■ The actress, 35, on directing debut film booksmart, the wisdom of Tilda Swinton and debauched old Hollywood
Congrats on Booksmart, it’s hilarious. Why did you want to direct this script?
It was about two brilliant young women who are unapologetic about their intelligence and not trying to assimilate or completely transform themselves. Also, to have one straight character and one queer character in a friendship in a film without it being the main focus is rare.
The relationship between the two girls is intense…
When you’re young, you have the ability to express deep love and admiration for one another. What I think is more challenging for women is expressing discomfort with one another. Any breaking away is read as betrayal. As you get older, you realise you can remain loyal to your friends while inserting independence.
Did directing the film bring back any memories of high school for you?
Yes, it brought back the memories of feeling misunderstood as a whole. The movie is a discussion of our tendency to mistreat and misunderstand others, and the universal experience of having felt misunderstood. I felt like people were trying to categorise me when I was in high school.
What box did they try to put you in?
A theatre person. I did a lot of theatre but I was hanging out with a lot of athletes. It’s like prison yard — pick your lane or it’s not safe, we can’t trust you if you don’t pick a box. People felt that if I was a social creature, I couldn’t be a serious student. Then you get to an age where you realise we’re all of those things and that was a waste of time.
Have you been misunderstood as a creative adult?
Yes, oh my God! My entire career. I think only now, with this film, do I feel a sense of ownership of my place within this industry. That’s a lot of pressure. Am I supposed to be this definition of female perfection? That is what is placed on young actresses.
You started out on The OC before moving on to films like Alpha Dog. Did you get any good advice at that stage?
I met Tilda Swinton at a party when I was 21 and was really starstruck. She said, ‘It must be very hard to be a young actress in this business because everyone needs you to define perfection, which is impossible. They’re asking you to be a fantasy.’ But then she said, ‘I promise you, it’s going to get a lot more interesting’. I loved her for that.
Was she right?
Yes, it gets a lot more interesting as you get older and when you know who you are and what your voice is. I finally said, ‘I’m just going to do it my way, direct a movie even though people have no reason to believe I can.’ All it takes is one person to take a risk on you.
Is the Time’s Up movement speeding things up?
Yes. It makes it easier to launch initiatives. I’d say people are feeling the pressure — executives, financiers — to get with the times.
In Booksmart, the girls hit a few parties. What’s the craziest one you went to as a kid?
I have a sister who’s older and she was living in San Francisco and throwing warehouse parties. She invited me to go to Burning Man. I remember being, ‘Whoa, this is mind-blowing!’ I was 18.
Are there any crazy Hollywood parties now?
It’s so boring. It’s gotten a lot more tame. Even recently. I think people are taking care of themselves, which is good, but I sort of resent it when you hear stories of the golden age of Hollywood debauchery and think, [whispers] ‘Aw, that sounds great.’
Like the Jack Nicholson parties in the old days?
Ha ha. A young Jack Nicholson on the prowl sort of scares me. But you look at old pictures of Studio 54 — it was a time of a tenuous grasp on consequence, which is an interesting, liberating way to live. But now everyone’s very responsible. Unless I’m just locked out of all the fun stuff. That is also possible.
Your partner, Jason Sudeikis, is also an actor. Do you talk shop?
To an extent. My learning curve in the past year has been pretty sharp and I’ve experienced things I never have before so I’ve been sharing a lot of that.
Do you have any recurring dreams?
I used to have one of tall waves, which I found out is a very common anxiety dream. Then someone gave me the brilliant advice that you have to stay in the dream because I would always wake up when it crashed, which was terrifying. So I started watching big-wave surfing, I became obsessed, so then I started dreaming about tall waves I would then surf, which is kind of shifting your mindset. Like, there’s nothing that can destroy you. The bigger it is, the more fun of a ride it can be.
A lesson for life!
Booksmart is in cinemas now