RT Interview: Kat Dennings on Charlie Bartlett, Nick and Norah and Death

The young actress on teen comedies, superhero movies, and morbidity.

by | May 15, 2008 | Comments

A relative newcomer to the big screen, Kat Dennings has made a strong impression in a short time with roles in Down in the Valley, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and London already under her belt.

She’s currently starring in Charlie Bartlett alongside Anton Yelchin and Robert Downey Jr. and took a moment to sit down with RT to discuss her character, her passion for superhero movies, and her upcoming Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

Charlie Bartlett is reminiscent of those classic teen movies of the eighties — was that what grabbed you about the script?

Kat Dennings: It was. I missed that feeling of the fun, eighties teen movies. I wasn’t seeing that too much and all the teen stuff since seemed to be completely different. It was the good-times eighties feeling of Charlie Bartlett which I instantly loved.

Even Charlie is unlike the sort of leads we’re used to seeing in teen movies these days.

KD: Yeah, he’s not very together, you know, and he’s a unique person. I don’t even know how to describe him; he almost would be a different character in a typical teen movie. He wouldn’t be the lead, which is why it’s so great — he’s a special boy!

Who is Susan as a character?

KD: She’s the daughter of the principal, played by Robert Downey Jr., and she’s a preternaturally wise character. She’s just sort of disenchanted by what her family’s gone through and she has focussed her efforts more on the drama club and what she wants to do rather than being a boy-crazy type of girl. She keeps to herself a little bit.

And then she meets Charlie and he’s — like I said — a special boy and she sees how different he is and then they realise they’re very similar.

Kat Dennings

What do you think it is about Charlie that she latches onto?

KD: I think initially it’s because he’s so adorable, you know, and he’s such a weirdo. He shows up at school with huge bug eyes and she loves that he’s nothing like anyone she’s ever met and exactly what she’s been waiting for. That’s what attracts her to him, but then they figure out that they just have a lot that’s the same about who they are and their families and things. Their situations aren’t the same, but they realise that he’s been through something and she has too and it just cements their bond.

Their bond is quite unique to the teen movie genre too — and she’s a much stronger character than you’d usually find the teen love interest to be…

KD: Yeah, she’s pretty forward. She’s not a play-hard-to-get girl and she sort-of sets her sights on him and makes no pretext about how she likes him and wants to be with him. He’s the wide-eyed innocent in that equation, which seems pretty realistic! From what I’ve seen with boys — and I’m not a very forward person — but it seems when girls assert themselves like that boys are like, “WHAT?!” it’s pretty realistic in that way!

A lot of that sort of take-no-prisoners approach she seems to have learnt from her father.

KD: Yeah, it’s interesting she chooses to live with her dad after what happened with her parents — that’s not usually the way that happens. It’s revealed in the movie that her mom cheated on her dad but regardless, he’s an alcoholic, so it’s interesting that it’s her decision and I think she feels like she understands her dad completely. She feels like maybe he’ll get through it, you know, and she doesn’t want to leave him. And they’re very similar, too, she and her dad are very similar.

But interestingly there’s a lot of collision between her and her dad’s opinion on Charlie…

KD: Well that’s the thing; Susan just can’t understand why her dad would object to Charlie because to her he’s just the nicest person in the world. It’s just not fair. What I discussed with John, the director, about her history with boys was that maybe she’d had a few boyfriends in the past who were way worse than Charlie and I think that’s why her dad is suspicious of him from the start. And then Charlie upsets her dad because the two of them are butting heads and they’re both end up in an adult position to the students, which is weird for her dad.

But it’s ridiculous because in her mind Charlie’s never done anything wrong — well, I suppose she knows he has done something wrong, but he’s a good person and it’s ridiculous to her that her dad is so objecting.

Kat Dennings

Playing those scenes with an actor like Robert Downey Jr. must be something of a career highlight.

KD: It was wonderful, we really got along and he’s a wonderful person and it’s impossible not to feel — and this is an actor-y term — in the moment with him because he’s so good. But it’s not that it’s even a calculated kind of good with him, he’s just so free. It comes out with him and it seems effortless; and it’s incredible to see.

But I never felt any pressure and perhaps I should have felt pressure, but I felt very comfortable with him and we just let what happened happen and I felt like we were kind of related. We actually look alike in a weird way, which sucks for me because he’s a very handsome manly man! We had a kinship that was very valuable to me.

Have you seen Iron Man yet?

KD: Not yet, oh God! I’m dying to; you see the trailer on Apple a year before and you just go, “OH MY GOD!” You can’t wait. So that and The Dark Knight – I’m freaking out!

So you’re a huge comic book movie fan then?

