If you’ve been missing Alexander Skarsgård’s naked torso since the finale of True Blood, never fear. There’s plenty of Skarsgård to be seen in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, one of the highlights of this very sexy Sundance. Diary is the directorial debut of actress Marielle Heller, who wrote the screenplay adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel herself. The film tells the story of precocious 15-year-old artist Minnie (newcomer Bel Powley), who lives with her very permissive single mother (Kristen Wiig) in 1976 San Francisco and is in the midst of experiencing a sexual awakening in the very capable and surprisingly not lecherous hands of her mother’s boyfriend, 20 years her senior (Skarsgård, 38). “I just had sex. Holy shit!” is the first line of the movie, narrated from Minnie’s thoughts. Sony Pictures Classics picked up the distribution rights, and Powley, who’s 22 and pulls off an American accent so seamlessly you’d never suspect she’s British, is enjoying the well-deserved heaps of praise and It girl status Cary Mulligan enjoyed back in 2009 for the similar (but more creepy and less naked) An Education. Jada Yuan caught up with the pair as they scarfed down hamburgers to talk unorthodox auditions, onscreen chemistry, and why the ‘70s were the golden age of mustaches.
First of all, why did both of you want to sign on for this? It’s a beautiful story and beautifully told, but there are a lot of sex scenes.
Powley: I think it’s a really important story for women and for young girls and I think it needed to be told. The character of Minnie, everything she does, the way she feels, the way she acts really resonated with me. It’s what I was like as a teenage girl and I think it’s going to resonate with every woman. I was also 15 seven years ago, so I can remember.
Were you that precocious at 15?
Powley: Yeah, I was, at times. You don’t have to have an affair with your mum’s boyfriend to be able to relate with Minnie and how she acts. I think it’s just more the extremity of feelings that you have when you’re a teenager and, like, the frustration and when you’re really hormonal and you flip between emotions.
Skarsgård: And she’s not always precocious. I feel like sometimes she’s like a little child. And I feel like Monroe has that quality as well. I think that’s kind of how they find each other in a way. There are moments where he’s like a 15-year-old boy and then he pulls himself out of that, like, “Oh, no, now I’m a grown man.” And I think that gives life to their relationship.
When you first read the script did you have any pause? Would you say it’s an inappropriate relationship?
Powley: I think, for us, playing the characters, as Minnie and, well, I guess, as Monroe — I don’t want to speak for him — no, it’s not inappropriate. It felt appropriate. I was playing a character who’s in love with another person. It was completely fine. I think it’s up to you whether you think it’s inappropriate or not.
Skarsgård: This is a grown man in a relationship with his girlfriend’s daughter. It felt like it was a real challenge to make that last for an hour and a half and make it interesting and make it layered, so it’s not just him preying on this young girl. That was kind of what drew me to the project initially. And also the fact that I felt like I’d never seen this film before. It felt really brave and really truthful about the fact that teenage girls do actually think about sex. And you never see that in movies, ‘cause they’re always like, “Oh, I just want to get married, and I want, like, a house and beautiful kids.” This is very real and visceral.
It was so interesting for me watching the movie because I do believe their love story, and I do believe there’s no judgment of it, but at the same time I kept looking at Monroe, being like, “He should know better, he’s the adult in this situation.”
Skarsgård: Of course. I’m not condoning having sex with your girlfriend’s 15-year-old daughter. But you can still make it real. And you can make it complicated. There are all these moments where he’s, like, “Oh, this could actually work.” But then there are other moments where he’s like, “No, no, no, this is wrong.” You know? Which makes it authentic to me.
Bel, how’d you get the part?
Powley: I just got sent the script by my American agent and loved it so much, I wanted to do it so badly. I sent quite an unorthodox audition tape: Usually you just kind of do the scene against a white wall, but I was doing a scene in Minnie’s bed, so I shot it in bed, in my underwear. And then added a separate little bit to the end of the tape talking directly to the camera, talking to Mari [the director] basically saying how much this film resonated with me, how much it would mean—
Skarsgård: Had you ever spoken to Mari at that point?
Powley: No, I’d never met her. I just felt like I had to say, “Please put me in this movie!” And then I guess she noticed me. We Skyped, got on so well, and then I flew out to New York and met with Alex.
Was the chemistry immediate?
Skarsgård: That was crucial, obviously. Mari called me and said, “I think I found the girl. There’s this girl that I really like. Can you meet with her? Maybe you can workshop a little bit,” which is just play around with a couple of scenes and just feel the energy, the chemistry.
Powley: And it was there.
Skarsgård: And it was there. [Laughs.]
How was the first time that you guys had to do a sex scene together?
Powley: He’s a pro.
Skarsgård: I honestly don’t even remember it, that’s how insignificant it was to me.
Powley: What?! You don’t remember the first time we did it?
Skarsgård: No. [Laughs.]
Powley: Actually, I don’t know if I do either. It kind of all blurred into one. We did all the sex scenes in the first week.
Skasgård: Just jumped in the deep end, you know.
Powley: We had two weeks rehearsal, discussing the emotional relationship between them. Then we just got on set and did it.
Skarsgård: And to not overthink it and stigmatize it. It’s just fucking. It’s part of the story. It’s not gratuitous, it’s important to tell those stories, those scenes, that part of their relationship.
Powley: And they’re all necessary.
Skarsgård: We trusted Mari 100 percent, so you know, you just do it. You don’t even think about it.
What was it about her that brought out all the trust?
Skarsgård: From the first time I met her, it was just her passion. She’s the most, like, wonderful human being. So warm and lovely.
Powley: She’s also incredibly easy to work with. In those two weeks of rehearsal, if we had issues with like a certain line or a certain action, she would always listen to us and we’d come to a decision together — whether we’re going to keep it, whether we’re going to change it. She wasn’t too precious about it.
Did doing all of the sex scenes in the first week, did it create different intimacy than if you’d done it chronologically?
Powley: Yeah. It was really useful, because we did it in the first week when it was just Alex and I. Kristen [Wiig] hadn’t arrived yet, so then when she got there, Minnie and Monroe had had their sexual relationship, and she had no idea how it had gone or no idea about it really, which is a reflection of what actually happened in the movie. So it was useful.
What was the coolest part about playing characters from the ‘70s?
Skarsgård: My mustache.
Powley: The clothes. The sets are amazing. We shot in this beautiful townhouse in San Francisco. Every piece of furniture, I wanted it all. And the color palette was just so cool.
What did you love about your mustache?
Skarsgård: Every single fucking strand of hair. No, it’s just fun you know. Mustaches, sideburns, walking around in San Francisco for a month.
Bel, this is your first Sundance and you’re something of a breakout star. Does the attention feel weird?
Powley: I’ve been trying not to think about it too much, and try to remain a normal person and just ride it, and have fun with Alex and Kristen. I’m having an incredible time — it feels like I’ve been here for about two weeks, though, and it’s only been two days.