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Comely starlet Emma Roberts goes back to school for her role in Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto. Adapted from James Franco’s acclaimed novel, Palo Alto: Stories, the film follows a group of affluent Californian teens on the verge of adulthood. Roberts plays April, an introverted soccer player who is torn between her flirtation with the shy, earnest Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and her relationship, both on and off the field, with her soccer coach, Mr. B (Franco himself).
We talk to Emma Roberts about going out of her comfort zone, bonding with the cast, and how well James Franco writes his female characters.
Tribeca: I heard that you read Palo Alto: Stories the day it came out. What initially drew you to the book?
Emma Roberts: I am a big fan of James Franco, and I thought it was really interesting that he had written this book of short stories. Five years ago, celebrities weren’t putting out a book every week. It was rare for a celebrity to be writing fiction, or at least it seemed rare to me. I started reading it out of curiosity and ended up just falling in love with it. I remember saying, “Oh my God, I have to be in this if it’s ever made into a movie.” So I called my manager and I told him that. Five years later, here we are talking about this movie on the phone, and I’m in. Very surreal.
Tribeca: Obviously, you’re an extrovert in real life and you’ve played many diverse characters, but April internalizes her feelings much more than characters you’ve played in the past. Was she one of the characters that really stood out when you first read the book?
ER: She definitely was. I found her story to be very fascinating. Part of the reason I wanted to play her is that she is so opposite of me. I thought it would be fun to try to experiment and try something new. Plus, I wanted to be seen in a different light.
I think acting is the kind of profession you just have to learn as you go along through a lot of trial and error.
Tribeca: When you played the role, you were just a few years out of your teens—you still are for that matter. Was it helpful to be a little older to fully engage in the role of April? Do you think you would have played it differently had you been in your teens?
ER: I think it was great to be a little bit past “teenage-dom” to play this role. When you have a little perspective, you can go a little deeper and not be afraid of feeling emotions that are familiar to you; whereas, when you’re in the midst of being a teenager yourself, you might try to suppress feelings that are uncomfortable and that point out your own problems.
Tribeca: With a few exceptions, you tend to work mostly with experienced directors. What was the most exciting thing about working with a first time filmmaker like Gia Coppola?
ER: It was amazing working with Gia. I’d wanted to work with her because I’d seen her amazing photographs, and I kept running into her at parties. I really also liked her style and demeanor. Gia and I just get along so well. Plus, it was so much fun to work with a young, female director, a new experience for me.
We formed a special working relationship and friendship. I wouldn’t have been able to do this performance without her. She guided me the whole way and was so supportive. Because I felt comfortable, I could do the role and not second-guess myself.
Tribeca: Was there a particularly challenging scene in Palo Alto that Gia and you worked together on?
ER: I’ve been asked a lot about the sex scene in the film. It’s definitely weird doing intimate scenes with anybody in a movie. It’s not “romantic” because there are always 20 people around doing their jobs, wondering what’s for lunch after the take while you pretend to have sex with someone, you know?
It’s embarrassing. I remember being so excited about the book, then being even more excited after I started meeting with Gia about the role of April. I remember talking a big game about being down for anything, but then I thought, “Wait, what about the sex scene, because I don’t think I’m ready for that!” I was embarrassed to express that to Gia, but she made me feel so much better. Once I told her how nervous I was, she was really open with me and told me that she was uncomfortable too. She assured me that it wasn’t going to be gross [laughs].
I was so relieved. It was just nice to be on the same page with her about that. I actually think the unusual way she had us play the scene was interesting and made more of an impact than the routine ways that directors approach the material. She made it so different from what you normally see.
Tribeca: It’s done very tastefully.
ER: I agree.
Tribeca: Did you have any kind of rehearsal process with the other cast members?
ER: I was actually cast a week before they started shooting. I was the last person to join. They’d all had a bonding experience so I had to go into it blind. Luckily, I am a very social person. I can make conversation with a wall. [laughs] The cast members would get to know each other between takes, which helped our relationships on screen. The shoot was so low budget that we didn’t have trailers, so we’d all hang around the one space heater just talking and playing games. It was fun.
