Emily Robinson is, without question, one of the most gifted and promising talents of her generation. She earned a Young Artist Award and Young Entertainer Award, as well as a Screen Actors Guild nomination, for her work on Joey Soloway’s landmark Amazon series, “Transparent,” where she played the young versions of Gaby Hoffmann’s characters, Rose and Ali. Yet it was her role as Olivia, the friendly high schooler shadowed by wide-eyed Kayla (Elise Fisher) in Bo Burnham’s 2018 masterwork, “Eighth Grade,” that made me an instant fan of Robinson, and not only because the picture has a permanent place on my list of all-time favorite films. As a movie critic who hadn’t made enough time to catch up on essential television like “Transparent,” “Eighth Grade” marked my introduction to Robinson’s work, and I was immediately taken by her endearing and utterly natural screen presence.
Since then, I’ve caught up on many of her performances, and have been continuously impressed by the depth and range of her abilities, not only on “Transparent” or in features such as Tamara Jenkins’ 2018 gem, “Private Life,” but in superb short films like Pedro Borges’ “Dreamcatcher” and Kate Hackett’s “Oleander.” Perhaps most exciting of all are Robinson’s own directorial efforts, beginning with her brilliant 2016 debut, “Virgin Territory,” where she plays a teenage girl who decides to explore her sexuality on her own terms. Robinson’s latest work as a writer/director is the equally fascinating “Hearsay,” which has an audacious structure that allows the narrative to be passed like a baton from one character to the next until it seems to double back on itself. I was so thrilled to speak with Robinson for Cinema Femme about all of the above that I was repeatedly tempted to pace back and forth as Kayla did while chatting on the phone with Olivia. Thankfully, I restrained myself.
What is an early memory you have of acting that excited you?
I started acting when I was really young. I actually started in modeling in New York before I realized that you could act for a living, and that’s kind of how I found my way into it. I first fell in love with acting while working on The Orphan’s Home Cycle at Signature Theatre. It’s an epic by Horton Foote that consists of nine plays performed in repertory. It was this super-insane, kind of wonderful production that had a huge 22-person cast, so it became like a family. Each play was one act, and we had three segments that were each three acts, so I got to play three characters. I felt like I was being thrown into a community of people who were constantly working on different characters and skills. I even remember there was fake chewing tobacco and all of these other things that had to be preset for the show, and I was always so excited when I could help do that, so I felt very involved.
I liked that I could keep researching things. I had to play the piano, so I had to learn how to do that. You were performing eight shows a week in front of a New York audience, and it was just the most addicting, heavenly experience to have at ten years old. It felt magical staying up late in order to work and be constantly inspired, so that is what first hooked me. After that, I decided I would keep acting at least through high school. “Transparent” was the job that really solidified that acting in entertainment wasn’t just a hobby for me. It’s what I feel I have to do and what I hope to keep doing forever. I also got to do a lot of research for that show, specifically to prepare for the season set in Berlin. I was excited to find the different ways I could go deeper and deeper into a character. That’s what I am always attracted to and find very energizing.
Was working on a landmark show like “Transparent” a formative experience for you prior to the authentic portrayals of sexuality and identity in your own directorial efforts?
Absolutely. Working with Joey Soloway not only helped me see the potential of the form and what I wanted to do in entertainment, but it also kind of helped me find myself and my own identity as a teenager figuring things out. I felt so comfortable and had a very fortunate experience on that show, though I know that certainly not everyone did. But I had a very protected and positive experience while I was there. Zackary Drucker is one of the producers, and she was always such a supportive light throughout the years in showing me the experimental ways that you can push things and how you can make a space feel happy and safe. She showed me how every person onset is important and the project would not be the same without them. That sort of respect on a set is something that inspires me and is really important. It certainly isn’t the case on every set, and I think that it creates so much depth and humanity in a piece. Content aside, that is something I really strive to channel in all of the work that I do.
