Minnie Goetze is an average teenage girl; it's just her coming-of-age is packaged in some not-so-average circumstances. Between school, boys, body image issues, and pursuing her artistic hobby—normal teen girl stuff—15-year-old protagonist Minnie is finding her sexual awakening with her mother's 35-year-old boyfriend, Monroe. What follows is Minnie realizing how much she enjoys sex (while constantly feeling self-conscious about it), trying to find "love" (or at least what feels like love at that age), and attempting to move on from her mistakes. Beneath the salacious plot of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, though, lies one of the most refreshingly honest perspectives of being a teenage girl—right down to the irrational, insecure, and often immature monologues that play in her head.
With big eyes that signify earnest curiosity, Bel Powley's Minnie isn’t your typical movie teen—you know, the kind that's always too wise beyond their years, with the self-confidence of someone who's seemingly never been through puberty—but is instead your totally normal real teen. Minnie's imperfections are embarrassing and endearing; they're true to how real teenage girls are. Even though the story is set in 1970s San Francisco, the feels are universal, which is why Marielle Heller's directorial debut (based on Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel) is a must-see this year, and not just for teenage girls.
Complex sat down with rising star Bel Powley to talk female sexuality, tapping into a teen mentality, and off-screen chemistry with her co-stars Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgård.
I watched this movie three times.
You watched it three times? I love you! How? You just went to three different screenings?
Yeah! I saw it earlier this year and then I was like, "Oh I need to watch it again."
And then you were like, "And then again."
And the third time, I ended up sitting next to Judy Blume, which I thought was amazing, because she's a hero to all teenage girls.
Oh my god, wow. That's so cool.
You were 21 when you shot the film, right?
But you play 15. You not only look so young but you tapped into that teenage mentality so well, and I think that says so much about the script and your acting.
Yeah, when I read it, I was turning the pages like, "I felt like that, I felt like that, I felt like that." And I think she really captured the essence of how you feel when you're a teenager so well. I think it's so specific to being a teenager, that feeling of everything really being on the surface and everything feeling so extreme and feeling like the world is going to implode or you're going to die if something goes wrong. It's kind of this nuts way of thinking. And yeah, it was kind of like tapping back into that. I guess it's an immature way of being—that irrationality you have when you're a teenager.
But it's so honest because I think a lot of movies make teenagers seem so much smarter.
Yes! Movies make teenagers have quippy answers for every question. Nothing seems to phase them and they're like, "Oh, whatever." You're not like that when you're a teenager. You're really earnest. Things really feel like life or death. And you kind of oscillate between emotions at one time. It's very emotionally draining being a teenager.
Definitely. I read that you left a message at the end of your audition tape to director Marielle Heller. What was it that you said?
I did the audition scene and then I left a message at the end. Because I was in London and she was in Hollywood, I was just like, "Hi, I'm Bel. I'm in London. You're in America. I really need to have a conversation with you about this movie." And then just a lot of private things about the reasons I related to the film, which I'm not going to say. I felt I had some stories that made me very close to Minnie that she needed to know about 'cause I related to her implicitly.
You do an American accent so well.
How did you practice that?
I had a bunch of dialect coaching kind every day for a few weeks. And then when I was on set, I stayed in my American accent the whole time.
Okay. I didn't even realize you were English at first. The movie is set in '70s San Francisco but you were obviously not alive in the '70s or even living in the States. Did that require some research going into the movie?
Yeah for sure. I think, first, Minnie's story and the essence of how it feels as a teenager is timeless. So I related to that part but then the '70s... I listened to loads of '70s music. Janis Joplin is Minnie's favorite artist. I probably listened to every Janis Joplin track on repeat for three months. And then I was gonna watch movies but I didn't want another actor's interpretation of a girl in the '70s to influence mine. San Francisco has such a '70s feel to it anyway, I got into the bell bottoms and the flares and had the bangs cut and just walked around the city. I started to get a feel of what it would be like for Minnie.
Do you like that era personally?
Yeah definitely. '70s music is the kind of music I listen to. '70s clothes, I adore. Although it's kind of fashionable now to be dressed kind of '70s. I'm actually dressed '70s right now! I think also anything around the free love, social, sexual revolution is interesting and cool to emulate because it feels liberating.
Minnie does a lot of things that would scandalize parents, but do you find her to be a role model in a way for teen girls?
