As a young adult, freshly out of acne and everything else teen, few themes hit home harder than adolescent angst. Middle school drama, even a mean look from a tween, gives me the creepy crawlies and transports me back into ill-fitting Bermuda shorts and successions of bad side-bangs. These cringe-worthy moments are embodied in Bo Burnham‘s relatable and sincere dramedy, Eighth Grade. The film’s protagonist, Kayla, is an awkward eighth grader, nearing the end of her painful time in middle school. She weathers pool parties and sex-ed and mean girls on their phones, striking a chord when each of these exploits is hopelessly derailed.
Then enters Olivia. Olivia is everything that an eighth grade girl could hope for in a high school mentor—she is funny, inclusive, beautiful, and part of a gaggle of friends. Emily Robinson plays Olivia, applying a salve to all of the wounds opened up in Kayla and the audience during Eighth Grade‘s traumatic reliving of middle school. Currently a rising junior at Columbia University, Emily goes above and beyond Olivia’s character, attending school, tending to her arts, and flying coast-to-coast for projects. She squeezed in some time to talk with Honeysuckle about the film, her inspiration, and how she’s living her best, post-adolescent life.
We all wish that when we were in eighth grade, we had a mentor like Olivia, the character you play in the movie. How did your personal experiences inform your portrayal?
Something that we uncovered in pre-production was the similarity between Olivia and Kayla. I think Olivia used to be Kayla in some ways, when she was in middle school. I know that I was definitely an anxious youth, so that shared history is definitely something that informed how Olivia came to exist in the world.
What aspect of your character, Olivia, did you relate to most?
Definitely her awkward hand gestures—no, Olivia is a positive, bubbly force to be reckoned with. I would say that she’s very much a part of my aspirational self; she embodies traits that I think I can display, but never with quite the vigor and vitality that she manages to pull off. I think her strength comes from a deep sense of belonging she has found in high school, which served as a contrasting force to her feelings and experiences in middle school. But perhaps it is her desire to nurture Kayla that I related with most directly? Even if only because of [the] magnificent Elsie Fisher, who played Kayla, who made me want to be the real world Olivia to her Kayla.
In what ways did you relate to Kayla?
The miraculous thing about Kayla, and the movie as a whole, is that everyone is Kayla to varying degrees. We’ve all felt awkward and anxious and alone before. And I know I certainly felt that way in eighth grade. One of my favorite scenes is Kayla pacing as she talks on the phone with Olivia – back and forth, back and forth, that level of nerves and excitement is something so pure and true—something that I know I have done in the past and will certainly do again. Bo did such a beautiful job of writing and capturing so many small eccentricities of existence and personhood, I find it almost impossible not to relate.
I was definitely stunned by the realness—the empathy—of this movie. Now that you’re a bit removed from the middle school/high school scene, what emotions did this cuttingly accurate picture bring up?
I wanted to take a time machine and hug the middle school version of me. Everything feels so immense and overwhelming—so important and immediate in middle school and even high school, but somehow the time keeps ticking and the world keeps turning. Seeing the feelings of being young being gifted such validity and respect on screen made me want to jump up and down and tell my younger self that yes, you feel all of these things, and yes that is real and important, but also, that everything will continue and it will all be okay, and get better.
How did you decide to audition for Eighth Grade? Can you tell me what it was like working with a public figure from our adolescence (AKA Bo Burnham)?
My agents sent me an email with the script and I immediately fell in love; I laughed, I cried, I felt such a kinship with Kayla and Olivia from the very start. So I went on tape, and before you know it I was flying to New York to meet Elsie and Bo for a chemistry read. Bo told me I got it in the room, on the spot.
Working with Bo is the greatest delight. I had obviously been a fan of his for a while, and so I was excited just to meet him, let alone work with him. His stand-up and writing makes his brilliance clear, but he’s truly one of the most generous and thoughtful creators, with care and awareness that makes his set such a safe and fun place to play pretend.
Do you think that Eighth Grade would be best digested by its middle school audience if seen with a parent or alone/with friends?
What Bo, Elsie, and I started to recommend is that middle schoolers see it with their parents—but on opposite sides of the theatre. So you can experience the anxiety attack of it all alone, without the embarrassment of being next to your parent or child through all the grueling moments, but can have meaningful conversations about moments that stick with you afterward.
What do you think is the most poignant aspect of the film?
The scene that sticks with me the most is the car scene between Riley and Kayla. This movie was written and made in a pre-Me Too moment, and seeing representation of how something that on paper is “nothing” has such pressure and impact, and can incite such feelings of deficiency, and such a desire to apologize, is really impactful and important. Seeing the “nice guy” pressure Kayla in a way that makes her feel like she’s the one in the wrong is so representative of the culture we’re only now trying to reform systemically.
I’m sure everyone asks about your work/school/life balance, but I have to, also! Have you found attending Columbia while flying coast-to-coast manageable? Is the school accommodating? Are your colleagues?
Yeah, it’s definitely hard and varies a lot week-to-week. Columbia is accommodating, and it’s also not accommodating. Just depends on the classes and professors. Some weeks are really difficult, everything happens at once. But luckily I have a great support network, professionally, but especially personally—at school and at home. I’m so grateful to have people I can lean on when I need to ask for help. I’ve definitely asked classmates to read lines with me before running to an 8:40 seminar, and I’ve also been on work calls during ten minute class breaks. But the chaos keeps it fun, you know?
I’m sure you have a lot of side projects going on, and last time we spoke, you were preparing a show to be screen-tested. How did that go?
Yes! I’m currently developing a television show based on a short film I wrote and directed in 2016, which premiered at LA Film Festival. It’s been such an incredible learning process, and I’m really looking forward to continuing the process.
I know you’ve worked on SNL, and you’ve worked with Betty White; who’s your favorite comedian to work with? Who in the acting community do you most admire?
That’s such a difficult question. I feel really lucky, the vast majority of my professional experiences has not only been positive, but exceptionally fulfilling and soul-nourishing. That said, working with Bo was a dream. When he announced he was taking a break from stand-up, I was crushed because I wanted to consume his content and see him perform live. If only I knew then I would have the opportunity to get to work with him because of his break from the form. In the greater acting community there are so many people I idolize, but the first person who comes to mind is Kathryn Hahn. I’ve had the pleasure of working with her on two projects (Transparent and Private Life) and she manages to be one of the most generous performers on-screen and people off-screen. Her presence is a joyful gift, and her performances are deliriously vulnerable and precise in a way that can seem messy in the most honest of ways. Watching her work makes me giddy with delight.
Finally, we’ve talked about how you love to write. Do you have anything in the works right now? And do you prefer to write something that you could see translated on screen, or are your writings personal?
My writing really varies. In college, I’m a fiction and nonfiction cross-genre creative writing major—so, not a screenwriting major. That said, film and television are both forms that I’m intimately familiar and comfortable with. My mind just goes there first sometimes. It really depends on the story and the future I want for it. I tend to turn to nonfiction when I have a developed perspective on an issue, TV or film when I crave deeper exploration of a particular question, and fiction in general when something is too close to comfortably examine as nonfiction just yet.
The movie Eighth Grade sure felt close enough to be a documentary to some of its viewers, and Honeysuckle looks forward to seeing what Emily comes up with next, be it fiction, nonfiction or an appearance on screen.