You previously worked with another cherished interview subject of mine, Austin Pendleton, when he directed you in A Loss of Roses at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
That was a reading—it wasn’t staged or anything—so it was not too intensive, but he was wonderful and so special. I had a very, very small role, and got the chance to act with a great group of people. Readings are always so fun because half of the magic is just getting to be around people who you admire, so you’re trying not to be the person who messes it up. My character came in right at the end, so I knew that if I flubbed my line, it would not look good.
Tell me about what is, according to IMDb, your first directorial work—unseen by me—2014’s “A Day in LA.”
Oh my god. [laughs] That was really nothing, to be honest. That is a silly video that a friend and I made in high school that somehow wound up on IMDb. It’s essentially a stop-motion photo collage of LA moments. It’s really cringe-y and something that I made maybe even in middle school, so it was a long time ago and not really my first directorial work, I would say.
At what point did you start seriously thinking about making your own films?
That’s a great question. I think I always knew that I wanted to be a writer in some capacity even before I knew that acting was something that I wanted to pursue as a profession. I’ve always been a total bookworm, so writing was something that always felt intuitive to me. Directing definitely came about because of “Transparent” and the way that set was run. Joey would always say something to the effect of, “Just find all the best people and then I don’t have to do the job.” Of course, they aren’t saying, “Find other people to do my job,” but rather, “Find people who you trust and you want to work with.” Getting to put together a team was something that I found very appealing. Being a brunette in high school, I was always auditioning for roles with descriptions like, “Girl next door who wears glasses and then takes them off so that people realize she’s pretty.” That was the most common character arc, and I grew very tired of that. Sometimes it’s fine, but when you see it all the time, you become eager to do something else.
As a writer—and eventually a filmmaker—I was very much driven to tell a story that didn’t feel super-polished and over-the-top like those you see from Disney. I also didn’t want to go to the other extreme of a show like “Euphoria” that really pushes boundaries in a way that didn’t feel realistic to what I was going through in high school. I wanted to strike a sort of middle ground and make something that felt real and true to my own experiences. That’s really where the urge to write “Virgin Territory” came from, and then the final push to direct it came because Joey kept saying about projects and things in general, “Just do it—if you’re not going to do it, who else is? You just have to make it happen and do it.” Upon hearing their words, I realized that no one was going to let me direct, and that I would have to just will it into existence. So I decided to direct it myself, and I’m so glad I did.
The same year that “Virgin Territory” was released, you also delivered a wrenchingly raw performance in Pedro Borges’ “Dreamcatcher,” which has well over four million views on YouTube.
Those films can definitely be in conversation with each other even though they are, in certain ways, completely opposite worlds. “Virgin Territory” is about a young woman whose environment is as supportive and liberal as it could possibly be. My character, Cassie, sees the world as her oyster and feels that she can be whoever she wants to be, yet there is still difficulty in naming it or figuring it out. She’s navigating her way through what she thinks versus what she’s doing while trying to determine what that means and what she has to do in order to truly know her identity. She’s torn between embracing a particular label and being content in knowing what she feels before finding what feels right later on. The film is about the pressure and anxiety of that, whereas “Dreamcatcher” is more about the external pressures and fear of being what you’re not supposed to be. It’s about being queer when that’s not acceptable, and still being queer because that’s who you are, which forces you to have to contend with that.
Anyone who has ever been shunned by a religious community will be able to relate to “Dreamcatcher.” How were you able to burrow so deeply into that character?
I definitely grew up in liberal bubbles. I initially grew up in New York, where I went to a Jewish day school—which I suppose was semi-religious—across the street. Then after I moved to LA, and specifically when filming “Transparent,” I was in a very accepting world. Because of that, I was acutely aware that not everyone has that immense privilege, so I spent a lot of time in high school reading accounts of things and being hyperaware of the experiences of others. That’s where most of the research came in for my roles. Part of my normal preparation process is to journal as a character, which enables me to put myself in her shoes and try to imagine what it would feel like if her obstacles were my own. That is the beautiful thing about acting as well as writing. You have to have the capacity for empathy. Sympathy won’t suffice.
