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 Kay Panabaker spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about her auditioning process for the film, what she immediately connected to with the story and character, what it was like to spend time in the Salton Sea, what it was like to work with co-star Juno Temple, how easy it is for her to get into the mind-set of a teenager, and where she thinks their characters may have ended up after their story in the film. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
Collider: How did you come to be a part of this film? Did you audition for it?
KAY PANABAKER: It wasn’t one of those things where I got sent the script and was told, “If you like it, go on the audition.” It was like, “Here’s your audition, here are your sides, and here’s the script.” A lot of the time, I won’t read the script until my second or third audition just ‘cause a lot of the scripts are the same and the characters are the same. This one, I read because I had heard about (producer) Jamie Patricof and I was like, “This should actually be really interesting.” And it was a beautiful script. It was just so well-written, and was such a love story of this friendship.
I met with (writer/director) Elgin [James] and had one audition with him, and then a few days later, I had an audition where I read with Juno [Temple]. And then, a week later, we were driving down to the Salton Sea together. It was a little intimidating because Elgin and Juno had been working on the script and the project for two years. I was a little intimidated that it was going to be like, “Well, this is our project and we’re going to have fun, and you’re just going to be the third wheel.” But, they were lovely. She and I really built our relationship while we were in the Salton Sea, shooting for the first week. Then it was kind of sad when we came back to L.A. We didn’t get to spend as much time together and we didn’t talk nearly as much, but it worked well for the script and for what we were shooting.
When you read the script, what did you immediately connect to?
PANABAKER: It was the story combined with the character. There are so many coming-of-age stories where the girl takes her top off, and she does drugs and drinks, and they do the laundry list of everything a teenager shouldn’t, and it’s rebellious. They’re good, but to me, there are a lot of those. This one was unique, in that it wasn’t a love story. It focused on these two girls, and there was a love story attached with it. I loved Alison. When I had heard about this project, everybody wanted to be Lily and was like, “Lucky Juno!” I was like, “Lily is great, and I’m sure she’s going to be great in it,” but I always loved Alison. I love the strong character. I’ve always loved subtle acting, and that’s what I got to do. I just got to be in that room and watch things go down. It was really beautiful for me. I really enjoyed it.
What did you like about who Alison is, as a person?
PANABAKER: I liked that she was just the silent one that was there, but you never quite knew what she was thinking. I liked how strong in her morals she was. I’ve always thought that I’ve been strong in what I believe in. Not that I know what I believe for absolutely everything, but the things that I do believe, it’s very black and white, and yes and no.
Did you do anything to get the feel for what it must be like to live in the Salton Sea?
PANABAKER: Oh, definitely! The second we showed up, and you could smell it and see the people and how desolate it was, it helped. Of course, I’ve lived in small suburbs, but they were of places like Chicago or Atlanta that are bigger cities. But, I’ve done a lot of road trips with my family and you drive through some pretty dead areas. Seeing what the Salton Sea was, I was like, “Yes, this is the city where people are born and they die there, and they never leave.” It’s tragic, but yet, if it’s all you know, you love it. So, it was definitely interesting.
What surprised you most, once you got to spend some time there?
PANABAKER: It’s like nowhere else I’ve seen. I’ve seen dead places, but not like the Salton Sea. The thing that shocked me, that I don’t know if other people get from watching it, was that these people live in shacks. The tin foil looks stapled together. It looks like, if a wind storm were to come there, it would rip off. It’s really small town. I remember this one kid, when Juno and I were just riding around while we were shooting, who would bark at us like he was a dog. It literally felt like it was in another world. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s this small little dead town, but people loved it there. They were happy. It was interesting.
What were the biggest challenges in finding who this character was and figuring out how to play her, opposite such an overpowering character as Lily?
PANABAKER: My initially thought, when coming to Alison, was that she was there for Lily, through thick and thin. That was my character. And then, I built upon that. But, the one thing that was always very clear to me, in any given situation, was that she wants the best for Lily. In a lot of the scenes, she’ll voice her opinion, and then when that goes unheard, like I’m sure many of their discussions have gone, she just goes with it and looks out for her.
Did you ever question how these two girls remain friends, when so much of their friendship is toxic, especially after the leave town together?
PANABAKER: Where else are they going to go? If they were to try to explore L.A. on their own, it wouldn’t have worked. Lily is lost without Alison. Alison is lost without Lily. They needed each other in L.A. But, I think L.A. was the end of their friendship. I think they tried to keep it, once they got back to the Salton Sea, but there was just too much that broke when they went to L.A.
Have you given any thought, as to where these characters might have gone, after the movie ended?
PANABAKER: I have often thought about where Alison would be. She’s one fo the few characters that’s stuck with me. I always thought that Lily would be the one that ultimately got stuck in the Salton Sea, and it would be Alison that got out, went to college, found her passion and made a new life for herself.
How was it to work with Juno Temple and go on this journey together?
PANABAKER: Juno is one of the most interesting women I’ve ever worked with. She’s also one of the most interesting young people I’ve worked with. She’s very eloquent. She’s very artsy. She’s very open. I have nothing but kind things to say about her. We worked really well together. There was never an overpowering. There was never a sense that we were fighting for a scene. It was the perfect harmony, the two of us. Hopefully, that comes across. Just ‘cause we enjoyed shooting and I loved working with her, it doesn’t mean that it came across, but I hope people walk away and at least gather that we had a good friendship on screen.
Does playing a teenager come easily for you? Is it easier to have distance and be able to reflect back?
PANABAKER: I just feel like I haven’t grown up yet. I live on my own and I do grown-up things, but there is something about me that is very youthful. I can’t age on the inside, and I’m totally okay with that. I have no need to grow up and see myself as mature. I’m happy being young. Some people do need to grow up, but I don’t think I’m there yet. I don’t think I’m ready to do grown-up things and be a grown-up. I’m still having fun with life. And I don’t know if I’ll ever grow up because of that. I think life is meant to be fun. You find work that you love and you surround yourself with people that you love. Life shouldn’t be too difficult.
Do you have any idea what you’re going to do next?
PANABAKER: I don’t have anything lined up. I’m at a weird spot because I look so young and I feel young, but I’m not young. They don’t know where to put me. I also have other loves. Some people live, eat and breathe art, and they love acting and filmmaking. I’ve got other loves. I love animals. I love teaching. I love kids. That’s always something in the back of my mind. I’m like, “Well, I’ve done college. What do I do now?” I think that’s part of why I haven’t grown up yet. I still feel like I’m playing. It doesn’t feel like a job to me. Until I figure out what I’m going to do when I grow up, I’m not going to be grown up.
LITTLE BIRDS opens in theaters on Wednesday, August 29th in NYC and September 14th in L.A.