Former YouTube star and actor Bo Burnham makes his feature film writing/directing debut in “Eighth Grade,” a realistic take on coming of age in the era of social media. In the film, Kayla’s (Elsie Fisher) confidence-building YouTube self-help videos starkly contrast with her own life as an awkward 13-year-old in her final weeks of middle school. Determined to put herself out there, Kayla’s attempt to take her own advice results in some painful growth experiences. But while plenty of accolades justifiably have been poured on Golden Globe nominee Fisher’s breakout performance, it’s Jake Ryan as fellow fumbler Gabe who steals the memorable chicken nugget date-night scene that includes touching on splintered families through the lens of a “Rick and Morty” episode.
Ryan: “The ‘Rick-and-Morty’ scene was something Elsie talked about when we first [approached it] and we decided to do a little improv in the chemistry read. When we went to shoot that [date night] scene, Bo said, ‘Is it OK if you do more “Rick and Morty?” ’ and I said, ‘Oh my God, yes!’ It’s easy to feed off the energy that Elsie brings, so [our scenes] flowed naturally from the beginning.
“Bo has a cool vibe and when I first met him he was really funny and he listens to people. He was trying to re-create what kids talk about today. He was always asking, ‘Is this what kids would do?’ He would tell us the script didn’t matter, although we tightly kept to the script. However, in certain cases he would let us improvise just a little bit. That gave us a sense of freedom to be the character.
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“[My character] Gabe is a bit of an awkward fellow, but he doesn’t care. He still tries to be himself and crack jokes, and that’s a lot like me. When I talk to people, I don’t tend to care what people think of me. I like to make people feel comfortable and Gabe likes to do the same. In the chicken nugget scene, he just wants Kayla to be comfortable. He’s very considerate, like Kayla, and recognized that Kayla is shy, nervous and as awkward as he is.
“I’ve been home-schooled since I was in second grade, so I don’t hang out with a lot of people that often, but when I do a switch in my brain goes off that helps me not to be shy. When I’m around other people, I try to make other people feel happy and make friends, like Gabe.
“I didn’t really have any idea this character would be so poplar and so many people would relate to him. In the script, he was supposed to be off-centered, and I had no idea what that meant. So I was just me and made the character more subtle than maybe how he was originally meant to be.
“Bo helped me a lot, he told me to stay as grounded as possible, because I fit the character so well. He kept telling me, ‘Be yourself, don’t stop being yourself, you are fine the way you are.’ He kept telling me it was OK to make mistakes, because no one knows how to speak. You are still learning how to speak inside. So you just have to do what comes naturally to you. Bo gave me the freedom to mess up. He created a really safe environment and everyone on that set was just happy to be able to do their job.
“I worked with Wes Anderson on ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ and ‘Isle of Dogs,’ and I feel like my only experience has been with indie movies, which allows directors and actors to take the time to really experiment with the characters and do something unique.”