Directed by Julia Hart (Fast Color) and based on the best-selling young adult novel by Jerry Spinelli, the Disney+ original feature film Stargirl follows unassuming high schooler Leo Borlock (Graham Verchere), an average student with decent grades whose life completely changes when he meets colorful new student Stargirl Caraway (Grace VanderWaal). A confident young woman who has a talent for the ukulele, Stargirl stands out in a crowd, and while some of the town just doesn’t understand her, Leo can’t help but feel intrigued by all of the mystery surrounding her and just wants to get to know her.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, former America’s Got Talent winner Grace VanderWaal talked about taking on her first lead acting role, what made her want to be a part of telling this story, the collaborative environment that director Julia Hart created on set, how the last day of the shoot compared to the first, what she learned from being a part of this project, writing an original song for the film, how she feels about the ending, embracing her own individuality and uniqueness, and how Stargirl has inspired her.
Collider: What a great character to play, but it also seems like it might be a little scary to take this on, as your first acting project. Had you been actively looking for something like this to do, when this opportunity came up, or was this opportunity a surprise when it happened?
GRACE VANDERWAAL: This opportunity was definitely a surprise. It just came to be. But now that the movie’s out and all of my nerves are gone, I’m so happy with my decision. I love the movie.
When you read the script, what was it about the character that appealed to you and really made you feel like you could bring something to her?
VANDERWAAL: The book, itself, is a really beautiful book, and I liked the idea of a movie adaptation of the book. I think the biggest thing that drew me to the movie was the director, Julia Hart. I was very, very unsure about it, and she took the time to talk to me, which was insanely sweet. She just had the best energy. The moment that I started talking to her, I just knew it might be something that I wanted to do.
What was that relationship like with your director, throughout the film? You’re still young, but you’re also a big part of this film and your character is very important to the story, so did you feel like she made you more of a partner, in creating the character and figuring out how to play her?
VANDERWAAL: Yeah, it was very collaborative, with me and her, and with her and all of the actors. She’s a director and it makes sense, why she’s so successful. She really knew how to talk to us, especially the young actors, like me. She just spoke to us really well and made us all feel really comfortable while still getting what she needed for the movie.
Were there things that you learned about the character from the book, that weren’t necessarily in the script or that we might not know, even from seeing the film?
VANDERWAAL: If you read the book, there are definitely things that are different. It is a movie adaptation. I think that the movie actually followed the book pretty well, for a movie adaptation, but of course, there were still things that didn’t make it. I think, all in all, the energy of Stargirl is still pretty much the same, between the book and the movie.
You’ve made a name for yourself as a singer, but you had never done a movie before. With knowing that you’d be leading this film, playing the title character, and bringing someone to life from a book that’s very loved, were there moments that were scary, or did all of that go away, once you actually started the work?
VANDERWAAL: No, it was really scary. It was the opposite. I was super comfortable and confident with it, and not really thinking too deeply about anything. And then, I remember the first day that I was on camera, the reality of the situation just hit me and I was freaking out, low key, and just really scared. I realized what I was getting myself into and the responsibilities that were now on my shoulders, to play such a beloved character, so it was definitely really, really, really scary.
How did the last day of the shoot compare to the first day of the shoot? Did you feel any more secure in yourself, as an actor?
VANDERWAAL: Oh, my gosh, when I think about the last day of shooting, compared to the first day, it’s pretty crazy. I definitely, by the last day, wasn’t even thinking about anything. It had turned into such routine, in the best way possible. It was just a lot more fun and laid back. By that time, you know everyone. You know the crew and the cast, so it’s definitely more fun. It just felt like not even really work.
You get to do so much in this film and have pretty much every emotion going on. Do you feel that doing a project like this really made you understand acting, in a different way?
VANDERWAAL: Definitely. I feel I’ve improved a lot. I actually think I would like to do something again, after this now, not really to be an actress, but just to apply what I’ve learned from this movie. I’ve learned so much about acting. It’s just like music, actually. Your first song or writing, you realize that practice makes perfect. The whole process was very, very interesting, to see how movies are made and to learn about acting.
Did it also feel different to get to write and perform a song for the film? Did that change the songwriting process, at all, for you?
VANDERWAAL: No. The song I wrote for the film came very, very naturally. I was never told to write a song for the film. I just wrote it. I texted it to Julia Hart and I was just like, “I don’t know if you would want to do anything with this. It’s totally fine. No pressure. It’s your movie. I just thought it could be cool.” Everything happened very, very naturally. Nothing really affected me, artistically, when it came to music, in that sense.