Yeah, I think she's a role model for teen girls. Obviously don't sleep with your mom's boyfriend, but this isn't a morality tale. You're not meant to learn anything at the end. There's no message. But if anything, I think teenage girls need to realize—and it takes Minnie time to realize this—that if you make mistakes and if you do inadvertently kind of "stupid things" or things that you consider wrong, the world won't implode. You're not gonna die. You might not even learn from your mistakes but you will move on and you will be fine and you will grow. Also I think what people can learn from Minnie is just not to have shame. Be who you are and love yourself and don't feel shameful. And it's not to say Minnie feels like that for the whole movie. She ebbs and flows and goes up and down like any woman. But I think the biggest part of her journey is learning to love herself and love herself from within and then maybe everything else will come after.
You have some great co-stars. Kristen Wiig is one of my favorites.
Me too. She's amazing.
Alexander Skarsgård is also amazing. He looks so great in drag by the way!
I know right!?
What was the chemistry like off-screen?
It was amazing. Alex and I had two weeks of rehearsal before we started, where we got to know each other and also got to know Minnie and Monroe. We mapped out their emotional relationship because we always shoot out of order, so we really needed to know where we were coming from, where we were going and emotionally how we felt in that scene. And it also helped with the sex scenes. When they called "Action" the first time, I felt like we were Minnie and Monroe. It just fit into place. Our on-screen chemistry felt like it was really there. And then Kristen, yeah. She's just incredible. Unfortunately she couldn't be with us for the rehearsal process because of other work commitments but she was the perfect Charlotte.
Yeah and this is kind of her first dramatic role too, and she fits into it so well.
Were there some reservations about doing the sex scenes or the nude scenes?
Yeah. I mean obviously I knew that if I was gonna sign on to this movie, there was going to be sex in it. I never thought that was unnecessary. It's about female sexuality and I wanted to be a part of the start of a conversation about teenage girls having sex because people don't talk about it. It's such a taboo subject. So I was always up for it but it's definitely a conversation about "Where should it be? At what point? How much nipple should you show in this scene? Should you have your butt in this scene?" I think it's an important conversation to have and important as an actress to be protected by those kind of contractual discrepancies. So Mari and I had long conversations about, "When do we see Minnie most naked?" And actually we decided it's the nonsexual situations, so when she's looking in the mirror for example. When it got down to it, it was fine.
I think having a woman director and writer changes everything.
Definitely! Because Mari was a teenage girl. She and I could constantly check in with each other. "How did you feel? How did you feel?" I'm sure maybe a guy could have directed it equally as well, but I think for me as an actress, I need it for it to be a woman.
I'm very interested in both coming-of-age films and also roles for women in movies.
What kind of roles do you seek as a woman?
It's not specific. I think that Hollywood misconstrues actresses saying, "Oh I wanna play a strong female character" like we all want to play like superheroes or something. And then they're like "Look, we gave Marvel the first female role." It's like, "Okay, great, but I didn't just mean specifically that." I think it means more a well-rounded, three-dimensional, fleshed out character and that doesn't happen a lot. Often women are in the screenplay because of the guy, like the token chick. So I just wanna play well-rounded characters. They don't have to be strong. I mean I just wrapped a movie called Detour where I play a stripper from L.A. and of course that's probably not a role model or a strong female character in that sense but it was still a fleshed out, real person. That's all I want to do.
You have a lot of period pieces coming up. This, I guess, is a little bit of a period piece too.
Yeah I know, but I'm going a bit further back next time. I'm doing a film by Haifaa Al-Mansour, another female director, called A Storm in the Stars which is about Mary Shelley (who Elle Fanning is playing) and [my character] Claire Clairmont, her sister. It's set in the 1800s. They went to go live in Geneva with the poets, Byron and Percy Shelley. And then I'm doing a movie set in Lithuania in the 1940s.
Are you drawn to those kinds of movies?
No, it's just what happened.
What are some of your favorite coming-of-age films or books?
It sounds so negative of me to say but I don't feel like there were many coming-of-age films when I was growing up. I think that when I was a teenager, I felt really misrepresented in the teenage roles that I was watching onscreen. Especially in women. Women were put in such two-dimensional boxes when it came to sex. It's "the virgin waiting for Prince Charming" or "the high school slut" or "the quippy asexual one." I never really felt represented. I mean I love movies like Stand By Me, one of my favorite films. The Breakfast Club, obviously. But those are kind of obvious answers. I don't think there has been anything in the last couple decades. What are yours?
I think Heathers has always been my favorite.
And Ghost World, I love that movie.
That's an amazing film.
'The Diary of a Teenage Girl' is out August 7. Read our review here.