Three Billboards and Big Little Lies Star Kathryn Newton on Playing Emo Teens

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Photo: Getty Images

Kathryn Newton has perfected the angsty teen-girl sneer: an eye-roll paired with a muttered insult, plus a glare icier than anything at Morgenstern’s. At best, her characters disrespect their mothers; at worst, they’re downright mean. But while playing a trio of teen girls across some of the year’s best offerings, Newton has also showed us each girl’s big heart.

In February, Newton was Reese Witherspoon’s rebellious daughter on Big Little Lies, sneaking around on her laptop, scheming to sell her virginity online. By November, she was the nerdy, bespectacled straight- edge rolling her eyes at Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird. That same month, her death prompted the onscreen vengeance of her movie-mom Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

With those three projects, plus her role in Halt and Catch Fire, which finished its fourth and final season in October, Newton has been Caleb Landry Jones–level busy. There’s something comforting in the way Newton, 20, describes playing girls who aren’t that much younger than her: “Underneath all that anger towards Frances or Reese is love, is a lost girl who’s growing, and that’s me.”

You’ve been in so many things this year. Do people tell you they’ve seen you everywhere?
I didn’t know that all these projects were gonna come out together at the same time or anything. I’ve gotten to see the people that I worked with and it’s just been really special for me. I’ve done a lot of traveling between New York and L.A. and London, and I’m like, This is the coolest thing ever. I’ve been traveling so much I had to get a new suitcase. It broke — the wheel broke.

What drew you to the part in Three Billboards?
When I read the script by Martin McDonagh, I knew that movie was going to be incredible. The character was central to the story, because the movie is about Angela’s death and how her mom avenges that. I cared about the story so much, and I just wanted it to have that level of importance.

I remember I was working on Big Little Lies at the time, and I kind of had to fight for the role. I was working on one set, so I had to go to Jean-Marc [Vallée] and say, “Hey, Jean-Marc, remember that audition — you let me go meet the director on my lunch break? Well I booked it, so now can you move dates around for Big Little Lies so I can go shoot this in Asheville, North Carolina?” It was kind of a really great experience for me, because not only did I have to fight really hard just in my audition, but then I had to fight really hard to get the dates cleared out. So it was a really great experience for me as a person, just learning how to get what you want, and just as an artist to fight for a role.

What was that like, working on these two projects concurrently? How did Jean-Marc’s direction compare to Martin McDonagh’s?
Everybody has different processes. It’s kind of amazing how we all end up with a film or a TV show, but we all go about it differently. [The projects] I’ve done this year are not similar in any way. Every role has been so different, every person I’ve worked with has taught me something new. Jean-Marc Vallée shoots very freely, and we shot 360 and you’re always in the scene for hours. Whereas with Martin McDonagh, we shot it like a play. We had rehearsals. We took an entire day for one scene, and we did it a million different ways. It was a completely different way of going about it, but I love both and I would love to work with both of them again.

And how did those styles compare to working with Greta on Lady Bird?
I’m a huge fan of Greta Gerwig and working with her was also a dream come true. She was one of those directors who, when people asked me, “Who do you wanna work with one day?” I’d say Greta Gerwig. I’ve always been a fan of mumblecore and her films, and so to work with her was just so much fun. That whole project was kind of like going to high school with the coolest kids.I felt like I was a popular kid because of Saoirse [Ronan] and Beanie [Feldstein], and they’re all fantastic actors and just really nice.

Okay, so I mean this as a compliment: You’re very good at playing the kind of defiant, almost bratty…
Teenager, yeah. Right?

As a former bratty teenage girl, I appreciate it. What’s your secret to getting into that mode?
I find that I relate to most of the characters that I play on a really personal level, just because we’re the same age, we’re girls, and we’re growing. I can find myself in those roles, so it makes it easy to connect to. But all of them are their own person — they’re all hard to understand and hard to figure out, just like I am. But still, they’re not me. Abigail’s not Kathryn, you know? But there are parts of me that understand Abigail, and there are parts of me that disagree with Abigail. Abigail’s just an example, really, [that applies to] all of these roles. So I think that’s my secret: just keeping it as real as possible.

