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Crybaby Middle school sucks: an interview with the girls of Eighth Grade

Aug. 2, 2018
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illustration by Allegra Nina

I first learned about Eighth Grade from a Facebook post Emily Robinson made. The trailer had just come out, and she shared it with her friends and family. I was one of those friends.

Two years ago, Emily (who plays Olivia in the film) and I met through Instagram—the same way many friendships are made today. We didn’t talk much over Instagram DM, but we did get Vietnamese food in the Lower East Side. We walked around Manhattan as Emily told me about leaving NY for LA, acting in Transparent, and the book she had just read, The Nest.

Even now, we try to get lunch when we are on the same coast. While we don’t see each other much, it’s been so exciting and fun to see a friend do really amazing projects.

When I first watched the trailer for Eighth Grade I was instantly excited. Not only was a friend of mine was in it, but it looked amazing.

Eighth Grade stars Elsie Fisher as Kayla, an anxious and shy teen girl trying to break out of her shell through the power of social media. It’s an incredible film because while so specific to Gen Z, everyone seems to relate to it; audience members of all different ages and generations told Elsie and Bo Burnham how they saw themselves in Kayla.

Just because the characters dab and say “gucci” doesn’t take away from the universal trauma middle school causes. Even Emily’s character, Olivia, tries to reassure Kayla, saying, “I was a complete mess when I was your age. Eighth grade is the worst.” Throughout the film, people try to help Kayla. Her dad. Kennedy’s mom. Olivia. Aniyah (played by Imani Lewis). All of these characters try to include her and reassure her that she is fine the way she is. But at the end of the day, Kayla says it best: “Just because things are happening right now, doesn’t mean they’re always gonna happen.”

I spoke to Elsie, Olivia, and Imani recently about Eighth Grade, social media, and friendship.

Elsie, I forgot exactly what you said at the LA special screening, but I remember you said you felt protective of your character. What exactly did you mean by that? And do you see yourself in Kayla?

Elsie: I see a lot of my younger self in her, for sure. But also myself now, definitely. I very much see my own middle-school self in her. You know, I feel like she’s a strong person, but she might have trouble coming out of her shell. So yeah, I want to protect her. I want to give her a hug. I think she’s on the right path, but I want to be there for her.

Based off all of the interviews you’ve done and just the dynamic I’ve seen in the screenings, it seems like you and Bo have a very close relationship. How did you work to foster that, and have you ever had [that kind of a] relationship with a director before?

Elsie: I’ve never had anything similar with a director, and Bo is much more than a director to me.  He is literally like my best friend in the whole world. I mean, there were no active steps to foster that kind of thing, we just clicked once I got into the first audition. You know, it was very apparent that we were very similar people and we felt very similar things. Yeah, it was pretty nice to have someone to relate to.

What do you think the movie is ultimately trying to say about social media?

Elsie: I think the beautiful thing is that it doesn’t take a stance on social media.

Imani: Right!

Elsie: Yeah, we just wanted to be honest about it.

Emily: Yeah, totally. It kind of says nothing about it. It voices all the anxieties, the beauty of it. All the pitfalls of it and all the things in between. I think [it] depicts the internet as the world—you experience an entire range of things on the internet in a way that’s scary and exciting, anxiety-inducing and also gives you confidence.

Imani: It wasn’t super definitive about the idea of the internet. But it was kind of a diversional therapy for Kayla. It was an outlet for her to express herself freely and say the things she didn’t feel comfortable saying in front of others. So I definitely think it shows the beauty of social media.

That’s how I interpreted it as well, because we are all around the same age.  But I read a review saying how some parents may take [the movie] as a warning—that that’s not what you should let your child do. Do you interpret it in that way at all?

Emily: No, I don’t think that. I mean, people should take from it what they want, but that wasn’t the intention.

Elsie: I think people are feeling so many things about it right now, but we just wanted to take inventory for a second. So of course you can have any conversation you want afterwards, but the movie isn’t a TED Talk. We aren’t like, “you should feel this way about it.”

Was there any point you felt there was a certain line or scene that wasn’t true to what teenagers are actually saying today?  

Elsie: There was only one thing for me personally that I ever had changed...when I initially read the script, all of Kayla’s DMs were on Facebook. Thus prompting me to say to Bo, “Nobody uses Facebook anymore,” and then [that] became a line in the movie!  And we changed all the DMs to Instagram.

(Laughs) Yeah, that’s definitely more accurate! So, Bo Burnham wrote the script—did he make any adjustments to fit you as actors so it was closer to you? Or did you really follow the script?

