By creating an unpredictable, complex, anti-hero woman protagonist in her Academy Award-winning comedy Juno, screenwriter Diablo Cody gained critical and commercial success. She aimed to recapture that feat when she reunited with the film’s director, Jason Reitman, for the new comedy-drama Young Adult. The film focuses on what happens when the self-involved, former high school It girl nears her mid-life crisis-wondering how she can relive her glory days, when she emotionally peaked as a teenager.
Young Adult follows a mid-30s teen literature writer, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), who returns to her small Minnesota town after hearing that her old high school boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), and his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), just had a newborn daughter. Unhappy with her life, and convinced that she belongs with Buddy again, and he feels the same way, Mavis selfishly sets out to break up his marriage. Along the way, Mavis becomes reacquainted with a former classmate, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt). After forming their unlikely friendship, Mavis comes to realize what a disaster her life has become, even though the outside world has come to envy her successful career and life in Minneapolis.
Theron, Oswalt and Cody discussed the process of starring in, and writing, Young Adult while at a press conference at the Ritz Carlton Central Park hotel in New York City. They also spoke about whether or not they feel the recent women behaving badly sub-genre is a sign of progression, and how Reitman has inspired them in their work.
Question: Diablo, what inspired you to satirize the traditional rite of passage that we normally see in young adult novels?
Diablo Cody: Well, I’ve been an avid consumer of young adult literature since I was one, and I think some people leave that stuff behind when they become old adults, but I never did. I was always interested in the fantasy world created in these novels. I think that’s the kind of thing that we see reflected in pop culture, more now than ever, with reality shows, and weird, fully made-up people living these fake, fairy tale lives on camera. I think the idea of somebody whose priorities where completely screwed up, who wanted to live in that world, even though it’s really unattainable, that was intriguing to me.
Q: Did you talk to young adult writers to prepare for this, and what kind of feedback have you gotten?
DC: Actually, I didn’t talk to anybody, which is probably pretty lazy of me. But the feedback I have gotten is pretty interesting. Since we’ve started showing the film, I’ve heard from a couple of people who are not only young adult writers, but are in the position that Mavis is in, that are writing books that are credited to another person, or the creator. They were very enthusiastic about the movie, and said that I nailed it, which felt good.
Q: Charlize, the press said what an unsympathetic character Mavis was. It’s surprising that she seems to be an alcoholic, delusional, mentally ill person. Can you talk about how you see her, and going against type?
Charlize Theron: I’ve never been a fan of labels. I think it’s very easy to look at someone, and throw on a label on them, oh, they’re crazy. I’m not a fan of justifying overly bad behavior, or why people are the way they are. I think that it’s a cop-out. I don’t have a lot of empathy for that.
I think the things that Mavis did were pretty despicable. But then again, not to the point where I was like disgusted by her. I never had a hard time not liking her. I would love to go have a beer with her. I would never let her hang out with my boyfriend. But I would love to hang out with her, she’s entertaining.
All I know is what I liked when I read Diablo’s script was the idea of a girl, a woman, who’s dealing with very, very common mid-to-late ’30s issues women can really relate to. But she went through life, dealing with her problems the way a 16-year-old would deal with them. I thought that was really fascinating. She says things like “Don’t you know love conquers all?” A typical 16-year-old would say that. Here she is, at 37, trying to get her life together, and she just doesn’t have the tools to do it.
Q: With Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher, and all of the movies featuring women heaving badly, do you see this as a sign of progress for women, or a step back?
DC: I don’t know, I’m certainly not going to call it a step back. The opposite of what I’m trying to do as a writer. It’s funny, when people talk about Bridesmaids , they say they’re seeing raunchy women, and I say, no, you’re just seeing women. That’s what feels fresh about this. You’re seeing women, in funny, complicated situations, where you would normally see male characters. I don’t really see it as us seeing women behaving badly, as much as us seeing multi-faceted female characters, and I hope they’ll be more of that, because I’m enjoying it.
Patton Oswalt: If I can just add to what you said, you finally made progress as a group, if you can be depicted as the full spectrum. But if a sub-group goes from being made fun of and victimized, and swings to hard the other way, whether it’s amazing or always positive, it’s just as dehumanizing. A single individual can be a hero and a villain and funny and an a**whole, we all are, just as we all are every second of the day. That’s definitely progress too.
CT: I talked a lot about this when I did Monster. I think people really kind of freaked out when they see what Diablo just beautifully articulated, is real women, conflicted. I mean, I think women are way more conflicted than men. I think we come from a society where we are very comfortable with the Madonna=whore complex-we’re either really good hookers or we’re really good mothers, but we’re not bad hookers and we’re not bad mothers, and we’re nothing in between. It is refreshing to see.
