Mae Whitman made her debut in 1994’s When a Man Loves a Woman as the young child of Meg Ryan and Andy Garcia. Since then, she has appeared in dozens of films. From the sound of it in our exclusive interview, her work on The Perks of Being a Wallflower sits right at the top.
We’re meeting in the swanky Trump Tower in Toronto as the Stephen Chbosky book turned film has made its debut at TIFF. The movie stars Emma Watson and Logan Lerman as a senior and freshman, respectively, who connect and become close within a tight circle of friends that includes Whitman’s Mary Elizabeth.
Whitman’s involvement in the film is almost serendipitous. “My two best friends, Miles and Sarah, it’s their favorite book. We were talking about it actually right about the time that the project came up. Sarah gave me the copy that her father gave her,” Whitman said.
“I read it, and it was almost instantaneous that I had a meeting with Stephen Chbosky. This is kismet. I was so affected by it. I read it in a day or something. It’s such a wonderful quick read.”
Whitman found something rarely seen on the page, script or in a book, that captured that elusive period of teenage years. One is not quite an adult, yet one feels and emotes to the full extreme that adults do.
“The whole thing that pervades this entire project is the voice. It’s that feeling of love, sentimentality, sensitivity and openness that you have when you’re that age. It’s so much easier to access. There are a lot less layers you have to peel away to get back to that. To tap into that feeling when you’re driving and you’re listening to music and it’s the greatest moment in the world, it’s such a real incredible feeling,” she said.
“I feel that I don’t know many movies or books that make that voice really understood. That feeling is such a powerful thing. To me, there was a book that was able to capture that feeling, when that’s such a special feeling, it was really important. It’s especially important to point out that this was written by Steve when he was young and had just been through things. It’s so present, it’s so there. To me, that stood out.”
When Summit Entertainment allowed the book’s author -- Chbosky -- to write the script and direct the film, the cast of The Perks of Being a Wallflower had an invaluable asset on their hands on the Pittsburgh set. "To have him there, it was so wonderful on so many levels. Whatever came out was going to be in his voice,” Whitman said.
“It’s awesome. I had that meeting with Steve and we met at a restaurant. We literally talked for two hours about music and random things. He’s the most vulnerable, loving guy on the planet. Immediately in that moment I felt that the second we all arrived on set, we would all look at each other and say, 'Is it weird that I like you guys so much already?’ Steve put special work into finding people that fit that vibe,” Whitman continued.
“He’s so able to convey the voice in the book. He found people who all have that similar passion."
As Whitman suggests, it’s difficult to capture that voice of teenage life without being exploitative. When we asked what her favorites were, she had trouble finding one with resonance from her era.
“You’d have to go back to The Breakfast Club, for the most part. This is a problem. Especially newer high school movies are focused on the wrong elements. Or it’s become such a cliché that you lose the fact that what’s amazing about coming of age are those feelings and sensitivity,” Whitman said.
“It wasn’t just, ‘They grew up, and wasn’t that crazy?’ For me, all the John Hughes movies and Cameron Crowe, like Almost Famous, watching them going through their emotions… is pitch perfect.”