Interview: Juno Temple, Kay Panabaker and Elgin James Talk Their Coming-of-Age Drama "Little Birds"

Interview: Juno Temple, Kay Panabaker and Elgin James Talk Their Coming-of-Age Drama "Little Birds"

Juno, Elgin offered you the part of Lily and Allison, why did you choose Lily?
Temple: I really connected with her more. I wanted to set her free. She’s making some bad, bad decisions, that little girl. Oof. She’s on a downward spiral and I needed to set her free. She needed to make those bad decisions so she can go off from Little Birds, which isn’t in the movie, and make good decisions. Honestly, I don’t know if she ever does, but I hope she makes a couple of good ones.

Considering her character and the ones you've portrayed in the past, what draws you to darker roles?
Temple: Well, I think if you read the roles, they seem like a light character in a very dark world. [Laughs.] It’s the challenge of making them come alive in a way that everyone else can connect with them ‘cause we all go through dark moments. We might not want to talk about them, we might not want to share them, but we’ve all been through them. So, it might be amazing for other people to watch someone else go through it. I know I enjoy it when I watch someone else go through the dark moments on screen.

It seems like every director you work with talks about how you inspire them and your magnetism on screen. What do you think about being called a muse?
Temple: I think it’s really flattering and amazing to be someone who somebody is inspired to make art about or with or for. If you look at muses in the past, there's a comfort level within them that is just extraordinary. It means that you aren’t afraid to just go wherever you have to go and do whatever you have to do. Whether it’s comedy or darkness or violence or tears, you’re going to give it a whirl with someone you trust.

Kay, you're known for more family-friendly films. What made you want to audition for Allison?
Panabaker: The script was one of the few scripts I read in my entire career that I really responded to. A lot of the coming-of-age stories are love stories and they try to throw every cliché in there to show how rough and tumble it is and how the couple came through adversity, but this was beautifully written. To me, this was a story about the demise of a friendship with romance in it. I just loved the character of Allison. I thought that she was so calm and quiet compared to Lily, and I wanted to see how the friendship would unfold.

Is this your way of trying to do adult roles or is that not even a goal for you?
PanabakerThe business is constantly changing and you can only pick the roles that are available at the time, so it’s not that I made any conscious decision. But I was definitely thrilled at the opportunity to deal with more adult matters still through a younger set of eyes. A lot of movies are not always as truthful as this one. All I wanted to do was to be as subtle with acting as I could. I just wanted to exist in that film. I didn’t want Allison to be trying too hard, and that’s what drew me to the project more than anything.

Do you feel any pressure to take on more mature parts?
PanabakerOf course, I mean, people are always poking fun at the fact that I’m always doing young roles and I’m not being mature, but I can only do what I feel is right. Juno’s always doing these brilliant risque characters that are this marriage between light and dark, and I’m not ready to do that. I don’t have a lot of darkness innately. I was talking about this to somebody the other day and they were like, “Well isn’t that part of acting to tap into whatever darkness you do have?” and my whole thinking is: Everybody is trying to grow up before they’re ready.

With young Hollywood, especially, the second you turn 18, you want to be taking your clothes off and showing the world you’re not the sweet innocent girl you once were, and I don’t feel the pressure to do that. I’m totally happy playing young and innocent, and not dressing sexy and not taking my clothes off, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

What surprised you most about the process of making this film?
Panabaker: I didn’t realize how long it was going to be. The reason for that is Elgin had to go to jail. We were supposed to come out last October, but because he was in jail, the studio pushed it to now. And that’s been really hard because I’ve been talking about it for so long and people are like, “I want to see it,” and I’m like, “I want you to see it. I want to share this film with the whole world. I just can’t yet.”

James: Yeah, I went to jail for my gang past. I had a five-year-old gang charge. Our producer called me at three in the morning and he was like, “That’s it. We finalized all the financing, we’re making our movie, it’s a great night.” The next day I woke up and was arrested by a dozen FBI agents. This was a bill I had to pay for a lifestyle I led for years. I was guilty. I said it from the beginning. I just had to stay out long enough so I could shoot the film.

With Juno, Reed Morano [the film's cinematographer], and Jamie Patricof, the producer, just staying by me all that time, we just built the project back up, got it made, and premiered at Sundance in January of 2011. I got sentenced to prison for a year in March, I went to maximum security prison, and I just got out this March.

When you all talk about it, it seems like the film was very personal to you. What does it mean to you that this film is finally coming out?
Temple: It was the best time I had making a movie so it feels good to finally be able to talk about it. I’ve been biting my lip for so long. [Laughs.]

And I don’t really know how I want this movie to affect people, I just know I want it to. I want them to leave thinking after they’ve been in the movie theater. I want them to discuss the film—whether it’s about how much they hated the movie, whether it’s about how much they liked it or whether it’s, “God, my best friend growing up was exactly like Allison. But I was definitely a Lily.” Or a mother watching it and being like, “I want to call my daughter right now.” I think it’s unpredictable what people are going to feel, but I think I just want them to feel after they’ve seen it. 

 

It’s really scary to finally put out the film. It’s like showing everyone the darkest, deepest part of yourself.—James

 

Panabaker: It’s just one of those things where I have so much respect and love for Elgin, this project, what’s he gone through and what he wants to convey. I’m used to films not doing as well as I wanted them to and not being totally proud of them. There are so many movies where it’s a great project to be a part of, and then the end result is nothing near what you wanted it to be and you’re disappointed.

This was one of those movies where it turned out even better than the experience and, for everyone involved, I just want people to enjoy it and just watch it. We’re not trying to be award-winning. We’re not trying to get people to love it. We just want people to see the film and feel something.

James: It’s really scary to finally put out the film. It’s like showing everyone the darkest, deepest part of yourself. Even when it premiered at Sundance, it was really nerve-wracking. It was worse than someone reading your diary. It’s like someone looking at an MRI of your soul. But it’s also really liberating.

But the best part, honestly, is to just be able to get back together and talk to people about it, whether it resonates with them or not. The whole thing about art of me, you get out your ugly stuff and when those moments happen that you connect with people, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.

What are you expecting from your next film, especially since you gave this film everything?
James: Of course, I know that not every experience is not going to be like this, but then I also came to the realization that I’m just not going to go through that experience then. I’m not going to work with someone unless they’re going to be as brave as Juno and Kay. I’m not going to work with someone that doesn’t get my cinematographer Reed. I’m not going to go into something that they’re not as committed to. Reed was seven months pregnant when we shot this and she was carrying this 50-pound camera around, and she just led the charge for all of us. She picked me up when I was doubting myself.

I’m not sure how this is going to work, but everything I choose, I have to make sure that I’m just as passionate about it and I have the people around me that are as well.

Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)

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Tags: little-birds, juno-temple, kaya-panabaker, elgin-james
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