Film

Interview: Comedian, Writer, Filmmaker Bo Burnham on Being Cast in Promising Young Woman, Learning from Carey Mulligan and How Divisive Art Brings People Together

Several years as a successful YouTube sensation and stand-up comedian whose humor blended music, visual elements and a twisted perspective led to Bo Burnham releasing a series of highly successful comedy albums and specials. They include “Bo Fo Sho,” “Bo Burnham,” “Words Words Words,” “what.,” and “Make Happy,” and all of them are available either on YouTube, Netflix, or Comedy Central. He also co-created and starred in the popular MTV series “Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous,” and he published a book of poetry, titled “Egghead: Or, You Can’t Survive on Ideas Alone.” More recently, he’s appeared in supporting roles in such films as Rough Night and The Big Sick, and directed Chris Rock’s most recent Netflix special “Tamborine.” But it was his writing/directing feature film debut, the 2018 emotion-driven comedy Eighth Grade, about a socially awkward eighth-grade girl who is trying to find her place in a world that she feels has no interest in getting to know her, that marked a turning point in Burnham’s career, beginning with the film’s win of the Audience award at the Sundance Film Festival.

Bo Burnham stars as “Ryan“ in director Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

But while contemplating his next move as a filmmaker, he received the unexpected opportunity of one of his biggest acting roles to date, as the too-good-to-be-true nice guy Ryan in writer/director Emerald Fennell’s blistering dark comedy Promising Young Woman. The film stars Carey Mulligan as Cassandra, traumatized by a tragic event in her med school days and now seeking out vengeance, including a very clear path to the perfect revenge thanks to a blossoming romance with Ryan. Burnham’s role works as beautifully as it does because he’s so darn good at being charming, wounded and overwhelmed in the space of just a few minutes. And while he continues to work on whatever he’ll helm next, we had the chance to chat recently about Promising Young Woman. Enjoy…

So you get this screenplay, and I have to wonder what your reaction is even before Ryan comes into the picture. A lot happens even before then.

It was thrilling. I was genuinely surprised by it and not sure where it was going to go, and I was constantly wrong-footed by it and on your heels. I was super excited just as a reader. You only really get to experience something once for the first time, so I enjoyed that. Honestly, I was reading some of the things going “Are we really going to…okay. Is she really going to fall in love with a guy, and he’s going to save her?” That seemed like a weird choice for this movie, and then as I went along I realized “Oh, okay.” It’s disturbing and challenging and funny, and I read the script thinking, I didn’t know how you could pull it off. There are too many tones; there’s no way someone can pull this off. And then I watched Emerald’s short film called Careful As You Go, and that really balances a bunch of different tones elegantly, and I realized this was actually the person who should be doing this.

There is a romantic comedy placed in the middle of the story, and it only adds an extra layer of tragedy to the whole piece. Again, reading that, do you see that as a difficult switch? Do you embrace challenging material like that, material that might not be in your wheelhouse?

Definitely. Plus, I’ve always wanted to really act with a substantial actor. I didn’t really think I’d have that opportunity. It was amazing when I got it. I was terrified because I wasn’t sure what I could do, but I was happy to try. I wanted to deliver for Emerald because I liked her so much and the film so much. She wanted me for it, and I trusted her and did what I think she wanted for this role and I play what I think his function is in this story, which is pretty straightforward. I didn’t have to overthink it. I just wanted to ground it and make it feel warm and safe.

At Sundance, was it fun to watch an audience respond to the trajectory of this story?

In theory, yes. But I do not enjoy watching myself and I was not going to go to the premiere, but Carey was going to kill me. She said, “You have to sit through it.” So she made me, but it was great, even though I cannot watch myself. It’s a fun type of movie to watch with an audience. If I wasn’t in it, I’d enjoy it more [laughs]. It’s rare to watch a movie and have the air feel that charged.

What do you learn from working with someone like Carey Mulligan? She’s in almost every scene you’re in, and even the scenes she’s not in, you could make the argument that she’s very much in those moments with you.

When someone is as great as Carey, it’s both simpler and totally intangible. I remember watching them do a closeup on her, and I’m looking from off-camera at her face, and looking at her face, it looks like she’s doing nothing. And then I looked at the monitor, seeing what the camera sees, and a million things are going on behind her eyes. It’s the power to do something so small and subtle, that only the camera can see. It’s a big difference from theater acting. It’s a performance on a level that really is subliminal. I’m in a scene with her, and I can’t see on her face what the camera can. That taught me to take things slow and simple and just listen.

I would also just marvel at very simple, technical things in her acting, like the way she can integrate business into her behavior while making it look natural. If you tell someone “Put these forks in that drawer,” but you’re on camera, you will forget how forks work, how your arms work, how drawers work. And she’s able to so casually integrate that business. It was a real lesson. Part of it was learning from her, but part of it was just being in awe. There are certain things you can’t learn; it’s more magical.

You have the best seat in the house to watch her.

Oh yeah. But more than that, I get to play one-on-one with Magic Johnson or someone like that. To be fair to her, this is all making her sound a little more self-serious than she is. She’s very grounded and normal; it doesn’t feel like “Oh my god, I’m with this Actor!” You can think that when you hear her name, but in actuality, she’s very approachable and professional and easygoing.

Do you now wonder if your face has those same subtle characteristics? Are you staring in the mirror for hours looking for that?’

[laughs] I don’t think my face is yet glowing with dozens of intangible, subtextual emotions. Maybe one day.

The scene with you and Cassandra’s parents [played by Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown] is one of the greatest things in this movie. And I’ve heard stories about Jennifer improvising. Was it difficult keeping it together with these two masters just making up these absurd bits of dialogue?