Did you write this song to any story guidelines?
VANDERWAAL: I kind of was, and I kind of wasn’t. I started writing the song, how I always write songs, just throwing out words and doing random stuff. And then, as we were going on, it started becoming Stargirl, but it was nothing that we discussed – me and the producer and writer. It was nothing where we were like, “Let’s write from Stargirl’s perspective.” Everything about the process happened very organically.
All production is suspended right now, but what would you like to be next for you? Are you reading scripts, at all? Are you looking to do more acting, or are you just taking it as it comes?
VANDERWAAL: I definitely take everything day by day, especially with the career path that I’m in. I feel like that’s really the best way to walk through this crazy career choice. But I don’t really have any far out future plans, except for an EP. I released a volume one of an EP, so now I wanna release a volume two. I’m just focusing on Stargirl, at the moment, and trying to get people to know about it and watch it.
How do you feel about the ending of the movie?
VANDERWAAL: I love the way the movie ended ‘cause it’s the way the book ended. I’m so happy that they didn’t change the ending for the movie. Not would that maybe upset the Stargirl book fans, but it would upset me, too. I’m a Stargirl book fan, and I think that would be really sad, if they made it a happy ending because the Stargirl book isn’t really a happy ending. It’s very realistic, I feel like.
It’s very melancholy ending. She definitely left an impression on all of the people that she came into contact with and got to know. What do you think she went off to do and become, once she left this town?
VANDERWAAL: I think she probably just started traveling with her mom and doing what her mom wanted to do. She did what she wanted to do. She went to a public school, but I don’t think it’s what she expected. She romanticized the idea of public school and teenagers a lot, and the reality of it really shocked her, but taught her some things that she really needed to learn, and that’s all she really went there to do. She went there to make friends and learn, and that’s exactly what she did. It’s almost like her mission was completed, and now she’s ready to just take it day by day and do her thing.
I really love how this film is a real celebration of individuality, and it shows how stifling the eccentricities within us can take away our magic and spark. When did you realize that your individuality and your uniqueness was not only okay, but is really actually what makes you who you are?
VANDERWAAL: That’s a really good question. I’m young and I still have so much to learn. Even if I were to claim, at the moment, that I have it figured out, that wouldn’t be true because we’re all pretty much figuring it out, for our entire lives. But I definitely have learned a lot, especially because my life hasn’t been exactly normal. With what has happened to me, I feel like I really was forced to learn, at maybe an earlier age than others, to be okay with myself, just because I’m viewed very publicly and everyone has opinions on me, which isn’t very normal. Every day is different. I’m still normal. Some days, or even some weeks, I hate and myself and feel like I just wanna go back to school and conform, and live as easy as possible. But more days than that, which is what’s important, I remember that there’s only one me, in the entire world. No one in the entire world has my hair, and no one in the entire world has my voice. Whether I like it or not, that’s pretty incredible that I have something that no one else will ever have. That’s pretty special. It would be ridiculous, if you would ever try to hide that or throw that away.
Do you feel like Stargirl has also inspired you, in your own life, in any way?
VANDERWAAL: I think so, actually. Just the other day, I went to a birthday party and I was sitting down and there were all of these girls, and everyone was on their phones. I’m not a huge phone person. I’m definitely not an advocate like, “Get off your phone!” It’s just not really my thing. So, I was sitting there and every single person was on their phone, we were sitting in silence, and I remember thinking to myself, “This is such a Stargirl moment. This is so Stargirl, right now.” Maybe if I didn’t go through that process, I would’ve handled that situation differently, instead of being like, “Do you guys wanna do something? Do you wanna actually talk, or something?” So, little things might have changed me. The whole process of making the movie, beyond the character, I’ve learned so much from. It’s hard to find people my age that I can relate to, so it definitely changed me and I felt less alone, being surrounded by a bunch of teenagers who work.
Is a current TV show that you watch, that you’d love to do a fun guest spot on, if given the opportunity?
VANDERWAAL: All the shows I watch are trashy reality TV, so I don’t know if I would wanna be featured on any of them.
You could host the reunion special.
VANDERWAAL: Yes! Oh, my god, that, I would love to do! I would be all over that!
What sort of guilty pleasure reality shows do you watch?
VANDERWAAL: Lately, I’ve been super into the show Love is Blind. It’s so good. And I love The Bachelor and Housewives – the classics.
Stargirl is available to stream at Disney+.