Young Adult, the new film from Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody and Up in the Air director Jason Reitman, centers on ex-prom queen Mavis Gary (played by Charlize Theron), a ghostwriter of young-adult novels and a reality TV-obsessive, alcoholic mean girl who returns to her hometown in hopes of stealing her high school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) from his wife.
By all accounts, Mavis should be the most unlikeable protagonist to hit the big screen in a long while, but Theron’s portrayal unveils a faceted (and uncomfortably relatable) look at just how deeply one can become lost in one’s delusions. A heartbreaking performance by Patton Oswalt – as Mavis’ high school classmate Matt Freehauf, the disabled victim of a much gossiped-about bullying incident – anchors the movie as a darkly comedic flaying of the romantic comedy genre.
Cody, Theron and Oswalt gathered in New York City to speak to press about the portrayal of women in film, inspirational mix tapes, what Theron was really like in high school, and how Oswalt won the role with a little help from his French bulldog.
The subject matter isn’t new to Cody, who penned the screenplay for young-adult novelist Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High movie (Cody divulged that they’re hoping for a hard R rating). Regarding her inspiration to satirize the traditional rite of passage outlined in most YA novels, Cody said, “I’ve been an avid consumer of young adult literature since I was one. And I think some people leave that stuff behind when they become old adults, but I never did. I was always interested in the fantasy world created in those novels, and that I think is the kind of thing we see reflected in pop culture more now than ever, with reality shows and these weird, fully made-up people living these fake fairy-tale lives on camera. I think the idea of somebody whose priorities were completely screwed up, who wanted to live in that world, even though it’s completely unattainable, that was intriguing to me.”
Although Mavis is largely unsympathetic, Theron admitted she found something appealing about the character. “I never had a hard time not liking her. I would love to go and have a beer with her. I would never let her hang out with my boyfriend – but I would love to hang out with her,” she said. “All I know is that what I liked when I read Diablo’s script was the idea of a girl, a woman, who’s dealing with very, very common mid- to late 30s issues that women can really relate to, but because of kind of how she went through life, is dealing with them the way a 16-year-old would deal with them. I thought that was really fascinating.”
Asked if they think the trend of “women behaving badly” movies is a step forward or backward, Cody chimed in, “I’m certainly not going to call it a step back, because that would be the opposite of what I’m trying to do as a writer, and also as a female. …It’s funny, when people talk about Bridesmaids, they always talk about, ‘Oh, we’re seeing raunchy women.’ And I say, ‘No, you’re just seeing women.’ Like, that’s what feels fresh about this, is you’re actually seeing women in complicated, funny situations where you would normally see male characters. So I don’t really see it as … women behaving badly so much as just seeing more multifaceted female characters.”
“I think, like it feels like … you have finally made progress as a group if you can be depicted as the full spectrum,” Oswalt added. “Usually, any kind of sub-group or smaller group in a movie goes from being made fun of and victimized. And then it swings too hard the other way, where they’re like amazing and always positive, which is just as dehumanizing. And then you’re finally like, hey, a single individual can be a hero and a villain and funny and an asshole at — well, just like we all are every second of the day. So you know, that’s definitely progress, too.”
“I think that people get really kind of freaked out when they see what Diablo just really beautifully articulated,” Theron said. “It’s just real women — conflicted. I mean, I think women are almost way more conflicted than men, and I think we come from a society that – we’re very comfortable with the Madonna/whore complex, you know. We’re either really good hookers or really good mothers. But we’re not bad hookers and we’re not bad mothers, and we’re nothing in between. I grew up on cinema where guys got to do that – Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman and DeNiro got to play all of those kind of characters that, you know, I saw a little bit of myself in, those kind of struggles and the lurking, darky things. I think women are … getting a chance to kind of play those kind of honest characters. And also, you know, when people go, ‘Oh, it’s so brave.’ It’s like, it’s – it really isn’t. It’s just refreshing. And it’s so great as an actor to get the opportunity to do something that’s incredibly truthful.”