Q: Charlize, what would an Oscar nom mean, as there’s been talk of that? Also, do you ever think it’s good to look up an old love?
CT: (laughs) Your first question, I can’t think of anything like that. I’m so, I know it sounds unbelievably cliche, I haven’t worked in three years. To have the opportunity to come back and do something like this, with Diablo, with Patton and with Jason, who I really, really wanted to work with, and this kind of material, to see people respond to it, has been the greatest gift. I can’t even think of anything beyond that.
It’s really nice to have people come up to me with these tiny anecdotes, and have them tell me what they connected with in the movie, is great. The movie really kind of puts them in this Mavis mood, and they’re not afraid to admit they’ve done things like Mavis (Oswalt laughs), which is so endearing. I love it so much, because I feel like we set out to do the things we want to do. So that is really the greatest gift for me. Plus, I have an Oscar. (laughs) That was such an a**whole thing to say.
The other thing, I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing to call up an old love. I’ve never done that. Yeah, I don’t know. Not if they’re married with a newborn baby, right?
Q: Diablo, you write characters who take a very youthful approach to life. Music, from their high school years, is very important. If you could compile a high school mix tape, what songs would you put on there?
DC: This movie is the high school mix tape, that’s what was so fun about it. I sat down with Jason. Jason and I are the exact same age, so we asked, do you remember this one, do you remember that one? When characters enter a space in this movie, a lot of times music is playing, and it’s almost always a song from the ’90s playing, which was Jason’s wink at the genre.
PO: I remember when I read the script, she not only described the song, but she also described that specific yellow cassette tape, which I’ve made so many mix tapes on. I’ve made so many mix tapes for so many failed relationships on that cassette. (laughs) I would say my high school mix tape, for me, would just be the Repo Man soundtrack. (laughs) That is such a mixed tape for safe, suburban rebellion.
Q: Charlize, how did you spend the past couple of years? Were you looking for scripts?
CT: On my couch, with potato chips, unemployed. No, it sounds like it. I was getting ready to do Fury Road with George Miller in Australia. Initially, I had to pass on this. When Jason initally came to me, I was packing for Australia to start pre-production on Fury Road, which was a year shoot. I was in Australia for two weeks, and they pushed it back.
Jason called me up and said, let’s do this in a month. I was like, okay. But I was waiting for that film to happen, and I had other things in development. I have a production company, and I have other things in development. I was developing TV and film, and I was working with great people. I was working with David Fincher and Ridley Scott. I was really satisfied with the people I did venture in with. So creatively, I didn’t feel as though I wasn’t doing anything, I just wasn’t in front of the camera.
Q: Charlize and Patton, your scenes together were so honest and real. Was there a lot of prep time, a lot of rehearsals?
CT: A lot of alcohol, there was a lot of alcohol.
PO: We called it acting juice. (laughs) We kind of got a long right at the first table read. We were teasing each other.
CT: Yeah, I don’t like rehearsal, and Jason doesn’t like rehearsal either. I hate table reads. I hate anything where you have to say the worlds out loud.
PO: I can’t read.
CT: Yeah, so it was a huge problem. Then Jason kind of talked me into the table read. He had done two table reads at his house previously, and you were involved in both, right?
CT: He said, just come and do this. I said, Jason, I hate this, I break out in hives. But I went, and Jason said just read it. I just need to hear the words. Don’t feel pressure. Then he’s to the max, and I’m like, you’ve got to be kidding me. Are we going to do this now? Alright, let’s go. By page 20, we were just at it. Then I walked out, and I knew we were going to make the film together.
Q: How did you know you had the comedy, and also the serious side, down?
PO: You were talking about how much you love Jason Reitman’s movies. You watch his movies, and I think because you know you’re in the hands of someone who knows how to edit a film, and how to edit a scene, we just knew subconsciously that we were in such good hands, directing-wise. We could relax.
The comedy was never needy, we were never going for a laugh, it came very naturally. A lot of times, what was so great of how she played Mavis was the laugh came from her not giving me any response. I would get more nervous, which was a real thing that a lot of actors don’t do. They always want to be saying something or listening or reacting. But she goes, my character’s not going to engage in this scene at all, and that’s where the humor came from.
Again, it came from knowing that we were working with a great director. I got to play off of someone who really understood human nature. That’s what’s important to comedy, not knowing comedy is not knowing human nature.
That concludes our interview, but we’d like to thank Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt and Diablo Cody for talking to us. Be sure to check out Young Adult when it hits select theaters on Friday, December 9, and expands to a wide release on Friday, December 16.