She spent last winter as the bitchiest of witches on American Horror Story: Coven, but this spring, Emma Roberts returns to reality in Palo Alto, the debut feature from 27-year-old filmmaker Gia Coppola. Adapted from James Franco’s short story collection of the same name, the film follows a group of disillusioned teens in a bleak but tender exploration of suburban ennui. Roberts plays April, a star soccer player who embarks on an affair with her coach, portrayed with unexpected subtlety by Franco himself. It may be well-trod territory, but Roberts’ affecting performance, complemented by Devonté Hynes’ masterful soundtrack, breathes new life into the high school Lolita trope.
Like an American Graffiti for the Skins generation, Palo Alto deftly handles its narrative of fucked-up teenage alienation without resorting to caricature or cliche. While co-stars Jack Kilmer and Nat Wolff certainly contribute, it is Roberts who grounds the film in an emotional reality that even viewers long out of high school can appreciate. We spoke to Roberts about her own high school drama, women in film, and creating April’s unique style.
Palo Alto is Gia Coppola’s first full-length film. Was she an easy director to work with?
She’s one of the best directors with actors that I’ve worked with. She knows how to talk with us and connect with all of us in a way that I hadn’t really had before. It was amazing because while filming the movie I went places and did things I wouldn’t have been able to do for anybody else. It was also refreshing to work with Gia because she’s a young female director. I can’t even remember the last time I worked with a female director so it was really cool to have that experience.
It’s definitely a film with complex female roles. Did you feel an affinity to your character April?
I definitely did. I really could relate to that time in your life where you’re a teenager and it’s the beginning of so many things but at the same time the end of so many things and you’re trying to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong. I think we all go through that. I definitely had a soft spot for April and her journey and I love that she knows all these characters and they were flawed but there wasn’t any judgment passed on them. It was just like this is what they’re going and this is how they’re handling it—take it for what you will.
Did you see any of your high school experiences mirrored in the movie?
Everything in the movie felt pretty real to me, whether it happened to me or happened to a friend or I’d seen it happen to someone I didn’t even know. It was also very in the realm of growing up. Everybody went through this stuff. I found the story of April and Mr B very interesting because at one of the schools I went to I’d heard about that happening and I remember being horrified. It was one of those stories you hear a lot and I thought it was cool that they addressed it in the movie because I hadn’t really seen it in a long time.
Both of the female leads end up leaving emotionally abusive relationships. Would you view the film as empowering for women?
I love the way the females in the movie are portrayed because I feel like at the end of the movie there is a light for them. They’re not these damaged people that are never going to have a life. You see that they’re finding the way slowly but surely. I think that’s how things happen in real life, so I liked that that’s how they were portrayed.
You’re older than most of the other actors in the film, the majority of whom are just out of high school. What was that dynamic like?
It was fun actually. I’m always the youngest person on set, so it was interesting to be the oldest person there. As much as I’m out of high school things don’t change too much. You still have relationship drama with friends and with boys and with family. Those feelings are universal and they’re portrayed really well in this movie. It doesn’t feel like a high school movie to me and that’s what I liked about it. It wasn’t in-your-face stereotypical high school- it was different.
As well as starring alongside you in the film, James Franco also wrote the source material. What was it like acting across from the guy who created your character?
He was someone that was on my list of people to work with. When I was younger I listed all the people I wanted to work with in my career and he was on there. I actually read his book when it came out five years ago and fell in love with it. It was surreal to be on the set of the movie because I loved the book so much and wanted to work with him. He was so nice and normal, which I think most people think he’s not, and he was so cool and sweet. At the end of the movie he got me a book as a wrap gift. He’s a nice guy.
You also worked with another rising young actor, Jack Kilmer.
Jack and I had a funny relationship. A lot of the reactions between us in the movie were real because he was a little bit awkward around me. I would always try to get him to talk to me and he didn’t want to so it really worked for the movie. But he’s so talented and so cute. We always joke that I’m so glad I’m 21 and not 17 because I would have such a crush on him.
Compared to the other characters, April’s style massively stands out. Did any of those pieces come from your own wardrobe?
Gia and I and her mom Jacqui styled April. We took a lot of clothes from Gia’s closet, took a couple things from my closet. A lot of it is A.P.C., which is Gia’s favorite brand and one of mine too, so we made this little me-and-Gia baby, kind of like a cross between the two of us. We’d always be having these arguments about who gets to keep what.
Another striking stylistic aspect of the film was Devonté Hynes’ score and soundtrack.
It’s so crazy to me how amazing that soundtrack is because literally when we were shooting the movie, if I had to listen to music in my head it would’ve been that. He didn’t come onto the movie until much later so it’s crazy how well he captured what was going on in the movie without being on set. It’s beautiful. I’m just in awe of how talented he is. I want to get to know him sometime.
Along with Palo Alto, we’re also excited to catch you in the upcoming fourth season of American Horror Story.
I can’t wait to start filming Freak Show in July. We haven’t even gotten a script for the first episode yet. I’m kind of nervous. I was anxious to sign on again and when I did I was like what have I signed up for? Who knows what they’re going to have me do. Hopefully in the next month we’ll have more answers for you.
When you were filming Coven did you know who was going be the Supreme?
We were all told we were the Supreme. I think that’s why the performances worked, because if we had known who the Supreme was we would have kicked back and been like whatever. We were all sitting together one time and I was like “hey, I’m the Supreme” and the others were like “no I’m the Supreme” and I was like “were we all told we were the Supreme and were not?” We were all tricked, but I thought it was Cordelia from day one. She’s the Supreme’s daughter—it has to be her.