Before diving into one of her latest screen roles, in Desiree Akhavan’s Sundance hit The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Chloë Grace Moretz needed to take a break. Squaring off with herself, the actress reflected on the decisions she was making in her career, and how they did or did not align with her initial reasons for pursuing her craft. “I was trying to fill a void that had started to grow within me,” Moretz explains. “[The projects] that were around me, they just felt quite futile, and I needed to reignite the flame within me that had been there my whole life.”
Following a year and a half of contemplation, Moretz returned with two acclaimed features, Cameron Post and Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, which quickly reignited her creative spark. Based on a 2012 novel by Emily M. Danforth, Akhavan’s drama examines the burgeoning sexuality and complicated experiences of a teenage girl, who is sent off to a gay conversion therapy center by her conservative guardian. For Moretz, the draw to this story was quite specifically to do with the person who would tell it. “It was being able to work with a female filmmaker—and not just any old female filmmaker, but one that is a gay, Iranian-American woman. To have that chance to show this story through her lens was really the most exciting opportunity,” the actress says.
As Cameron Post, Moretz had to quiet one part of herself—the part that reacts to injustice with rage—channeling the energy of a quiet, introverted person. A raw and intimate drama, Post’s story set out another inherent hurdle for the actress, with its variety of sex scenes. But working through these moments with Akhavan—a caring and responsive director—Moretz found a level of ease on set that she’d never known. “My first sex scenes were when I was 16 years old, and for me, this was the first time I’d ever felt confident, comfortable, and truly proud of the sex scenes in a movie,” she shares.
As an actress of high caliber who got an early start in her career—working consistently since age seven—Moretz has found a lot of opportunity. She acknowledges, though, that opportunities of real substance are seldom as easy to find. Sometimes, to get at that ultimate sense of satisfaction, artists must create their own opportunities—and at the moment, Moretz is doing just that. Producing a number of new projects, the actress will soon make her directorial debut alongside her brother. Among other projects, this short film—which she describes as a “neo-noir thriller”—may be the ultimate embodiment of the personal, meaningful pursuit, putting the actress on her way to yet another meaningful chapter.
Setting out in your preparations for Cameron Post, what was most crucial? How did you come to inhabit the character and her experience?
I was really so very lucky to have source material like Emily Danforth’s novel, given that it’s a 500-page novel that spans much earlier than where we meet Cameron in the movie. The book starts right after her parents die; you go on a lengthy journey with her, and the conversion therapy section of the book is actually a small, little area. To be able to have that much backstory and that much insight into that person’s mind was such a gift, and it really helped with this movie because we didn’t have a lot of money to be able to go and dive into rehearsals for an extended period of time. We really only had about 48 hours in New York to be together before driving upstate to film this movie, and in those 48 hours, we decided that meeting survivors was the most important thing that we could do with our time. We spent those two days hearing their stories about what it was like going through conversion therapy, being able to ask the questions that you would only be able to answer by going through it, and living it firsthand.
An internally directed person, Cameron has a lot of layers—facets that speak to the iceberg metaphor she encounters in gay conversion therapy.
It was interesting for me because a lot of the time, her responses can be quite passive, and she’s very backfooted in her projection of herself. In so many moments—for me, as Chloë—it was almost frustrating. I would want to scream and fight back at what’s being said to me. To put myself into this girl’s shoes, what really came forward the most was how much she chose empathy over anger, faced with not just utter hypocrisy, but someone who is damning your soul, saying that you are doing such irreversible damage to your soul that you’re almost damned to hell. In the face of these questions and this darkness, she still rose above and chose the path of forgiveness.
I was very angry during those scenes because biting my tongue was very difficult, but I think I ended up learning so much about myself and my own [emotions], emotional tropes that we fall into when faced with certain situations. To go really opposite not just me as myself, but also me as an actor—to play everything so subjectively, and in silence—was a really beautiful experience. I think I say more in this movie with my eyes then I ever actually, verbally say; I really don’t think I had that many lines, weirdly enough.
At one point in the film, Cameron memorably says, “I don’t think of myself as anything,” as if she’s casting off each and every label, every box people use, in the effort to reduce who she is to any one thing.
