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‘The Duff’s’ Mae Whitman Draws From Her Own Experience With Bullies

Anti-bullying served as the theme of Thursday night’s L.A. fan screening at the TCL Chinese Theatre of “The DUFF,” where cast members shared their own stories of high school bullying and experiences with not fitting in.

“The DUFF” (an acronym for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend”) is adapted from a young adult novel by Kody Keplinger, and stars Mae Whitman (“Parenthood”), Ken Jeong (“The Hangover”), Allison Janney (“The Help”), Robbie Amell (“The Flash”) and Nick Eversman (“Wild”).

“I was super-nerdy, and I got bullied a lot and labeled a lot,” said Whitman, who added that she was a tomboy in high school. “It was not a pleasant experience, which is why I was really passionate about doing this movie.”

But things turned around for her. “The people who shine the brightest are the ones they try to tear down the most,” she said. When asked if these sorts of stereotypes apply to actors, Whitman noted: “I think it happens all the time in life anyway, but especially in Hollywood, in typecasting and labels and stuff like that. It’s definitely something you have to battle, but that’s why you create movies like this, to kind of create some space under there.”

The story follows Whitman, who plays a quirky, nonconformist friend to two popular girls, whom she later ditches because she’s informed by a jock (Amell) that she’s the “DUFF” of their group, meaning that she’s there to make the two girls look better. The story aspires to teach self-acceptance and to discourage labels and stereotypes.

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Jeong, who’s accustomed to playing crazier roles, found the story both comedic and touching.

“The script was so good,” he said. “It was so funny — laugh-out-loud moments from the get-go. It really had great heart, and I love the role.” He’s also planning to show the movie to his twin daughters when they’re older.

Eversman, a soon-to-be father who plays Whitman’s crush in the film, also said that he was bullied in high school — for his height, since he didn’t experience a growth spurt until he was 20.

Director Ari Sandel said that he doesn’t expect “The DUFF” to be misinterpreted among the teenage crowd. “If you judge from the title, you will draw certain conclusions that are inaccurate,” Sandel said. “(But) if you watch it, you’ll come away and realize, ‘Oh, it’s a movie that really is about really being yourself and has a positive message.’”

After the screening, the cast and crew mingled over arcade games at Dave and Buster’s, which is suggested in the movie by Amell’s character as a perfect destination for a first date.

Turning the party into such a romantic occasion were Amell and his fiancée, Italia Ricci; Eversman and his fiancée; and Alexa PenaVega (“Nashville”) and husband Carlos PenaVega (“Big Time Rush”). Whitman’s two best friends came to join her, and other gamers included Sarah Hyland (“Modern Family”), Jonathan Bennett (“Mean Girls”), Max Adler (“Glee”) and David Henrie (“Wizards of Waverly Place”).

“The Duff” opens in theaters on February 20.

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