On the surface, The DUFF might seem like an unusual choice for Mae Whitman following six emotional seasons on NBC's Parenthood, where she brought the touching journey of Amber Holt, from troubled teenager to responsible mother, to life.
But what motivated the 26-year-old Whitman to sign on to play The DUFF's eponymous Bianca Piper — a high school student rudely dubbed the "designated ugly fat friend" of her clique — became increasingly clear as she talked about her own high school experience.
"I was bullied in high school, I was made fun of all the time, and I've always been an outcast," Whitman told BuzzFeed News matter-of-factly, sitting in a squeaky desk chair at CBS Films' Los Angeles headquarters. "It's such a confusing time. There's this weird social hierarchy, and I think everyone is just trying to find some solid ground. Unfortunately, the easy way is to, often, make someone feel smaller so you can feel bigger. And once you realize that comes from a place of fear and insecurity, you can't do anything but feel bad for them and hope they're able to understand that they can be better — that they don't have to be that way."
While Whitman does not consider herself overweight or unattractive, neither does The DUFF: After the titular term is introduced, it's quickly established that being seen as the "designated ugly fat friend" is more a state of mind than a physical state of being. But Whitman is relieved to see the target audience for the film has such a harsh response to the term. "A lot of people have a really strong reaction to hearing the name, and they should — it's a brutal name," she said. "But so is every name that kids get called in high school."
The DUFF, which hits theaters Feb. 20, is indeed smarter and more knowing than your typical teen comedy, making it the latest in a long line of genre-subverting projects Whitman has very intentionally chosen throughout her 20-year career. "I am not two-dimensional. Life is not cut and dry. People are complex and layered and you miss out on so much by trying to keep them boxed in," the actor said.
Given that the subject matter rested so close to her heart, Whitman took a vested interest in ensuring that The DUFF not only spoke to those who'd been mistreated, but to the underlying cause of bullying — and therefore, the aggressors themselves. "It's illuminating the infrastructure of trying to contain somebody in a box and that person going, 'Is that really what I am? How do I get out of the box?'" Whitman said. "Everybody's felt that from time to time. It's about realizing that the way that people feel is real no matter who you are or how you look."
For Whitman, one of the keys to ensuring the film's success lied in making the characters as authentic as possible. After all, if the high schoolers did not see themselves accurately reflected in the characters on screen, Whitman's intended message would fall on deaf ears. Luckily she found an equally invested partner in director Ari Sandel. "He was like, 'We're very into your vibe. We want you to come through. We don't want you to be a prop. We want this to feel natural and real,' and I think that's a really important thing," she recalled.
To achieve their shared goal, Sandel asked Whitman to improvise on set and infuse the character with her sensibilities, her sense of humor, her emotions, and even her style. "I wore a lot of my own clothes in the movie because I wanted Bianca not to feel like any kind of stereotype," said Whitman, comfortably sitting in a maroon pantsuit. "I wanted it to communicate, truly, from my heart. A big piece of my journey are the clothes I wear — I wear '90s button-up jeans, I wear overalls, I wear stuff that doesn't necessarily fit in. So I really wanted those things to come across. Like, no matter what you say to me, no matter if you think I'm right or wrong, this is a real struggle that I have felt and continue to feel all the time."
Whitman as Roxy in 2010's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and as Mary Elizabeth in 2012's The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
While Whitman has found plenty of success in Hollywood, where she began a career at just 6 years old, she has also found it to be a lot like high school in the way actors are often forced into easily definable boxes. "I often get typecast as a quirky, misfit girl — the friend you don't really hear the story of," she said. "So I was excited to see that girl's story here because I think it's the coolest role a lot of the time. It was interesting to get to glorify anyone who's ever felt like a misfit."
"Like my friends," she continued. "A lot of my friends feel that they're not good enough or they don't fit in. Once you see that from the people who are perfection in your eyes, you think, Oh, that must be me too. Everybody's got something they feel insecure about, but all you can do is be the best version of yourself."
And, at the end of the day, that's the piece of wisdom Whitman hopes people walk away from The DUFF with: learning to love the person you already are, a sentiment Whitman intends to impart with every project she's involved with moving forward.
"A while ago, I started to realize that I have the chance to really connect with people through [acting]," she said. "The more that people start to tune in to your communication, the more it's important for you to believe in what you're communicating. You want to make sure that you're putting the right thing out there. That's why it's so important for me to feel like the work is true and honest and we worked really hard to make this movie that way."