By Danny Peary
Perhaps it was because so few comedies were screened at last April’s Tribeca Film Festival that I was so charmed by writer-director Scott Coffey’s Adult World, a sweet-spirited little oddity featuring an engaging all-out lead performance by Emma Roberts (pictured left, with Danny Peary). You can judge for yourself when it finally opens theatrically and on VOD this Friday. I’m partial to anyone–including Bonita Granville and Pamela Sue Martin–who plays one of my childhood heroines, Nancy Drew, so I’ve always rooted for Julia Roberts’s niece to make good on her own. I was particularly impressed by her performances as the clever teenage sleuth and the fame-seeking teenage murderous in Scream 4. I’m sure the teen star won over many adult viewers this year on television’s gruesome American Horror Story:Coven, playing opposite her fiancé, AHS mainstay Evan Peters. But I think she had already blossomed as a young woman in Adult World, which she made earlier.
Here the busy young actress plays Amy, a recent graduate from Syracuse who is determined to be a professional poet, although her talent is dubious. To make ends meet, she must take a job in an adult bookstore. It’s a peculiar place for her to work because she’s a virgin who has spent her life reading books rather than experiencing life–including sex. She doesn’t realize that her nice, handsome coworker (Peters) is attracted to her because she’s too busy pursuing a has-been poet (John Cusack in fine form), hoping he will mentor her and, possibly, deflower her. Roberts throws caution-to-the-wind playing this endearing character who flops, fails, and suffers numerous embarrassments as she, like the actress, tries so hard. And Amy wins us over, too. During the festival I took part in the following roundtable and I was won over by the smart, humble, and genuinely nice Roberts. If she uses the word “cool” to describe most things, it’s cool because she’s cool. I note my questions.
Q: You hadn’t seen Adult World before it’s debut at the Tribeca Film Festival?
Emma Roberts: No, and it was so much fun. I was so nervous that I was white-knuckling the chair and felt like hiding under it. But then people started laughing so I slowly sat up and relaxed a little bit. It was definitely nerve-wracking because the things I laughed at weren’t always the things anyone else laughed at, and those times I said, “Oh my god, that was horrible,” everyone’s on the floor laughing. It was hard for me as an actor in the movie to be objective about it, but I couldn’t have asked for a better audience. Everyone seemed to really enjoy it.
Danny Peary: What is its appeal?
ER: I think it’s a cute movie, because it’s funny but it also says something. It’s really current and talks about a lot of issues and feelings of young people. I feel like it captures a generation that hasn’t really been captured in movies or on TV. I think it captures my generation’s feelings toward the real world.
Q: How did you come to be in the movie?
ER: I was sent the script, and it was one of those scripts I thought was really special and different. It was just one of those things I loved and wanted to be a part of. I met with Scott Coffey, the director, and we had the best time ever, talking for hours and hours.
DP: Did you audition, either by yourself or with other people in the movie?
ER: I didn’t audition, I just met with Scott and we clicked. I know he’d read a bunch of actresses, so I was shocked that I got the part off that one meeting. That was awesome because that rarely happens. I couldn’t imagine not being there, I would have been devastated if I didn’t get it.
DP: What did he ask you?
ER: He asked me a lot about the character, Amy, and the script. At the time I didn’t think of it as my being interviewed, really, but I guess he liked that we had the same perspective and wanted to just tell the same kind of story. We wanted it to be a coming-of-age story but coming from a different direction, kind of anti-Hollywood. Girl gets out of college, what does she do? She fails, over and over and over and over again. That’s kind of what happens to Amy. And we wanted to show that in an honest way instead of having her end up being really famous and successful! Obviously, it’s not like that. Scott and I worked so hard on creating this character. I put a lot of myself into it, which was really cool to do with a role.
Q: Did you connect to Amy?
ER: Definitely, I related to having your life planned out for you, and then all of the sudden you’re at the age when everything is supposed to already have happened in a certain way, and it hasn’t–so you have to reassess your plan, whether professionally or personally. I think that a lot of people, especially from my generation, don’t really have a Plan B. That’s what is so funny about Amy. She has no plan besides becoming a published poet. So it’s cool to see someone have to literally figure it all out as she goes along.
Q: She doesn’t give up.
ER: You know, it’s funny, because when I saw the movie for the first time, I realized Amy comes across as being much more optimistic than I had intended her to be, but I’m actually glad she does. She’s a little bit ignorant, and that’s why she’s so optimistic. I don’t think she realizes she has failed but the audience does. She’s already messed up so much but she doesn’t see it, and we wait for her to find out. That’s why you root for her.
DP: Do you relate to characters who are searching for an identity?
ER: Definitely. I think it’s fun as a young woman to get to play characters who are searching for something, whether it’s their identity, or love, or something they can be passionate about. I relate to that because I’m 22 and I’m still figuring myself out in some ways, and finding out new things every day, and also finding things that are interesting and cool. Yeah, I definitely relate to that in my characters.