Abigail seems desperate to do the right thing, but her execution gets muddled. Selling her virginity on the internet was a terrible idea that came from a good place.
I think that’s just her tragic flaw. She has so much pride and she wants to do the right thing and stick up for what she believes in, which is so righteous and that’s a big reason why I admire her so much. She has so much courage. She doesn’t have any fear. She’s trying to do something that no other kid could really do, but you know, that’s just the teenager way of doing things, right? We think we know everything. Then it gets time to do it and we realize, “Uh oh, now I’m in trouble.” She’s trying to change the world as much as she can, and I don’t think she’ll stop. I think that there’s a lot for her in the future, and I’d love to see what happens next. She’s just one of those kids that’s gonna do something bigger than herself.

As teenagers, we’re always told that we can’t do something. We’re always told, “Oh, you have to go by the status quo. You have to go to college. You have to get a job. You have to be nice. You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” Abigail’s like, “No. I’m gonna change the rules of the game,” and she does, whether her mom likes it or not. But she’s also very lucky because Reese — or Madeleine — really loves her daughter, so she has a lot of support.

At the other end of that spectrum is your Lady Bird character, Darlene, who is kind of … um, a square?
Oh my gosh. Darlene is the real me. I am such a nerd. I mean, I went to Catholic school. I remember the first day of school I wore my skirt unhemmed. My skirt was past my knees! I was the only one at school with a skirt that long. I was like, Okay, so I’ve done this on the first day, completely embarrassed myself, dug a hole.

Talk to me about Darlene’s look. She has those glasses, the rolling backpack — how much of that was you and how much of that was in the script?
That was me and Greta. We had a lot of fun creating Darlene: picking out her sneakers, her glasses, her headband. It was no makeup, let’s add some zits, let’s French braid this super tight, and just make her like a go-getter, very focused, laser-beam kind of a girl. And it’s funny how when you put your clothes on on a set, you kind of just change. My posture changed, the way I walked, everything kind of molded into Darlene. I felt very comfortable in her skin.

What’s your relationship with your mom like? Were you a rebellious teen?
I’ve never really been a rebellious teen. I’ve always looked at that and thought it was cool, but I never was that way. I’m 20, I still live with my parents. I’m really close to both of them and I hang out with them more than what is probably normal, but I think it’s okay. I play golf with my dad all the time. I just came home last night from New York to some freshly baked oatmeal cookies and three types of ice cream. Why would I ever wanna leave?

So how do you get in the mode of Abigail or Angela, girls who call their moms all sorts of names? Some of those line readings are vicious.
I’m an actor and I have to do what’s written on the page. The only thing that I can do is bring myself to it. Underneath all that anger towards Frances or Reese is love, is a lost girl who’s growing, and that’s me. So it’s not that hard. It’s not that far of a stretch to be a teenager who can be mad at her mom. I mean, we’ve all been there. It’s a lot of fun for me to explore the depths of, not so much anger, but just being misunderstood and trying and screaming, mostly for guidance.

What are your favorite coming-of-age movies?
Coming of age, the first thing that comes into my head is Edward Scissorhands. Does that count?

Eh, kinda.
[Laughs.] Not really. What would you say?

I really loved Diary of a Teenage Girl.
Yes! That was great. Almost Famous is my favorite movie of all time. So, Almost Famous, Juno, and The Virgin Suicides.

You worked with Lucas Hedges in Lady Bird and Three Billboards, and you’re in his next movie, directed by his dad. Are you two very close?
Yeah. He’s one of my best friends and we have so much fun working together. When we finished Lady Bird, that was after Three Billboards, I was like, “Okay, Lucas, can we make a deal please, where you’re in all of my movies and I’m in all of yours?” We didn’t really stick to it, but now we’re getting another movie under our belts, we’re kind of sticking to our handshake. We’ll see. I’m so happy.

Lucas is the best, and I just met his dad in New York. The script is so full of love and heartbreak and fighting, and it’s gonna be very touching. I cried like three times reading the script. I cry three times every time I read it.

Is there anything you can tell me about Big Little Lies season two?
I don’t know what I’m allowed to tell you. All I can say is that after the Emmys everybody was very, very positive. I can’t say anything. They all just looked at me funny, with a little wink and a smile, whatever that means.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Billboards, Big Little Lies’ Kathryn Newton on Emo Teens