That sort of preparation likely makes the work richer and more multi-layered onscreen.
Yeah, I think it just clarifies a lot. There might be questions you didn’t even know that you had that you kind of figure out when you’re writing.
What was Pedro like as a director?
He was wonderful. He just reached out to me because he had seen my work and thought of me for the role. We met up at a coffee shop that I used to go to way too often in high school, to the point where I was recognized for the first time. I wasn’t recognized as an actor. Some random person just tweeted at me, “Are you always in this coffee shop?”, and I was like, “Yeah, that’s me…I guess I’m there too much.” [laughs] That’s what happens when you go to an online school! In fact, I’m actually about to work next month with someone who Pedro also cast in “Dreamcatcher,” Anthony Del Negro. It was a very happy and supportive set that really allowed for intimacy and a feeling of safety.
“Virgin Territory” is such a remarkably assured directorial debut in how it shows a young person learning to embrace the freedom she has in exploring her own identity.
At that time in my life, I very much used writing to explore things that I didn’t necessarily have words for as they applied to myself. But I knew that they were swirling around in my brain, and I think that’s sort of how it came about. I was thinking a lot about sexuality and gender and sort of the murkiness of it. It’s funny because there’s a whole group of us—specifically child actors—who have since come out as non-binary from that time, and I think “Virgin Territory” came out of that unknowing of what that was and how I related to it.
The film is very much about sexuality and the pressure of it, but I think it also came from this need to do away with having to perform as a certain version of yourself and be accepted by other people. What is the goal of what I am accomplishing when giving into the pressure to have sex, to know who you are and to know how you identify? I think that most things in life are murkier, more ambiguous and kind of weird. They change. It’s just kind of a mess and it’s beautiful. So the film captures that whirlwind of being very neurotic and anxious about needing to understand all of the things about myself that I don’t know how to define, as if I’m going to be tested on them. What if I get the answer wrong? My response to that is, “Just calm down a little bit…”
It’s interesting how—specifically when you’re a child actor—you end up gendering yourself in a more extreme way than you necessarily would if you weren’t playing roles, and not in a bad way. I remember one time I had an audition for “Modern Family” as a guest star, and there was some comment in the character description that alluded to the fact that the character had big boobs. So I went into Victoria’s Secret with my mom to get the biggest push-up bra that they had, and the store clerk was like, “Oh, are you here for the ‘Modern Family’ audition?” All these kids in LA were going to this Victoria’s Secret and getting the same bra. [laughs] We were all trying to be this one version of a person, and it feels very much like playing dress up in a way that’s very fun—or it can be if you can have a healthy relationship to it. Viewing sex in that sort of way where you want to do the thing, but you don’t want to have the emotional entanglement to get it done is kind of where “Virgin Territory” lives.
I really like how you allow certain moments to breathe in the film without a cut, such as the marvelous interaction Cassie has with her mother, Harper (Michelle Clunie), where she is informing her that she’s going to have sex, but she’s not asking for her permission.
Michelle is wonderful, and Harper’s face is cut off during half of the scene, which visually conveys what I wanted to get at. The whole point of Cassie telling her mother this is because she feels obligated to tell her, and also because she’ll definitely be making Harper get an IUD and STD test for her right after. The interaction is fueled by neuroticism in Cassie’s character, but it’s also the fact that Harper has taught her that she doesn’t need anyone’s approval—except for, obviously, consent—and certainly not maternal approval to make this decision because it’s her own body. In a way, it’s really sweet because Cassie’s showing her mom that they have a trust and mutual respect, and also that she’s become the person that Harper wants her to be. It’s important to Cassie that Harper understands this, even if it makes her uncomfortable in some way. I also love really close and sometimes strange mother/daughter relationships.
Do you like having a long two-shot like that in how it enables the actors to interact in real time?
