This year we have actor-turned-director Scott Coffey to thank for one more quirky, indie romance starring John Cusack. Adult World focuses on youth and innocence in the form of Emma Roberts’s character, Amy, a budding writer whose story gets awfully complicated when she starts semi-stalking her mentor, fictional poet Ray Billings (Cusack), and takes a job in a sex shop. Coffey spoke with Paste about his second feature film, about working with young actors Emma Roberts and Evan Peters (who met on the set and are now engaged to be married), the artistic ego, and the weirdest job he ever had.
Paste: I really enjoyed Adult World. Your main character Amy kind of does everything wrong as an artist at first. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the one where her friend gets published and Amy just loses it, she’s so jealous. She’s not just doing it for the art; she wants the accolades. And we’re not supposed to be like that.
Coffey: It’s about a weird character! And if you don’t like Amy, you may not like the film. But I love her. And she’s very different from Emma Roberts. Emma doesn’t give a shit about being liked (laughs).
Paste: I thought she gave voice to that immature ego of the artist. I saw similar things in your film with Naomi Watts, Ellie Parker. You’re sort of poking fun at how seriously actors and writers take themselves. I love that scene where she’s in the car with her friend and they have a contest to see who can start crying first. And because of what happened with Philip Seymour Hoffman, I’ve been re-watching Synecdoche, NY over the past few days. So I was wondering if you think this is just the natural state of the artist, to be wildly egotistical and in constant need of validation.
Coffey: I do! I can definitely relate to her and to Ellie Parker. I don’t think all artists need it constantly, and I don’t think it’s everyone’s motivation, but everyone wants their work to be seen and liked.
For me, I really want people to love it! If you make anything that’s personal you can’t help but worry about this stuff. It’s a hard thing. You want your friends to be successful, and you hate to feel jealous of them, but there’s this secret part of you that wants it, too! And I think we all can relate to that.
Paste: Now you had a really interesting job once transcribing porn from English to Italian.
Coffey: Oh my God! How do you know that?! Oh my God!
Paste: I read it, maybe in a Tribeca Talks interview?
Coffey: Oh my God, yes! It was weird. It was so weird.
Paste: I wonder if you were partly drawn to the script because of the whole sex shop setting. Is there a part of you that wanted to normalize pornography in a way? Because even though much of it takes place in this sex store, it’s all very tame and fun.
Coffey: Well, I like that about it. One of the critiques of the movie has been that the sex shop is too warm and unthreatening. But outside of New York and Los Angeles, these places can be pretty normal.
At this point, porn is all over the Internet, anybody—any kid—can get online and look it up. I don’t necessarily think that’s the healthiest thing. It can be helpful, but it can also be detrimental. I think that one of the worst things porn does is objectify women, and it can take the intimacy out of sex. Which is why I like that Amy is a virgin when she works in the store and then she has this real intimate relationship with Alex.
Paste: Well, it’s funny because Evan and Emma are engaged now. Did you sense a real chemistry between them on set?
Coffey: Yeah, I did, but it was so funny because they both thought the other one hated them (laughs). So Emma would come to me and say, “Oh my God he’s so weird! He hates me! He totally hates me.” And then Evan would come to me and say, “Oh my God, she’s so beautiful. She hates me!” They were both really shy, and it was hilarious. I didn’t think they were going to end up together. But after we filmed I went to Coachella with them. It was the first time I’d seen them as a couple, and they were just so great together. It was like they’d been together forever. It was sweet.
Paste: Emma was great, Evan was great, and John Cusack was obviously great. But my absolute favorite character in the movie was Rubia.
Coffey: Oh gosh, me too.
Paste: She was this amazing, transvestite poetess, and she kind of functions as Amy’s savior. I love their relationship. Can you talk about working with Armando Riesco?
Coffey: I can’t even begin to say how incredible that guy is. He came into the audition with a wig cap on, a necklace, and he was wearing a little bit of eye shadow. We’d seen everybody. We saw so many people—actors, we saw transvestites, and I just really wasn’t getting what I wanted. I really wanted the character to have this dignity. Armando was so great. I thought he was, like, a real transvestite that they’d just found outside! I was like, “How are we ever gonna get in touch with this guy?” (laughs) He just had so much dignity in his performance.
And Armando talked a lot about how Rubia didn’t have a girlhood. She was a boy. He was never a teenage girl, so when he meets this girl Amy, it was probably very interesting to him. Because he’d never been that girl. He never went through a teenage girlhood. Also, she was so suburban and protected, so he gets to help her, and he’s helping her become a woman, which is interesting. We get to watch this man help her become a woman. He was just amazing.
Paste: I loved when she recited that haiku on the bus.
Coffey: Yes! I wrote that. But he wrote a lot of his own stuff. Like “Emily Dickinson, bitch”? Yeah, he wrote that one.
Paste: I think I tweeted that at you today.
Coffey: (laughs) Oh, cool!
Paste: In Adult World Amy gets to meet and work for her favorite author, Rat Billings. He’s her idol but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Not at all. Do you have your own personal Billings situation?
Coffey: No, not really. I’ve had people be really supportive of me. [Director] David Lynch has been a real friend and mentor. I’ve been friends with a lot of filmmakers. I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone burn me quite like that. And I wasn’t as shrill as Amy. I had a much more fractured home life, and I was out in the world at a really young age, so I met a lot of people who were helpful and really protective of me. I was very lucky with that.
Paste: What’s next for you?
Coffey: It’s so great—you have to read this book if you can. The movie is based on a novel by Katie Arnoldi called Chemical Pink. It was written in the early nineties about the women’s bodybuilding world in Venice Beach around 1992, 1993. It’s a thriller about a young woman who’s a bodybuilder. She comes to Los Angeles to become a champion and meets a guy who becomes obsessed with her. They develop this really unhealthy, obsessive relationship, and it’s just this great, funny, dark, sexy story.
Paste: It sounds amazing. I’m definitely looking forward to more of your work.
Coffey: Thanks so much, that really means a lot to me.