INTERVIEW: Isabella Amara Talks Roles in Wilson and Spider-Man: Homecoming

Even though she's new to the world of comic books and graphic novels, Isabella Amara is on her way to becoming an on-screen It Girl for high-profile adaptations of the medium.

Amara’s starring in two diametrically different films wildly based on wildly divergent source material: first up, she stars as the heretofore unknown daughter of the titular misanthropic protagonist in writer/artist Daniel Clowes’ "Wilson," which Clowes adapted for its just-released big screen incarnation; this summer she appears as the still-enigmatic new character Sally in Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures first collaboration on Marvel Comics’ premier hero, "Spider-Man: Homecoming."

And while Amara admits she’s a newbie when it comes to reading comics, she’s been working on her learning curve by delving into the source material for her two big 2017 releases -- and she confesses her surprise that in her Marvel debut in particular, she’s had to tread a very specific line in the filmmakers’ efforts to capture the very essence of Spider-Man’s comic book adventures.

CBR: What got you excited with this particular role in "Wilson," and this particular story that you were going to be telling?

Isabella Amara: At 16, I really liked the character. I thought she was very intelligent, and very spunky. She had spunk, and sass, and was very humorous, but in a dry sense. She still had this very, very hurt side to her. I wanted a chance to be able to release that side of me that I don’t share so often with people, and to be able to have that as a new challenge.

I also loved getting to have the chance to work with great people like Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern, and [director] Craig [Johnson] and Daniel, even Fred Elmes. It just was an amazing script with this amazing cast and crew. It was just so intriguing.

How much did her outer trappings, with that Goth-y look, help you with your performance?

I think it really did help me. It helped me keep that spunky edge to her, but also, in things such as with my glasses and with my hat, and things like that, it also helped me sort of feel like hiding, and kind of feel closed off. So it really helped me get into that very artsy, edgy vibe that I had, but with a level or vulnerability to it.

How far away from you is she?

I don’t think she’s that far away, from a certain part of me at least. My normal everyday-to-day self, we’re very different. There is a side of me that Claire fully resembles. It’s not a bad thing -- it’s actually a really great thing! It wasn’t that hard, just because I do have my moments where I’m very closed off, and I’m very in myself. I tend to have a very dry sense of humor. I really don’t think she’s that far away.

"Wilson" cast
Isabella Amara, Laura Dern and Woody Harrelson in "Wilson."

I’m sure you must have looked at the graphic novel before taking on the role. What kind of takeaways from that did you have that you thought, “OK, I can use a little bit of this to inform what I’m doing, based on the script?”

I took a lot of the similarities that she and Wilson had. Claire, Wilson and Pippi -- we’re very, very similar types of people. I was very anxious because, if you see the movie, my look and everything, it’s very different from the graphic novel, so I was very worried about how these fans of Daniel Clowes would react to it, but everyone’s been receiving it really well.

I really took the connection that Claire and Wilson had, and the dry, sardonic sense of humor and attitude in the comic itself. It just was a bit more of a lighter twist.

How did you push yourself in this role? What was the most challenging aspect of what you were doing?

The most challenging aspect of this entire role I’d have to say probably is the amount of vulnerability I had to have throughout the entire thing. Because even though she’s very closed off, there are a lot of scenes where I’m very vulnerable with Wilson, and very vulnerable with myself. So I had to come to grips with that and just completely forget every sort of little thought I had, and just work, and just be present.

Tell me about finding your comfort zone with Woody, and getting that relationship just right for the screen, and then what you were able to learn from watching somebody as good as Woody at work.

Opening up to Woody was not very hard, because he’s a very loving, accepting person. We clicked right away. We get along really well, and we joke around, and honestly, he’s a lot like my dad. So it was really easy for us to get along together.

But from watching him, I saw how thorough he was with his work, and how he just was so invested, and very in the moment. He’s one of the absolute most amazing listeners in a scene. That’s like a true gift, because sometimes you’ll be acting with people, and they are just waiting for their next line.

With Woody, it’s really amazing to work with him, and just see even the very, very little things that he does that can change the tone of a scene completely. Throughout the entire process, I was really trying to listen just as well as he was, if not better, so I could pick up his brilliant, tiny little quirks here and there that could change how I reacted to it.

You’re still in your first burst of early screen roles. What are you loving about acting on film?

I love everything about it. Honestly, I love getting to go to set every day, and getting to play. I don’t really love waking up early, but I get to go to set, and I get to sit in my hair and makeup chair, and just kind of take time for myself to wake up to get ready for the day, and what I’m about to do to work over my sides. I get to play dress-up pretty much every day, which is really cool. I get to meet such interesting people. I get to travel. I get to meet people from different walks of life. That’s not very common that people get to do that as much as I do.

