Gladly, her critically acclaimed acting made her stick around and receive some awards nominations for 2022.
Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman)
The other main character in this coming-of-age tale, Gary Valentine is a teenager who dreams of becoming an actor. Balancing school assignments and a couple acting gigs, Valentine is a jack of all trades. His investment in weird business affairs connects him to Alana, for who he eventually develops feelings.
Haim isn’t the only new actor to be cast in the film. Her counterpart, Cooper Hoffman, gave acting a go for the first time in Licorice Pizza, and according to critics, he nailed it. Both lead actors won for Best Breakout Performance by the NBR. Hoffman is the son of late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who participated in 5 of PTA’s films: The Master, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and Hard Eight.
Jack Holden (Sean Penn)
Jack Holden is an alcoholic actor who comes across Gary and Alana’s path. The character is loosely based on old Hollywood actor William Holden, who starred in films like Sabrina and Stalag 17 (which led him to win an Academy Award for Best Actor).
It was only a matter of time for Sean Penn to join a PTA film. According to the director, Penn was considered for the role of Rahad Jackson in Boogie Nights before Alfred Molina landed the part. He also tried to cast the actor in Punch-Drunk Love, but it also didn’t work out. Fast forward to 2021, the two-time Academy Award recipient for Mystic River and Milk finally shows up in Licorice Pizza.
Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper)
Like Jack Holden, Jon Peters is inspired by a real-life Hollywood name. Peters was a renowned producer, who dated Barbra Streisand during the 70s. The character even jokingly teaches Gary to pronounce Streisand’s last name correctly. Peters comes across as an intimidating and even psychotic figure in the film.
Jon Peters is played by Bradley Cooper, who recently starred in Nightmare Alley alongside Rooney Mara and Willem Dafoe. Although his character here sums up to a cameo appearance, Cooper’s performance in Licorice Pizza could potentially land another Academy Award nomination for the A Star is Born actor. This is the first time that Bradley Cooper has worked with Paul Thomas Anderson.
Rex Blau (Tom Waits)
Rex Blau is a film director working with Jack Holden. Blau is the person behind a stunt that Holden performs in a scene of Licorice Pizza. The character is played by another musician-turned-actor Tom Waits, known for his roles in The Outsiders and Down by Law. Waits is very much linked to the 70s (time frame of the film), given that his jazz-oriented albums “The Heart of Saturday Night” and “Small Change” came out during those years. This is his first cameo appearance in a PTA film, after doing cameos in various Francis Ford Coppola projects.
Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie)
Gary and Alana collaborate on many unusual business endeavors, even some linked to politics. Character Joel Wachs is inspired by the real-life former LA City Councilman, at the beginning of his career. At the time portrayed in Licorice Pizza, Wachs was running for mayor, but he didn’t succeed. Benny Safdie plays Wachs, and he is one of the masterminds behind Good Time and Uncut Gems. Both films were written and directed by him and his brother Josh Safdie. The actor is also set to star on the Disney + series Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Lucille Doolittle (Christine Ebersole)
Lucille Doolittle is the fictionalized form in Licorice Pizza of American actress Lucille Ball, popularly known for the show I Love Lucy. This actress has also been depicted on-screen recently in the Aaron Sorkin biopic Being the Ricardos. Christine Ebersole plays Lucille in PTA’s film, and the actress has been featured on tv, film, and on Broadway multiple times. From Saturday Night Live to musical Grey Gardens, Ebersole has two Tony Awards in her back pocket and now has a PTA title on her IMDB.
Lance (Skyler Gisondo)
Like in any love story, there is always someone trying to get in the way of fate. In Licorice Pizza, Lance takes his chances on a romance with Alana but isn’t successful in the long term. The character is Gary’s co-star from an acting project he did and the two reconnect after his trip with Alana to New York. Although Lance and Alana go on a couple of dates, they part ways and she gets closer to Gary.
Lance is played by Skyler Gisondo, a prominent young actor in Hollywood nowadays, having starred in Santa Clarita’s Diet, Booksmart, and most recently in the Netflix original feature film The Starling.
Kane Family (Haim Family)
Although their role is minor, having Alana Kane’s family being played by Alana Haim’s family is an ultimate treat. Despite their real-life dynamic being far away from their characters’ in Licorice Pizza, they determine some of the personal moments in the film by adding an extra layer to understanding Alana Kane. Nothing like a good old family scene to understand a character’s background.