Yeah, I really do. I also enjoy allowing some space for improvisation, so when it’s possible, I get everything in one take so we don’t have to have a million cuts back and forth, and we can just see what the natural chemistry is. I love just being stuck in a room with people experiencing things. That’s what it’s about, and it’s what I try to do when at all possible. Though there are a lot of cuts in “Hearsay,” the dinner scene—which is a bit long—is kind of a montage. We did that all in a 17-minute take where we were just being filmed while having dinner. It has a lot of cuts, but it comes from a similar impulse to just let the actors do their thing and try to capture it all.
Whereas “Virgin Territory” gave me instant satisfaction with its pitch-perfect final scene, “Hearsay” demands multiple viewings to reap the full rewards from its audaciously structured plot.
Yeah, it’s a harder film. It’s definitely inspired by my obsession with gossip. I find it really fascinating how we can hear gossip about other people and that informs how we see them, even though the information that we hear is maybe at best a bit more than a half-truth. There are always more sides to one story. You’re not getting the whole picture, but it can totally inform how you perceive it, so I kept thinking about whether what we thought we knew or what we said speculatively could somehow drive a plot. Could hearing different tidbits about people drive what the audience is thinking, where we think that it’s a certain thing but it winds up being something else—or maybe it’s the same thing? So the initial impulse was to see how characters who don’t really know or speculatively think they know things about other people informs the information that we see and what we’re thinking about it.
Through that, I found this snake-like structure where we start with a scene between two characters, and then follow one of them. Then we follow the new person that they encounter and the story continues to be handed off from one character to the next until we kind of wrap around and meet the first person that we left behind. I think the story was also informed by New York being a big city, but a very small place where you have six degrees of separation. Someone who you think has no relation to your life other than in a very small capacity might know a lot more about you without either of you realizing it. Though the film was meant to be a short, I do have a feature idea with some of the same characters, yet it does take a different structure as a feature just because it is a hard form to maintain. I’m sure there’s a way, I just don’t know that I’ve found it yet.
What inspired your choice of lingering not on what occurs in the bedroom during the final scene, but what’s happening on the other side of the wall?
It was really important that since the movie was about things that are overheard, it had to end with the answer to some sort of question that we’ve been wondering about. I wanted to have that reveal conveyed in a way that felt detached from just seeing it spoken blatantly. Especially when it comes to a parental dynamic, there’s something about even if you’re their adult child, when their bedroom doors are closed, you find yourself in the other room trying to hear but not necessarily trying to hear what’s being said, not unlike a little kid would.
I’m really interested in that act of passive overhearing and what the stakes are in regards to it because so much of what we learn in this world are things we don’t ask to learn or to know, but we’re kind of forced to know. That’s a lot of what being a human and being an adult means. I was also excited that we could make that one complicated shot happen, because even though there’s a pan that we could’ve cut and separated it, it is one single unbroken shot that takes the viewer from the bathroom, through the bedroom and into the other room. I was really excited that we could pull off that technical feat because I thought it looked cool.
And it makes thematic sense without being intrusive. I noticed that one of your co-stars in “Hearsay,” Imani Lewis, previously starred with you in “Eighth Grade.”
She’s just excellent and I think she always makes really surprising choices. I like writing for people that I know—I kind of picture them and I just had her in mind from the beginning. I hadn’t worked with her since “Eighth Grade,” so luckily, she was available. The only cast member that I didn’t personally know was J.C. MacKenzie, who is a sweetheart and the loveliest human. A friend actually recommended that I reach out to him because I didn’t think he’d do it. We met up for coffee and he was like, “Yeah, sure, I’ll do this. Why not?” But he’s the only person that I didn’t have some sort of relationship with that’s in the movie. I like working with nice people who do good work. I think that’s sort of the casting process. [laughs]
How did you, Imani, Fred Hechinger and Daniel Zolghardi go about creating a wholly convincing chemistry for the mall scene in “Eighth Grade”?
