With its authentic and relatable portrayal of those awkward coming-of-age years, A24’s new film Eighth Grade is causing quite a stir (it was even listed by Barack Obama as one of his favourite films of 2018 – high praise indeed).
Directed by newcomer and former Youtube star Bo Burnham, we’re introduced to Kayla, 13, along with all the anxiety, insecurities and confusion that come with being a young person finding their feet in today’s world. Brilliantly played by breakout star Elsie Fisher (this is her first major role), here we revisit our HEROINE 9 interview with the actor where she tells us about how her time playing Kayla compared to her own real-life experiences.
Eighth grade (ages thirteen–fourteen) marks a notorious time in our lives where we begin to call into question not only who we are, but who we want to become. In Eighth Grade, Bo Burnham’s directorial debut released earlier this summer, Elsie Fisher navigates this challenging age with the kind of refined and captivating performance that sees the fifteen-year-old actor step away from the ‘child actor’ label with critical acclaim.
For Fisher, the film came along during a difficult time in her own life, during which she began to question whether acting was truly for her after a slew of auditions for roles that she just didn’t relate to. Her character Kayla in Eighth Grade, an eighth-grader who gives out life advice via her YouTube channel that she can’t quite seem to follow herself, represented the antithesis of this, portraying an authentic image of youth culture that absolutely rang true. Capturing the dizzying digital teenage experience of Generation Z, the film reminds us that the essence of youth is growth – something Elsie continues to do – giving definition to individuality and maturity as she moves into a defining stage of her career.
Lindsey Okubo: I was reading an interview with your director, Bo Burnham, who remarked that of all the people trying out for the role, you were the only one that felt like a shy kid pretending to be confident. To what extent was this film emotionally biographical?
Elsie Fisher: Yeah, I was really nervous going into this audition because her character means a lot to me and I really relate to her. I just feel incredibly lucky that I could portray her story on screen. I don’t know, I think a lot of teens are kind of objectified.
LO: What do you mean by that?
EF: I wanted to treat her like a person. I feel like a lot of teens are stereotyped, they’re either the nerd, the popular kid or the goth, or they’re their interest, like, “Oh, he’s an artist, she’s a painter,” or whatever. Kayla is just a person, yeah she makes her videos and stuff but that’s not what her story is about.
“I was lucky enough to be in an environment on set where I could be free and kind of chaotic through the character.”
LO: There’s a lot more to her, it was refreshing and we were allowed to see that through the vulnerability you gave her. Did you feel vulnerable stepping into this role? Especially since she was a character that resonated so closely with your own experiences?
EF: Oh absolutely, I think any acting you do has to be vulnerable. You have to be vulnerable for it to work because you need to be allowed to make mistakes and I think that’s a really scary thing too. I was lucky enough to be in an environment on set where I could be free and kind of chaotic through the character. A lot of her experiences are normal for most people but in all honesty we would never open up about this stuff because it’s scary to talk about feelings like anxiety.
LO: Thinking about when I was in eighth grade or moving to high school, all these conversations about anxiety, or even using that word so openly reflects such a different time. Do you feel like it’s different to grow up now than perhaps even ten years ago?
EF: I think it’s very different to grow up right now just because of the rise of technology. I think it’s also creating more of an awareness about mental health, as well as more anxiety – it’s amplifying all of our emotions. It’s even different to grow up now than five years ago, because I’m in the same generation as my brother who’s five years younger, but his experience growing up is completely different from mine and they’re just becoming more rapid.
“I do think kids are losing their sense of childhood…”
LO: What are you seeing that makes you say that?
EF: I don’t know, I just see a disconnect in kids. I think a lot of them are wrapped up in entertainment, or in enjoying things rather than enjoying each other. I don’t blame them for it, it’s not their fault, it’s their parents’ fault for giving them a phone in the first place. But on another note, I think maturity is rising up as well, I think the internet brings a lot of self-awareness for people. For example, there are kids in his class that are politically-aware and they’re talking about Trump at school. I’ve never talked about political stuff in class and when I was eleven, I was very much a child, I mean, even up until seventh grade I didn’t feel like I was a teenager at all. It’s just crazy to me, I can’t with full honesty say it’s completely wrecking them for life but like, I don’t know, it’s just different.
LO: That kind of makes me sad too because I feel like there’s an element of innocence that’s essentially lost when you’re so self-aware at such a young age and you have access to so much. Do you think kids nowadays are losing their sense of childhood – and do you think that’s fair?
