“Ice queen. Manipulative. Bitch in charge.” That was the character sketch Katie Chang was given when she flew to L.A. to audition for the lead role in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, a movie based on a group of actual California teens who stole more than $3 million worth of luxury goods from the homes of stars including Lindsay Lohan, Megan Fox, and Paris Hilton. “Those notes were scary for me,” recalls the Illinois native, a serious student who had little in common with the clique’s hard-partying ringleader, Rebecca. “But once you realize it’s just playing dress-up, you get really into it.” Chang landed the part, her first in a feature, and discovered that “playing dress-up” meant access to countless high-end accessories and donning labels like Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Alexander McQueen. She even had the chance to step into Hilton’s shoes—literally—when she and costars Emma Watson and Taissa Farmiga shot in the heiress’ house. “I walked into her closet and was like, I can’t decide if I’m disgusted by it or obsessed with it,” says the 18-year-old actor. She had similarly mixed feelings about Rebecca after working with Coppola to flesh out the character. “You can’t write her off as this crazy, dumb teenager,” says Chang. “She’s a product of society, of living in the Valley. It’s our obsession with celebrity culture that led her to use whatever skills she had to ruin her life.” Chang recently wrapped her next film, A Birder’s Guide to Everything, and will begin studying creative writing at Columbia University this fall.
I saw The Bling Ring last night and it was great. It seems like Rebecca was a really fun role to play — how did you land it?
I had been taking acting classes at this place called the Actor’s Training Center in Wilmette, Illinois. A casting director from New York named Geoffrey Soffer came to teach a workshop there. I took the workshop, he offered to manage me and I started working with my acting coach in Chicago. For a couple years I was auditioning for breakdowns and one they sent me happened to be The Bling Ring. [The role] was a 17-year-old Asian American, preferably Korean, no accent. So I sent in a tape of me talking about myself and then sent myself out September the 11th.
I read you were talking about dinosaurs in this audition tape. What’s the deal with that?
They just wanted you to send in a tape talking about yourself, so I talked about my heritage — I’m Korean-American. I talked about my family and school which were pretty much the only things going on in my life at the time. The last question my acting coach (who was giving me the interview) asked was: What would you do if you didn’t plan on becoming an actor? And my answer was [to be an] environmental scientist or a paleontologist. She was like, why would you be a paleontologist? And I said, because dinosaurs are awesome. Why wouldn’t you be a paleontologist?
So you sent this in, they saw some sort of charm, and brought you out to LA for an audition?
Yeah. I flew myself out, because they were only seeing girls in New York and LA. At the time we knew Fred Roos was involved and already his name is such an alluring factor for making the film. I was lucky enough that my parents were very supportive both emotionally and financially. They were willing to help with that, so my mom and grandma and I actually flew out. I went in and found out the day before that not only was I meeting with Fred and the casting directors, but I was also meeting with Sofia Coppola.
So what did you think at that point? What went through your head?
Oh my god, I totally nerded out. I got so nervous. I don’t think I ever told her this, but since I was about 14 and started realizing what good film was as opposed to Disney or Nickelodeon, she was a huge influence on me. Being a young woman, it’s so important to have strong female figures in the industry making movies about other females who are finding themselves and coming into their own. Sofia’s so well known for doing that. I was so freaked out about meeting with her because of how much I loved her work.
So you got the part, obviously. When you went to LA to audition were you able to read some of the actual script?
Yeah, they flew me out in December to LA —my dad and I — and I did a chemistry read. They gave us the first 16 pages of the script, so right from the get-go I got a feel of who she was. The casting directors had given me some notes early on that were: ice queen, manipulative, bitch, and in charge.
So you mentioned some keywords to describe Rebecca. Tell me more in your own words about this character.
She’s not a dumb kid. She’s highly intelligent. If you think about it, she’s quite intelligent. She had motivation. She wanted to go to school. What I found is that you can’t write her off as this crazy, dumb teenager. She’s highly intelligent but incredibly, incredibly flawed. And her morals are just so skewed. She’s a product of society and of living in LA and living in the Valley. It’s that obsession with celebrity culture that completely discredited her intelligence and led her to use whatever skills she had to ruin her life.
In your opinion, how much would you blame contemporary culture, celebrity gossip blogs and this sort of instant gratification that teenagers and twenty-somethings have grown up with? How much do you attribute her deeds to that and how much do you attribute it to Rebecca personally?
I know, growing up around here, all of that Hollywood culture, it definitely permeates into the Midwest. I can’t imagine how much more available and relied on it is out there, as opposed to just living in Chicago, because that is where all the gossip and stuff is happening. For Rebecca, I think the girl she’s based off of had her flaws as well. They both just became completely overwhelmed with that exposure to celebrity culture and gossip sites to the point that they had to have it. They had to have more.
So you were able to shoot in Paris Hilton’s real home?
Yeah, we had to sneak into Paris Hilton’s gated community and sneak into her house, because she lives in this place. She lives in this place that’s highly exclusive and they don’t allow filming. We weren’t allowed to bring set vans or crew vans. We had to travel in these two Dodge minivans and pretend we were going to a photo shoot at Paris Hilton’s house. It almost felt like we were doing a heist in and of itself, breaking into Paris Hilton’s community to film at her house for a movie about breaking into Paris Hilton’s house.
In the movie, Rebecca is obsessed with high-end labels, Chanel in particular. What kind of fashion do you like? What’s your style like these days?
It’s funny — when I was 12 or 13 I didn’t want to be an actress. I wanted to be a fashion designer, so I remember going through the script and highlighting names of designers that we talked about in the scene and remembering and knowing the designers and some of their styles at least back in 2007. That died pretty quickly when I realized I couldn’t draw.So I knew the high-end designers and everything, but my style now—I shop at The Gap. I’m very low intensity when it comes to fashion. I just like simple pieces. I’m not flashy at all. My go-to color is black.
You’re heading to Columbia in August to study creative writing. What do you want to specialize in as far as your creative writing degree?
Definitely playwriting. I think as an actor, it’s important to understand the creation of a character, not just from an actor’s standpoint, but from a writer’s standpoint as well. I think that could really inform my acting. I’m also interested in other types of prose: narrative, short story, essays, things like that. I’m planning on taking classes within the Columbia film studies program, because that program, as I understand, is very writing-based, which is good, since I want to be a writer.
Who are your favorite writers? Novelists? Screenwriters? Who are your role models?
They’re all women. Like I’ve said I’m more influenced by women than men in this point of my life. So Sylvia Plath, one hundred percent, she’s my favorite. A little on the dark side, yes, but I like to read her because she reminds me why my life is good, compared to what she went through in her life. The Bell Jar is my favorite novel, kind of funny. I also love Margaret Atwood. I love Nora Ephron, because she’s Nora Ephron and she’s amazing. And then my other favorite writer is Tina Fey. My favorite quote is a Tina Fey quote.
What is it?
“You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the shoot.” Which I think is not only about writing, but it’s good to remember in life.
Photography by Neil Gavin. Styling by Stephanie Singer.
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