From first-time feature writer/director Bo Burnham, the indie comedy Eighth Grade follows awkward 13-year-old Kayla (in a truly terrific performance and one of the year’s best from Elsie Fisher), as she just tries to make it through her last week of middle school before beginning a new life in high school. The painfully honest look at contemporary suburban adolescence shows that, although there have been no major catastrophes in Kayla’s life, being ignored and overlooked can still be disastrous when you just want someone to see and hear you.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, now 15-year-old actress Elsie Fisher talked about how proud she is of Eighth Grade, her audition process for the role, why her director only wanted her to read the script once before they shot, how she related to her character, developing the father-daughter relationship, shooting Kayla’s vlogs, her own relationship with social media, how collaborative this whole experience was, the reality of going to high school once the movie was finished, and whether she could see herself acting, for the long-term.
Collider: Thank you for talking to me! I thought you were just so great in this film! What was it like to get this role, make a film where you’re in almost every frame, and then gets such a huge response to it, starting at Sundance?
ELSIE FISHER: To answer the first part, it was very exciting because just making the film was an absolute dream come true. I feel so lucky that I got to create this project with people that I became close friends with, but to see how great the response is, has just been absolutely fantastic. I couldn’t have dreamed of this. This is insane! I feel so proud of the project, and the fact that other people enjoy it, too, is wonderful.
How did this all come about for you? Did you have to go through a whole audition process for this?
FISHER: Yeah, it was an audition process. I was about ready to kick the bucket, in the acting world. I wasn’t enjoying it as much anymore. Earlier that year, I had become a fan of Bo Burnham’s comedy, and I saw in the audition email that I had a director session with Bo Burnham and I just got wildly excited. So, I went on over, and it was probably the most fun audition I’ve ever had. It was great. I got to do one of Kayla’s videos, but I was allowed to mess with the script and improv a bit. I just had a couple of call-backs after that, and then I got the role. It was amazing!
At what point did you actually get to read the full script, and what was your reaction to this character and her life?
FISHER: I finally read the full script, and I only got to read it once because we wanted to keep it fresh in my head, every day. Bo wanted to make sure that I wasn’t over rehearsing it at home, or anything. I read it, for the first time, all the way through, after I actually got the role, and I was just very proud that this was the movie I was making. I was a little worried that her character was just going to be like this weird, over-dramatic, shy teen that you see in every movie, ever, about teens, but she genuinely feels like a real person. That made me really happy, and it just added onto the joy of being her.
Were you nervous, at all, about only getting to read the script once? Are you someone who would have rather had more time to be able to prepare, or do you think it worked to your advantage that you didn’t get to over-read it?
FISHER: I definitely agree with the decision for me not to read it, over and over. In retrospect, it worked out amazingly, and I can’t imagine doing it any other way. But back when I first got the role, I was so anxious that I was literally about to explode with my feelings. I definitely would have loved to read it more than once then, but once I got on set, that feeling dissipated and I felt comfortable.
Especially at 13, pretty much everyone is an awkward and weird kid, which is something that everybody can relate to. What was it about Kayla that you related to, or liked a lot?
FISHER: One of the things that I really related to was the fact that she is not bullied, she’s just ignored. That was my own personal experience in eighth grade, and just most of school. She’s not shy. That’s not how she would describe herself. She’s trying to be confident, and I think that’s how most people are. That really drew me to it. Another thing about shy kids is that sometimes that’s their persona, but she has layers. That’s not what she wants to be. She tries super hard to not be that. That’s something I definitely saw in myself.
What did you learn about filmmaking from working with Bo Burnham, and do you feel like there’s anything he taught you about yourself, as an actress, that you didn’t know before working with him?
FISHER: This role taught me how to be a little more realistic in the scene, when I’m acting. I feel like my instinct, before that, was to be a little overly dramatic. This really just taught me to bring myself to the role and the whole process. I got to learn the ins and outs of making a movie, aside from my side. I got to see how Bo made revisions to the script and where they fit. It was just very interesting. This was a more in-depth experience on set than I’d ever had before, and I think that really taught me a lot about movies, as a whole.
Did it make you think about trying to do something like this yourself, at some point?
FISHER: Yeah, I could definitely see myself doing that, especially after this. This was a nice step in that direction. It was cool because like I got to help with scenes. If something wasn’t working, aside from helping on my side, as an actress, I could help Bo out and maybe give him tips. I could definitely see myself doing that, as a job. That would be fun.
It’s really cool that he included you and made it such a collaborative process, in that way.
FISHER: Yeah, I feel very lucky to have had that. The whole process was very collaborative between not only the two of us, but just everyone on set. Everyone brought something.
What was it like to go through eighth grade yourself, and then have to relive it again for the film. How did this experience compare to your actual eighth grade experience?