All the Fine Boys playwright and director Erica Schmidt joins the young stars of her new play for a multi-generational conversation on coming-of-age.
Trade the landline for cell phones and the stack of R-rated VHS tapes for an unrestricted Netflix account, and the 1980s teen-girl slumber party that opens Erica Schmidt’s All the Fine Boys could be indistinguishable from one set in 2017. Music, junk food, and boy talk still dominate the proceedings — and as Schmidt’s 14-year-old protagonists Jenny and Emily demonstrate as they go down their separate paths, innocent fantasizing can lead to choices that are life-altering at best and life-threatening at worst.
Twenty-year-old actresses Abigail Breslin (best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in Little Miss Sunshine) and Isabelle Fuhrman (“Clove” in The Hunger Games and the recurring character “Tessa” on Showtime’s Masters of Sex) costar as Jenny and Emily, respectively. While Emily cautiously pines for a senior boy, Jenny barrels through her childhood innocence into a relationship with an older man she meets at church.
Both Breslin and Fuhrman came of age in the Hollywood spotlight, but they don’t have to look back too far to remember the growing pains that accompanied their simultaneously unique and universal experiences. Schmidt, who both pens and directs the New Group production (running through March 26 at the Pershing Square Signature Center) sat down with her two stars for a conversation about the play’s themes — subjects that have both reflected the actresses’ lives back to them and opened their eyes to things they hadn’t seen before.
Why was this a story you wanted to write?
Erica Schmidt: I feel like it’s a miracle that anyone makes it out of adolescence. When I was a teenage girl, I felt very invincible and got into a lot of precarious situations that I didn’t even realize were precarious. I feel like even the most normal coming-of-age is a kind of violent severing of innocence, and I was just sort of obsessed with that idea. It’s not a girls versus men or girls versus a patriarchal society. It’s girls versus their own extreme desire to grow up.
The story does depict your two 14-year-old girls, Jenny (Breslin) and Emily (Fuhrman), in questionable relationships with men. What do you want those to convey about what it’s like to grow up female?
Erica: I think that we’re at a really interesting time right now in terms of the way we treat women or talk about women in our culture. How we raise our girls and how we treat our girls as a society was the catalyst to write the play.
Abigail: There are things that the guys in the play say that I was originally like, “Oh my god, that’s really sweet,” or, “Oh my god, that’s so funny.” They’re really insidiously laced with heavy misogyny. When I first read it I didn’t realize, but now hearing it every single day — when people say things, I now think, “Wow, that’s actually not OK.”
What were you looking for in the girls you chose to play Jenny and Emily?
Erica: They are purposely similar in a lot of ways but then also they are as different as two people can be.
Isabelle: Erica describes Emily as a sponge, which I think is great. She’s constantly soaking things in and reading and memorizing. She’s questioning the world: Why people are interested in her boobs, why guys are interested in her? And at the same time she’s crushing on this older guy that she thinks maybe would be interested if she pretended to be sick because she saw it in a movie probably and thought it would work. I think you said this, Erica, when we were working on a scene: Jenny wants to be chosen but Emily’s more interested in why she would be chosen. We both want to push out of this stage of adolescence we’re in, but at the same time, I’m more concerned about what I can learn from it. I think your character wants to do it.
Abigail: Yeah. I am able to relate to Jenny a lot. In a lot of ways I still am her, but I definitely was a lot like her when I was in my early teens. Her actions are always ten steps ahead of her thought process. Emily is very into the practicality of things and how she’ll get to where she’s going. For Jenny it’s not about that. It’s about the broad idea of things.
Did the two of you have similar desires to grow up faster, or does childhood naturally move more quickly when you’re a child actor?
Abigail: I grew up in New York so I was really away from the scene of LA and the industry. So for me, if I was doing a movie and there was a huge crisis with the studio while they were filming, that didn’t affect me in any way. What affected me was when the guy that I liked wasn’t BBM-ing me back. I was always interested in the guys who were like two years older and I wanted to be able to be really cool around them. I remember being at a diner with the guy I liked and all of our friends and making my mom drop me off around the corner — so cliché. But I wanted to be mature and independent.
Isabelle: I didn’t even develop an interest in boys until I was sixteen. I had a crush before that. I had a crush on this guy for three years and I was like, “He’s gonna be my first kiss,” so I was not interested in anybody else. And he was my first kiss. Made that happen. [laughs] He was a little older than me, and played the guitar and he sang and he wrote songs.
Abigail: It’s always the guys with the guitar.
Isabelle: But even after that I still wasn’t interested in dating somebody. I guess I wasn’t necessarily in a rush to have those experiences because I never felt like I needed to be. In other aspects of my life things were moving so rapidly and I didn’t have time to hold onto them and that was one thing I felt like I could keep for a while — my innocence in that way. I wasn’t really grasping for it. I was more trying to keep it at bay.
Abigail: And I was the opposite. I wanted a boyfriend so badly because I thought that was the tell-tale sign of maturity.
Isabelle: See, I never wanted a boyfriend. I wanted to be in love. [laughs]
Abigail: I wanted a tragic breakup. I would listen to a Taylor Swift song and be like “I’m gonna listen to this everyday when we break up. It’s gonna be so romantic.”
Abigail, you have to do some sexually explicit things onstage. Was the prospect of that intimidating coming into this play?
Abigail: Yes. Without going into too much more detail, I can relate to a lot. And I think when you have personal experience with certain things, you do kind of have to go to an emotional place that’s really not fun to go to. And so the idea of doing that in front of people was extremely scary. But what I liked is that it’s not completely black and white. It’s not “this guy did this to this girl.” It’s horrible but it shows everything that leads up to what happens. This is what goes on in the world. And it’s not really fun to watch sometimes but it’s better than pretending that it doesn’t exist. So I couldn’t not do it.
How do you hope people walk away from All the Fine Boys?
Erica: I hope that it starts a conversation. Why do we have this emphasis on competitiveness with sex? Why are these the role models? Abby said it — a recognition that it’s a true thing.
Isabelle: I just hope it empowers young girls to question more and to be more on the front foot rather than feeling like they should just go along with certain things. I feel like sometimes it’s easy when you like someone to just be okay with things that maybe you aren’t one-hundred percent OK with. I think it’s important to have the ability to check in with yourself and ask, “Is this all right?” And I hope the younger audience that comes to see it thinks, “That’s not all right.”