Little Birds is an indie drama that follows 15-year-old Lily (Juno Temple) and her best friend Alison (Kay Panabaker), who live in a rundown trailer park on the shores of the Salton Sea. When they meet a trio of visiting street kids, Lily’s rebelliousness kicks in and she convinces Alison to follow the boys to Los Angeles, but once there, they quickly fall into the boys’ world of scams and petty crime. While Lily is determined to stay and make it work, her actions threaten to tear apart her friendship with Alison. Written and directed by Elgin James, the film also stars Leslie Mann, Kate Bosworth, Kyle Gallner and Neal McDonough.
At the film’s press day, actress Juno Temple spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about what attracted her to the script and character, learning that the writer/director wanted her for either of the lead roles, how much she enjoyed working with co-star Kay Panabaker, what it was like to spend time in the Salton Sea, and why she’s more comfortable with sexuality in film than violence. She also talked about the appeal of big studio movies versus smaller indies, what attracted her to the role of a fairy named Thistletwit in Maleficent (starring Angelina Jolie in the title role), which she starts shooting soon, and the experience of working with director Christopher Nolan on The Dark Knight Rises. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
Collider: How did you first become aware of this and learn that the director wanted you for either role?
JUNO TEMPLE: Literally, my agent sent me the script, I loved it, we set up the meeting, and I was there for about two and a half hours with him. It was like no one else was in the room, and there were a lot of other people in the room. And then, I was in London and I got a phone call saying, “He wants you to play either role. Let us know which one you’re attracted to.” I mean, for a director to have that kind of trust in you, for you to be like, “Well, I think I prefer this one,” that was pretty mind-blowing. It was an instant connection with Elgin [James]. As soon as I got back, we started to hang out a lot. The movie didn’t get greenlit for about 18 months to two years, after that, so we had all this time to create this amazing relationship. I didn’t really know a lot of people out here, and he became like family. He’s like my big brother still, to this day.
Was it an immediate connection to Lily, as opposed to Alison?
TEMPLE: I felt more of a Lily than I did an Alison. I think, now that I’m a little older, I would maybe have the balls to try an Alison, but we’ll see.
Was it a situation where you felt like you could personally identify with something in Lily, or were you rooting for her?
TEMPLE: I just wanted to set her free. I also wanted to try to make her real. I didn’t think she was the kind of character who would be like, “Oh, I fucked up and now I’m going to make it all better.” She’s not like that. She really messes up and she feels like she deserves everything that comes her way. That was an interesting idea for me. I don’t care if you like her. I liked her. I definitely would try to be friends with her. I’m not sure she’d be friends with me, for real. She definitely would be a difficult person to hang out with, on a day-to-day basis, but I like that. I like playing a character that you don’t really like. You want to tell her to stop it. You’re like, “You’re an idiot. Stop it!”
What was it like to work with Kay Panabaker and develop the friendship between your characters?
TEMPLE: We are very different, but I think being different is a great basis for a friendship because you’re not comparing yourselves to one another. You’re just like, “Oh, this fits. It’s easy.” What was interesting was that she came onto it so last minute. It was very cool because we shot all the Salton Sea stuff first, so we were on location. Me and her made it our business to hang out, and we slept in each other’s hotel rooms, watched bad movies, ate junk food, and acted like 15-year-old girls together. She’s a really easy person to get along with and to be open with. She’s very un-judgmental, so it worked.
What was it like to work in the Salton Sea?
TEMPLE: The Salton Sea is extraordinary. It’s like World War III happened there. It’s this place of mass destruction, but then extreme beauty, the way the light bounces off things. The water, instead of being electric blue, is a blood red color. And the sand isn’t delicious, silky sand, it’s fish bones. It’s this incredible, eye-opening place. But, what was so amazing about it was that, when we shot there, it was more beautiful than the places we shot in, in Los Angeles. When you’re growing up, as a child, your surroundings are your surroundings. If you’re in the city, you’re going to react one way. If you’re in the country, you’re going to react another way. If you’re in the Salton Sea or Los Angeles, you’re going to react another way. I was brought up in a very open, rural countryside in the middle of nowhere. There were no cell phones. If your lights went out, you were lit by candlelight for a good four days before they can get to you. And so, my imagination was crazy.
I had this wild imagination. I was never me. All my childhood photos, I’m in fancy dress, playing a Russian refuge or Marvelous Mad Madam Mim. I was just bouncing around. It was crazy! The photo albums that I have at home are very embarrassing, but it makes sense that I’m doing what I’m doing. But in the Salton Sea, my character wants more. She’s one of those girls that wants the city, she wants the bright lights, she wants to hear her feet clunking on the ground, she wants to smell pollution and taste people’s leftover cigarettes. She’s asking for that. In the Salton Sea, she doesn’t have the ability to take in her surroundings and how extraordinary they are because it’s a home she doesn’t want to be around anymore. She’s shut down to it. It was very smart, on Elgin’s part, to make L.A. look more destructive than the Salton Sea ‘cause you wouldn’t think that, really.
