Elsie Fisher had almost given up on acting when Eighth Grade came along. At 13 years old, and living in a suburb north of Los Angeles, she couldn't see herself in any of the roles she auditioned for — physically, or mentally. "Roles for teens aren’t the best right now, especially ones with acne," she explained to Refinery29 in an interview.
What makes Eighth Grade feel so entirely new is that it feels like the real deal, the first in-depth look at Generation Z, on their own terms. The film doesn't judge, or criticize; it shows a young teenage girl's journey to self-acceptance in all its messy, touching, awkward glory. And yes, there's acne.
Ahead, Fisher, now 15, opens up about her performance, social media, and what she thinks people get wrong about her generation.
Refinery29: The movie takes place in the last week of middle school. How much of your own eighth grade experience did you channel to play Kayla?
Elsie Fisher: "Most of it. We went into pre-production a week after I ended eighth grade, so it felt very true. I haven’t gone through every situation Kayla has, but it’s very emotionally biographical for me."
How did your eighth grade experience compare to Kayla's?
"Looking back, I don’t think anyone can have eighth grade figured out while they’re still going through it. But now I have perspective on it. My eighth grade year sucked. It was awful."
Why did it suck?
“I thought a lot for my age, so I was very in my head, but then when I tried to do anything that required me interacting with people, or using my body to talk, I felt very immature. I stumbled, or because I’m so anxious, sometimes I’d freak out. I was the weird kid, and everyone was like ‘That’s Elsie, she’s probably not human.’ I had two sides to me: I was either the really, really quiet kid who ate alone in the library, or the weird spastic kid who’s freaking out for no reason. Who like, licked the sidewalk. True story.”
You said that you almost quit acting because of the lack of good roles for teens. Can you elaborate more on what you mean?
“In a lot of media nowadays, teen is a stereotype, not an age anymore. It’s just generic dialogue. Or, they’re another stereotype, like ‘popular.’ They don’t have any depth to them. And they’re so well-spoken — that’s not how anyone talks. And then I read Kayla’s first video, which was my first audition, and I just fell in love with her."
Do you feel more positive about acting now?
“Oh for sure! And hopefully I can get some more jobs after this. But I’ve gone through phases where I just haven’t worked in a while. And I hate auditioning, but I love working! Truly. Put me in the environment and I can get into the character, but auditions feel so weird. You’re in a room... It was at a time in my life where I have to start thinking about what I’m going to do for the future, what’s my career going to be. I was missing school for auditions, and nothing was coming up. I decided ‘Maybe acting isn’t for me, because it’s not working out right now.’ And then this came along, and it swept me off my feet like, 'We got you, Elsie.'"
You mentioned something before about the way teens talk. To me, one of the best things about the movie was how real the characters sounded. Was that in the script from the beginning, or were there things you had to tell Bo Burnham to change for accuracy?
“The only thing I had [Bo] change was, originally, all of Kayla’s DMs and social media stuff was through Facebook. And so I went up to him and went, ‘Nobody uses Facebook anymore, what is this for, my aunt?’ So, he changed it from Facebook to Instagram. That was the only thing I corrected him on.”
Who came up with Kayla's YouTube sign off,"Gucci!"?
"Me! That was my nervous tic I did in pre-production. I was on the East Coast for the first time, and I’d lived in California my whole life. That was one level of freaking out. And then Bo was basically my idol, so that was another level of freaking out. And then we were making a movie, and I hadn’t worked in forever, so that was a third level of freaking out! So, I would walk out of the room after we had practiced doing Kayla’s videos, and I was like, ‘Okay, Gucci.’ And then [Bo] started doing it once we got on set to embarrass me. And it became a big inside joke. We actually have stickers that one of the camera people made for us. We filmed all the videos back in [Los Angeles], and he wanted me to have a sign-off — because a lot of young YouTubers do — and it had to be that. It had to.”