Tribeca: Another first-timer in the group was Jack Kilmer, who had never acted before. That was shocking to discover because he’s so good in the movie. As an actor who’s been in the business for almost a decade, did you feel some responsibility to share your wisdom? And can you talk about working with Jack?
ER: I loved working with Jack. He’s such an interesting kid and so, so talented. And so cute! I was always joking, “I’m glad I’m 21, and not 17, because I would have such a crush on you and wouldn’t be able to work!” He thought that was funny.
For any job in the entertainment industry, people always ask for advice and whatnot. Jack didn’t. I think acting is the kind of profession you just have to learn as you go along through a lot of trial and error. Jack was amazing and I know he’s going to do so many great things. He’s already incredible.
You read books written by men and they often make women come across as either stupid or irrelevant. Instead, I felt like James gave the female characters so much heart.
Tribeca: You also shared several scenes with James Franco. Can you talk a little bit about working with him as well?
ER: It was great working with him. He’s such an intelligent guy and an interesting person. He was on my bucket list of people to work with. James was really supportive and surprisingly present. He’s one of the most generous actors I’ve worked with. It was refreshing to see someone of his level just so normal and cool.
Tribeca: I was really struck by how well he was able to write from the point of view of a female teenager.
ER: I know! Gia and I were talking about that. You read books written by men and they often make women come across as either stupid or irrelevant. Instead, I felt like James gave the female characters so much heart. They were sweeter than the boys in the book in many ways. You almost like the women better, and I thought that was so interesting.
Tribeca: I know that he reached out to Gia about her working on Palo Alto, and I think it was so wonderful that he had the foresight to put this book in the hands of a female writer/director.
ER: I think so, too. It was fun for me as an actress to work with a female director—and a young female director. It’s a very different dynamic than working with an older, male director.
Tribeca: You are a young actress, and you’re able to slip seamlessly between high school age characters and women on the verge-type of roles. Is it an advantage or a disadvantage to be in that age range as an actress? Or does it not matter, as long as the roles are good?
ER: I think what is important is that the roles are well written. You should never pick a role based on age. Your love for the character is the main criteria. Often, writers and directors can age a part up or down for you. For Palo Alto, Gia observed, “Well, you’re not a teenager.” I said: “I’ll wear no makeup, I’ll wear no padded bras, I’ll have my hair flat and greasy, just let me do it!” [laughs] Thankfully, she agreed. No one can really think about your age if you’re doing a great job with the part.
Tribeca: You’ve been working since you were a kid. What’s the experience of watching yourself mature on screen?
ER: It’s weird. You have all your awkwardness captured on film! I caught an episode of my old Nickelodeon show and I thought, “Oh. My. God. How did anyone let me out of the house looking like that?” I had these chipmunk buckteeth and looked like a little nerd! It’s also weird because I don’t remember filming the show, but obviously I did. It’s just crazy the things you remember, and the things you don’t.
Tribeca: As an actress working in both the independent and mainstream worlds, you have a big social media presence. Do you think successful use of social media is becoming essential for an actor’s career development?
ER: That is a loaded question! I started on social media because I thought it was fun. Now, I have so many followers that I feel a responsibility to stay on social media. I also love posting stuff. I love sharing books with people. I love sharing stuff that I write. I also love seeing what people are into. It’s a really fun way to stay connected. The only thing I don’t like is that you can’t ever joke without people getting really mean on Twitter. They say horrible things [laughs] when social media is supposed to be fun.
Tribeca: I really love how you post what you’re reading on Instagram. You’re really good at sharing your other passions besides acting.
ER: Did you see what I posted recently? I was so sad. My favorite bookstore in the world is in jeopardy of closing! I tweeted that everyone has to buy a book from them. I need to go buy a book, in fact. [laughs] You’re in New York? You know Book Hampton?
Tribeca: No, I don’t actually!
ER: Oh my God, it’s the best bookstore ever and they’ve been there forever. I love buying books from indie bookstores. I’ve never read a book on my iPad, and I refuse.
Tribeca: So after people watch Palo Alto in theaters, they should go online and buy the book from Book Hampton.
ER: Yes! [laughs] Let’s make it happen.
Palo Alto is now playing in NYC and LA, and opens in more theaters this weekend. Go here to find out where to see it!