Imani: I think he [encouraged] us to use improv a lot more—at least in the scene in the mall cafeteria where we’re all eating in the mall, just so it seems more natural. So when Kayla approaches the table, it just seems like a normal conversation teenagers have. You know, a light debate on anything, whether it be school-related or social media-related. I feel like the concept of that conversation was constantly changing to see what seemed the most natural.

Emily: Yeah, we still filmed it as scripted. But [Bo] would throw us a line or a word for inspiration.  Like, oh yeah, you know, what if there was a dead kid who someone didn’t like? (Laughs) Trying to get us to talk and have a conversation that kept us on our feet and engaged and genuine.

Elsie: On my side, I stayed pretty much true to the script. I think Bo just did a fantastic job in general.  

Emily: I think the only thing that really changed, besides improvising, was Olivia was originally viewed as the alpha of her friend group. And now, because Imani—when Imani walked in, basically everyone was like, “Oh no, it’s her.”

Imani: Yeah, I was just very outgoing in a sense.

Emily: The dynamic shifted. Exactly what it needed.

Do you have any favorite improvised moments?

Elsie: I have an anti-favorite.

Let’s hear it.

Elsie: I don’t know, people seem to like it. But one of my only improvised moments was in the chicken nugget scene with Gabe. The Rick and Morty exchange is completely improv, and that is the one part of the movie I cannot watch. It’s too true to my own self—at least how I was at the time. Because I was interested in the show—not so much anymore. Oh yeah, it just makes me not feel good in the tum-tum.

Emily: I wasn’t present for my favorite improvised moment, but apparently [Elsie] was. But in Jake Ryan’s audition—do you want to tell the story?

Elsie: Yeah! So, for the first chemistry read I had with Jake Ryan, who plays Gabe, Bo was like, “Just go ahead and improvise something.” And Jake goes, “Do you like tacos?” And I go, “Yeah, yeah.” He goes, “Hard shell or soft?” Bo goes, “You have the part!”

Emily: That was amazing. Pretty glorious.

Imani: The only improv part I think I didn’t like—well, remember how I’m talking about how a friend DMed me a photo of my own feet?


Imani: I feel like that one line brought so much attention to how I actually feel about my feet. And I hate my feet. That was the only thing.

Emily: I remember in the scene where Kayla and Olivia first meet in the cafeteria, we hugged, and right before we hugged, I said “I’m gonna hug you now.”  But that’s something I genuinely think I say. And then watching it in the movie at BAM, my friend sitting next to me was like, “Emily, that’s you.” And I was like, “Oh, you’re right!”

Elsie: That was such a great line though.  Also, like, God, there [were] so many good moments.

Emily: Yeah, Bo wrote such a strong script that so many moments feel improvised when you watch them, but they were just written because he is such a genius.

Well, Emily, when I saw you after the screening, I thought the same thing—that was just you! I’m just seeing my friend play herself on screen. Emily, did you hang out with Elsie before film to create that close, natural dynamic? Because it seemed really, really natural on screen.

Emily: Well, that’s because Elsie’s delightful and is an insanely talented actor and an amazing person. We were kept from each other!

Elsie: Bo didn’t want me really to talk to anyone off set until after we were done with the scene, except for Josh. Besides Kayla’s relationship with her dad, every other relationship she has with people is unfamiliar.

Emily: He wanted to keep the electricity. (Laughs) Now [Elsie’s] tired of me.

Elsie: No! Never! I could never be tired of you.

Elsie, I just read your article for Teen Vogue last night about anxiety and was really blown away. It was just really well done and well written. I just wanted to know, how did your personal experiences with anxiety inform the way you performed and played Kayla?

Elsie: I think it just really helped me empathize with her more. It’s just such a visceral feeling, and it’s hard to describe. I have trouble talking about it, and that’s something I try to get at a little bit in my essay. It’s so much easier for me to act and feel it again rather than just talk about it. Yeah, that’s something I was excited about with the movie. You never see it portrayed—at least in kids—the way it really feels, which is just in the moment and it’s not a personality trait. It’s just happening always, and it sucks.

On the same topic of anxiety, was it scary to physically interpret the anxiety and actually play out the anxiety attack scene on set?

Elsie: I mean, it wasn’t really scary because I’ve had many panic attacks. Yay! (Laughs) Yeah, I don’t know. It was scary for me just doing the movie, because that’s just a lot of stuff to do. But that scene in particular was not super intense for me. It was weird to film actually, because one of our cameramen, Gary, he was just following me around in the bathroom, and I had to breathe a lot and pretend like I was dying. And then Bo was also in the room, and that was weird.  Whatever!

