In her new film, Jason Reitman’s Young Adult, Elizabeth Reaser plays Beth, a Breeders-loving rock mama from small-town Minnesota whose otherwise idyllic life gets trampled on by a six-inch-stiletto-wearing Mavis (Oscar winner Charlize Theron), a young adult ghostwriter who returns home from Minneapolis to win back her high school sweetheart. The only glitch is that her high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson) is Beth’s loving, vanilla husband, with whom she recently had a baby. (One of the best lines in the film occurs when Mavis’ mother says of the newborn, “That new baby of his is just darling,” to which Mavis replies, “Have you seen it? Up close?”)
In addition to Young Adult, Reaser, who earned an Emmy nomination in 2007 for her work on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, recently popped in her colored contacts and shielded herself from the sun to reprise her role as Esme Cullen in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn. From a Starbucks in New York City, the 36-year-old Michigan native talks about sharpening her claws for Charlize Theron, and sinking her fangs alongside Robert Pattinson.
BULLETT: Have you spent much time in New York?
ELIZABETH REASER: I went to school here at Juilliard at Lincoln Center, and then I lived here until I was absolutely forced to go to Los Angeles. [Laughs.] But I actually kind of love it there now. I have a different personality there.
I saw Young Adult, but haven’t yet seen the new installment of Twilight—
That is, like, the only time I’ll ever hear that in my life!
Which raises the question, what’s Robert Pattinson like?
[Laughter.] Oh my god, stop!
Tell me about Young Adult. Since you’re playing a human being in this one, as opposed to a vampire, people might assume you’re more like Beth than Esme Cullen.
Except for that fact that she’s human and that she’s from the Midwest, we’re nothing alike. I have a face that people assume belongs to a nice person, and so I often get cast as the warm, maternal character—when I’m playing humans. It was actually really challenging to play Beth, because I’m so far away from her—a wife and mother who lives in the town where she grew up. I know that world, and part of me really loves it, but I couldn’t be further from it in my real life.
Well, I wouldn’t say that Beth is entirely… good. She’s keeping up the pretense of being a loving, doting wife and mother, but she’s also kind of manipulative.
That’s so fascinating. I’ve never heard anyone say that before. You’re right in that, like any smart person, she knows that she can’t win by engaging in a game of nastiness with Mavis [Theron's character]. But I also think that she’s authentically trusting, and that her marriage is strong. She’s not stupid, but I don’t think she’s threatened by Charlize in the way that, say, I would be. [Laughs.]
Even if she doesn’t appear to be threatened, it’s obvious that Beth is smart enough to keep her enemies closer than her friends.
In terms of the women I’ve met over the years, there are two different ways to handle that kind of thing: one is to be the girl who doesn’t want to talk about [possible infidelity], or who pretends that it’s not happening, and the other is to bring the competition into the fold. But it’s tough when the other woman looks like Charlize and she’s up in your face.
No matter how she looks, Charlize’s character is kind of pathetic—even down to the fact that her idea of “making it” in the big city is moving to Minneapolis to ghostwrite young adult fiction.
She’s that person who leaves home, only to come back and think she’s hot shit. I wonder if I’m that person.
I was about to ask if you see much of yourself in Charlize’s character.
Um, certainly! I can relate to Charlize’s character a lot more than I can to my own, although I certainly don’t think that I am better than anyone else.
Me neither, but I left Young Adult wanting to become a total asshole
She makes it look fun!
There’s a very dramatic scene in which Beth accidentally spills wine on Mavis’ blouse at a neighborhood party. I’d imagine that was a fun day on set.
It was intense! Charlize is, like, a foot-and-a-half taller than me, and she’s a total powerhouse. There’s no, “I’m acting now” with her. It’s very real, which is great! It’s all you’d ever want from your scene partner, but it was also scary. I started to cry during a take and Jason Reitman was like, “No, you can’t cry.” And he was right. Beth just stands there taking it. I think she’s shocked.
Shocked, sure, but maybe vindicated too, because her outburst proves to everyone what Beth new all along: Mavis is a total bitch.
[Laughs.] Wow, this is amazing. You have such a specific take on it. I want to talk to Jason about this. I’m curious if other people will have the same response. When we were filming the scene, I didn’t feel that way at all. I felt like, This is the worst thing that could ever happen, especially on this really special day. But you’re right about my being nice to her. Talk about killing someone with kindness! The worst thing I could ever do to her would be to be nice to her.
Another scene that really stands out is when your character plays that concert at the local bar. What’s the band called again?
