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‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’: Bel Powley on Body Image, Nude Scenes and Drag Queens

After “The Diary of A Teenage Girlpremiered at Sundance Film Festival in January, its star Bel Powley took the stage at the Eccles Theatre to answer questions. But when she spoke, the audience let out a collective gasp — at her British accent. Powley, 23, pulls off one of the year’s best transformations as 15-year-old Minnie, who in 1976 enters into a secret affair with the boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard) of her mom (Kristin Wiig) in San Francisco.

“Diary,” which was directed by Marielle Heller based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s novel, has earned stellar reviews as a rare drama that celebrates its young heroine’s sexual awakening. Powley spoke to Variety about preparing for the role in the Sony Pictures Classics release, which opens today.

I’m trying to think of the last time I saw a movie about a young woman who liked sex where she wasn’t portrayed as the bad girl.
Or was punished for it. I think in society in general, female sexuality amongst teenage girls is a taboo subject. We don’t want to acknowledge that teenage girls get horny and want to have sex, and in turn that’s very damning to young women, because it makes you feel alone. Like Minnie says, “Am I a freak for having sexual feelings?” It’s never shown in movies. Women are put in boxes: the virgin waiting for Prince Charming; or the high school slutty girl; or the asexual geeky girl. No one is really those things.

Were you worried about how it would be received?
I had trepidation seeing it with other people. I didn’t want it to be misconstrued as just a 15-year-old and a 35-year-old man. But it was received at Sundance exactly how it wanted to be. At the end, I burst into tears. I felt sad for my teenage self that I didn’t get to see “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.”

Was it hard to revert back to your teenage years?
I was 21 when we shot it. You know what? When I read the script, I knew the feelings. But when I went back and tried to recreate them, I realized it was difficult. When you’re a teenager, your essence is so specific to being a teenager, and everything becomes so extreme. Your emotions are on the surface and you oscillate between different things at one time. If someone touches your tit, you’re like, “I love you.” And then if someone breaks up with you, you’re like, “I’m going to die.” You’re like that all the time. It’s exhausting. Once I rediscovered that, I remembered that when you’re a teenager, you speak differently. You move differently. You hold yourself differently. It was getting all those nuances correct.

Your American accent is very convincing.
I worked with a dialect coach in London for a month. And then when I was on set in San Francisco, I stayed in my American accent the whole time. Mari suggested it to me and initially I said, “That’s weird.” As English people, we’re really reserved and I get embarrassed quite easily.

Did you watch a lot of movies from the 70s?
I listened to a lot of ’70s music. In the book, Minnie’s favorite musician is Janis Joplin, so the first thing I did was download every single one of Joplin’s tracks and listened to them on repeat for months. I listened to a lot of David Bowie, a lot of Iggy Pop. I didn’t watch a lot of ’70s movies. I didn’t want to be influenced by another actor’s interpretation.

Had you done a nude scene before?
No, I’d never had an onscreen kiss before. Anyone is going to be nervous about getting naked in front of a group of people you don’t know and simulating sex. But I was so excited to be showing a normal female body onscreen and not a Hollywood version of what a female body should be, and also showing sex through a female lens. I thought that was such a special idea and hadn’t been done before. Wanting to do that overrode my fear. I hope young women go see the film and feel comforted by the fact that this is a positive body image.

Do you think it would have been possible to make this movie with a male director?
I don’t think it would have been the same. It was very useful to have a female director, because Mari was a teenage girl and we could check in with each other: “Did you feel like this? Did you lie on bed like this? Did you have sex like this?”

How did you convince her to cast you?
I made an audition tape. I wanted to be in the film so much, I added an extra bit at the end, where I spoke into the camera as myself. I told some stories about my own teenage years, and the reasons I related to the film. I ended up Skyping with Mari and we got along instantly. I feel like we were both similar teenagers and similar to Minnie. We wanted to honor Minnie’s story and her sexual exploration, her discovery, her coming-of-age. I later flew to New York and read with Alexander and got the part.

Speaking of your co-star, why was he in drag for a recent screening of “Diary”?
Basically, there was the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” section of the movie, and San Francisco has one of the biggest drag communities in the world. Our first assistant director is a really prolific drag queen, Cousin Wonderlette. He’s quite famous. Also, another drag queen is our extras coordinator called Lady Bear and there’s a drag queen Peaches Christ in the movie. It all kind of came together, we were doing a premiere in San Francisco with our cast and crew. Alex and I were having a drink, and he thought, “Well, if everyone else is going to go in drag, I’m going in drag, too.” It was kind of a fun idea and a joke between us. We had no idea it was going to go viral.

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