Bo Burnham's career is one of the most wide-ranging of any actor his age. From being one of the first genuine YouTube stars long before the word "YouTuber" even existed to working as an acclaimed director on his movie EIGHTH GRADE, Burnham has quickly evolved from one stage to the next.
Now Burnham co-stars in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a revenge thriller with a blackly comic streak. Burnham plays Ryan, a doctor who is smitten when he runs into Cassie (Carey Mulligan), an old acquaintance from med school. This is really Cassie's movie, and we watch as she deals with her fury over the way her best friend was treated several years earlier by stalking men in a unique way. Mulligan and Burnham have terrific chemistry, and the relationship built by their characters is a big part of what makes PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN work.
We spoke to Bo Burnham by phone to talk about making the movie, working with Carey Mulligan and writer/director Emerald Fennell, and his own career evolution.
You and Carey have a really specific thing going on in this movie. Did the approach from your chemistry read come through to the film or did things change substantially?
Yeah, a lot of that is in the film. I really could tell like when I got the part, I was like, okay, I'm not going to overthink this. They clearly just wanted me to kind of just vibe out with her and be close to myself. I think it was important for the character of Ryan to feel very relatable and human and accessible. It was important to me that I not try to externalize this guy. I'm not going to show up with like a limp and an accent, you know, I'm gonna just do it pretty down the middle so that it feels really grounded and real. That felt, for where this story goes, very important.
The arc of the character is very similar to what the movie is saying overall, and in service of that you're very disarming.
I think what you said first is correct that he's a little bit of a microcosm for one of the thesis in the film. It felt important that I fully identify with him so that almost any revelation felt like it was a revelation I was having about myself. That felt like a good way to do it. And also you know, I'm not Joaquin Phoenix. I know that when Emerald casts me she isn't casting me for my long line of incredible character work! You know what I mean? She probably wants something close to what I am. So I'm not going to overthink this.
You have to begin a long line of character work somewhere! And it's not like you're new to performing, but certainly, this stage of your career seems like it is a distinct thing from where you were five years ago.
Yeah, exactly. I had just come off promoting the movie that I made, EIGHTH GRADE, which is about a young girl. Emerald sort of told me, "I've seen you sort of talk very thoughtfully about that movie and I want that guy in this movie — the guy that seems to be thoughtful and sensitive and like one of the good ones."
It makes sense to me that one thing leads to another because EIGHTH GRADE — which was a terrific movie by the way — has ideas about how technology and social media affects women growing up. This movie tackles some of those ideas from a different angle. This is clearly Emerald's movie but it does fit that you ended up doing both things.
Emerald and I get along for a reason. I really get along with her and I feel like we are definitely kindred spirits. It makes sense that our work would talk to each other a little bit. But also, to be fair, when I was on this set I wasn't thinking like a director for a second. I was just looking to Emerald always as like my anchor. That's what was exciting about this movie. This is a movie I could never make. I could never write this or direct this. So as much as I might relate to it, it felt so beyond my worldview and my perspective. So it was very fun to totally give myself over to someone else's vision.
How did Emerald direct you, and how did you work with her direction if you are kindred spirits in some way?
Yeah. Well, it's more that she's very funny. She will always make a joke in any situation, she's self-effacing and ascetic and inviting and really smart. And I kind learned over the course of the film that she's also an incredible actor. I don't know if you saw her season of "The Crown," but she's amazing. I'm glad that I didn't watch "The Crown" or anything before because I would've been way more intimidated by her as a director. Even over the course of working with her on this, I could tell that she's a really good actor. That's intimidating, because you feel like she can really see [what you're doing] but it's also very helpful because she's very sensitive to what it is to be an actor in front of the camera. She's very aware of the position you're in, which is really nice. You feel like you're like an ally on the other side that really understands the position you're in.
So that's really what it was. Really, with Carey and Emerald it felt like making things with two friends. And Emerald also gives you a lot of freedom. She's not someone that's going to give you a bunch of notes before a scene, she kind of wants to see what you do and then tweak and talk it out from there, which is really nice.
How does your approach to performance mesh with Carey's Did the two of you have a similar outlook on how you build a scene or did you challenge one another?
She challenges me. I mean, she's just better. So that's challenging.
She is extraordinarily good! She's better than virtually everybody.
Yeah, so that's nice. It's like, at least the person who is better than me is Carey Mulligan. But it's interesting because we're both in different spaces in the scenes. There's something kind of impenetrable about her performance, at least from my angle. And that's what I'm working against. She's hard to get through. So that dynamic was just kind of happening. We didn't really talk about it. We weren't really saying anything out loud. We do have different strategies as actors. She is just this brilliant, technically gifted actor. And I was kind of coming in being loose, maybe throwing some improv or just trying to make her laugh or trying to make her break. I think it kind of worked that we had these different strategies because that's sort of the dynamic that ends up playing on onscreen. It's people in two different places in their life kind of slowly finding something together.
And Cassie knows a lot more than Ryan does; there's a lot that her character is concealing.
Exactly. And the film is following her interior journey. So she has a lot more to carry in the scenes.
And then you get to that dinner scene where you're opposite Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown. It's almost — not in any way that hurts the movie, — like Carey is laughing while you try to tell a joke to people who are refusing to get a joke.
On the actual day Carey and I couldn't stop laughing at Jennifer Coolidge. Jennifer was doing all this improv and I think she's one of the great comedic geniuses of her time. She was just so funny. I also think that Jennifer Coolidge has dramatic beats in the movie that I think are like stunning, like really daunting. I want to see a huge dramatic role for her.
I've seen PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN described as a thriller, a comedy, and horror. How do you see it?
I think it's a movie that plays with genre. I think it's a movie that specifically engages with the idea of movies and where movies have fit into the culture. The things they have reinforced, what things they have subverted and what things they haven't subverted. [This movie] isn't just stylized into a genre for the sake of it to make it more appealing. It really is engaging with the ideas like what has the "frat party comedy" done to women? What has the revenge story done to the narrative of justice in certain spaces? Do we really think that problems can just be solved if someone puts on a cool outfit and knocks on the door and takes justice in their own hands? That's not how it works, and isn't what needs to change to make things better. It feels like having a really messy, interesting, engaging conversation about the function of genre and the function of entertainment and how that intersects with some big issues.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN opens on December 25!
All images courtesy of Focus Features.