Elsie, how did Bo prepare you for the car scene? And how did you approach filming it?

Elsie: We approached it just like every other scene really. Bo just wanted to be honest and portray—just be real about what was happening. There’s no need to make it over the top. I mean, Bo made sure I was comfortable, but there wasn’t a whole lot of preparation. We didn’t have rehearsals, and we just kind of went straight into it. But I mean Daniel’s just a fantastic actor, he made my job very easy.

I know when I was watching the car scene, physically, it made me feel kind of sick and really upset me. And I know you just said you approached it like any other scene, but rewatching it, how does that make you feel? How do you experience it now that you’re seeing it on screen?

Elsie: I mean, it’s a little easier for me to watch because I know the outcome. I was there, so I know what’s up. You know, I don’t think it makes me crawl in my skin as much as many other people. I kind of objectify the movie a little bit just because, after being there, I like to look more at the technical aspect [rather] than enjoy my own performance. I like to enjoy all of the other actors, but yeah, I don’t know, I don’t get as visceral of a reaction as I think a lot of people do. 

Were you all fans of Bo before you landed the role?

Imani: How could you not be?

Emily: Oh, absolutely.

Elsie: Funny story! In my eighth-grade year, they had us fill out this list so if you got picked as student of the month they could display it—like, “This is how you can be student of the month.” And [the questions] were like, what are your hobbies? What kinds of books do you read?  What music do you like? Who are your idols? I put Bo as my idol.

Emily: Didn’t you also call him a writer?

Elsie: Yeah, I also saw him as a writer, which he was kind of surprised by because most people call him a comedian. His stand-up is very different. It’s very rehearsed—you can see that. It takes time to write the songs. He also did the wonderful poetry book Egghead.

I know Elsie, you are the closest to middle schoolers’ age, but Emily and Imani, did the movie remind you of your experience in middle school?

Imani: Not so much for me because I was the polar opposite of a “Kayla.” I was always very outgoing, very involved in my school’s extracurricular activities—debate team, student council. I went on trips to London with my school.

Emily: That’s a cool school!

Imani: No, it wasn’t a cool school, I was a cool kid. (Laughs) But I was very in tune with myself. I knew I was going to be an artist regardless of what field it was in, whether it be painting or music or the theater or acting… It wasn’t until I was older and started thinking more about people’s [ideas of] me that anxiety started kicking in.

Emily: It definitely reminds me of my middle school years in ways that are triggering and painful, but good. But it also reminds me of my experience currently! I feel like I still am Kayla, and I feel as if I will always relate [to] Kayla. I think that’s what’s so beautiful about the movie. When you’re watching it, I think it doesn’t matter where you are in life, you’ll always be able to relate to either a time where you were Kayla or you are Kayla or you will be Kayla. It makes you live that experience in the moment, which is really special.

Did filming the movie change the way you treat or perceive social media at all?

Elsie: I perceive it differently. I definitely think about it a lot more and talk about it a lot more. I’m probably more addicted, though. I don’t use it very differently than I did. I had the hope that maybe after seeing it portrayed on screen, I might be able to take steps to make [the] experience better. But I think it’s just become more professional, I guess. A little less personal for me. Which is awesome. But yeah, I’m just as addicted.

How would you all describe the Eighth Grade set?

Elsie: The set was very amazing. All the places we filmed [in] were very beautiful, especially the two schools we filmed at. But the cast and crew were a family. It was like a summer camp or some shit.

Imani: Very family-oriented. Very comfortable space where you could just be yourself and state your opinion and you didn’t feel like, “Oh, do I go to the director and say something?” There’s always that weird little tension between the actor and director because they’re your superior and you don’t want to tell them how to do their job. But it was so comfortable, because [Bo] was constantly asking for our input.

Emily: It was super creative and collaborative. And I think what’s really special and what [Bo’s] talked about is how Kayla’s very much co-authored by Elsie, and he definitely understands that he’s not a teenager right now or a teenage girl right now. Having people that are the age and in similar positions to the people they’re playing is exciting.

What would you say the overall message of Eighth Grade is?

Emily: Your feelings are valid, and you’re not alone.

Elsie: Yeah, I think “you’re not alone” is probably the one I would choose, because the hope of the film is that you can relate to Kayla and feel good and just feel in general. I think that after watching it, at least for me and after making it, I felt better about my feelings. Because I knew other people could relate to me, and that was awesome.

Imani: I would just say to trust your process. Even the moments that seem uncomfortable [when] it may seem like you’re never gonna get through it, you just have to trust that everything happens for a reason and the things you stressed about six months ago, you won’t stress about six months from now.