Kayla Day desperately wants to be cool. She makes YouTube videos about “putting yourself out there,” and charts game plans for attracting new friends. Eighth Grade, directed by Bo Burnham, fixes its camera on Kayla in her coolest and most self-conscious moments, giving us a movie our inner tween can celebrate: the awkwardness of a middle-school crush, the anxiety of a pool party, the total embarrassment required to explain to your parents that you aren’t popular. Fifteen-year-old actress Elsie Fisher brings Kayla to life warmly: There’s a sense that Kayla knows her social situation can improve, and probably will, but being 13 can feel pretty hopeless and lonely, no matter how many Instagram followers you have.
In Eighth Grade, Kayla’s growth is documented literally, in the form of a time-capsule box she made years before we meet her. On the eve of her middle-school graduation, she opens the box, which she made when she was in sixth grade. Inside is the detritus of the not-too-distant past: Believe-era Justin Bieber, old movie-ticket stubs and Playbills, and a flash drive loaded with a video where 11-year-old Kayla dreams about the glamorous life 13-year-old Kayla is living. Our hero sighs, looking at the items, which seem foolish and presumptuous in retrospect. Midway through Eighth Grade, she burns the box, crushed that she doesn’t have any of the markers of success — best friends, a cool YouTube, a boyfriend — she thinks she ought to.
In real life, Fisher is chatty and ebullient. “I’ve seen videos of myself at a younger age, like two or three years ago. We don’t talk about her,” she jokes. “Throughout the filming of the movie, I saw myself change a lot. I don’t know. I grew up. I became more mature.”
Her co-star Jake Ryan — who plays Kayla’s eventual friend Gabe in the movie — is quieter, but he knows when to mutter a punch line for maximum effect. Gabe is nerdy and sweet, and a little lonely too. In the film, the pair meet during the movie’s cringeworthy pool-party scene, and share chicken nuggets and Rick and Morty jokes in their second (and extremely cute) scene. “I guess I really like the script because I related to Gabe’s awkwardness and energy,” Jake says. Vulture caught up with the two after the movie’s release to talk about how making Eighth Grade has made them reconsider how they see their parents — and themselves.
Let’s start at the beginning: Can you tell me about your auditions?
Fisher: For me, I auditioned quite a while ago. I read the script and I saw the way Kayla talked and that’s something I really related to, as someone who has trouble articulating how I feel. Aside from just the script, I was a huge fan of Bo’s work at the time, so that was very exciting for me. I didn’t get to see the entire script until I actually got the role. So a lot of the draw for me was the way she talked and expressed the way she felt.
I read that Bo would give you script pages the day of filming. Was that how it worked?
Fisher: Yeah, I got to read the whole script one time just because he wanted to make sure we knew what we were doing, and that me and my father were comfortable filming it. I like the way we filmed it actually, how we did one scene, or the scripts, at a time. It just kept it fresh in my brain and let me work more with the character.
What about you, Jake? What made you want to be in Eighth Grade?
Ryan: I related a lot to his awkward energy and stuff like that. The more and more I read the script I was like, Wow, this is a really cool thing. I wish I was a part of this. Then, it happened. It was like, Oh, my God.
Have you both always wanted to be actors?
Fisher: For me, I started very early on in life. I started acting when I was about 5. It wasn’t a decision on my part, although I’m glad I’m acting. I enjoy it so much. I used to live in the mountains in California in this tourist town. It was a very jazzy and artsy town called Idyllwild. My dad was a waiter at a jazz cafe, and I was there one day and there was live music playing, so I just got onstage and started dancing. I think an agent was there or something and they were like, “Your daughter can act.” I started acting from there. It was very exciting being a 5-year-old and working, getting out of school all the time.
Ryan: Pretty much the same thing. I also started out pretty young. I was like 5 or 6. My parents asked me what I wanted to do, which was kind of weird when I was like 5 or 6 years old. “Do you want to do gymnastics or do you want to do acting?” I’m like “Both!” and then I dropped gymnastics for some reason.
Jake, I heard there was a deleted scene where you were doing a magic show. Can you tell me about that?
Ryan: Yeah, so after they told me that I had the part, they told me that in a week or so, they’d send me a magic kit to practice. So, when that came about, I had a month to figure out what I could do with all of these tricks.
What did you practice?
Ryan: Mostly the linking rings which is the most important part, because we dropped everything later and got me new tricks. I can’t remember what they’re called. They had these fake coins that I would use.
Fisher: Yeah, didn’t you have a disappearing ball or something?
Ryan: Yes, yes I did. But that wasn’t until after. Then, they saw the tricks and they realized — I don’t really know the specifics of it — but they told me to drop all of the tricks except for the rings. They got me brand-new tricks on the day of shooting that I had to practice like five minutes before!
