Emma Roberts has played her fair share of teenagers, from the iconic girl detective in Nancy Drew to the self-harming Noelle in indie dramedy It’s Kind of a Funny Story to Madison Montgomery, the jaded starlet, witch, and “stone cold bitch who loves hard drinking, big dicks, and trouble” from American Horror Story: Coven. Now, the 23-year-old actress is back in high school for her latest role in Gia Coppola’s directorial debut Palo Alto, set to open in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on May 9th before expanding into other markets.
But Roberts sees her Palo Alto character, April, a naive girl caught between a fellow student with a crush (Jack Kilmer) and a chancier flirtation with her soccer coach Mr. B (James Franco), as a change of pace. “She’s a character I’ve never played before — so not like me,” Roberts told BuzzFeed over the phone shortly after the film screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. “She’s not one of these class clowns or mature-beyond-her-years kind of girls. She’s a real 16-year-old girl, and she’s trying to figure out all these complicated issues that are getting thrown at her.”
Dreamily shot but grounded in gritty depictions of teenage angst and confusion, Palo Alto is the most recent in a series of indies the former Nickelodeon star has sought out as she makes the transition into more adult roles, films that include her leading turn alongside John Cusack as would-be literary wunderkind Amy in 2013’s Adult World and the part of the prickly pop star Rashida Jones tangles with in 2012’s Celeste and Jesse Forever. But Roberts isn’t in a hurry to leave teen roles behind, noting it’s an incredibly rich time in one’s life to be able to explore. “The reason there’s so many books and movies about being a teen is because it’s the beginning of so many things and the end of so many things,” the actress explained. “It’s just such a magical time.”
For April, any magic is interspersed with some very relatable loneliness and uncertainty, particularly in her relationship with Mr. B, for whom she also babysits. Palo Alto depicts what happens between April and her teacher with a sensitivity Roberts was drawn to. “It wasn’t just a gratuitous teacher-student love affair — it was really something that had a profound effect on her and probably will for the rest of her life,” she said. “If it was gratuitous, then I would have been more hesitant. But it really was a catalyst for a lot of things in the movie for April.”
April’s relationship with Mr. B also contrasts with her tentative interactions with stoner classmate Teddy (Jack Kilmer), whose storyline intersects with hers at assorted high school parties and impulsive nighttime jaunts to the park. “I love the juxtaposition of this love affair with the teacher that is so not what she should be doing, then seeing the sweet, innocent love she should be going after,” Roberts noted. “It made you see two sides of April: the one where she really is this young girl, and the one where she’s trying to be someone she’s not.”
Coppola adapted Palo Alto from a collection of Franco’s short stories, putting Roberts in the unusual position of starring alongside the writer of the film’s source material. She said Franco wasn’t intrusive about how Coppola brought the book to the screen, adding he was more excited about seeing his writing brought to life. “We didn’t really talk about his book that much other than that I just told him how much I loved it,” said Roberts, who read Palo Alto when it was first published in 2011. “I thought the characters were really honest and raw and the stories were really interesting.”
For Roberts, Palo Alto is about how no one, even a soccer coach making passes at a high school student, can be judged as black or white. “Everybody in the movie is very flawed, and the adults are no exception,” she said. “Just because you do a bad thing doesn’t make you a bad person. Just because you do a good thing doesn’t make you a good person.” And exploring characters who are complicated and who push the boundaries of likability is something that Roberts has been interested in lately, with roles like Amy in Adult World and, certainly, with Madison Montgomery on the most recent season of FX’s American Horror Story.
“Honestly, my favorite roles that I get to do are the most unlikable,” Roberts laughed. “I love getting to do the humor and getting to be aggressive, because I feel like a lot of my roles growing up were very much the girl next door.” Though this wasn’t a direction she pursued intentionally, Roberts said she “never wanted to be playing one character all the time. I want to mix it up. I see my favorite actors and actresses playing a bad guy when you never expect it, or playing the heroine when you wouldn’t expect it.”
Roberts doesn’t know whether she’ll be good or bad in the upcoming fourth season of American Horror Story: Freak Show, to which it was confirmed she’d be returning at PaleyFest in March. “I don’t even know my character’s name. I don’t know anything,” she said.
But she is looking forward to what will be her first period piece, since American Horror Story: Freak Show will be set in the ’50s. “What I love about American Horror Story is that they give everybody a full-on makeover every year — you never recognize the person!” And for Roberts, that seems to be the goal.