As the pierced and volatile teenager stealing scenes in Jeffrey Fine's SXSW drama Cherry, 19-year-old Britt Robertson gives one of the finest performances yet in a fast-developing career that's seen her evolve from child actor to mature young actress in the span of a few years. One of two women who come crashing into the life of college freshman Aaron (Kyle Gallner), Robertson's Beth is part Juno, part Hot Topic Lolita, an emotionally guarded girl who's lived through more in her 14 years of life than any teen should.
Robertson herself couldn't be farther from the confused, capricious Goth teen she plays in Cherry, which is based in part on a pair of women writer-director Fine knew as a young man. After drawing notice in films like Dan in Real Life, CBS's "Swingtown," and her new CW show, "Life Unexpected," the fresh-faced and uncommonly poised actress seems determined to carve out a career of substance as she enters adulthood; catch her next in Rodrigo Garcia's Mother and Child, in theaters this May.
Cinematical sat down with the L.A.-based Robertson in Austin, Texas, where she premiered Cherry while on break from filming "Life Unexpected."
Cinematical: What was your initial reaction to the script when you first read it and what made you want to do the film?
Britt Robertson: My agent and my manager sent it over to check out the part, so I read it and instantly I was grabbed by story and the writing, not only by the characters but specifically my character. It was a really fun part and there were a lot of really interesting things that I could do with it. So I wanted to meet with Jeff but I wasn't able to because of conflicting schedules, but they brought me in to do a chemistry read with Kyle Gallner, who hadn't yet been cast. We read through some scenes together and they went really well. Originally I was captivated by the movie as a whole because I felt that all the people involved were really passionate about it.
When you do chemistry reads like the one you did with Kyle, how do you get on the same wavelength with someone who you may not have much time to rehearse with?
Britt Robertson: Actually, I had known Kyle for about six years now, so I'd known him and we had a conversation before the chemistry read, so that was easier. But in other situations when you don't really know someone, the quickest thing you can do is take everything they're giving you and feed off of it, be in the now, and give back everything you've been given.
How did you and Kyle first meet?
Britt Robertson: It's funny, he's from Pennsylvania and he was coming out to L.A. for pilot season and I was also coming out for pilot season from South Carolina. There's this notorious actor hub in L.A. called The Oakwoods and we both stayed there. You meet a slew of actors there, and I met him through a couple of mutual friends and we sort of stayed in touch a little bit along the way.
When you two were cast, how did you start working on your characters' dynamic together?
Britt Robertson: It's interesting because in the film, there's no pre-established relationship – they meet each other as you see them meeting each other. So it was sort of important to discover things as the film discovered them. I didn't want to force the relationship too much. But we did do a lot of rehearsals to keep the spark, especially for me, having a bit of a crush on him –
You mean your character's having a crush on him...?
Britt Robertson: Yes, yes! My character having a crush on him. [Laughs] I wanted to make sure the fire was there.
You play a very bold 14-year-old who's very unafraid of everything, at least on the surface.
Britt Robertson: Beth is 14 but she's a lot more mature than the average 14-year-old; she's grown up in a home where it's been just her mother and her, and she's had to take care of her mother from time to time. They've grown a sort of sisterly bond. Because of the maturity that she's had to establish at such a young age, she's got a bit of a shield, but you see the layers slowly unpeeled. She's also a precocious 14-year-old, but you realize how vulnerable she really is and how emotional she is, as well.
Your role called for you to act out some very mature behavior, considering that Beth is only 14 years old – she smokes, she's very sexualized. How are those racier elements key to the character?
Britt Robertson: The great thing about me playing this character is that I am actually a good bit older than her, and so I don't have to dumb myself down as far as intelligence goes. I know a lot of people who individualize themselves based on their exteriors, and they want to be the person that they are presenting to you. I think that's what was important about Beth; she is someone who she's not on the outside, but inside she's a lost 14-year-old. So I think it was important, from Jeff's perspective as well as mine, to have all those elements to show that she is trying to be someone who she's really not.
The women in this film are very strong female personalities, and together they tend to dominate Kyle's more passive, lost character.
Britt Robertson: I'm a pretty outspoken character myself, but not in the sense that my character was. Being an actress in L.A. you sort of have to take on the role of macho leading lady, you have to have a confidence when you walk into a room to tell people, this is my role and I can do a really good job for you. So at least for me, that's something that you sort of establish along the road of building your career. While we were shooting, it seemed like Laura and I were ruling school -- Kyle has a little bit of that in him as well, but I think he dialed it down to match his character. On and off set, I think it was important for us to take control just to get into that vibe. I think it is a really important topic for women, to be strong and to be who they are and pursue their dreams.
Actresses sometimes talk about how hard it is to find truly challenging roles in Hollywood. You've got a new television show, but has that been the case for you so far in your career?
Britt Robertson: I've had the chance to dive into some really great characters, especially with "Life Unexpected" and Cherry – these are two great projects where I've gotten to have a lot to do with my character. I've had a lot of opportunity to detail these characters out, and become a better actor because of it. I think it is hard, especially being as young as I am, to find roles that are challenging and fun and keep you on your feet, and aren't just the typical roles. So I've had really good luck with that.
You're at an age where it seems like a lot of your peers are either still in the Disney teen zone, or trying to transition into more mature roles. Is that something you've had to struggle with or consciously guide your career by?
Britt Robertson: Well, yes. My team – myself, my manager, and my agent – we're all very conscious of what I want to do and where I want my career to go. For me, people like Reese Witherspoon and Natalie Portman, who have transitioned from having really successful child acting careers into adult acting careers, I think that's something that's obtainable and something I aspire to do as well. So hopefully that's the case. I definitely have it in the back of my mind. There are a lot of auditions for things I personally don't find any gratification in; I love storytelling, but if I'm not enjoying what I'm doing there's no point in it. I can go to school and find something I enjoy doing just as much as this, so I feel like if I'm going to act, why not have fun doing it? For me, this is what I love and these are the characters that keep me doing what I'm doing, so there's no use in dabbling in anything else.
Have you considered going to college while you continue your acting career?
Britt Robertson: I have, I completed my freshman year. After the second semester of my sophomore year I had to drop out because of the show, so hopefully I'll finish that up. I'd probably want to study something completely outside of the business, just to have that option... I've always loved biology and science, so maybe something in that area.