Promising Young Woman has been the talk of the Sundance Film Festival thus far. If you watch the trailer, you know that Emerald Fennell’s film is going to have some twists and turns, but even so, I was still massively shocked where this movie winds up going.
Carey Mulligan plays Cassie, a woman who, after a traumatic event in college, finds catharsis in pretending she’s drunk, being taken home by “nice guys who want to help,” then revealing she’s stone-cold sober when those same men try to sexually assault her. Bo Burnham plays Ryan, a former classmate of Cassie’s who she begins a romantic relationship with and is the definition of “nice guy.” Now, I know you’re probably thinking, “Oh, does Ryan turn into a monster?” The answer is both “no” and “this movie is way more complicated for it to just be that easy.”
I met Burnham on Sunday morning at his hotel here in Park City, nestled into some sort of hotel billiards room that included just the two of us, plus one random woman who was just trying to get some early morning work done that I’m sure we annoyed deeply. But, as Burnham says, this is the kind of movie that will start a lot of conversations. And the optics of two dudes talking this out weren’t lost on us, but Burnham contends that’s a good thing and more men should be having these conversations.
Also, it was only two years ago that Burnham’s Eighth Grade premiered here at Sundance. So, what does he have up his sleeve next? He admits that, yes, he is working on a new movie, but it’s very much on the down-low and he can’t say anything about it. But it’s not for lack of me trying to get him to do that.
How does a movie like this even come to you?
Well, initially the thing was, I just got a call from my agent, “Do you want to chemistry read with Carey Mulligan?” And I literally thought, “Yeah, I’ll go humiliate myself.“ After the first take Emerald was like, “That’s really good because Ryan’s supposed to be intimidated by her.” [Laughs] And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s the choice I’m making. Yeah. That’s a conscious choice of acting I’m doing.”
There’s so much going on here and it’s hard to talk about without giving too much away, but a defense in this movie is, “I was a different person in college.”
I just think what Emerald does really beautifully in the movie is paint the full gradient spectrum of this sort of behavior. And it’s all supported by a really wide range of behavior that supports it from what may seem to be the most incidental and, “Well, I just didn’t want to be a buzzkill at a party.” And that’s what I think is interesting about the film, is that it really engages on sort of every level of complacency and who’s complicit in this. And that’s really interesting to me. Because that’s sort of what happened, right? After the sort of initial break of Me Too was that second wave where all the guys say they resist it, which is like, “Well, now you’re just talking about bad dates.” And I think Emerald really engages with sort of all of the waves of the conversation.
There is a specific example that got the “bad date” defense. And it does seem to the one people are the most confused or conflicted about.
Well, I do think that if this conversation is going to move forward, it needs to move forward by men wrestling with the behavior that’s common to all of us and not just the psychopaths running around drugging women. If we just remove the horrible monster men, the problem will still be there in a way because there’s a pattern of behavior and a mindset that is way more subtle and pretty painful to contend with. And yeah, if I’m honest, reading the script I recognized myself in a lot of the guys. I recognize myself in that behavior. I understood that I was capable of that. And yeah, that’s what at least felt important in terms of what I was doing with my character: to just not externalize him. Not think I was better than him, and just try to imbue him with all of myself so that eventually that means something.
The optics of the two fellas talking this out right here is not lost on me.
But yeah, the truth is is that, and I know Emerald would want this, Emerald wants to start conversations. And this movie, I think, allows men in on the conversation. Because if men are just sitting around too afraid to have the conversation, for whatever reason, because they’re either repelled by it or they think they’re not qualified to, it’s like, well, we have to talk about this stuff.
Well, the second one you mentioned, not qualified, I get that feeling a lot. Like I often do feel I’m not qualified to talk about this, so I’m going to listen.
Yes. That’s correct.
It’s worse when you really aren’t qualified and you’re like, oh, I have an opinion.