I also love the opportunity to do press, and I find it so fun! I love talking to people. And I love getting to see how the final product really affects people, and how people feel about it. It’s really a really cool thing to see people watch you, and have such a positive reaction to it. So I think it’s just a very rewarding career overall.

Do you have much conversance with the graphic novel format, especially the stuff that Daniel does, which is a lot more away from the superhero genre, but really life stories. Did you come into the project with any good background in that world, or was this a new territory for you?

This was very, very new. I never really had read any comics, or watched anything. So it was a really new process for me. But I’ve had to start doing it recently, as we’re all seeing between “Spider-Man” and “Wilson,” we’re all starting to see that I’m popping up more in movies that are comic or graphic novel-based.

I think it’s interesting. I think it’s a really cool way of telling a story. It’s a really cool medium, because it involves both words, and pictures, and actions, and it’s just visually engaging. For me, it’s kind of hard to stay focused for a long period of time. I love reading scripts. Books are like, “Eh,” to me, but I’ll still read them. But it’s interesting because the pictures always keep me very focused, and kind of help clarify what’s going on in the scene. So I’m definitely a fan of it now.

Tell me about working on a movie of the scale of "Spider-Man: Homecoming," which this has got to be the biggest production that you’ve ever been involved in, but it also does have that same sort of intimacy that we see in “Wilson,” from what I can see from the trailers amongst the kids.

There’s not a lot of creative freedom, because they’re trying to stick to the comic and keep it really precise, because it is such a big following, such a big fandom. I respect it to the fullest. Respect Stan Lee all the way! As an actor, from an actor’s standpoint, we’re always like, “Darn, I can’t really do much with it.” It’s a good experience. It’s good to have, and I’m blessed to be a part of it.

There’s so many great young actors. Did you guys at least get a chance to bond off screen as a group?

Yeah, actually my best friend is in “Spider-Man” with me. Her name’s Tiffany Espensen. She lives a mile away from me now. We’re super tight. We see each other all the time. Actually, I was FaceTiming her earlier today. Yeah, we got a lot of time to bond. So it was good. Of course I was living in Georgia at the time when we were filming. Where we were filming was like two hours away from my house, so I didn’t get to bond as much, but I still did, so it was good.

When you looked at the source material, the “Spider-Man” comics, what was the big appeal that you saw in that?

You’re going to hate me for saying this: I’m not the hugest superhero fan, in general. What really made me do it was because I really liked the childish, playful, spunky attitude that was Spider-Man, and how funny he came across. I think that’s what really drew me in.

Especially because I had seen all the Tobey Maguire movies when I was little, because my sister is 10 years older than me. Those were the only superhero movies I really liked, those “Spider-Man” movies. I was like, “Why not? Let’s go for it!” It was really exciting for me.

This is your first big step this year into the public eye, and then “Spider-Man’s” going to be a big blazing spotlight. What are you looking forward to as far as that part of it, or are you looking forward to it? What’s going to be kind of interesting or fun about being on that big global platform as yourself when the film comes out?

There’s something that I want to say, that I can’t really say because it would kind of give things away, which sucks. I’m excited. It’s already been interesting enough having fans come to me and talk to me about different things. That’s been really weird. But it’s cool. It’s really nice to have people who are so, so supportive of what you do. Even though we’re not the ones who made who they love, we’re just trying to interpret.

So it’s really, really is interesting. It’s a completely different world that I’m still really not that used to. I like it. Everyone likes having people look up to them. It makes me feel really good, but it’s also at the same time scary, because I’m going to have a lot less privacy in my life. So there are pros and cons to it.

It must have been interesting, once you were cast in a Marvel film, to have that first wave of instant fans who sought you out right after you were cast and wanted to know everything about you, and were already, in a way, super supportive of your career.

Yeah, when they have never seen me or met me. It was so weird!

But nice, I’m sure, on a big level.

Oh yeah. It was sweet! It was very sweet. They’re all very, very sweet.

Do you have other ambitions in entertainment beyond the acting? As the more you get into it, do you see other opportunities for yourself in writing, directing, finding the right projects for yourself?

Yeah, I would love to do those things. I’d love to direct, produce, write, because I think it all plays back into my job and helps me really understand what everyone else is doing, as well as the perspective they have when being in that job, so then I can understand the stress that they undergo, and the work that they put into what they’re doing, and have a full understanding and respect for that, as well as being able to understand their point of view – not just because I’m saying I understand it, but because I’ve actually been in their shoes. I love to be able to express and find different ways to express my creative outlet. That’d be really cool.

Isabella Amara stars in "Wilson," in theaters now, and "Spider-Man: Homecoming," scheduled for release on July 7.

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