100%. I think that she is very aware that they’re wanting to define and label, and by defining, they’re creating more segregation. They want to be able to pull you apart, to be able to define and find the key word for each moment in your life that got you to this point, and each problem in your life. That way, they can dissect that and label those as your issues. She, especially for her age, is an incredibly enlightened person, to be able to find that within herself and respond in that manner, and not be caught up too deeply in the psycho-manipulation that is being used against her.
They do end up catching her when they give her the letter from Coley. They finally get that turning point, which was probably one of the hardest scenes for me to sell—when I do give in, and look at my friends and say, “I’m tired of being disgusted with myself.” I remember saying that line, and after we did that scene, I went to my brother and just started crying. It was a really difficult moment to portray, succumbing to this fear that’s being mongered.
You have remarkable co-stars in Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck, who play friends and allies Cameron finds within conversion therapy. What was it like working with them within this space, which hovers somewhere between a summer camp and a prison?
We shot the project for 23 days. It was a very quick shoot, and luckily, it just happened to be that we filmed chronologically. A big part of the reason was because we had to shave Adam’s head. We only had about 48 hours together before going upstate, and we were filming at the summer camp that we were actually living at—so, we were shooting scenes pretty much in each other’s bedrooms. At some point, we would have to move our own personal clothing around to be able to get the shot. For that, in and of itself, it was a very interesting setting to be in.
What was beautiful about it is because we did shoot chronologically, the budding friendships we see in the movie were actually happening in real life. Sasha Lane and Forrest and I really did become these three musketeers, and didn’t do anything without each other; we were a complete unit. It was, I think, really therapeutic for all of us, to be able to be that close to each other, because of everything we were going through in each scene every day, and what we were filming. To be able to eat dinner together, and have a bonfire, and go to bed a door away from that person, then wake up the next morning and have breakfast together, and then start shooting our day, that summer camp-ish vibe really aided us in being able to perform the way we did in this movie. Desi was incredibly aware of that, and what was going on between us all, and how we were all bonding, and she really helped nurture that, and make sure that we continued to feel safe and supported.
Though the circumstances it portrays are often tragic, Cameron Post is also frequently funny and full of life. Was this kind of dynamic embedded within the script itself?
Definitely not. I’ve said it ever since I signed on to the movie, but I would not have done this project with anyone else directing it but Desiree. Because of who she is and how she’s grown up, and the obstacles that she’s faced in her life, a big part about this movie being told through a queer lens and truly from the voice of the community is that it doesn’t focus on the obvious obstacles. The obvious obstacles are there; we’re in a conversion therapy center. But the story focuses on the beauty and intricacies of meeting other gay kids for the first time, and how weird and awkward that is. Then, obviously, there’s this almost hilarious hypocrisy of our first sexual experiences happening at a conversion therapy camp—and I think that’s really because of Desi.
She walked a line in this movie and struck a tone that I really don’t think anyone else could have done, where simultaneously you’re laughing and crying, feeling sadness and nostalgia and all these really beautiful emotions. But it doesn’t feel like you’re taking medication, or getting beaten over the head with sadness. It just is so naturalistic. For someone who has lived a life where they’ve been faced with a lot of harsh realities, it’s a way of coping, being able to turn darkness into light. But it’s also the way to overcome and not allow them to really bring you down. And that’s all Desiree Akhavan.
In putting together scenes of physical intimacy, what stood out about Desiree’s approach?
It was the first time that I had never had to sit around the table with a group of people and delineate and pinpoint exact shots, body movements, sounds, faces, etcetera, down to the umpteenth degree. This is the very first time where that didn’t happen, and she was so wonderful. She did what a great director should do; she knows that she hired you because you’re an actor, and you’re going to inherently know what you’re doing, so she has complete confidence in you. She sat there with me and Quinn [Shephard] and was like, “Okay. So, I’m going to make everyone disappear, and I’m pretty sure you guys know what to do.” I think one of the only notes that we had that was scripted is that she wanted me to try and unbutton her cardigan with one hand—so, that was the only thing we practiced. After that, she left it with just Ashley [Connor], the DP, Quinn and me. She was like, “You guys have three takes; do it, and then we’ll be done.” And that was it. She, in that sense, is like a brilliant conductor. A conductor doesn’t try and play the lead violinist’s part; he doesn’t try and tell the pianist what to do. He knows that they’re there because they’re the best at what they do, and he’s not going to try to micromanage. He’s just going to conduct.