KD: Oh I’m a huge comic book movie fan. I was more about the movies than the comic books but my older brother was a giant comic book, action figure guy growing up so I’ve had the full education and I’m just obsessed with it now!

I’m so excited for that movie, I’ll tell you. I’m going to be one of those people turning up at the theater with a helmet on, I swear to God!

You need to get on to Robert; the premiere in LA is a week away…

KD: I know, well we have the same agent so I’m going to see if I can bribe him into letting me go… I’m going to wear a custom suit of armour with Robert’s face on it or something!

Can you see yourself in a superhero movie?

KD: Oh God, yeah, I’d flip out. There aren’t as many girl superheroes, but there are cool ones. Banshee, for instance.

I guess the ultimate is Wonder Woman.

KD: I suppose. I’m a bit short, though. [laughs] Wonder Woman’s supposed to kind-of Amazonian and I’m 5’3 and a half…

That’s what CGI is for, obviously.

KD: [laughs] Right! Just CG in some more shin. Upward angles and all that!

Have you had much experience working with effects and stunts and stuff?

KD: A tiny bit. It’s really fun, and I’m — OK, this is hilariously embarrassing, but I’m completely near-sighted and I can’t see anything. It’s really, really bad. So when it comes to working with other actors and they’re further away than they usually are I might as well be working with a tennis ball! I can’t see anything! I don’t think CGI would be a problem for me — if they were just waving a tennis ball around against a green sheet it’d feel the same!

Aside from superhero movies, is there a genre of movies you really love that you haven’t had the opportunity to do so far?

KD: I would love to do a period movie. I’ve always wanted to wear the corset, you know. It’s a girl thing! We’ll see…

And I’ve always wanted to die in a movie. I never have but I’ve always wanted to.

Kat Dennings

How would you imagine your death scene? Rain of gunfire or something slow and terminal maybe?

KD: I think something dramatic, you know. Perhaps some slow-mo with some fluttering in the wind… Maybe a slow-mo stab or something like that. Perhaps a single bullet. I don’t mind, I just want to die in a movie!

I guess it’s probably the ultimate challenge for an actor because that’s the only thing you absolutely can’t experience.

KD: That’s true. I have put my hand through a glass window and thought I was going to die, so I know the feeling — you can’t feel anything because of the shock; your brain just shuts off for a moment and you’re just like, “What happened?” You wait to see whether you’re going to die. It’s pretty cool. I mean, it sucks, but it’s pretty cool.

We’ll see — we’ll wait until someone kills me in a movie and you can tell me how it is!

Absolutely; Kat, I promise you, I’m hoping and praying that someone kills you in a movie.

KD: [laughs] Thank you so much! We’ll see what poor soul I can wrangle into doing that!

I guess that’s a bit of a spoiler for the stuff you’ve already shot then because now I know that your character survives in everything…

KD: [laughs] I don’t die in anything! That’s true, and you know what, none of the stuff upcoming I’ll be dying in either!

So no last minute revision to Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist then?

KD: No!

Kat Dennings

How has it been to work with Michael Cera?

KD: Oh God, he’s the cutest thing in the universe. We’re about to go do some reshoots and I’m so excited I feel like I’m going to Disneyland. When we shot the film it all takes place at night so it was all night shoots. We’d get up at 3 in the afternoon, go to set and by the time we got out of the make-up trailer it was dusk and we’d work through until the sun started to rise.

It was like the most fun camp ever. You’re with your friends and you’re having so much fun and you’re just roaming New York. It was amazing and I made some really good friends there. Ari Graynor, this girl who plays my best friend Caroline in the movie, has become one of my very best friends in the world so we get to go back and play best friends again except this time we are best friends! It’s going to be so much fun, I can’t wait.

For those unfamiliar can you tell us what it’s all about?

KD: It’s based on a book by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan and it’s been embraced by all sorts of people, not just teenagers. It’s not overtly teenager-y. Teenagers don’t say ‘like’ a lot — well, I do, but most don’t, and they don’t talk in quips and aren’t typically dumb. The male author wrote the Nick’s chapters and the female author wrote the Norah’s chapters.

Every chapter alternates between their points of view and it’s their takes on the same scenes. It was really an interesting thing to shoot and I think it really turned out well. I haven’t seen the whole thing yet, but bits I have seen have made me want to see it when it’s finished!

How does that work in the film, the way it alternates between the two?

KD: We tried it with narration from me and Michael and I don’t know whether that’ll stay in the final film, but the creators and the authors are very involved in this so it’s going to do it justice. They’re trying to figure out the best way, in terms of making it comprehensible to the audience; how best to tell this between the two of them. I think it’s going to be visual, I don’t know if they’re going to use the voiceovers, so I think you’re going to see the scenes from Norah’s point of view and then from Nick’s or visa-versa.

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