Emmy Rossum is probably best-known for her turn as Christine in the film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera; almost every article written about her stresses the fact that she was an opera singer as a young girl. But in the film Dare, in which she delivers what is arguably her best performance ever, there is nary a song in sight—or, rather, in earshot. In this film she plays Alexa, a good girl who has never really done anything other than get good grades and entertain the notion of being an actress. After a particularly resonant confrontation with an actor she idolizes (Alan Cumming), Alexa tries to completely remake herself as a risk-taker in her last semester of high school; her actions trigger equally unusual behavior in two other seniors—her best friend Ben (Ashley Springer) and bad boy Johnny (Zach Gilford)—and the consequences affect all three teenagers profoundly. In this interview Miz Rossum and I discuss the filmmakers, the film, and the fuckery of adolescence.
Hey, Emmy, it’s great to speak with you. How are you?
I’m good! How are you?
I’m good. I saw Dare last week and thought it was… fantastic. How did you get involved?
Well, I’d just gotten off a big Hollywood studio picture and really wanted to get back to what I’d started in this business doing: storytelling, telling stories about characters… I mean, I started in indies, so I was kind of looking for a project like that. And I got sent the short film, actually, also called Dare, that was made by the same writer-director team when they were students at Columbia film school. And I was so impressed by their—it was actually just the pool scene between the two boys. The Alexa character was very peripheral in the short film. But I was so impressed by the director and the dialogue and its honest, refreshing, awkward, funny take on young sexuality that I really wanted to be part of it.
I was about to say—it’s so honest. Especially you and the other two teenagers. It’s just—I’m speaking as a high school senior and I felt like I recognized it all.
So you’re a senior.
Yeah. I am.
Oh, cool. That’s amazing. See, that’s the most exciting thing about getting feedback about this movie; we have, like, actual high school and college people coming up and telling us that it’s a very realistic depiction of what happens. Of course, everyone’s parents are completely mortified hearing that, but!
[laughs] Well, not all high school seniors are having polyamorous…
Yeah, exactly. But the way that the characters speak to each other, the way that they behave, is so real.
And that’s probably also indicative of the fact that everyone who worked on the film was really young. Like our director is only in his late twenties and our writer is just thirty, so everyone on the project—I mean, everyone down to P.A.s, hair and makeup, grips, everyone was just really young. And green, in a way, and that’s what gave us this freshness, I think.
Wow, I didn’t realize that. That’s amazing.
Yeah, it’s super. Super cool.
Some of the most striking lines actually came from the adults, I feel, like Alan Cumming’s character asking Alexa if she had ever felt threatened and had ever particularly had any experiences.
Well, I’m glad. I think we were definitely trying to tell a story about three people and an interconnected love triangle, and show these people… I think when you’re in high school and you’re growing up it’s so easy to categorize everyone else in your class or in your grade, or write them off, even, like “That person’s just a jock,” or “That person’s so popular. That person’s got it good.” And you never really think, “What’s that person like when they’re sitting in their room by themselves? How do they feel about themselves? How do they feel about love and sex and the way they’re going with their life?” I don’t think anybody, even the most popular, wonderful girl in school, even if she’s a narcissistic… biotch, wakes up in the morning and goes, like, “It’s awesome to be me!”
You know what I mean? You always think that other people have it easier, like, “If I were a loner I wouldn’t have all this attention on me,” or “If I were a jock I could have any girl in school that I wanted.” So I think it really flips the coin on its head that nobody is really totally happy in high school.
Right. I mean, I can tell you that’s pretty much true. How was it like working on that scene with Alan Cumming, by the way? I’m a total fangirl; he’s awesome.
It was awesome. That part was actually originally written for a woman.
And the actress who had been hired to play it had agreed to do it while shooting another movie in Boston… I think it was supposed to be Parker Posey. And it didn’t work out at the last minute, and our writer had done a workshop on a play with Alan and they decided to make it into a male character. And for me it worked so much better because Alexa is being attacked by this sort of male energy, and it spurs her on to go, in that way.
Right. And when he asks her if she’s ever been threatened—because part of the thing about that is that he is threatening to her—I think that if that role had been played by a woman…
And, even though he’s kind of flamboyantly gay, he’s her idol and he’s this very kind of imposing figure who’s very important in her life, and he is very threatening to her, and he does kind of shake her world up. And Alan is such a good actor and he’s so fun to do scenes with. I remember after take he’d be like, “I’m sorry I have to be so mean to you!”
And I’d be like, “It’s okay, it’s okay! You’re not being mean to me, you’re being mean to Alexa. I can take it; she can’t!”
[laughter] I’ve got to say, the end of the film… it was sort of like a sock in the gut to see all three characters so disillusioned by the end. Like, “Well, damn.”
Yeah. It’s kind of like, they start and they haven’t really experienced much and they all kind of force themselves and in the process they get entangled with each other and they kind of… destroy each other, in a way. I think you always think that everyone can have an effect on you but you can’t really have an effect on anyone else. And you don’t realize that everything you say, even if it’s a joke or just a one-line comment to somebody, might stick with them and it might really, really affect them.
Right. And what happened to Alexa particularly resonated because she’s this solid, smart girl who could easily go to college and have a great career that way, but what she wants is to be an actress. So it’s this, like… feeling even more pressure than usual not to follow that because you’re so completely set if you go the typical route.
Right. And I think she longs for that kind of… emotional… you know, emotional release, that Alan Cumming’s character tells her, “You’re just not cut out for this. You’re just not bred—you’re, like, emotionally and physically constipated. You’re just a constipated person,” and when she realizes that she sort of goes about her transformation as deliberately as she does everything else. That’s why it feels like she’s pretending. I feel like a lot of people, when they try to figure out who they are, try on a lot of different scenarios. You get a nose ring, or you’ll try black eyeliner, or you’ll try to be popular, or punk rock, and finally you just find your way. Hopefully.
I mean, you were acting in high school so I imagine your high school experience was somewhat less typical. But I wonder what it was like for you to reach back only a couple of years to play such a blatantly teenage character.
Right. I mean, I really liked that. This was, like, the closest I’ve ever gotten to a high school classroom. I had a very atypical school experience; I left school in seventh grade and did all of high school on the internet because I was already traveling and working, so it was definitely the closest I’ve gotten to a high school cafeteria and high school students surrounding me. But it was really fun. I mean, I love my job and I love what I do. I do sometimes wish that I could have had everything, but you can never have everything in life. You know, I wish I had gone to prom, and I wish I had gone to college and played a lot of beer pong and gotten really imbued with this coming-of-age, but I did that in other ways in life.
Yeah. And you grew up in New York, right?
Yeah, I did.
So growing up in high school in New York is still not that normal anyway! [laughs]
No. Not your normal Americana suburban high school experience at all.
Yeah. I’m calling you from Brooklyn right now. I’m on my lunch break.
Dare opens in select theatres on November 13th... a.k.a. this Friday. If you live in New York or in any other area lucky enough to have this film playing nearby, for the love of god, go see it. It's excellent.