You go back and forth between big studio movies and smaller character pieces, in your career. Do you feel like you need both for creative fulfillment?
TEMPLE: Well, one pays your rent. But, I’ve been blessed. With the studio movies I’ve been a part of, I haven’t been carrying the movie. That hasn’t happen for me yet, and maybe it will or maybe it won’t. I don’t know. But, I love making independent films. I love it! You create a family, and you sweat, you bleed, you cry, you shout, you laugh and you hug. It’s such an extraordinary experience, making independent films. I guess it is useful to be in studio movies, at the same time, because you get a little more exposure from them. But, I also feel like, to me, a project is a project. I want to be a part of it, if I want to be a part of it. If I don’t, I’ll walk away from it. I don’t have mouths to feed now. I’m only taking care of myself. So, I can be selfish and say no to things I want to say no to, and say yes to the things that I want to say yes to.
What was it about Maleficent that attracted you to that project?
TEMPLE: Oh, my god, because I’m playing such an awesome little role. I’m a fairy, called Thistletwit. Playing a fairy is a childhood fantasy. Are you kidding me?! I get to be like this big. It’s going to be amazing!
Are you excited about or dreading working with green screen?
TEMPLE: I’ve never done that, and I haven’t started filming yet. I start in about a month. I hope I’m good at it. We’ll see.
What was it like to work with a director like Christopher Nolan, for The Dark Knight Rises, who still manages to be so visionary in a studio system?
TEMPLE: First of all, I’m very lucky to have been a part of that movie. To be a part of one of the coolest and most appreciated franchises of all time, and be in the last installment, is bad-ass. It was fascinating watching him work because I can’t imagine what it would be to crawl into his brain and look out of his eyes. When you’re looking at him, that’s what you’re thinking about. You’re like, “How are you looking at that wall, and what are you going to do to it?” I was fascinated by it. But, he’s such a gentleman. He was so kind to me. I had a great experience making that movie. It was nerve-wracking. I was nervous when I first got there. I was like, “What the fuck?! Oh, my god!” But then, it was just like making any other movie. You get over that and you’re like, “This is the biggest set I’ve ever been on. I’m going to get lost. Hey, let’s be friends!”
The more roles you do, the more different kinds of characters you play, and the more directors you work with, does it change what you’re looking for? Are you more picky now?
TEMPLE: Yes and no. I am quite picky anyway because I’m attracted to certain things and I have to be passionate about what I’m doing. But, I think it’s great to be able to work with established directors, and then also first-timers. I feel like you learn from both of them, but then you can go and share your knowledge with each of them. That’s really fantastic! Honestly, I just want to work. I’m not afraid to try anything. If something doesn’t work, I won’t go there again. If I get panned for something, I’m going to be like, “Well, won’t be in that again,” whatever it is. But, I just turned 23. I’ll give anything a go.
Have you just always been so instinctively free and open in your life, and translate that into the roles you do?
TEMPLE: Yeah, I’m a pretty open person about certain things. My life is my life, for sure, and I want it to always be that way. The people I admire hugely, that’s how it is. It’s your job, and then your private life. But, I think it’s important to be open to letting a character completely envelope you. I’m not sure I could do method stuff. I’m not sure I’d still be here. Can you imagine, with the characters I’ve played? I’d probably be in a ditch somewhere. But, I feel like it is important for me to let it in for a scene because, if something happens, you can weep or you can scream, or just react how your character would. The women that I’ve picked to play, lots of people would judge them, and I really don’t. I don’t want to. I want to imagine that they’re dear friends of mine, and it’s an honor for me to be playing them. So, I think it’s important to always remember that and understand that you’re respecting whoever you’re playing. If someone was to be playing me, I’d want them to be really open and get all my Juno-isms down, and the weird things that I love, the weird things that I don’t like, my phobias, and my laugh. Everything is very specific. You can’t get to know anyone until you’ve stepped on their porch and walked around in their shoes. That’s something that’s important to me.
TEMPLE: Kind of. For me, violence is just something that I didn’t grow up with, so I don’t know how to handle it. But, that kind of stuff, you do fake. You get thrown around a room, but you get pre-warned about where you’re going to land and you get told where to put your hand, so it almost becomes choreography. I’m European. Taking my clothes off has never been a big deal, ever. I do it every day, when I take a shower. I do it every day, with my boyfriend. It’s so not a big deal to me. But, violence is a weird thing for me because it’s never been a part of my life. Faking it is great ‘cause it’s scary to me, so I don’t entirely fake it. I had to learn how to fire a gun for a couple of movies, and that’s the scariest thing I’ve ever had to do for a movie. And having to fire around a room with an entire camera crew beneath it, I was like, “If I accidentally mis-shot this and took someone’s life, what would I do?” That’s scary to me because that’s not in your power. Your sexuality is completely your power, and it’s such a great power to have, especially as a woman. Being aware of your sexuality and being aware of what your body can do to somebody or what it doesn’t have to do to somebody, is a pretty amazing tool, as a woman.
LITTLE BIRDS opens in theaters on Wednesday, August 29th in NYC and September 14th in L.A.