There's a scene where your character is just in bed scrolling through Instagram and seeing all these perfect pictures of the kids she knows, which just drives home the idea that teens today have to figure out who they are in this very public, performative way. Do you ever wish your generation didn’t have as much access to all this stuff?
"Definitely. I feel like people with growing brains — there should be a test that they have to pass to have access to most of the internet. Great things can spawn from it, but if you’re allowed this unlimited access to social media whenever, especially with phones — they’re literally in your pocket all the time — it’s changing our brain chemistry. It’s lowering our patience, it’s increasing our need for intake of facts, and likes. There should be more restrictions on it. I’m not saying take it away entirely, though!"
How much time do you spend on social media?
"Too much. I want to imagine that after watching the movie, and talking about it for 75 years, my relationship with it has changed, but it really hasn’t. I’m probably more addicted than ever. I just think about it more, and I get more depressed about it."
What do you think people get wrong about Gen Z?
"I think that they just don’t have context for why Gen Z is on the phone all the time. That’s hopefully what we did with the the movie — we showed the day that Kayla had before getting on the phone at the dinner table. They just think we’re self-obsessed, tech-obsessed, and it’s all narcissistic. The only reason we’re self-obsessed is that’s what we’ve been raised to think. If you see kids of this generation, they were born to perform. Young kids will like, pretend to have YouTube channels, and they’re being raised to be seen. So, it’s not us all wanting to be famous, it’s just how life is for a lot of us."
Do you get the feeling that eighth grade is harder on girls today? I was just thinking of when I was in eighth grade, and I was trying to come to terms with myself, but I wasn't also competing with people online.
"I think it’s harder for everyone — girls especially. I think with the internet comes a lot more self-awareness, [and] maturity is linked to that, so questions are being asked of us younger, and we have to figure out the way that we present ourselves younger. But there are really great things about it too. Especially for people who are LGBTQ+, they can find their communities online and connect with people.
"[Girls] are more self-aware, but that can be good, too, because they can figure out who they are earlier and just be happier. There’s two sides to the internet, I guess."
Speaking of being a girl today. There's a scene in the film in which your character plays truth or dare with an older boy in his car, and he asks her to take her shirt off. There's no overt assault, but it still feels traumatic for Kayla. What was that like to film?
"I think the whole point of the scene is for it to be violent and intrusive. It doesn’t need to go where you think it is. That’s something that can traumatize Kayla forever. So, we wanted to approach it sensitively when we were filming. But we had like six people in the car, and I had my script in my lap. It was very chill."
Has it made you think about your own interactions with boys?
"I’ve always tried to be conscious about that, especially because I was, as the male crowd would say, 'one of the guys.' But it gave me another perspective to think about. Because now, I feel like men can be so toxic. And it’s just gross. Especially boys. Like, boys in high school and middle school [are] such a toxic thing. There’s like two okay ones that actually think and are self-aware."
My favorite part about that scene is how complicated it is. That boy doesn't think he's done anything wrong. He thinks he's doing Kayla a favor.
"The thing is that a lot of toxic situations like that are portrayed with men being like, piggy and terrible. Or just very evil. They seem very obviously bad. The thing with [this] character, and that type of situation, I think is more relevant now. Guys who are thoughtful and often sincere, and they’re the quiet kid or nerdy, and you can relate to them, and [they] become your friend. And they use that to manipulate you in those situations."
You’re really coming up in the business at a time where those issues are front and center. What's that been like?
"At least we’re starting to talk about these issues, and hopefully scenes like the car scene can start conversations about this, and bring it up even more. Because that’s the only way we can get past this and bring light to it, is by talking about it, and understanding the problem, and being honest about it."
If you had to give advice to girls who are going to see this movie, in the style of your character’s vlog, what would you tell them?
"[Quoting Kayla] 'Be. Yourself.' No honestly, that’s my advice. I spent so much time trying to be blah blah blah whatever to impress people. But I wasn’t happy doing that. I’m not entirely happy now but I feel more comfortable. If you learn to be comfortable with yourself sooner, life will feel better as a whole. So, yeah. Be yourself."
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.