EF: I do think kids are losing their sense of childhood because, with the other kids who are self-aware, you become a joke to them. I think there’s a lot of rude energy between kids who are just enjoying themselves and those who are, you know, “more mature”. It’s as if it’s uncool to be a kid. I think people are expected to grow up a lot faster, not even necessarily by adults but by their own peers. It can be a lot of pressure to feel perfect right now when the truth of the matter is that childhood is a time to mess up and make mistakes and have fun. I don’t think it is very fair, but I think part of the problem is that the world feels like it’s on fire right now. Another part of it is probably the internet, and I think kids really should have way more restricted access. The internet is a great thing for adolescents in that it helps them find community, but it can also put a lot of pressure on kids to find themselves and that can be a lot.
LO: I’m curious as to how you’re defining “maturity”? Of course maturity is associated with knowledge but another aspect of it is just being self-honest. Do you think for those kids who seem mature at your age, is it more so a false sense of maturity?
EF: I think a false sense of maturity is absolutely what I meant. It’s not true maturity, maturity in my eyes is being accepting of your own mistakes and realising that you’re going to be okay. For me it’s not about how smart you are, it’s about how you deal with your own failures, and a lot of adolescent maturity has to do with irony and satire, and you’re mature if you’re in on the joke and if you’re not in on the joke, you’re lame or whatever. It really is still about popularity or acceptance.
LO: Right, and with all this heightened self-awareness and political-awareness, in the news, with social media and trends, how do you then turn self-awareness into individuality?
EF: I don’t know if I have the answer to that question. I don’t know if we need to be turning it into individuality, I think we just need to be turning it into acceptance, because too many people want to be individual when it’s actually okay to be like other people. This is just my opinion I guess, but we should just learn to be kinder to each other and kinder to ourselves and worry about other people and if they’re feeling happy and okay – or maybe it’s the opposite, maybe we should worry about if we’re happy and not care what other people think.
LO: It’s interesting to think about the differences between individuality and acceptance because your generation are sort of brought up performing – through social media, for example – and maybe your ideas of individuality revolve more so around standing out versus “being yourself”.
EF: I mean, individuality means like, you know, you can be picked out of the crowd, you are unique, you’re different, I guess. Yet that shouldn’t be the biggest worry that people have. I think just the social aspects of our life have made us all want to stand out and be popular, be a celebrity. We just have so many other things to worry about right now, you should be okay just being yourself. I think a lot of people want to be their own brand and their own celebrity when there are other things to worry about.
LO: I can imagine it’s weird for you because you’re even having to explain this to me and be the voice of your generation. Do you feel like gaps in generations and humanity in general are becoming more apparent to the point where empathy and understanding become circumstantial?
EF: It’s weird to a point, but I also understand it, I don’t know if any generation has understood the one after them. I feel really grateful to have this platform because I haven’t really had kids in my age group wanting to talk about the stuff I want to talk about. There’s a lot of things that should be said that I’ve been trying to approach. I’ve been trying to speak about mental health as someone who has really struggled with it, and speaking about it is so important. It is weird, but talking to people is also weird if you think about it.
LO: What are the conversations that people are having that make you say that they’re not talking about “these things”?
EF: I feel like a lot of teen celebrities – at least that I’ve seen – have been acting, or doing whatever they’ve done, for life, so they’re a little removed from the situation, and I think a lot of ‘normal kids’ aren’t represented. I think I just I have to offer another perspective on things perhaps, I know a lot of people are out there speaking about these things, but a lot of people who speak on mental health aren’t very genuine about it. They aren’t these cute, little bouts of teen angst, they are like actual medical things that people are dealing with and we should figure out ways to talk about them.
” I’ve been trying to speak about mental health as someone who has really struggled with it, and speaking about it is so important.”
LO: What things do you think are helping you out and what do you think is missing?
EF: I think a lot of it is human connection, and I think people are just so worried about themselves. Human connection definitely can help, and just being open and honest and having two-way conversations, it’s really important. Also having people in your life you can get advice from. I try to be that person for the people I know, but there are other things like making sure that you can just take a moment to let your mind take a break. I think that’s something a lot of people forget to do, just not do anything for a minute. Being bored is kind of healthy, I think.
LO: And in having all these personal experiences, do you ever wish that you could have grown up in a different time?
EF: Sometimes I do crave the world of different times, but I also know that I wouldn’t be who I am right now if I lived in a different time. The fact that I got to be a part of this incredible project, working with Bo and everyone, now I have a platform to speak about things. I feel very lucky to live right now.
Eighth Grade is out now.
Interview originally published in HEROINE 9.