No, no, definitely. Well, there are certain things about it that we should just be listening about. But there are aspects of the movie in terms of men should be talking. the opening scene, for example, which is a scene from men’s perspective. So when you’re with your friends and you see a girl passed out or really drunk. Like, what are the conversations you guys have at the bar? Because I think so much of this is perpetuated and allowed. Something that Emerald told me that really stuck with me is she said… This is a spoiler, but…
Oh, you know what? I’ll just put a spoiler alert because we have to talk about some of this stuff. [Spoiler Alert]
But she said Ryan is the type of guy who never considered he isn’t a good guy. And that’s something to latch onto, and that is a flaw in and of itself no matter what happens. And I can relate to that. If you’ve never considered that you might be a part of the problem, you haven’t really done any… I don’t know. You’re not really being honest with yourself. So that’s what I think. Yeah, that stuck with me. And there are a few things genuinely shocking to me when I was reading it. And even when I was reading it at first I was going… Well, I don’t want to spoil this stuff…
It’s a complicated movie to talk about without spoiling. I think we are doing okay.
Yeah, yeah. But I was reading it at first going, “So, wait, this guy’s going to come along and her romantic relationship with this guy is going to save her or be the silver lining? That feels totally wrong.” And then I kept reading, I was like, “Oh, okay.”
To be fair, the trailer makes it clear that something else is going on.
There’s a lot more going on than the trailer. I mean, there’s definitely a lot more going on than the trailer.
So where are you post-Eighth Grade? Like that balance between making your own thing and starring in other projects like this?
Well, I’m quietly doing my own thing and definitely fully into that, and will hopefully have something to show people relatively soon. I’m continuing that.
Because I looked to see if you were doing something. Is it completely on the down-low then? I couldn’t find anything.
Yeah, I’m doing something very, well, I’m still really figuring it out and it doesn’t benefit from a description. It totally doesn’t. It genuinely doesn’t.
No, I can’t even go there. So close … and I have the word.
Oh, do it. Come on, give me the word.
No, no, no. I can’t. I can’t.
No one is ever going to figure anything out from one word.
No, no, no. I can’t.
You could have just said, “Fluorescent.”
[Laughs] Yeah. Right, exactly. Yeah, “phantasmagorical.” Well, it’s a very funny thing about acting in films. This is incredible and I loved it, but this was two weeks of work, you know what I mean? I’m saying as opposed to Eighth Grade which was two years of my life. And I don’t think of myself as an actor. You know what I mean?
Not an actor? Um, There was a little show called Yo Teach…!.
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly. Exactly! I would love to act if I could ever do stuff like this, just super exciting with super exciting actors and filmmakers. That was so great.
Well, you can say you don’t consider yourself an actor but you’re the second lead in this movie. And you’re probably going to get a lot more offers after this.
Well, it’s definitely not like I’m weighing, “Should I weigh my acting career or my film,” you know what I mean? Yeah, I’m still 100 percent in on just trying to silently make my own stuff.
So is this something you’re directing?
Yes. It will be a film, yeah.
That you’re not in?
See, that’s a look on your face like you want to talk about it, but you also know that wouldn’t be smart to talk about.
It wouldn’t. No, no, actually, I’m thinking you’re doing the first interview and I have to really get used to just realizing how not to talk about this. But, yeah, this was just the perfect thing to come along to do when I was sitting at home banging my head against a wall.
So you’re still doing the Sesame Street movie?
Yeah. They’re shooting in April. There was a bit of a delay but they’re shooting in April. But I’m just writing songs. I just wrote the songs.
Oh, yeah, I know. But that’s still interesting.
I’m excited. And it’s a better director than me. Jonathan Krisel is the perfect Sesame director. He’s just such a magical, fun, funny person. He’s right out of the Muppet verse.
Writing music for kids, did you watch The Sack Lunch Bunch and go, “dammit.”
No, no. I mean, I cheer him on. That’s great. It’s amazing.
Because you’re writing songs in a similar space.
Yeah. But that’s great. We can’t get enough of that stuff in the world. And they were able to do something a little more sardonic and fun.
That’s true. It’s still Sesame Street.
But I want the whole world to be full of that. And I’m a huge fan of John, so John can do no wrong in my mind.
So “fluorescent,” we’re going with that?
Yeah. It’s funny because that’s one of my pet peeves in most films now.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.