You mean Nipple Confusion?
Yes, that’s the one. All of the moms in the band thought they were so cool.
So did the actors playing them! We thought we were the coolest. That’s what’s even funnier. I saw the lead singer of the band the other night and we were like, Oh my god. We thought we were such hot shit. We really thought we were in a band when we were making the movie, even though I’d never played an instrument. They locked me in a studio with a drum teacher. This is what’s great about being an actor. In real life, it would have been a fantasy, but there I was, actually doing it for a month.
With only one Twilight film left to premiere, I’m curious to know if you’re relieved or sad, or both, that the end is near.
Neither, really. I feel like we were lucky that we got to finish what we started. There was no guarantee of that when we began making these movies. I don’t feel sad about it, though. I’m an actor, and actor’s move on. You’re always clawing your way to the next thing. It’s tough, but you don’t have a lot of time to sit around and think about it.
I’ve heard the relationships that actors build on set described as being like those developed during summer camp. Even if you keep in touch, it won’t necessarily be the same when you’re done working together.
Yeah, that’s exactly it. When you first start out in this business, you get really close to people really fast. You’re very intimate and very open. But I think, in any line of work, it’s really hard to stay in touch with people.
When you were first offered the part, did you have any idea how successful the franchise would be?
Well, my agents and my lawyer—everybody I talked to—were like, “This is a really big deal.”
On paper, did the premise sound a little silly to you?
As soon as I read the book, I got it. I bought all three, and I lay in my bed and read. I fell in love with Edward. I became completely obsessed. I found him to be so romantic and sexy.
Have you been overwhelmed by the intensity of your fans?
It’s always really shocking whenever I’m on a red carpet. You can prepare, but you can’t really prepare. It’s unlike any other premiere. It’s so humbling, like, Are you actually saying my name right now? It’s like when you think the hot girl is waving at you, and then you turn around and she’s actually waving to the guy behind you.
Was fame ever something to which you aspired?
I think it would be ridiculous for me to say that I don’t want people to pay attention to me. When you’re younger, the idea of fame seems really awesome, and maybe it is really fun when you’re young because you’re chasing other things, but as you get older, like I am, there is no amount of fame that compares to the things that really bring me pleasure. Some people really love being famous, and they get off on it. And that’s great. That’s a whole a thing in itself, and to each their own. I’m shy and weirded out by all of that stuff; still, at the same time, I clearly want people to watch what I’m doing or else I’d be doing something else.
You’ve seen firsthand a handful of actors’ overnight rises to superstardom, and, to be honest, as an outsider looking in, I don’t think it looks like a lot of fun. What’s your take on it?
I would agree. As someone on the inside, I don’t think they’re having a lot of fun, to be honest. I mean, at first it’s fun, because people are rolling out the red carpet for you, and you’re getting into restaurants and people are sending you jackets—
Back it up. They get jackets?
[Laughter.] People start sending you boxes of shit and you’re suddenly fabulous. But I’ve seen a lot of the joys of being young—running around and getting into trouble, walking down the street and ignoring the world—totally vanish.
In this case, it was literally overnight. But this is the agreement we enter into as actors. You can’t complain about it. You just can’t. I’ve been involved in this industry for a long time, and I know that there are a lot of choices that are made along the way, choices that can form your day-to-day life. There are people who cultivate attention, and then there are other people who don’t. This is a conscious choice that you and I are talking. I don’t have to do it; I want to do it. So even though the contracts for celebrities have definitely changed, there are choices one can make that will inform everything going forward. I’ve seen people go different ways.
I hadn’t really considered the choices actors make after their initial rise to fame.
Look, Angelina Jolie isn’t famous by accident. It’s not like, in spite of herself, she’s become a star. It’s a choice.
Before we get off the phone, I have a question about your arc on Grey’s Anatomy. When we first meet the character you played on that show, I was aghast. Your face was, well, disgusting, and I’m curious to know if you were apprehensive about taking the part because of it.
My mother was more upset about it than I was, to be honest. I was a little relieved because I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to handle being surrounded by all those hot dudes. This was at the height of all their McSexiness and so I came into it thinking, Oh good, I’ll have a mask on so it won’t be about me being beautiful, it won’t be about me trying to do it with any of them—it’ll just be about this character. It was actually a relief.
But, leave it to Shonda Rhimes, you ended up doing it with one of them.
I mean, of course I did.
stylist RYAN HASTINGS
hair ROB TALTY
make up JO STRETTELL
Photography by Dan Monick