Daniel and I had worked together before, which is always nice and helpful. We played siblings on the series, “Scorpion,” so we had some level of familiarity with each other. Fred is very charismatic and just has this way of making everyone feel really comfortable. He’s very calm, and at the same time, a goofball. As Olivia, I was very awkward and speaking a lot to fill silences, and Imani is just funny and great, so there was a lot of happy energy on that set. We were all trying to make each other feel comfortable, which is sort of what the dynamic is between the characters. Bo is a genius, and he and Elsie are so funny because they are very similar. He’s awkward but kind and just wants everyone to feel good.
He ensured that the set was a really safe and happy place, so during lunch, we’d all be talking together and he would tell jokes. It was just a good time. Specifically for the mall scene, we were allowed to improvise a little bit with some of the conversation at the beginning and the end of the scene. Sometimes Bo would throw out random props before the camera and go, “Talk about this!”, or he’d go, “Fred, say this!”, and we would kind of go from there. As a result, there was a spontaneous, random, humorous energy in the air that we got to go off of. I think it’s a mix of being around nice people who you actually like and want to be friends with and the smart, funny words coming out of other people’s mouths.
What I love about Olivia is how she serves as a life force for Kayla, much like a senior who I befriended during freshman orientation in high school. Did you have any Olivias in your life?
It’s funny because I had a very random pre-college education where I went back and forth from school in New York to online classes. I was just all over the place, so my Olivias were 26-year-old writers in LA who I was friends with. We’d go to lunch and they’d be like, “You’re doing okay, kid,” and I’d think, ‘Okay, cool!’ I’m still friends with them and they’re great. These encounters didn’t necessarily take place in a brick and mortar high school, but I definitely had people in my life who I would approach and be like, “Oh, I can sit with you? That’s great! Hopefully we can talk about these things and you’re not going to laugh in my face.” When they responded to a text I sent them, I’d be so happy and think, ‘Wow, what a concept!’ [laughs]
It was really exciting to get to play someone who was like those women I looked up to. Something that Bo, Elsie and I talked about was that Olivia and Kayla—if you look at their physicality in the movie—have mannerisms that are kind of similar. I saw myself in Elsie just as Olivia saw herself in Kayla, and what Olivia is attempting to reassure Kayla with is the notion that, in a few years, she could be like her and have fun friends too. They are in very different places in their lives, but there is some hint of similarity, and they are sort of like kindred spirits.
I have a feeling Bo would have been impressed by your directorial skill in “Virgin Territory.”
Bo didn’t know me as an actor or a filmmaker. I think his producer, Eli Bush, knew me as an actor, and I think Bo had only seen my tape. I’m pretty sure I was the last person cast. They flew me to New York so that I could come meet Elsie to make sure that we got along and would have a good time together. I was basically the only one there auditioning for Olivia because they offered the role to me on the spot. I got in the room and read with Elsie. Then Fred came into the room, and we read a group scene. After that, they had me sit outside and the producer Chris Storer eventually came out to get me. I came back in, and Chris and Bo were like, “So, you want to do it?” We were in their production offices, and I was like, “Uh, yeah, amazing, cool!” Then I walked out to wherever I was staying and I was like, “Great, awesome, I guess I’m doing that now, hopefully!” [laughs] It was very surreal, and obviously, I was a fan of Bo’s work.
What was Elise like as a scene partner?
She is one of the most giving and honest actors that you will ever encounter. She has one of those voices that makes you want to keep listening to her. One of the most generous things that you can do as an actor is to be a good listener. Elsie listens and is also someone you want to listen to. Acting is just about being in the moment, and she is incredibly present and thoughtful and generous. She’s also funny, and just a nice, wonderful human to be around. Being onset with her was fabulous. During the days I was onset, different people were going through tough periods in their personal lives, and everyone was really present for each other.
Something that I know Bo has talked about a lot is that all of the “ums” and “likes” that Elsie delivers in her dialogue were scripted. She didn’t have to do the lines word-perfect—that wasn’t necessarily something that Bo was going to hold her to—but she included them all and it was incredible. Not only does she deliver the lines in this way where they sound like she came up with them herself, they are meticulously scripted and it takes a lot of practice and time and effort and care to make them come alive.
