Maude Apatow knows why we’re obsessed with teen culture

Maude Apatow was just nine years old when she made her film debut in her father Judd’s R-rated comedy Knocked Up [2007]. Judd Apatow was and is one of his generation’s most prolific producers and directors, the hitmaker behind movies and shows including Freaks and Geeks, GirlsThe 40-Year-Old Virgin [2005], Bridesmaids [2011], and Trainwreck [2015]. To have a raunchy caper be the first entry on your acting CV, you’d expect young Maude to have already spiraled into tabloid headlines, but the 20-year-old actress is so seemingly normal it can be hard to believe she grew up with such Hollywood pedigree. (Her mom is the equally talented comedian and actress Leslie Mann.)

After two more memorable roles in her dad’s projects (2009’s Funny People and 2012’s This is 40), Apatow really came into herself, in large part thanks to her wildly popular Twitter, where she’s offered up wry musings, such as “I think I am the person who, when someone asks for a bite of their sandwich, says no and makes everything feel tense.” With her tweets and online essays, Apatow became a poster child of sorts for the bright, funny, wise-beyond-her-years teenage girl, not unlike actress and writer Tavi Gevinson, two years her senior.

Now she’s trying to move beyond the quirky teen cachet and into more serious territory. In 2016, she appeared in the tender comedy-drama Other People, about a young man (Jesse Plemons) coming to grips with his mother’s (Molly Shannon) cancer. This month, she stars in Peter Livolsi’s new film The House of Tomorrow, about two dysfunctional families who intersect. Asa Butterfield plays Sebastian, a lonely teen who lives with his grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) in a retro-futurist house-museum called The House of Tomorrow, designed by the real-life architect and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller. Sebastian meets Jared (Alex Wolff), a wannabe punk rocker who encourages Sebastian to form a band. Apatow plays Meredith, Jared’s older teenage sister, whose spiky exterior betrays her real vulnerability.

Even though she’s now a college student in her twenties, we talked about our culture’s fascination with the messy drama of teenagedom—and the iconic Ellen Burstyn, who, at 85, is definitely not a teen either.

MATT MULLEN: I have so many questions about Ellen Burstyn, because she’s a legend. What was it like working with her?

MAUDE APATOW: Oh, my God. When I saw that she was attached to this—I mean, she’s one of the greatest living actresses out there. Being around her was amazing, and I wanted to listen to everything that she had to say. There was one day she was shooting a scene, and I wasn’t even called that day, but I went anyway to watch her. Watching her act, for a young actor, is very inspiring. It’s a masterclass. And she can do it all in one take, it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.

MULLEN: I believe it. She’s had one of longest careers ever.

APATOW: Something also amazing is Peter Livolsi, the director, sent Ellen the script as sort of a shot in the dark. It turns out she knew Buckminster Fuller when she was younger. At the end of the movie, all that footage of them on the boat is real. She found him fascinating and was friends with him. So, when she read the script, she didn’t know if Peter knew this, and it turns out he didn’t, and so he flew to New York to meet with her immediately. Peter was freaking out.

MULLEN: What made you want to do this film?

APATOW: I think the script is really funny and really sad at the same time. I thought it was a good coming-of-age story, and it felt really honest. The way that the teenagers are written, and their dialogue, feels very honest. We shot it almost two years ago, so I was just graduating high school. Everything felt very fresh. I think it’s so often tricky to write teenagers.

MULLEN: Stories about teenagers often veer into stereotypical territory.

APATOW: Totally. And in this film the characters are very strong and specific.

MULLEN: How much backstory did you create for Meredith?

APATOW: The whole process happened very quickly. We shot the movie in 18 days. The second we started, we were just going. But I had conversations with Peter about it. And the movie’s also based on a novel, so that was a source of inspiration. Meredith’s mom isn’t around, and her brother’s sick, so she’s forced to take on her mother’s role and grow up very quickly, but underneath it all, she’s vulnerable and scared. I don’t think she’s really processed everything that’s happening with her brother, because she’s still a kid. As for the two boys, I’ve known Alex Wolff since I was little, so that part was easy, I really care about him in real life.

MULLEN: It makes me think of one scene, where Asa’s character asks you, “Why are you so mean to your brother?” and you say something like, “Because treating him like shit is actually the most normal thing I can do.” Why is it that siblings feel the need to be so tough on each other?

APATOW: I don’t know even how to answer that, because I just totally agree. That is kind of how I feel with my sister. We would fight when we were younger, and I’d be like, “I’m just preparing her for the real world. I’m training her. She’ll come out of this tougher.” At least that’s what I always say to myself and my parents. But maybe that doesn’t make any sense at all.

MULLEN: Why do you think we have such a cultural fascination with teenagers?

APATOW: They have no idea what they’re doing, which makes them interesting. They’re trying to figure things out. I love watching movies about teenagers. Characters who are finding themselves, that’s very compelling to watch, and I think when you have complicated characters who are feeling so much because they’re so hormonal, and they’re experiencing so many things the first time, that’s even more compelling. I never knew how to process all of that energy and hormones and craziness. And I just turned 20.

MULLEN: Do you feel your age? Have you always felt you age?

APATOW: When I was younger I think I felt older, but maybe I didn’t really understand what that meant. I always tried to pretend … Oh, no, this is so embarrassing, but I would always, like, sit out the dancing at bar mitzvahs, trying to be mature.

MULLEN: What are some of your favorite teen movies and shows?

APATOW: Say Anything is one of my favorite movies ever. Ladybird I also loved so much. It was so exciting for me to see a fully-realize girl character like that. I did theater in high school, and that’s what it felt like. Freaks and Geeks is a major one. I love that show more than anything.

MULLEN: I think there are so many expectations about what being a teenager, at least in America, means, because of all of these cultural representations. Did you ever feel like you were supposed to act a certain way?

APATOW: I think maybe a little bit, but not entirely. I went to a pretty alternative high school. It wasn’t traditional in the sense that there weren’t football games, or cliques, since we had all gone to school together since kindergarten. It was a very different vibe, so I didn’t have that traditional high school experience. But I have noticed some of those expectations now that I’m in college.

MULLEN: Did people ever tell you, before you went to college, “Those are gonna be the best four years of your life?” I always hated that.

APATOW: Oh, yeah. Completely. And then I’m like, “Why am I not having the best time of my life right now?

MULLEN: And does it mean that life is just going to go downhill once I graduate?

APATOW: It really is the worst thing to say to people.