Fisher: You did amazing, though.
Ryan: Thank you so much.
Fisher: Of course. It was fun because I just got to sit there and watch him do amazing magic tricks. Easiest job in the world.
I’d like to talk about the pool-party scene, where Kayla has to endure this really awkward birthday party for a popular girl. Did that scene change much during filming?
Fisher: While we were filming, most things stayed very true to the original script. We just played around with it. That is one of my personal favorites that we got to film, though, the entirety of all the pool stuff. That was the one time during the whole summer I actually got to go in a pool. So, I was like “Yes!” And then we had filmed all of the stuff in the middle school first, so to come back and see all the kids was super-fun.
That’s also the scene where your characters first meet. Jake, can you actually do those pool tricks?
Ryan: Probably not. Well, I think I can but [Bo] told me not to.
Fisher: Yeah. The water wasn’t still enough, man.
Ryan: That’s true, that’s true. And it needs to be just the right temperature.
One of my favorite technical tricks in this movie is that all the scenes where Kayla is scrolling through her phone or computer used real screens, not ones dubbed in post. It gives a very eerie, lonely effect. How was that for you as a performer, Elsie?
Fisher: Yeah, they were all practical effects. That was a challenge. Not for me though — I just have to remember my lines. I remember they had to reset the time on the iPhone and we spent like an hour each time just figuring out how to do it. It was insane. It definitely worked out the way we wanted it to, because the screens in the movie just look amazing. Someone pointed out in a Q&A that the fairy lights in Kayla’s room are red, green, and blue which are the LED colors.
The lighting is beautiful throughout, though. There’s so many points where the lighting really really helps create the environment. I think especially in the car scene just to mention it, how you have the red light on my side and then when you pan over to Riley [Daniel Zolghadri], his eyes reflect the red light. It’s creepy.
Eighth Grade is really great at showing how hard it can be to articulate yourself at that age, and how that part of growing up is really magnified by the internet, which asks us all to speak and perform all the time. How did that resonate with you both?
Fisher: I think a big part of the internet is that it really compels you to not only express yourself, but just talk about how you feel, regardless of whether you feel like doing either of those things. There’s a big pressure to constantly be creating. I think that can be a lot, especially for kids. We should be hitting balls around or whatever. I feel like the internet is something that we don’t entirely understand. Like, we talk about it all the time, but do we know what it’s doing? There’s good parts to it, too, of course: It’s giving voices to people who wouldn’t have voices, but it’s also giving voices to cyberbullies. It’s a real two-sided coin, I suppose.
Ryan: Well said. I think it’s definitely a tool you can use to put yourself out there.
Fisher: I mean, it’s like the printing press. It can be used for amazing things or it can be used for not so amazing things.
Ryan: Horrible things.
For Kayla that’s a really complicated relationship: She feels comfortable on the internet, but she also can’t take her own advice when it comes to “putting yourself out there.”
Fisher: I think you have to be careful of what you do on the internet, regardless of whether it’s bad-intentioned or not just because everything you do is recorded forever. So that can be a lot to handle. I don’t know. I just think there’s a big pressure on anyone who uses it and that can be a lot to deal with because I think everyone is already so stressed out just about life in general. To worry about this whole other version of life in a separate plane is just like, Woah, calm down.
Did you do lots of improv on set, particularly in Kayla’s YouTube videos?
Fisher: There wasn’t a whole lot. We generally didn’t improv so much. We didn’t improv entire sets of lines, but with my videos they would be written but I could stumble however felt correct. Again, we stayed fairly true to the script. There was one improv part in the chicken nugget scene. That was our exchange about Rick and Morty.
Tell me more about that. Was the script just: talk about Rick and Morty?
Fisher: Bo overheard us talking about Rick and Morty because we hadn’t gotten … we weren’t allowed to, like, talk after …
Ryan: We were isolated from each other after the auditions.
Fisher: Just because Bo wanted to keep it electric. So, we weren’t really allowed to talk. We weren’t being prevented but Bo was like, “Please don’t.” And so when we finally got to set, we were just trying to get to know each other, and he was talking about Rick and Morty and I think I’m like, “Oh, I know what that is.” And Bo was listening like the weirdo he is.
Ryan: Yeah, then he whispered in my ear right before we did that scene, “Hey, if you want you could do that, you could talk about Rick and Morty and stuff. Do whatever you want, dude. Come on.”
Fisher: That’s great.
Ryan: I was silently freaking out. It was amazing.
How many chicken nuggets did you eat that day? Do you remember?
Ryan: Hundreds, thousands, millions.
Fisher: I actually didn’t eat any. I only ate the French fries.
Fisher: ’Cause I am not a nugget person. I know — terrible!
Tell me how you learned that you’re not a nugget person.