The only other person I’ve seen achieve a similar feat was Julianne Moore during her climactic monologue in Todd Haynes’ “Safe,” and the fact Fisher could do that at such a young age is astonishing. I must also ask you about what it was like working with director Tamara Jenkins on her film, “Private Life,” where you played Molly Shannon’s daughter.
Tamara is so brilliant and I want her to keep making movies more than every ten years because I just want to keep watching them. The only thing to say about that film is that between Molly Shannon and Kathryn Hahn and Kayli Carter, the amount of positive, bright happiness exuding from that set was blinding. I feel like I just keep saying that people are kind and happy on these particular sets, but I feel very fortunate because this is not always the case. The Molly Shannon that you imagine when you see her in roles—even in roles that you’re supposed to be annoyed at—with her beautiful, over-the-top, bubbly nature is entirely her real self.
She is just so giving and positive. She’ll come over and be like, “Let’s take a selfie!” Molly is so pure and there is zero pretension with her. It’s all about having a good time. With Tamara, it felt very much like doing a play, in a way, even down to the blocking of moving into rooms. The script was such a tight, beautiful piece of work that it felt like doing theatre, and again, that’s one where every word is so precise and really thought-out. The script is pretty much exactly what you see onscreen. I don’t think that anything was really edited out. It just felt like you’re in this ensemble and you get to go around and do it. Of course, the Thanksgiving sequence had to have some drama behind the scenes—no, I’m only kidding. [laughs]
Even recently on HBO’s “The White Lotus,” Molly brought such a beguiling, bubbly energy to her otherwise repellant character.
Which makes it even stronger. You’re like, “Oh gosh, you’re so terrible and yet you’re smiling…” Molly is just pure goodness and sweetness.
In many ways, Kate Hackett’s 2019 short, “Oleander,” could make a fitting double bill with “Dreamcatcher,” considering both films insightfully portray sexuality and religious oppression. Did you relate to your character of Oleander, who fights against the Christian upholding of abstinence with her YouTube videos?
Oleander is definitely someone I relate to. The film aims to start a really important conversation about how much you could ever own any narrative, including your own, at a time when anything can be edited. However much you try to do the thing that you think is right, it can be distorted and painted as something that you didn’t intend it to be. That is a great fear of mine, and it resonates very much in this current moment. I aspire to be as brash and brave as Oleander can be, so I would say I relate to her, but I also am inspired by her.
Emma Seligman, who recently spoke with Cinema Femme about her great film, “Shiva Baby,” is among the names thanked in the credits. How did you connect with her, and what are your thoughts on her work?
Our mutual friend Amanda Kramer put us in touch between when Emma made the short film of “Shiva Baby” and then the feature version, so we’ve hung out a handful of times. She is actually how we got our editor, Hanna Park, who is wonderful, so that’s why Emma is listed in the credits under “special thanks.” I read the script for “Shiva Baby” before I saw the film, and it is an incredible “Uncut Gems”-level thriller of Jewish anxiety and bisexual desire. It’s excellent and it was the exact thing that I needed during COVID, so I was very, very happy when that came out, and I’m just really excited to see everything Emma does next.
It certainly didn’t make me miss the social anxiety I’ve felt at certain family gatherings, which made the film weirdly comforting to watch when in quarantine.
[laughs] Yeah, it was definitely better to watch when you’re like, “Guess we’re missing out on huge holidays this year.” After seeing “Shiva Baby,” you’re like, “Okay, I guess it’s making me feel a bit better about it…”
What are your future goals, both in front of and behind the camera?
I want to act, write and direct in some form. I hope to do all of it at different times, and sometimes together in some way, shape or form as long as I’m able to. I have ideas for a show and a feature, and above all, I just want to tell stories that resonate with me and hopefully with others in whatever capacity that may be.