Emma Roberts first appeared in the movies at nine, as Johnny Depp’s daughter in cocaine-smuggling thriller Blow. When she was sixteen she travelled to Britain to take the lead role in Wild Child, a teen morality tale about a Malibu party-girl who’s exiled in a home counties boarding school (it’s brilliant). Now at twenty-three she’s taken on the role of April in Gia Coppola’s directorial debut Palo Alto, which arrives in UK cinemas on October 3rd and is adapted from James Franco’s collection of short stories about the small Californian city where he was brought up.
Palo Alto is one of the richest places in America – home to the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page, SpaceX’s Elon Musk – but it’s shown through the movie’s wandering, sometimes overlapping storylines of love and boredom to be a pretty ordinary place to grow up, more or less like anywhere else. The movie might star James Franco but it’s not another Spring Breakers, and it might be directed by a Coppola but it’s not another Bling Ring. There’s very little in the way of violence or social networking or money and, even though it has at its heart a dark story about a teacher seducing his young student, it’s never unnecessarily shocking. With a score by Blood Orange/ Devonté Hynes featuring his own original compositions alongside songs from the likes of Mac DeMarco and actors Nat Wolff and Jack Kilmer, it’s also a hazy, heartstring-pulling listen. Palo Alto is a beautiful, relaxing movie, but, once you’re actually relaxed, it starts unsettling you in the most brilliantly awkward way...
Palo Alto is about growing up in California. Where did you grow up and go to high school?
I grew up in LA, but I never went to high school because I was home-schooled from the age of seven. My friends always joke that I’ve only been to high school in movies! I had a lot of friends that all went to the same school, so my social life kind of revolved around my friends’ high school experience, like I would go to their dances, and their football games.
Without the memories, how do you prepare for high school movies?
Well, I had the social aspect. And I love reading, so that’s also how I learned about high school, through reading books and seeing movies. It’s still my favourite topic to read about and watch; high school has such a romance about it.
What are your favourite high school movies?
I love Mean Girls, of course, that was the staple high school movie when I was growing up, I saw it in the theatre. I love Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, which isn’t really a high school movie but it has that best friends dynamic and I love those kinds of stories. Then there are the really old classics, I love the John Hughes ones like Pretty In Pink and Sixteen Candles, I think that’s why I gravitate towards those sorts of scripts. When I read high school scripts I get butterflies because it’s such an interesting time and it probably goes by really quickly.
How did you start acting?
I pretty much begged my mom my whole growing-up to be an actress. I was always a kid that loved movies, loved TV shows. My mom would try to put on cartoons and I’d be like, “No, I only want to watch real people!” I watched Nickelodeon a lot, and the Disney Channel, and I would say, “I want to be on a show like that.” I begged my mom and she would always say, “You’re not getting into acting!” My family is in the business, and she thought seven or eight was way too young to start. When I was nine I finally talked her into letting me go on an audition. She said, “You can go to one audition and that’s it.” She probably thought it would shut me up. It happened to be for the movie Blow and I ended up getting the part. That was my first audition and my first job. I think my mom was in shock!
What was it like appearing in Blow at nine years old?
I didn’t realise what the movie was about until I was fifteen or sixteen, I didn’t even know who Johnny Depp was! I just thought it was great that I went to an audition and I got the part. My mom asked Johnny Depp for an autographed picture for me, and when I was older I asked her for it; the picture says, “To Emma, one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met,” and it’s signed by him, and I now have that hanging in my living room!
You’ve been taking on darker roles recently. Why did you want to play the part of April in Palo Alto?
I bought Palo Alto in a bookstore the day it came out because I was a big James Franco fan, so I picked up a copy and read it in two days. I was really in awe of the way he captured this world. I remember calling my manager and saying, “If this is ever a movie I want to be in it!” And a year went by, two years, three years, four years later I think it was I got the script. I really wanted to be a part of it. I liked April because I felt like her story was interesting and something I hadn’t seen before. Then when I saw that Gia Coppola was directing it I really, really wanted to do it because I had seen a lot of her photography, and had met her a couple times at parties, and I was really curious to see what she would do with a project like this.
What was it like kissing James Franco?
James and I had never met before but we got along really well, so we just went with the scenes and saw where they took us, and a lot of times it was uncomfortable but I think what we were trying to say comes across in the movie. He’s so cool that he was fine to do it with, because it could have been really awkward!
What was it like on set?
There was a summer camp feel to the whole thing. Some of us were wrapped for the day and we’d stay on set just to hang out with everyone, or we’d go to In-N-Out after, or we’d go to Gia’s mom Jacqui’s house to hang out all the time. I’ve never worked on a set where everyone kind of knew each other in some capacity, and we were all in our twenties or teens so it was a fun set, like a kids’ set. So yeah, it was really special, everybody was really close.
Are you like April at all?
April’s very different to any character I’ve played. She’s very introverted whereas I’m a social butterfly and I’ll talk to anybody. She’s very much more in her head and kind of quiet, and I think a little bit lost. It was interesting to dive into her character and see the world through someone else’s eyes that’s so unlike me. As far as the way April acts, physically, I have a sister who’s almost fourteen so I took a lot of her mannerisms and facial expressions and tried to bring that to April, which was fun.
April plays soccer, did you have to learn how to play too?
We did a couple days of soccer but I’m a very un-athletic person, as you can see in the movie. There’s one scene where I kind of trip and kick the ball and look completely silly, and that was meant to be cut out but Gia thought it was funny and kept it in. As much as I practised I was so bad at soccer. So they decided to make my character bad. I was always more of a bookworm than an athlete, I guess if I did go to high school I would have been a nerd rather than an athlete.
You’ve released songs and starred in music videos, what sort of music are you most into now?
I love the Palo Alto soundtrack, I actually listen to it all the time. I’m a big Fleetwood Mac fan, if I had to listen to only one band forever it would be them, they’re amazing.
What’s your favourite Fleetwood Mac song?
That’s Alright, I listen to it on repeat all the time.
I read today that Lindsey Buckingham [Fleetwood Mac’s guitarist and singer] was actually born in Palo Alto...
Really?! Well, Stevie Nicks was on American Horror Story with me, and it was the highlight of my life to meet her. It was so cool, she played one of her songs and we were all in shock, and afterwards I went up to her – I was so nervous asking her for a picture – but she was like, “No problem!” She was so sweet. Afterwards she actually sent a bunch of us girls on the show a gold half-moon necklace that she made for all of us, with a note. I wear my necklace all the time and have the note hanging up on my fridge. No-one believes that it’s real when they come over.
What does it say?
I can’t tell you what it says! But it’s on really amazing Stevie Nicks stationery, which is the coolest thing ever.
Can you tell us about your life off set? What do you do on an ordinary day?
That’s always the hardest question because you never think about what you do on an ordinary day... Well, I live in LA for the most part, and when I’m working things are always so hectic that when I’m not working my favourite thing to do is sleep in. When I wake up I like to read a lot, and catch up on reality TV, and then I’ll usually try to catch up with people. It’s hard when you’re gone to keep all your friendships going over texts, so when I’m in LA I’m constantly seeing friends. I also love going to the movies so much, I’ll literally see anything; so that’s my typical day, nothing too crazy, nothing too interesting!