Upon hearing the news that 15-year-old Elsie Fisher received a Golden Globe nomination for her role in the teen angst dramedy “Eighth Grade,” director Bo Burham texted her in all caps: “WHAT THE FUCK?”
The question, of course, was hypothetical. If you’ve seen Fisher’s devastating performance as Kayla Day, an anxiety-addled middle schooler struggling to get through the purgatorial phase of puberty relatively unscathed, you know exactly why THE FUCK she received the distinction.
In the movie, Fisher embodies the not-yet-fully-formedness of adolescence with remarkable conviction and vulnerability. Some of her awkward physical quirks play like timeless displays (the hunched shoulders, the nervous giggles, the fidgety hands), while others feel very 2018 (the knee-jerk peace sign when a selfie presents itself, the YouTube sign-off phrase “Gucci!”). Regardless of when you personally came of age, Fisher delivers Kayla’s foot-in-mouth gaffes and hormone-driven panic attacks like she’s reenacting memories we’ve all lived through together. In the end, her time on screen amounts to one of the most heart-squeezing and numinous cinematic experiences of the year.
Fisher identifies strongly with her character, but in a recent conversation with the newly nominated actress, I felt like the Kayla in the room. Despite being twice her age, I was the one whose voice lingered at a chirpy soprano register, who managed to speak like a teenage spaz still learning to express herself without feeling like a complete freak show.
In the spirit of “Eighth Grade,” I opted not to edit my verbal ticks, rambling questions or inarticulate moments from the transcript that follows. As a mega-fan of Fisher’s work, I was nervous to talk to her. (Come on, teens are terrifying!) And if I learned anything from her movie, it’s that there’s a little bit of Kayla within all of us.
A lot of her, it turns out, within me specifically:
Hi Elsie! To start off, I just wanted to say how much I loved “Eighth Grade,” it just destroyed me. [Pause] So, let’s start! You had your big break when you were 5 years old, voicing the role of Agnes in “Despicable Me.” Do you have any memories from that time?
Truthfully, I don’t have a lot of memories from that time. I’ve always been kind of an entertainer. I like making people happy and having them watch me. Narcissistic, I know, but that’s how it is!
How much of your early life was shaped by acting and auditions? How did that routine ― and all the rejection that comes with it ― affect your self-esteem? And, well … yeah.
I think it really humbles you and shows you kind of what the world is going to be like. Especially for actors, but for everyone, you’re going to deal with rejection and people not calling you back for stuff. It was a good skill to not get too attached to every project, and appreciate the things you do get.
Ah. And how did it feel, in the years between being an extremely young, successful child actor and starring in “Eighth Grade,” not knowing what would happen with your career and being, like, a kid who was maybe about to retire?
For a long time, I thought I wasn’t going to act for forever. I knew I enjoyed it and wanted to keep doing it, but always as a hobby. I didn’t think I’d be a successful actor. It requires a lot of things coming together, aside from talent. You need luck and timing and a lot of other things. So I wasn’t really counting on it. And then “Eighth Grade” happened.
How often do you still think about Kayla? Do you ever fantasize about what she’s up to these days?
I like to think she’s doing well. It’s cool to see people online say what they think. I feel like her story does continue.
What is the first thing you do most mornings when you wake up?
Probably wash my face. I struggle with acne, so got to get that skin care routine!
Yes. Skin care is key. What about at night, before bed?
I wash my face again! Oh and, both in morning and at night, I drink water. I’ve been trying to drink more water. If you drink half a bottle in the morning and half a bottle at night, you’ve already drunk a bottle of water that day, at least! Gotta stay hydrated.
So adult of you. I’m always trying to drink a lot of water and, well, it’s a challenge. Anyway, I read in an interview you did that your stomach hurts when you’re anxious. Mine does too. All the time. That sounds incredibly hard as an actor, for which there are so many anxiety-inducing experiences. How do you deal?
Dealing with anxiety has been tough this year, I’m not gonna lie. I’ve learned to deal with it better. For me, it is about hydrating and keeping myself feeling fresh. In my mind, that leaves less room for mistakes. If I’m doing something on stage I don’t really eat before. Getting exercise helps, and just channeling energy into what you’re doing.
There are so many painfully relatable moments in “Eighth Grade” when Kayla is embarrassed or anxious. Did you draw on any real memories from your time in middle school to convey those emotions?
I was really just being there in the moment. I’ve felt all of those emotions on a weekly basis. It was very natural for me to channel embarrassment and anxiety because they’re things I feel on a weekly basis.
Under what circumstances?
Like, I’ll slip up in conversations. Even in interviews, I’ll say something really awkward and you can feel the stillness of the call. It’s usually when I talk and I’m trying to say something smart or funny and it does not work out.
[Moment of silence as I contemplate how I am the one being extremely awkward in this interview and sincerely hope Fisher does not mistake this awkward pause to be a reaction to the thing that she just said.] Who are you most excited to meet at the Golden Globes?
I’ve told a bunch of people this: Lady Gaga. I think she’s such a cool person. I’d also love to meet Rami Malek.
Do you have any thoughts on Timothee Chalamet?
I’d like to meet him. I think he’s a really good actor. I have yet to see “Beautiful Boy” or “Call Me By Your Name,” but I loved “Lady Bird.”
Over the past couple years, films like “Lady Bird,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” “Skate Kitchen” and “Eighth Grade” have depicted teen girls in complex and exciting ways. Do you think the film industry is getting savvier about portraying teen girls as they really are?
I think so. I think the industry is getting better at it. I think a lot of that is putting women in the positions to write teen girls, and making movies that are not necessarily marketed towards teens.
Do you have a favorite movie or TV show about teenagers?
I don’t know! I did have the opportunity to talk to Molly Ringwald on the “A24” podcast recently. I love “Pretty in Pink.” I think “Stranger Things” does a great job of portraying teenagers too.
What are your plans for your 16th birthday?
I don’t know! I think I’ve been too busy to really think about it. I’ll probably find something fun to do. I know I want to go to [chef Christina Tosi’s desert restaurant] Milk Bar. It’s delicious.
I love the crunchy cereal milkshake.
What are your favorite ways to waste time on the internet?
I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite way, but I do use social media way more than I should. I probably spend the most time on YouTube finding interesting videos. I’ve been really into conspiracy videos lately. It’s so interesting to hear the reasoning behind these bizarre theories, even the illuminati crap.
Do you have a favorite conspiracy?
I think my favorite, because it’s kind of the most outlandish, is that celebrities are lizard people. And there will be a photo of Justin Bieber that says like, look, his mouth is too big! [Note: Justin Bieber is “not a secret lizard person,” according to HuffPost’s reporting.]
What age are you most looking forward to being and why?
I think probably 18 to 21. Being a teen is cool and all, but come on, I’m ready to pay taxes and crap. And I want to vote. I’m informed, kind of. Please let me participate in government.