Emma Roberts, Young Adult

Published February 14, 2014

ABOVE: EMMA ROBERTS AND JOHN CUSACK IN ADULT WORLD. PHOTO COURTESY OF IFC.

For those who are headed to anti-Valentine’s Day bashes and ordering up black roses, we suggest an entertaining alternative: Adult World, an edgy, funny indie whose black little heart is more genuine than all those fake red ones.

Emma Roberts portrays Amy, a Syracuse University grad and aspiring poet, whose parents make her get an actual job. The only available employment is at an adult bookstore called Adult World (double entendre intended).

Something of a Reality Bites for millenials (minus the love triangle), Adult World‘s sharp, witty, wise writing concurrently recalls the earnest idealism of being a 22-year-old, while observing her absurdities with wry detachment. Amy worships Sylvia Plath and despondently puts her head in an oven before deciding that would be “suicide plagiarism.” Devoid of irony (“We’re bohemians” she tells a landlord) and prone to delusions of grandeur, she is convinced that because she got straight A’s, she is the voice of her generation (Amy, meet Hannah Horvath).

Obsessed with a punk poet/professor named Rat Billings (John Cusack), whom she compares to Rimbaud, Amy convinces him to take her on as his assistant/protégé. Cusack is great, a Lloyd Dobler 25 years down the road – still alternative, his edges chiseled by age and pragmatism. Having peaked in the ’90s, Billings, in his threadbare apartment, is rife with nimble wordplay (“Can I offer you a Triscuit, a trinket?”) and resignation (“Not everyone gets to be famous. Fame is your generation’s black plague.”)

Director Scott Coffey, whose first film, Ellie Parker, was a 2005 Grand Jury Prize nominee at Sundance, has cameo as a bookstore owner, wearing a Sub Pop t-shirt, a nod to the Seattle indie label for whose bands, Handsome Furs and Death Vessel, he’s directed videos. Like Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, Coffey artfully photographs upstate New York—both its snowy beauty and its hardscrabble downtowns.

Billings betrays Amy’s trust while compiling an anthology for Urban Outfitters, the co-opter of alt-lifestyles (isn’t a mass-produced CBGB T-shirt an oxymoron?). He reminds Amy that she’s a kid who needs life experience before she can write, even as her sweet-natured co-worker (Evan Peters) introduces Amy to artists who create art for its own sake. “Don’t you ever write just for yourself?” he asks her. Or to quote Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, “Write…just to write.”

LORRAINE CWELICH:  What do you have in common in Amy?

EMMA ROBERTS:  Amy was so fun to play because I definitely related to the fact of being that age where you’re not really an adult but you’re not a teenager anymore and you’re trying to figure out where exactly you fit in in the world and what exactly you want to do. That’s what I loved about the script—that kind of time that it explored. I felt it was very pertinent to kids of my generation. It was fun to play a girl in that space and I could definitely relate to that.

CWELICH:  Amy experiences a great deal of failure and you have had career success.

ROBERTS:  I’ve had a lot of failures as well and rejection. As actor, it’s actually mostly rejection but people think it’s mostly success because they only see your successes—the films that get made. So I could definitely relate to Amy getting rejected over and over again. She has an unrelenting confidence that’s admirable. What I loved about her is that she kept going through it and she kept finding a new avenue to go down and try to succeed at. I know that that’s where a lot of the heart and comedy came from in the movie.

CWELICH:  Did you, growing up, have a crush on Lloyd Dobler in Say Anthing…?

ROBERTS:  Definitely! I’m such a John Cusack fan. I remember when they said he was doing the movie, I was like, ‘Is her really? Really?‘ because I love all his movies, especially Say Anything… and High Fidelity. I was wondering what he was going to be like on set. And he so fun. You always hear a million different stories before you work with someone and he was just the coolest, nicest guy. Also so interesting—he would be telling me stories and stuff and I’d be sitting there, like, “John Cusack’s telling me a story!” It was really cool.

CWELICH:  Can you share one of those stories with us?

ROBERTS:  They can’t be repeated! [laughs] But it was funny stuff and also, most of the stuff you see in the movie between John and I is all ad-libbed. He’d start making things up and then we would go off on a tangent. There was one take that was probably 10 minutes long of us sitting there talking, all improv. It was funny that a lot of it actually made it into the movie.

CWELICH:  Which scene?

ROBERTS:  When we were sitting in his living room, sewing his shirt.

CWELICH:  What is he like as a scene partner?  Does he like a lot of takes? Is he always into improv?

ROBERTS:  He’s so fun. He improvs a lot and made it really interesting. He uses a lot of props. It was his idea to be sewing the shirt in that scene.  I wondered, why is he doing that? He’s brilliant.

CWELICH:  So it sounds like he’s the kind of actor who hangs out on set and doesn’t hide in his trailer between takes.

ROBERTS:  This movie was so low-budget that none of us had trailers! So we had to hang out on set between takes [laughing], which was fun. The director, Scott Coffey, is a close friend, so it was just cool to be with everyone on set. We did all of John’s scenes in a week or two.

CWELICH:  A lot of Syracuse University alums work in media in New York City. I’m sure they’d like to hear what you thought of shooting in Syracuse and where you hung out.

ROBERTS: It was so cold there! I’ve still never been as cold as I was in Syracuse. I didn’t want to go outside unless I had to. We’d do these scenes outside and I’d be in just this little jacket; I can still remember the coldness. It was crazy. We worked so much, so fast, that we barely had time to hang out, outside of work, other than getting together at this little hotel we were all staying in. We’d hang out in the bar there. Literally I have no recollection of going outside to a restaurant; it was too cold!

CWELICH:  Your fiancé, Evan Peters, plays your love interest in Adult World, and is also in American Horror Story: Coven. What’s it like working with him, particularly in such different roles?

ROBERTS:  It’s really fun doing Adult World with him, especially because I loved the characters—my character but also everyone else’s; I loved the story. It felt very real. Then going to American Horror Story, which was actually really last minute— I got a call, do you want to be on the show—and it was more of a coincidence that I was on the show. It wasn’t pre-planned that we’d work together again. So to get to do a character who’s very different than anything I’d ever done before and to work with all these amazing actors and actresses on American Horror Story was a dream job. I have the greatest time working on that.

CWELICH:  It must be great to work with Jessica Lange.

ROBERTS:  She’s amazing. Working with her is definitely one of the highlights of my career.

CWELICH:  Tell me about your next movie, For the Dogs.

ROBERTS:  Sam Worthington is someone I’ve really wanted to work with. It’s very action-packed. You think he’s kidnapped me and as the story unravels, you find out that’s not really the case. Lots of twists and turns and bad guys. I never did an action movie before, so it’s exciting.

CWELICH:  What have you learned about acting from your father and your aunt Julia?

ROBERTS:  I wish I had a much more interesting answer to that, but we’ve never really talked about it. I can’t say I’ve really learned from them directly but obviously I love their movies. Just from watching them, they’re both incredible. My aunt especially, I love all of her movies. I still watch My Best Friend’s Wedding; I have it on my computer. It’s my favorite movie.

ADULT WORLD OPENS TODAY IN SELECT THEATERS AND ON VOD.