Sarah Steele On 'The To-Do List,' Female Filmmakers & Being On 'Gossip Girl'

08/02/2013 10:12 am ET | Updated Aug 17, 2013
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During this summer of fast and furious blockbusters, "The To-Do List" stands out for a number of reasons. Like "The Heat," it's one of the few movies released this year with women in leading roles both in front of and behind the camera. It's also made for adults -- and not just because it's rife with 1990s nostalgia. "The To-Do List" earns its R-rating with ease, and features enough real-talk about sex to make 2 Live Crew blush.

Written and directed by Maggie Carey, "The To-Do List" stars Aubrey Plaza as Brandy Klark, a recent high school grad who hopes to gain a lifetime of sexual experience during the summer before college. (She keeps the title agenda in her Trapper Keeper.) While Plaza has earned deserved praise for her go-for-broke performance, it's co-stars Sarah Steele and Alia Shawkat, as Brandy's best friends, who steal their scenes on the regular. Steele, in particular, is a delight: The 24-year-old actress -- best known for work in Nicole Holofcener's "Please Give," James L. Brooks' "Spanglish" and a brief appearance in Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret" -- plays Wendy in the film, the "Beaches"-loving confidant everyone wished they had on their side in high school.

HuffPost Entertainment spoke to the New York-based actress about her breakout role in "The To-Do List," working with female directors and what she remembers about being on "Gossip Girl."

Maggie's screenplay was one of those that a lot of people were really excited about. What was your first exposure to the script?
I have kind of a crazy story about how I got attached to this movie. I think it's OK that I tell you. I had just graduated from Columbia University undergrad -- I studied English and hadn't been acting for a few years. I was on a post-collegiate European trip with a friend of mine and we met up with my family for five days in Italy. On day three, I got an offer for this movie. It was so bizarre. I called my agent and I was like, "I'm willing to get on the plane to come back for this, but are you sure this isn't a mistake?" I had no idea. I had never heard of it before. I didn't know anyone involved. I was like, "I don't understand why I got this." She called me back, and was like, "No, it's yours if you want it." I was like, "Yes, definitely. It's an amazing cast and the script is totally fun and I'm definitely in total support of a teen sex comedy about women. I think that's a long time coming. I'm glad it's here. I'd love to be a part of it." It was really wild. It happened really quickly. It sounds bad, but I didn't do anything!

So how did they find you?
Aubrey was very involved. Aubrey had a lot of sway with Maggie; they have a very good relationship. I found out later that they were really thinking of who to cast for this role, and I don't know if this is totally true, but supposedly, according to Aubrey -- I am not doubting her -- she had a dream about me. She had seen me in "Please Give." She had a dream where she and I were dancing on the beach together and woke up and was like, "Oh, it's her." Isn't that insane?

It is. Did you know Aubrey or Alia beforehand?
No, but there's a lot of love there.

What was it like to work with such great improvisers?
It was such a different experience for me, because I do a lot of theater. Theater is so precious about each word -- not that it's a bad thing, but you definitely never stray from the script. Then I was on this film set, where it was very spontaneous. Aubrey and Alia have so much experience just getting to the set and playing around, and not being precious about the words. There was a lot of that. At first, I was a little bit more hesitant than they were about some of it, just because I had much less experience with that kind of comedy than they do. Being in the company of them, I got very comfortable very quickly.

Your character in "The To-Do List" is a big fan of "Beaches." Did you have a similar connection?
I had actually not seen it. My first day on the set, Maggie gave me both "Beaches" and a CD-ROM of a bunch of pictures and old diary entires from her youth. That was so cool. I watched "Beaches" and I looked at all the stuff. I was glad I didn't have a previous association with "Beaches," though; I was only trying to watch it through Wendy's eyes.

Wendy really likes "Beaches."
She really likes "Beaches." [Laughs] Oh, God.

What are some movies that make you cry like Wendy and "Beaches"? For me, it's "Rudy" and "The Notebook."
I'll shout out to James L. Brooks. "Terms of Endearment" always makes me cry. Also, "Stepmom" always makes me cry. I guess, you know, mothers dying. It's a safe bet that I'm going to cry.

Both this film and "Please Give" were directed by women. Does working with a female filmmaker feel any different for you?
I think you hope that you're just not looking at them any differently than if they were a man. But! I will say, in terms of my film career, what I liked about working with Maggie and Nicole [Holofcener] -- I also just did an episode of "Girls" and was working with Lena Dunham -- was that they were all telling women's stories. That felt important to me. So much of this business tells men's stories. The great parts are written for men and movies are made for teenage boys. That's the old joke. To be involved with these powerful, brilliant women telling their stories, feels like exactly what I want to be doing. I feel very fortunate that I'm getting to do it.

I also think that I respond to those stories the most. It's a good fit for me. It makes sense, in a way, that I get them. I'm not going to be in movies where things blow up. There's just no room for me in those movies [laughs]. It wouldn't make any sense.

What do you want to do next?
I have no idea! I don't know. I'm trying not to think of it in that way. I got so much out of "The To-Do List." This is a joke that I say about myself sometimes, in terms of my film career: I feel like I'm always playing the kid in serious adult movies. So, for me, it was so wonderful to suddenly be working with other people my age who were doing this on film. I actually hadn't done that much. I know a bunch of theater kids my age in New York, but I hadn't really done a film with young actors in Los Angeles. It was a vision into that. It was like my first foray into that world. I would like to do more of those. I would like to work with more film and television people my age. I'm excited about that.

One last thing: You were a guest star on "Gossip Girl." What do you remember about that?
"Gossip Girl" was a really funny time for me, just because I got it during a semester where I was taking super serious classes. I would just have these days where I would go to "Gossip Girl" for like two hours and then come back to a really serious class [laughs]. Looking back on the time that I was acting and attending Columbia at the same time, is just really funny. I didn't have a bad experience on "Gossip Girl," by any means, but it was during a time in my life where I was looking at acting in not a very serious way. Which is no insult to "Gossip Girl," but that was a time in my life when I really didn't know if I wanted to act when I got out of school. It was like, "OK, I got this part. I'll go do this." It wasn't something I took as seriously as I do now. It was like an after school activity. I graduated [in 2011]. I've got to support myself. It's not like there's time to mess around anymore.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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