Fisher: I’ve been on the road for a huge portion of my life just because I lived not in L.A. and every audition I went to was in L.A. So I would spend like five-plus hours in the car, four times a week for the beginning part of my life. On some of those road trips, we would get some yummy, yummy McDonald’s and I don’t know. Got the kids’ meal, tried the nuggets, they were not my forte.
I love the relationship between Kayla and her dad and I’m wondering if it made you guys think about your parents differently?
Fisher: I think it made me empathize with my dad a little more just because the relationship between Kayla and her father is very similar to me and my own father’s relationship. And it was just interesting to kind of see the ins and outs of that I guess. You don’t think about it much when you are just interacting with your parents. So to be talking about it all the time and working with Josh [Hamilton] to get it right and natural just made me think about my own relationship with my dad. I hope I’m nicer to my dad. I feel like I haven’t always been nicest.
Ryan: Yeah, like Elsie said, I feel like I can empathize with them a little bit more. We have a better understanding of each other now than we had previously. They did a pretty decent job before, but now I like to think, in my humble opinion, that yeah … they can also understand what we’re going through a little bit more.
Fisher: That’s one of the beautiful things about the movie. Since it’s R-rated, you have to see it with your parents if you are a younger person. So it’s nice. You can relate to your parents and they can relate to you. Watch the movie on opposite ends of the theater, please, but talk about it afterwards.
I was wild about the scene where Kayla is trying to explain to her dad that even though she was invited to the popular girl’s pool party, she shouldn’t actually go, because that’s just how the social hierarchy of middle school works. I had that conversation so many times with my parents.
Fisher: I think when you’re a teen or just a person with anxiety or social anxiety, everything is a lot more life and death for you because it literally makes you feel like you’re dying if you slip up. I think parents get it. They just might not understand in the moment why you’re freaking out. It can be hard to communicate those feelings. It is hard for me right now to communicate what I’m thinking. What do you think, Jake?
Ryan: Usually, I don’t tell [my parents] about a lot of stuff.
Fisher: Fair enough.
Ryan: But when I do, they’re pretty understanding about it. I feel like I should open up a little more about what I’m doing. I feel like now that we’ve watched this film a few times, I think we’re gonna be more honest and open about stuff with our parents.
Since that pool-party scene was a birthday party, I’d like to know what your best birthday was.
Fisher: Ooh! I have two answers. One of them is very nice. One of them is true. So let’s go with the true one. Probably my last birthday: I went bowling, which I am terrible at. I haven’t been bowling in years but I am so bad. Like not-even-funny bad. Like I did not hit a single pin. It was bad. Yeah, but I brought a friend from middle school and my adult friends and then Bo and our buddy Armen [Weitzman] and it was fun. It was fun to hang out with them and they’re all good at bowling and I’m just sitting there and I have to awkwardly do the in between the legs two-handed bowl. It was terrible.
Did you use those gutter things, or no?
Fisher: No. That was my one shred of dignity.
Jake, what about you? What was your best birthday?
Ryan: Best birthday. I think it was when I was about 10. We went to Universal in Florida. We went on this big — I think it was the first time I’ve ever went on an actual roller coaster — big ride called the Rocket. It’s like 140 feet — well, probably more. You get shot up in the sky and then you do all these cool twists and turns. It’s really cool.
Can you both tell me your favorite coming-of-age movies?
Ryan: My favorite is probably Stand by Me.
Fisher: I haven’t watched many coming-of-age movies myself so I don’t know if this really counts but like Harry Potter. It is a coming-of-age series. I don’t know. I felt it. I related. I don’t know if it authentically portrayed my experience but I think I relate to a lot of things that I don’t like necessarily demographically align up with.
So Azkaban is my favorite Harry Potter movie, but Order of the Phoenix is my favorite Harry Potter book.
Fisher: It has been way too long since I read the books. I read them in like fifth or fourth grade and I haven’t read them again since.
Ryan: I feel like Order of the Phoenix was my favorite movie. Order of the Phoenix was pretty good in my opinion, but I also like Deathly Hallows. It was pretty cool. Probably one of the longest, too.
I’m guessing that you’ve both seen Eighth Grade a couple times now. What’s the hardest scene to watch?
Ryan: Oh, the chicken nugget scene.
Ryan: No, it was — don’t get me wrong — it was like probably the most fun scene to record but right as you get up to the Rick and Morty scene, I just crumble into tears.
Fisher: I can watch the chicken nugget scene but I cannot watch the Rick and Morty exchange just because Kayla is a very — she’s not a very different person, but she’s her own person. So that was improv, so there’s a little too much of me in there and I cannot watch videos of myself at all. I can watch the movie because I don’t see myself, I see Kayla, but that scene I just … no thank you. Good-bye. I’m good.
This interview has been edited and condensed.