When asked about the use of music and mix tapes in the film, Cody laughed. “This movie is the high school mix tape” she said. “That’s what was so fun about it, was getting to sit down with Jason. Jason and I are the exact same age, so we were able to say, ‘Do you remember this one?’ ‘Do you remember that one?’ And when characters enter a space in this movie, a lot of this time, there’s like Muzak playing, and it’s almost always a song from the ’90s, which was Jason’s wink at the genre. But yeah … I was just thinking about that Teenage Fanclub song that Mavis is totally obsessed with and listens to in her car. And that was probably my favorite song when I was 19 or 20, and I was a college radio DJ, and I would just play it constantly. Plus, it’s like six minutes long, so you could go to the bathroom. Which is really important when you’re a DJ.”
Oswalt added, “I’ve got to say my high school mix tape … when I was growing up, would be just the Repo Man soundtrack, because that is – that is such a mix tape for safe, suburban rebellion. And also for me that was 10 years behind punk, and I got to spend the summer of ’84 letting people in on, ‘You’ve got to listen to these punk bands.’ Like, ‘Patton, we know … it’s been around since ’79.’ So it was just that kind of – that was my high school experience, is being 10 years behind everything. That’s my mix tape right there.”
When asked if she was anything like her beautiful, popular, snobby character in high school, Theron said, “I was pretty much a mess after primary school. I really experienced a lot more of that stuff from like the ages of like 7 to 12, where there was a really, really popular girl in my school and I was obsessed with her. I mean, like you would go to jail for that stuff today. And I’m so embarrassed, because I actually, I was in tears one day because I couldn’t sit next to her. And then three weeks ago I was in London – I’m shooting a film there – and I was in a fitting. And this girl goes, ‘Oh, I know Charlene.’ And it was the girl that fucked me up in primary school.”
“Who is now mummified in your basement,” Oswalt joked.
Theron laughed and continued, “Who now lives kind of a sad life. But I kind of got that out of my system, so that by the time I went to high school, I was kind of broken in and more immune to all of that stuff. I wasn’t really in the popular crowd. I went to art school. I was kind of obsessed with ballet. I wore really, really, really nerdy glasses. I was blind as could be. And boys don’t really like big nerdy glasses, not so much. And I had a crush, I didn’t have any boyfriends, but I had a massive crush on this guy who – this interviewer, that just did a story on me for Vogue, actually found …he found the guy that I had said – this guy did not know I existed, by the way, in school. And then he was all, like, ‘Yeah, tell her the crush was mutual.’ Fuck that.”
As the press room roared with laughter, Theron deadpanned, “The crush was so not mutual.”
Oswalt shared the story of how he met Reitman at an awards ceremony, and how their mutual love of French bulldogs brought them together. “We were just gabbing about movies, and I was presenting an editor’s award. And then he was – he saw on my phone, I had a picture of my French bulldog. And he goes, ‘I have a French bulldog,’ and we started showing back and forth. …It’s like two old dowagers meeting. [In an exaggerated, accented female voice] ‘Oh, what’s his name?’ ‘Mr. Bilkingford.’ ‘Hello.’ And then I started to go – he has these screenings at his house every Sunday. And then it just kind of led – basically, you know what, I did all the early readings, so I got this movie the way a squatter gets an apartment. I was just there. You know, like, ‘Ah, he’s got his mattress and his hot plate. Let him have it. He’s nice. The kids like him. He sweeps up the hall. Come on.’ So, yeah.”
When asked how they made their scenes together look so natural, Theron joked, “A lot of alcohol.” Oswalt added, “We call it ‘acting juice.’”
Amid the laughter, Oswalt took a serious tone, saying of Reitman, “I think because you know you’re in the hands of someone that knows how to edit a film and how to edit a scene …because we just knew, subconsciously, we were in such good hands, directing-wise, that we could relax enough. And that relaxation is what I think gets – the comedy was never needy. It was just like – we were never going for a laugh, it all came very naturally. And a lot of times, what was so great about the way that she [nodding to Theron] played Mavis, was the laugh comes from her not giving me any response, and then I get more nervous, which is a really real thing, that a lot of actors really don’t have the balls to do. They always want to be saying something or listening and reacting. And she was able to just go, ‘You know what? My character’s just not engaging in this scene at all.’ And that is where the humor came from.”
Young Adult opens Friday nationwide.