It’s been interesting to see the subject of gay conversion therapy strike such a chord this year, between Cameron Post and Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased. In your mind, why is this an important subject to examine now?
What’s wonderful is that this movie is the ultimate social activism project. It’s something that feels like a John Hughes film; it, for all intents and purposes, is The Breakfast Club, but not in a high school, where you’re in detention. It’s in a conversion therapy center, where you’re all stuck. But it plays on those beloved movies that we all grew up with, without making you feel like you’re taking your medication and learning something. Being able to tell this story in this day and age, it was really shocking to find out how much of this is still very prevalent in America. It really hit me when I was doing my research and meeting survivors. All the survivors I was meeting were 24, 25 years old. They had been put in around 15, and had stayed in for five or six years, so they were very recently out. That really threw me for a loop, and that’s when I was like, “This is a movie that needs to be seen,” more than just something that I’m interested in. Because I’ve been an activist for the LGBT community since I was a little girl, having two gay brothers in my family.
It was always inherent to me that this story is not an echo chamber; this is something that 700,000 people in America have gone through, conversion therapy. It’s a silent epidemic that no one is talking about. 57,000 teenagers in the next five years will be subjected to conversion therapy, and to hear that, it makes me want to shout this from the rooftops and try to get everyone to watch it, and really sell it by saying that it’s funny. So, sit down and laugh, and see if it also changes your point of view.
This season, you also appear in Suspiria, a film by another great auteur. Could you reflect on that experience and what it meant to you?
I was really lucky to go directly from Cameron Post into Suspiria. It was two very [different] movies, but also very linear, in the sense of social progression, in that these stories for women are really breaking boundaries. Being able to jump into a character like Patricia, it was this marathon of a role—15 pages of all German dialogue that we integrated in with English, that had to be understandable and psychotic, but not unobtainable. It was a really beautiful challenge.
The thing with Luca is that he’s such a visionary and such a supporter of artists that he really lets you spread your wings, and jump into areas that are unknown to you. That freedom meant so much to me, being able just to be on set with Lutz Ebersdorf, or Tilda Swinton. It was a moment that, after taking my year and a half break and doing these two films back-to-back, made me sit back and go, “This is where I need to be.” I took back control of my career, and I’m doing what I want to be doing—what is truly inspiring me.
What was it like acting opposite Swinton, who, in this film, played one character, playing a separate character? Famously, Guadagnino held onto certain secrets about her performance through the film’s Venice premiere.
It was pretty amazing. It was a secret on set, too; the crewmembers didn’t know. But I was in on the secret. It was this pretty wild, wonderful experience. I think that with prolific actors, Tilda’s probably the only one that you’re going to be able do this with, besides maybe a Daniel Day-Lewis. I feel like that’s probably the only type person that would go to this length, and it was really spectacular to see her embody this character. You didn’t see a shred of Tilda Swinton in it, and it was really, really beautiful. True art.
At this moment in your career, what are your plans? Apart from taking on projects of quality, is there anything specific you’ve set your sights on?
Right now, I’m enjoying finding all the different facets of this career that really excite me, and the big one right now is that I’m producing several projects. I’m currently producing two projects that I’ll be acting in, and I’m also producing two really wonderful reality shows. One is an in-depth perspective on conversion therapy in America, and the truth of it, and one is a show called Coming Out, about young kids coming out to their best friend and their biggest adversary. I’m just trying to partner my social justice with my art form, being able to use this medium as a progressive change for the world, and still have it be entertaining.
Moving into this new year, I’m going to be taking on directing. Especially being 21, it’s really exciting to see that the opportunities are arising, and that it’s not off the table to think of me as a director right now, which I think is a really interesting place to be in this industry. To have that opportunity and that seat at the table, I feel really, really lucky.