From writer/director Gia Coppola and based on the book by James Franco, the indie drama Palo Alto follows shy, sensitive teenager April (Emma Roberts), a popular soccer player and babysitter for her single-dad coach (James Franco). At the same time, Teddy (Jack Kilmer) hangs out with his best friend and sidekick Fred (Nat Wolff), while trying to find the nerve to tell April about his feelings for her.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Emma Roberts talked about how she tracked down Gia Coppola and campaigned for her role, how she’s always trying to find books to pursue the rights for, how the book and film are very different entities, how nice and normal James Franco was to work with, how this movie feels both of its time and timeless, why it’s more challenging to play someone so real, and what she thinks might have happened to this character, beyond the point where the film ends. She also talked about getting invited back for American Horror Story: Freak Show, that they start shooting the new season in July, how she’s looking forward to doing a period piece, that she doesn’t yet have any details about the story or character, and how she’s love to be in a Wes Anderson film. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
EMMA ROBERTS: Yeah, it was cool to get to do something so different. Especially coming off of playing the super-bitch, Madison Montgomery, it was nice to get to do something that was the opposite and more likeable and more real.
And she’s quieter and more internal.
ROBERTS: That’s actually one of the things I loved so much about the movie. Gia Coppola was not scared to let awkward moments happen. Even as an actor in the scene, I would be like, “Oh, my god, how much longer are we going to let this hang. I feel embarrassed.”
It makes it all feel that much more real because how often do teenagers really know how to express themselves anyway?
ROBERTS: Yeah, they don’t. It’s so funny, my little sister is 13 and I’m like, “Speak! What do you want?!” It’s crazy to see how that confusion is so honest and so real. Kids really do feel that way. It’s so funny.
How did you come to this?
ROBERTS: I read the book and I fell madly in love with it, five years ago when it first came out. I literally read it the day it came out. And I called my manager and was like, “I want to buy the rights to this book,” and he was like, “They’re already taken.” I said, “Please, I have to be in this movie!” And then, three years went by and I was like, “What’s going on with this book?” And they were like, “Well, Gia Coppola just wrote the script for it.” So, I read the script. I’m such a big reader, so I’m very judgmental about books being turned into movies, but I was like, “Wow, I’ve never read a script that I’ve loved equally and differently to the book.” It was very interesting. So, I knew that it was going to be something special. I knew that it wasn’t going to be another run-of-the-mill teenage movie. So, I tracked down Gia. We kept running into each other, and I kept telling her how much I loved the book. And she was like, “You know, I thin, I’m gonna go for real teenagers. You’re a little bit older.” But, I kept a close eye on it and they finally ended up casting me, a week before we started filming. She said, “All right, let’s do it. I trust you.” That was amazing and special. There was no audition or anything. It was just a mutual thing with me and Gia, which was really amazing.
Do you typically pursue the rights to certain books, or was the first time you had tried doing something like that?
ROBERTS: I do that a lot because I read a lot. It’s so hard because people get books so far in advance now that you can’t ever find the rights to anything. But, I do ask a lot because you never know when maybe one will be available.
ROBERTS: You know, they were such different entities. I felt like Gia really captured the essence of the book and really embellished the characters. There are some characters that are only in the book for a page. So, she really took all of them and made them deeper and combined some of them. For me, the script was really my guideline. And then, once she got the cast that she got, it was just about all of our chemistry and how we reacted off of each other, which reflects in the movie. A lot of our reactions that you see were real reactions. She would keep rolling when we weren’t paying attention, and that comes across in a lot of the takes.
Did you participate in any bonding exercises during prep, or did you stay more separate since your character is more separate from everybody?
ROBERTS: Everyone did bonding exercises, and I would have been more than happy to do bonding exercises, but I literally got cast a week before we started shooting. It was like, “Oh, my god, we’re doing this! Get ready!” There was no time for us to really bond. But while we were shooting, it felt like bonding. It was so low-budget that we didn’t have trailers, so we were all huddled around the heater, outside in the Valley, hugging each other and telling stories. It really felt like summer camp, the whole time. We bonded, as we went along, which you can see in the movie.
James Franco is a guy that you hear some interesting stories about. What were your impressions of him, and what do you think would surprise people about him?
ROBERTS: Just how nice and normal he is. He was so fun to work with. I loved our stuff that we got to do together. He’s just so good, and it’s really cool to see him work.
What was it like to work with him, knowing that this movie was adapted from a book that he wrote, and that you’d also have scenes together? Was he good about not micro-managing that?
ROBERTS: He seemed really excited about the movie. I think he was excited to see it come to life. He was having just as much fun as we were. We never felt like, “Oh, my god, the writer’s here! Everybody get out of the way!” He just felt like another person in the movie. He never really even brought up that he was the writer, which is really crazy and cool and shows what kind of guy he is. That would have created such a weird dynamic.
