The 24-year-old actress was working long before playing Michael Cera's hilariously forgettable onscreen girlfriend in "Arrested Development." As a child, she appeared in films like "When a Man Loves a Woman," "One Fine Day" and "Independence Day." In recent years, Whitman has carved a niche playing complicated young adults in "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World," the television series "Parenthood" and, most recently, the new film "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."
Adapted by Stephen Chbosky from his seminal teen novel of the same name, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" follows a group of friends as they navigate the turbulent waters of high school and young adulthood. What sets the film apart from nominal coming-of-age films -- besides the early '90s setting and resulting killer soundtrack -- is that none of the characters in "Perks" are traditional high school cliches; this isn't "Can't Hardly Wait" or even "Superbad."
Whitman stars as Mary Elizabeth, the no-nonsense friend -- and later, girlfriend -- of Charlie (Logan Lerman), the title wallflower dealing with a truckload of personal trauma. The actress spoke to HuffPost Entertainment about becoming close with her cast mates (including Ezra Miller and Emma Watson), the challenges of growing up in Hollywood and how she wound up on "Arrested Development" in the first place.
How important was it to you that Stephen, the author of the book, was also directing the film?
I think it was key. I'm not sure that any of us would have been comfortable doing it if Stephen wasn't so heavily involved. The book has such a specific voice and that's really what makes it what it is. I feel like -- and I'm sure there are a lot of people who could bring a lot of great things to it -- but "Perks" is such an intimate portrayal that we needed it to be Steve. That way we could feel comfortable and relax and try to find the characters with his help. We had the voice, the man, right there, so if we ever felt we were getting off track, we all knew he was there to keep us all together. He set the tone immediately. It was very much like the book: We were all great friends and we loved what we brought to the characters. I think it was extremely important to have him there.
The chemistry of the cast is so wonderful. Do you attribute that to knowing a lot of the actors before filming?
I think there's a lot of things. I think Steven knew what he was doing when he cast everybody. He had hours of meetings with people before he even held auditions. I had a two-hour meeting with him, just talking and getting to know him. We immediately got along. Part of the process for him was having like-minded people who were sensitive. He put an effort into choosing a group, so part of the work was done for us. I knew a couple of people before that: Johnny Simmons and Nicholas Braun are two of my best friends in real life, along with Reece Thompson, who plays Greg. They've been friends of mine for a long time. So that was amazing to have them there. Just meeting everybody else, too. I was there with Logan, I remember, on the first night. We all hung out and went to T.G.I. Friday's and we ended up hanging out all night and talking and laughing. It was like the high school experience none of us ever had, and is probably not possible in real life. We ended up being so supportive of each other. We spent every waking hour together even after we had wrapped. If it was 5 o'clock in the morning, we would go back to a hotel room and play music and hang out all night. We just became family.
What do you look for in a role?
It depends. I read the script and if I'm feeling something afterward -- if it inspired a reaction in me -- that's important. A lot of the time, I like to meet with the people who are making it to ask questions. For me, one thing I love is having an arc for a character. I love being able to see a character go through something and to learn, and that's something that really drew me to "Perks." Mary Elizabeth is this character who comes off like a know-it-all, who is super opinionated, who thinks she knows everything. And that's the type of character that you don't see with an arc, always. Then, all of a sudden, she goes through this thing. She tries to be in control, but she realizes that it doesn't work that way. I think she has a fear that she doesn't know; she's trying to cling to something. That's something I really struggle a lot with. So for me to see her go through this vulnerable change and to have these moments of real openness and feeling and then coming through on the other side [was key]. She realizes that she doesn't have to control everything and it doesn't have to be under her thumb. She finds this guy and he's so much better suited for her at the end. He makes her happy. They're similar. I love that. That was a big one.
That's one of the things that makes "The Perks of Being A Wallflower" stand out from other coming-of-age movies: Each of the characters has a real arc.
The coming-of-age story has sort of become a joke. It's something to capitialize on, and that is painful because when you are coming of age -- when you are going through something like that -- the genre is so meaningful. That was another thing that drew me to this. It was something that was taking the time and acknowledging the good and the bad side of being in this place of utter sensitivity. When you're in that space, you're completely open, like a sensitive raw nerve. So much stuff affects you everywhere -- you're trying to find things out -- I still feel that way all the time. That's an important struggle to me I think that people go through it a lot in a lot of different ways and end up feeling alone. A lot of stuff is like "Well, it's supposed to be like this! Oh, you didn't find a cute boy at the party even though you're a quote-unquote outcast?" It can be so formulaic it sort of loses its essence. I like that this book and project really dealt with things that aren't always pretty and don't really have an answer.
Was it hard for you to transition from being a child actor to an adult performer?
I think I got lucky because I did a TV show called "State of Grace" from, like, 11 to 14, and that took a lot of weirdness out of it. I was in this sheltered world. I met my best friend on that show. We had the time of our lives. We were just being adolescent girls together. We didn't have to deal with job fears or time. Luckily, I just found a way of coming out the other side and keep moving forward. I've never said, "I specifically only want to play pretty girl roles." I don't fit in a category of "I only do this, or I only want to do this." I have an open take on what I want to do. I jut want to play people. There are a lot of interesting roles out there that aren't the leading lady or the hot girl. I mean, the whole "looks" thing, being a girl and trying to be an actor, can be very difficult and painful. But I think when you realize it's not personal, and it can't be, it gets better. You just have to stay yourself and know how beautiful you are and know who you are. Act because you love to act. Projects like this are a great reminder to me of why I do what I do. It was not only an incredibly moving experience for me, but you get to share that with other people. You can use it as a form of communication around the world; "Hey, you're not alone. I feel like this too." That's what we were hoping to do with "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."
You weren't the original Ann on "Arrested Development." How did you wind up being cast?
I think what they originally planned to do with Ann's character was to keep rotating out actresses. Which is hilarious. But I think that was the original plan. I actually had auditioned and it went really well. Alia [Shawkat] is my best friend in real life, and Michael [Cera] is my other best friend. I went out for the audition and told her afterward because I thought it would be funny. But it sort of clicked and the vibe was so good and between me, Alia, Michael and everybody else -- we all got along so well -- that I think it kind of made sense for me to stay. I'm so grateful for that. In my opinion, that is maybe the funniest show in history? I don't know?
No arguments here. You're on record as saying you would go back -- which delighted fans -- but have you ever encountered any obstacles because of "Arrested Development"? Like, people maybe throwing "Her?" in your face?
It all comes out of a place for love of the show. I get nervous that people are going to be like, "Eww, she's saying a show that she's on is the best show ever?" But I don't even think of myself as being on it; I'm a total fanatic. So whenever anybody makes a joke that's like "Her?" I'll go, "Yeah! I love it! I want to make jokes, too!" I quote it all the time.