Emma Nelson was 12 years old when she walked into an audition callback in New York City for her first-ever film, and found Cate Blanchett ready to read with her.
“I didn't know she'd be[there], so walking into the room, I didn't have time to think about it. I'm just like sitting down and doing it,” she recalled in a phone interview with Refinery29.
Now 15, Nelson is the breakout star of Where’d You Go Bernadette?, the Richard Linklater’s latest film based on Maria Semple’s best-selling 2012 book. She plays Bee, the teenage daughter of protagonist Bernadette (Blanchett), who goes missing before a family trip to Antarctica after having what can only be described as a mental breakdown.
A former world-famous architect turned stay-at-home mom, we meet Bernadette at a crossroads. She hates Seattle, where she and tech mogul husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) have settled down, hates the insular community of moms who run Bee’s school, and above all, hates herself for giving up the one thing that fulfilled her creatively. The only redeeming thing in her life is Bee, with whom she’s extremely close. But as her mother continues to unravel in bigger and more worrying ways, Bee begins to see her as a person with her own desires and ambitions that transcend her identity as a parent.
In that sense, the film is a coming-of-age story, not just for Bee, but also for Bernadette, who has to come to terms with what’s needed to reach a new chapter in her life, and grow accordingly.
Nelson sparkles in her scenes, hitting the right balance between earnestly dorky teen and wise-beyond-her-years. A native of Barrington, IL, a suburb outside of Chicago, she had just finished seventh grade when she set off to Pittsburgh to film this project in utter secrecy. Two years later, she’s about to see herself on screen for the very first time.
Refinery29: You were among 500 young actresses to audition for the role of Bee. What was the process like?
Emma Nelson: “I had been sending off self-tapes, and this was just another audition — I didn't really expect anything of it. I was asked to go to New York for a call back, and I went with my mom. I read in a room with Billy [Crudup] and Cate [Blanchett], who play my parents and Rick [Linklater] was in the room too. A month later I was asked to play Bee, and about five days after that I was flying out on the plane to Pittsburgh to go to rehearsals.”
Richard Linklater has a great track record when it comes to launching the careers of young actors. Were you familiar with his movies?
“When I got the role at 12, so I was not exactly a film buff at that point. But as soon as I got the part, I started doing more research on the people I was working with. I thought that was really important, and just the natural progression as I grew older and got more interested in films and directors. I watched Boyhood, Everybody Wants Some!, and Bernie. And those were the three movies of Rick's that I saw. They're very character-driven movies, all of them. It’s less about the story and more about the people in the story. And I think that it was just like, Oh these are exactly the kind of movies I want to be involved in. I was really excited, you know, looking at his work just made me excited to be involved in his new project.”
Have you seen Dazed and Confused? Or are you saving that one?
“I haven't seen that. I was about to watch it once, and [my mom] was like — I don't know what she said about it, but apparently it's raunchy, or something like that.”
I heard there was a lot of secrecy around the project — could you tell people that you had been cast?
“Only my mom and my dad and really close family knew. I wasn't allowed to talk about it. It was really difficult. I had to go back to school, and nobody could know about it.”
How did your friends react when they found out?
“A lot of them were surprised because I keep a lot of my acting stuff very separate from school. I like to keep my home life pretty home. I mean, I've had such positive reactions, but I think a lot of people didn't even know that I was involved in any of this stuff.”
This was your first movie — was there anything about the technical process of shooting that surprised you?
“I didn't know that people said ‘Rolling’ before they shout ‘Action!’ I didn't know any of the lingo that they used. And there's so many people are surrounding you when you're filming a scene — I had no idea. I thought it was going to be more intimate than that. It didn't really bother me; it wasn't like bad or good. I [just] had no idea what to expect. So like, the process of costuming, and makeup and hair, going on set and then figuring out how to work with a camera. [That] was probably the most challenging because it can be really intimidating when you've got one or more big cameras following you. You don't know how you're looking on screen, and you just have to kind of work with the camera without even knowing. I've never been in front of one before. So, I think that was a big growing point for me.”
One of the themes of the movie is that women who make sacrifices for their families can get creatively starved to the point where they start to lose track of themselves. Is that something you talked about with your own mom?
“A big point in the movie is that Bee starts to see Bernadette not only [as] a mother but as a woman herself. And I think that there's this expectation of women, mothers specifically, that having a career somehow makes them not as good of a mother.
“I've always known my mom to be a working mom and she also helped me with my career. When I would go over the script, I think that resonated with her, too: The balance between work life and being a mom, and feeling like people are judging you because you have to go to work. It's hard to figure out that balance between ‘Should I stay home and take care of my kid all day?’ or ‘Am I losing myself? But does going out and working make me a bad mom?’”
We so rarely seen portrayals of teenage girls that look and sound their age, but Bee definitely fits into that category. Is that something you thought about when taking on this role?
“Absolutely! Coming into the public eye, it's really important to me to come across as a normal girl because it's really what I am. Bee's kind of a dork — she loves her family, she's not really into her looks, she's got a quirky style. None of that is glamorous. I live in Chicago, I'm not like a big Hollywood glamorous person. There are so many role models of women that I look up to, and I think that it's important for all of us to look out for each other, and be like, ‘It's okay that we don't look like this,’ or ‘It's all right that we don't live up to these expectations.’
You mentioned that you’re just coming into the public eye. Have you felt pressure to act or look a certain way because that’s what’s expected of young women?
“I think that there is space for lots of different kinds of actresses. Personally that's always been who I am, and that's always been what I wanted to portray. Everybody's really supported me in my wanting to really be natural and genuine in the public eye. So, I haven't really felt that much pressure to do any of that. I feel like people respond really positively to a genuine girl, and it’s nice to be able to just to feel that way, and not have to worry about being glamorous all the time because that's not real.”
You’ve already worked with Cate Blanchett — are there other women in the industry that you consider role models?
“I love Jodie Foster! I admire her career so much. And her in Taxi Driver... that was the movie that made me want to be an actor.”
What would you like young women who see this movie to take away from it, and from Bee in particular?
“It's different for everybody, but personally, what I took from it as a young woman is that all the female characters in this movie are three-dimensional, and there are not any sort of stereotypes or archetypes. I think it's really important. And Bernadette's story is really important because even as a 15-year-old I can relate to her immensely — that alienation from your community, and feeling like you're an outsider and not really knowing what to do. Feeling like you're bad at everything you're doing, and that causing immense anxiety. It's important to look at a story like that.
“And Bee's story, too. She finds herself in the middle of this crisis within herself and within her family. She looks at her parents more as individuals, and less as just mom and dad. That's a growing point for her. It's really hard — she stops herself from being such a perfectionist and so hard on herself. So I would love for women who see it to see themselves in Bernadette, or Bee.”
What's next for you?
“I'm for hire! I have been focusing so much on Bernadette, I'm just ready to work again. I don't have any new projects quite yet on deck, but I'm totally ready for them.”
"Where'd You Go Bernadette" hits theaters on August 16.