DP: In this film, Amy tries to communicate through poetry and in some other roles you’ve played, for instance on your Nickelodeon TV series Unfabulous and in your movies, your characters have communicated through music. As an actor-singer, do you particularly identify with characters who communicate through art?
ER: Definitely, I think it’s cool to play characters like that. A lot of my younger characters try to communicate through poetry, as Amy does, or through singing or through whatever they are ambitious about doing. Young people do try to communicate like that, trying to connect. I can definitely relate to Amy because I love to read and it’s cool to connect with people through words. It’s really big connection when you connect over a piece of work. With every role, I find myself playing someone who likes something or does something, and I have to learn about it. For Amy, I definitely read a lot more poetry. I read lot of Anne Sexton. She is a great female poet and feminist, and I had her in the back of my mind when playing Amy. Amy would appreciate Anne Sexton because all of her stuff is kind of provocative and some of it is really ethereal.
Q: Talk about working with Scott Coffey on the set.
ER: Scott is such an amazing director. I think it’s because he was an actor. It does make him a better director, as far as being able to speak about the story with us. During shooting we ended up having our own language, where we would talk and no one could understand us because we were going a million miles a minute. Then I’d say, “Okay, let’s do it!” and everyone else would be like, What did you guys just say? It was so much fun and he and I became, like, best friends.
Q: What was it like to work with John Cusack?
ER: I’m such a fan of John Cusack and all his movies, so to meet him and get to work with him was really, really cool. He was just so much fun, particularly with the adlibbing he would do. A lot of my reactions to him were genuine, because I’d be thrown off, or laugh, or be like, what? I’d listen to him go off on some story while in character. We both did that to each other. If you asked me to improvise right now, I couldn’t do it, and I’ve been on movies where you’re supposed to adlib and everyone just ends up looking at the camera. For me, it all depends on who I’m working with, and on this film the camera would roll for 7 or 8 minutes of adlibbing and that was really great.
DP: Why does your character work in an adult bookstore?
ER: Well, she couldn’t get any other job, and for her I think it’s weird because she’s kind of a prude. She doesn’t have any life experience yet she thinks she’s bursting with life experience. She’s becoming a woman and working in a sex shop, yet she’s never had sex. She’s never had a boyfriend. I feel that she’s realizing she actually doesn’t know everything and hasn’t experienced anything, and that’s kind of a subtle wake-up call for her. I remember the first day we were shooting in the store, everyone was laughing and joking around and throwing sex items at each other, and picking up something and asking, What’s this? And everyone’s like, Emma put that down! Oh my god! I’m not embarrassed by that stuff at all, I just think it’s funny, but I can definitely relate to Amy being like, What does this mean? and then being like, Oh my god, don’t tell anyone I asked that! I think the adult bookstore is a backdrop. The store adds to the comedy actually, as opposed to the drama of it. The movie is more comedic than serious, including about sex. That part is actually light-hearted. The movie is not raunchy or over-sexualized at all.
DP: What did you think of working on location in cold Syracuse?
ER: Syracuse is the coldest place on earth. Literally. It is the coldest place I’ve ever been to and I was shivering all the time. My nose is red and my lips are blue in the movie. Clearly they let me wear no makeup. My mom saw the movie and she’s like, “You look really tired,” and I agree that I look really tired and really cold, because I’m so pale. And when I get cold my dark circles get worse.
Q: What else is coming up for you?
ER: I did a pilot called Delirium for Fox: a one-hour drama based on a young-adult trilogy. I also did a movie called Palo Alto that Gia Coppola directed.
Q: Did you read James Franco’s Palo Alto Stories?
ER: Yeah, I loved his book, I thought it was really cool and the movie is really, really cool. Gia did an amazing job with it. James is actually in the movie. He plays a teacher and I play a student and we have a romance.
Q: How old are you in that?
ER: I play 15 or 16, and they made me look really, really young.
Q: How hard has it been moving from kid to adult roles?
ER: It’s one of those things that happens naturally and gradually, at least for me. I’m not opposed to still playing a teenager if the role is great. If the part’s good it doesn’t really matter, you know? But I also like playing older roles too, and obviously playing my age, like I do in Adult World.
DP: Who are your fans right now?
ER: It’s pretty cool to have different groups of fans, because people will come up to me about so many different roles. People will still come up to me about my TV show, and Nancy Drew and then people will come up to me about Scream 4, and then people who haven’t even seen Delirium are already coming up to ask me about it. [At the time of this interview, Roberts hadn’t been cast as Madison Montgomery in American Horror Story: Coven and Delirium hadn’t yet been turned down by Fox]. So it’s a big, wide group, which I like because I like to do to different things and have different kinds of people appreciating different things. The people who come up to me never like what I think they’re about to say they like, but like something else I’ve done. It’s funny that everyone has such different tastes about everything. It’s fun to keep it interesting!
The photo of Roberts and me at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival was taken by Perri Nemiroff.