It’s safe to say that most of us grown folk weren't Cool Teens—yes, it must be capitalized. Most of us went through our teenage years blissfully unaware of the world around us, obsessed with our crushes and lamenting our bad skin. Youths today, on the other hand are woke as hell, and aren’t afraid to call the world out on its bullshit.
There’s a quickly growing group of celebrity Cool Teens who are doing just that — and actress Amandla Stenberg is leading the charge. You know Stenberg from playing the tragic, touching Rue in The Hunger Games, and now she's stepping into leading lady shoes with teen romance Everything, Everything, out today. Based on the novel by Nicola Yoon and directed by Stella Meghie (one of our new favorites), Stenberg plays Maddy, a young woman who has a crippling immune disease that doesn’t allow her to step out of her home for fear that the tiniest speck of pollen could kill her. In her 18 years, she’s gotten used to her life with her mother (Anika Noni Rose) and nurse Carla (Ana de la Reguera) as her only links to the outside world. But when an appealingly sulky skateboarder, Olly (Nick Robinson), moves in with his family next door and the two connect, Maddy begins to question her entire eighteen years and whether she’s ever actually been living.
Meghie’s candy-coated, sunny aesthetics and Stenberg’s touching performance (not to mention her chemistry with Robinson) have created the perfect Cool Teen movie for 2017—not afraid to call things on their bullshit but not afraid to be earnest either. (Trust us, you might shed a tear or two). Complex got to chat with Stenberg about the film, creating stories about race and identity, and emo music, of course.
What appealed to you about Maddy in Everything, Everything?
It's been very rare for me to receive projects that are actually written for black girls. I don't necessarily consider myself just an actress—I consider myself a tradesperson. And the past several years, [I've been] going to high school, experiencing life and looking for roles, but never really finding anything that had the intention of someone like me carrying the film. So, when I saw this script, it was a rarity. And I was actually amazed to see it's featuring an interracial couple, yet that wasn't the point of the project. To me that definitely showed a lot of risk on the studio's behalf. Not that I would overly congratulate them for creating basic diversity, but I was really amazed that this is something that a large corporation was going to make and distribute. Because of the importance of a story about an interracial couple and featuring a black girl, which lots of kids can see, and that can affect their psyche. I never really see that many projects that were written for someone like me. So, that was a no-brainer.
One of my favorite things about Nicola Yoon's work is that it stands out so much in Young Adult literature, which typically is very white. Were you familiar with her writing before you signed on for this?
I only heard about the book once I received the script. During the process of filming, The Sun is Also a Star [Yoon’s second novel] blew up as well, and that's another instance of a book that is about race and identity, and also at the same time isn't. What's so cool about her work is that she creates stories for real people who are people of color. Of course our experience of the world is filtered through our identity, but at the same time we're just living.
You're leading this film, and I know it's a big film for Stella Meghie, the director, as well. What was that experience of you working together on a studio picture that's led creatively by black women?
We had this kind of mischievous sensibility when we were together on set because we felt like, "What? A corporation is letting us make this? Do they even know what they're letting us make?" You're able to maintain, a lot of the times, your artistic vision and keep intact the important feats and moments that don't say anything about race, but at the same time say so much. The subtle things. For instance, Maddy's hair moments. The moments where you realize she's wearing her natural hair throughout the entire film and is not phased by it. Stuff like that is really powerful for younger black girls to see in theaters. So, we joke around a lot that we scammed them. When you're black women in a mostly white, corporate environment you have the heightened awareness of the importance it has, and the cautionary aspects of being in that space.
I don’t want to get too spoilery, but I'm really curious to know what you thought about Maddy's relationship with her mom. I read the book before I saw the film, and I think it's really interesting in a way I wasn't fully expecting.
I think the twist is what elevates the film and makes it different from something you've seen before, because it strengthens the sense that the story is a fable, or fairytale, or metaphor. But it also grounds the film in very real human emotions and psychological traumas. When you watch these movies, they're usually pretty predictable. This one is not.
You also did music for the film. You covered the great Mac DeMarco song “Let My Baby Stay” and directed its very cool music video. Are you thinking about making more music?
I don't know yet. I'm filming right now in Atlanta. So, all my time is being consumed by that, but I think once I have some down time I'd love to make more music.
I'd seen in previous interviews that you're super into early alt emo music. What's your favorite song from that time period?
I love Green Day of course. I'm actually more into Linkin Park though. I also really like Copeland, it's a band my sister used to listen to. When I was younger, my sister was really goth. I thought she was so cool so I would copy everything she did. I was nine years old and I'd wear studded belts and a lot of red and black.
Do you have a specific Linkin Park song is your favorite?
This song's a little later, but "Waiting for the End" is a song I truly enjoy.
Many people look to you because you're very outspoken and fearless and real in talking about sexuality and diversity in film, as are other younger celebrities like Rowan Blanchard and Hari Nef. What do you think older people can learn from the younger generation, especially in such a politically horrifying time?
My generation in particular is incredibly observant, incredibly self-aware and incredibly intelligent because we've grown up with this technology that has completely molded who we are as people, and how we interact with the world. And my generation is used to growing up with all of this information at our fingertips. I think that's why we have such an awareness of what the world is, and what's going on, and how we can help it, and we're not afraid to be truthful about those feelings. At the same time, I think it's kind of dangerous to place a bunch of kids on pedestals and expect us to know everything, because of course we don't, and we're just trying to utilize this weird and awesome platform that we've been given to do some good.