After the summer success Netflix enjoyed with To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, it was easy to assume the streaming service’s other long-titled teen romance starring Noah Centineo, back-to-school flick Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, would be similarly sweet. After all, it stars Centineo as yet another teen dream soft jock who drives a Jeep and says “Whoa” a lot.
But then there is “a dark turn,” as leading lady Shannon Purser said during a New York City interview with Refinery29. Purser’s titular Sierra Burgess hacks the phone of her bully-turned-BFF Veronica (Kristine Froseth) and outs Ronnie’s painful breakup (along with the private photo involved in it) to their entire high school. Then there's the fact that Sierra Burgess is centred around Sierra and Ronnie’s plan to catfish Centineo’s latest teenage athlete character, the well-meaning, uber romantic Jamey, into a relationship with Sierra. Jamey thinks he's romancing Ronnie via iPhone; later, he thinks he’s kissing Ronnie. In both cases, it's secretly Sierra on the other end of Jamey's advances.
Amid all this teen angst and subterfuge, there is also a running theme of queerphobic “jokes,” which are purposefully supposed to seem cruel — they’re said by the meanest people at Sierra’s school.
While Sierra certainly has its own To All The Boys-type heart-soaring, empowering moments, it’s also met a fair amount of backlash with these polarising plotlines. And, yes, body positivity and queer advocate Shannon Purser has heard about it, she assured Refinery29. The Stranger Things alum also says that when it comes to the current Twitter discourse around her teen movie, “some” of it is warranted.
Find out what Purser has to say about which parts of Sierra we really should be talking about, whether Sierra's likability matters, and how she feels about social media hate. Oh, yeah, and whether she'll be back on Riverdale this autumn.
Refinery29: When you first read the script, what did you think of Sierra?
Shannon Purser: “I was just really drawn to how complex she is and how much I resonate with her. Not in the scheme of catfishing or bullying, but the idea of feeling so pressured to conform and to be held up against other women in a way that’s competitive. That can cause you to be insecure and make bad decisions. I think that’s something a lot of young women go through. It felt relatable to me.”
When I chatted with you about the Riverdale musical this past winter, you dubbed yourself a “fat girl” with no qualifiers or apologies. Were you excited to explore being a fat high school girl in a love story with Sierra Burgess?
“I never really imagined I would get to play a lead in a movie, much less a romantic movie, because in the media, fat girls are just ignored or they’re not worthy of being noticed. Which is such a shame. Even though Sierra certainly has flaws and is a complicated character, she’s a real human being. Just the opportunity for me to bring a story to life about a group of people that doesn’t get to have stories about them was important.”
“It would have been so meaningful as a child for me to see as the fat girl get the guy. To get the kiss at the end. To show up in her homecoming dress, without losing weight, and to be looked at as beautiful.”
I do not think of Sierra as a perfect character … but I don’t think that necessarily means her story doesn’t have a message.
You brought up Sierra’s “flaws,” have you read any of the Twitter backlash about those flaws?
“Yeah, I’m trying not to overwhelm myself about it, but yeah, I do know the gist of what’s being talked about.”
Do you think it’s warranted?
“Yes, some of it, for sure. I do not think of Sierra as a perfect character or even a likeable character in a lot of parts of the movie. But I don’t think that necessarily means her story doesn’t have a message or a meaning. I’m very interested in the way young people interact online and how the internet has changed the way we not only communicate, but see ourselves and see each other.
“It’s not really important that people agree with everything Sierra is doing or even like her, but that they understand the reality behind these real kids who do cyberbully and who do hurt one another and where that comes from. Because I know from personal experience a lot of the hate that I’ve received on Twitter, not because of this movie specifically, but just in general, has come from young girls. That really interests me. What motivates people to talk to other people that way? What insecurity or what void are these people trying to fill? And also, is there a possibility for redemption? Can there be growth from that?”
Do you ever respond to those people?
“To an extent, I don’t owe them a response. It’s my life — the characters I play are not me, you know? But some people don’t understand that distinction, and think I’m promoting things I know to be wrong. If you saw somebody killing somebody on-screen, would you say, ‘You’re promoting murder?’ No, you wouldn’t.
“For the most part I try and ignore them. Some people like to clap back, maybe that gives them satisfaction. I just don’t want to do that because I don’t want the people who are sending hate to me to be attacked … I don’t want to give back the hate they’ve given me.”
Do you feel like showing a plus-size girl doing bad is almost an evolution? Since thinner women have been going dark for years.
“Definitely. The people you see in movies and TV should reflect reality, and they don’t, as of now. I see things starting to change for the better. But, yeah, the reality is, fat people live lives like anybody else. Some of them are horrible and mean and some of them are wonderful. To not have stories centred around fat people is to erase them and treat them like they’re invisible.”
Or suggest they’re always, without fail, the good guy?
“There’s more to fat people than that, there’s more to people in general than that. I love playing likeable characters, I would love to play more who do the right thing. That would be great. But that isn’t always the reality.”
Were you surprised by how dark Sierra goes by the end? Because the cyberbullying is actually very vicious.
“Yeah, it really is for sure. It’s a dark turn. That’s what throws some of the audience members off. They come into the movie expecting this light-hearted teen romance, and then all of a sudden things get very real and very serious. It is hard to watch and it’s hard to play, because I would never do something like that.”
“But, I understand the emotion. I understand being told your whole life that you’re inferior, that you’re not good enough, being placed against women who look totally different from you and how that could cause someone to snap.”
And, considering your ardent support of the queer community, were you surprised by the trans and lesbian “jokes”?
“I guess so. It’s hard to say, because these are jokes I don’t make in real life, but they are what I hear coming from young people. To say that something is realistic doesn’t mean that it’s right. All of these characters are entering the film from a very self-centred, socially unaware point of view. It’s a story of growth for all of them as the movie goes along.”
So what’s next for you? Should we expect you back on Riverdale as Ethel Muggs?
“I’m working on season 3 right now, which is really fun. Hopefully [there will be] something else soon.”
Yeah you’ve actually taken a quick turn playing teen girls who do awful things in the moment, with Sierra and Ethel’s decision to terrorise Midge during the Riverdale musical.
“It’s a challenge to play for sure, and that doesn’t always win me the favour of the people who watch the [projects]. But, hopefully people will understand I’m acting and I do have good things to say. If the right part comes along, hopefully I’ll get to play somebody a little bit more likeable in the future.”
This interview has been condensed and edited.