Well it’s a little easier for me because my character could be charmed by them. It was harder for Carey because she shouldn’t think her mom is funny in that moment when I can. I truly think Jennifer Coolidge is one of the best ever, just one of the best comedic actresses of all time, and she hits the dramatic beats just as well. When I first saw the movie, I thought there were some dramatic moments that she had that were absolutely unbelievable. I hope this is also a showcase for her, and I admit, I felt a little starstruck sitting across from her. She’s an all-timer for me. Best In Show is one of my favorites of all time.

The film is being called a dark comedy. It was just submitted to the Golden Globes in the Comedy category, and there are a lot of actors in it, including yourself, who are better known for more comedic things. Why do you think Emerald went in that direction?

It’s interesting. I think it just felt right and it is her personality too. Also, she’s incredibly bold and funny, but she can also talk about serious things, and you can do that with a sense of humor. The truth is, men’s behavior towards women tends to be horrifying and hilarious simultaneously. You’re laughing at them because they’re so pathetic, and then they do something terrifying. It reflects the weird, tonal mishmash of life. Some horrifying experience you have isn’t necessarily horrifying leading up to it. Charm and humor is what placates you and makes you feel safe before the rug is pulled out from under you. It’s like the opening, with the shots of the men all wearing khakis—it’s so funny because there is something about men’s behavior that is pathetic and funny until it stops being funny. Those are always my favorite types of movies because I find life to be tonally inconsistent. To me, tonally consistent movies feel unreal.

I remember you talking at Sundance about the chemistry test you did with Carey. What was your takeaway from that experience?

It was really fun. There was a lot of improv, and it was very loose. We just sat and ran the scenes, and she was very sweet and Emerald was very nice. I remember I came home, and I said to my girlfriend, “I think I really want this part,” which I never say. And she was like “What?” I’m not ever that person, probably as a self-preservationist because I don’t want to get too invested. I didn’t think I’d be acting any time soon; this has been a left turn in my life. But I really did leave the chemistry read thinking that was enough, like if that’s all I get to do, that was super-fun. It was enjoyable on its own.

There’s such an exciting visual style to this film. Were you able to get a sense of that being there in person, or again, was that something the camera picked up more than the naked eye in the moment?

The cinematography I’m not really aware of [in the moment], but the production design, which is so colorful, fun and bright, is really great. But having seen her short film, I could guess what it would be like. Even the way Emerald carries herself aesthetically, you can know that it’s going to be popping off and super-fun. She’s always wearing fun, bright clothes. Even using the Paris Hilton song, you have a sense what this is going to be. I don’t know what to expect, but I know it’ll be fun, bold and interesting. It’s not going to be some passive, vérité version of life. There’s style here that I’m excited to see.

What do you want people thinking and talking about after they see this?

The conversation itself seems totally valuable. To have a film that gets people talking with each other is so valuable. I don’t feel it’s my job to steer it. Emerald is looking after that way better than I ever could. Also, I wouldn’t tell people what to think about this movie because I’m not the authority on this movie. I’m sure women come out of this movie thinking and feeling and understanding things that I can’t. I know what I felt after I read it and watched it, which was—as a straight white dude—to look at your own behavior and be willing to go, even as a nice guy, “How have I probably been a part of this? How can the men who are not criminal monsters also change their behavior?” It’s not just the Harvey Weinsteins and the Bill Cosbys of the world that are the problem. It’s about the larger, more subtle, gradient culture that is also a problem.

Have you been taking advantage of your downtime with writing something new? I remember in January, you said you hadn’t really started anything new yet, but that was a while ago.

It sure was. Yeah, I’ve been trying to. It’s hard to write for a world that doesn’t exist yet. That’s what I find difficult. I have to anticipate. And me in particular, I try to write about the current things because that’s what I wrestle with most in life—how weird being alive right now is. I’m trying to work and express what all of this has felt like. I hope to have a version of that that is palatable at some point.

Have you done anything else in the acting arena recently?

No, no. What’s nice about this is that it’s very clarifying; it’s set the bar pretty high for me in terms of being a part of a nice project with good people that is so satisfying. It satiated me; I don’t need to act unless it’s great again, like this. Also, the real thing that made it great was how great Carey and Emerald are; they are truly good people. At the end of the day with this work, that’s what makes it enjoyable. It’s not about it being a genius thing, although I do think this movie is so great, but they made the environment fun and easy and enjoyable, and they challenge you and you get along. This was one of those very rare things where, across the board, there were great people working on it, a great crew—they all made it super enjoyable.

I remember when I saw it at Sundance, I thought the film would be more divisive, but people seem to be reacting to it positively across the board. Have there been reactions you’ve found surprising?

It’s interesting, in such divisive times, such divisive types of films are actually agreed upon because at least this is contending with how messy and fucked up things seem to be. It’s more the safe, banal stuff that is trying to appease everybody that is appeasing no one. I don’t think people have patience with that. There are a lot of ways into the anger of this film, and people are appreciating the cathartic feeling of the righteousness and messiness of it that allows you to acknowledge how complicated these things are.

In terms of surprising reactions, I’ve had people defend my character to my face. I was expecting the opposite, but people were like “He was just a kid,” and he really was. But that makes it interesting how the movie can inspire and advance the same dialogue that’s occurring in the real world. And it’s like “Good, let’s have it out.” Sometimes the messiness of the conversation is good, the way a body feels when it fights the flu or something. Maybe it’s not the best time for the flu analogy [laughs].

Bo, it’s always a pleasure. Best of luck on this and whatever you bring us next.

Thanks, Steve. Stay safe.

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