You’ve played a lot of teenagers in your career, but now that you’re in your 20s, have you thought about when you might have to stop doing that, or do you feel like, as long as you can keep identifying with a character and the experiences, the specific age number doesn’t necessarily matter?
ROBERTS: Yeah, if it feels right to do a role, then I want to do it. I’m open to the role. I’m happy to play 23, and I’m happy to play 17, as long as it makes sense. What I liked about April is that you see her teetering between growing up and being a kid, throughout the film. That’s what attracted me to her. We all know that time, and it’s a very fascinating time. That’s why there’s so many books and films written about it.
With this kind of a character, don’t you feel that it also works to your advantage to be able to reflect back on that age, rather than actually being in it?
ROBERTS: Yeah, I definitely think it was better for me to playing this role, having some perspective. When you’re a teenager, you don’t want to bring your emotions to the surface and talk about them. You want to push them away. So, for me to be 21 when we shot it, it gave me enough perspective to go into that and not be scared. That was cool to get to do.
This movie has an interesting feel to it, being both of its time and timeless.
ROBERTS: I know! Doesn’t it? It’s really cool!
Was that something that you felt, in reading it, or was it something that took stepping back and getting to see the finished film, before you saw how that felt?
ROBERTS: It was a mixture of both, but that’s just because of how real the characters were and how the feelings you see are so universal. The characters weren’t stereotyped. They weren’t like, “I’m the popular slut,” or “I’m the reserved shy girl.” They were just people, and you felt like they were real people. I also think that the lack of social media in the movie made it feel real and didn’t demean any of it. I hate in movies when you see people tweeting. There’s no way to capture that and make it romantic.
This film also explores the very taboo subject of a teacher-student relationship, but it really handles it in a delicate way. Was it important to you that that aspect not be exploited?
ROBERTS: Absolutely! But, I also felt like it was something where it is a fascinating relationship. We’ve all heard about that happening, and it was interesting the way it was handled.
Would you say that April is the most real character that you’ve played?
ROBERTS: Yeah, for sure!
Is it more challenging for you to play someone more real?
ROBERTS: I think it’s definitely always more challenging to do something to play a real character and be more real. It’s easy to memorize your lines and say them. In Palo Alto, we ad-libbed a lot and had a lot of real moments happening, and that’s always harder because you’re more vulnerable and you’re putting yourself out there more, which is always scarier than when you have things down to a science and a rhythm.
Because nobody knows a character better than the actor embodying it, what do you think happened to this girl, beyond where the film leaves off?
ROBERTS: You know, I think she ends up okay. That’s what I loved about the movie. At the end of it, it’s not just this tragic thing with the girls. There’s very much some light for them. That made me happy, that it wasn’t these two girls falling off the tracks, distraught and crying. There was a little bit of hope for Emily and April. I thought it was important to not make them out to be these train wrecks. I think they end up growing up to be girls where no one would ever think that that stuff had happened to them.
It’s great to know that you’ll be back for American Horror Story: Freak Show. When and how did you learn that you’d be invited back?
ROBERTS: I’d been in talks a little bit before PaleyFest, but the day of PaleyFest is when it was official, so that was awesome. I was so happy and flattered to be asked back because it’s a show that I am so passionate about and love doing, so much. I can’t wait to get back to New Orleans and start filming. I think this year is going to be really, really awesome, fingers crossed. I think it’s going to be different from last year, but in a good way. And I love that it’s 1950s ‘cause I’ve always wanted to do something period, but have never had the chance. I think that’s going to add a whole other layer to the story.
Have you learned any specifics about your story or character?
ROBERTS: No, I haven’t been given a script. I ran into one of the writers yesterday and was like, “Can you tell me anything?,” and he was like, “Gotta go!”
Madison Montgomery had a very specific look to her, last season. Are you excited about getting a whole new period look for this season?
ROBERTS: I am. I’m curious about what my American Horror Story make-over is gonna be. I feel like every season, everyone looks unrecognizable, which is so cool. I’m really curious about what they’re gonna do to me.
ROBERTS: I hope I have more scenes with Kathy Bates. I didn’t really get to work with her too much, and she’s such a legend and such a fun person. All of us went to dinner together a couple of times, and she’s just so funny and sweet. So, I hope I get to have more with her.
When do you start shooting the new season?
ROBERTS: We go back in July.
Are you looking to shoot a movie before you go into production again on the show?
ROBERTS: Maybe. The window is closing, so we’ll see. Maybe something will come up.
You’ve been playing such an interesting and varied collection of characters, which are both good girls and bad girls, in both comedy and drama, and in film and television. Is there a type of film or role, or even a character from literature or history, that you’d love to do, but haven’t gotten the chance to do yet?
ROBERTS: That’s a good question. All the books that I love have already been made into movies, so I’m going to have to search for a new one. But, my dream is to be a character in a Wes Anderson movie. I just love how interesting and eclectic and stylized his characters are, and I would love to dive into that world. I loved The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Palo Alto is now playing in theaters.