Mae Whitman: Thinking Outside The Box

On Parenthood, The DUFF, and more

TV Features

Mae Whitman showed enormous talent as a young actress in films like Hope Floats, and later on in the series In Treatment. Since then she has successfully transitioned into one of the most fascinating young adult actresses to watch. Yes, she was often referred to as “Her?” thanks to playing Michael Cera’s girlfriend on Arrested Development, but over the years she has defined herself as an actress that can build on a lot more than an offbeat stereotype.

The now 26-year-old garnered a lot of attention while she grew up before viewers’ eyes as Amber Holt on the painfully short-lived series Parenthood. As Amber, Mae showed growth in the risks she was willing to take, which ultimately hit home for viewers during many of her emotionally charged arcs. For a while there, it seemed as though every week Amber was in a new situation that really tested her maturity, and teetered on the edge of rebellion, and it spoke volumes about how much Jason Katims and co. trusted Whitman’s abilities.

Back in 2012, I argued that Amber was the most evolved and relatable character for our post-recession generation. A few years later, it came as no surprise that the then turmoil-ridden teenager had turned into a well-adjusted 20-something, who learned from her past mistakes, but like most millennials was still trying to find her place in the world.

Simply put—you can’t put Whitman or Amber in a box, which points to the message of Whitman’s new film The DUFF. Based on the successful book of same title, The DUFF is an empowering teen film that champions individuality no matter your station in life. The story follows awkward teen Bianca (Whitman), who can never quite get it right with the guys, and would much rather watch cult films than talk about fashion. She’s not your typical girl that mopes around wishing her life was different… that is, until her world is turned upside down when she’s told that she’s The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) of her trio of friends.

While Mae does go backwards in time, channeling her inner-teen, this film is a huge step forward for her, as her first starring role. Luckily, she brings all of the depth, humor and charm that viewers experienced on a weekly basis in the comfort of their homes, to the big screen.

Mae Whitman sat down with Paste to talk about feeling different, her years on Parenthood, and her film The DUFF.

Paste Magazine: Can I just tell you it’s only been a few weeks, and I think I’m just done crying over Parenthood.
Mae Whitman: I know! I’m sure it will come back up and get you when you least expect it.

Paste: How was it shooting the series finale?
Whitman: It was really sad! It’s a weird thing too, because you don’t really know how to act while it’s happening. You can’t just live in the precious moments of it and cry every single time for fourteen days of [the shoot]. You kind of have to keep going, and it’s this weird feeling that it’s all coming to an end. It was really hard, and I think we were all devastated by it. Everyone on that show was genuinely like family, more so than on any other television show that I’ve personally ever experienced. It was so exciting and we’re all really going to miss telling those people’s stories.

Paste: We rarely see characters start off as teenagers and really grow into themselves as adults. Did you change with Amber?
Whitman: Oh my God, yeah. The amazing thing too is that I had never seen a character go from being in that weird age period—it’s a strange time. I remember really struggling at that time, and since I was a few years older than Amber, it really helped because I was able to look at her with some perspective, and factor that into my performance. I learned a lot from her too. A lot of times on a TV show, a character kind of reverts back to prior mistakes but we were allowed to sit down and say, “Well, I think she wouldn’t do this because in Season Three she really overcame this element of herself.” We really worked on who she was as a full person, so every moment felt real.

Paste: Even the last few episodes, the viewers weren’t sure if Amber would land on her feet. Were your hopes for her realized in the end?
Whitman: For me, with Amber, that’s kind of her thing. She’s always teetering on the edge of something we’re all afraid of. She’s been in a lot of tricky positions where she has been super selfish, and I have been too. I know what that feels like. Because I’m so close to her, I knew that no matter where she ended up she would be okay. That was very comforting to me, but I loved the idea of her getting to be with Zeke and Camille. I couldn’t have wanted anything more than for that to happen. Even before they sold the house I always hoped that she would start a family and end up back with them. I thought it was a perfect ending.

Paste: And now I hear that Jason wants to do a Parenthood reunion in a similar way to how Richard Linklater shot Boyhood.
Whitman: That would be amazing! I think it would be the coolest thing ever. To me the biggest shame about losing this show is that we had the strongest, most real and loving foundation built, and that’s the stuff that takes time to build. It takes this weird magical situation, and all the right circumstances and the right people. I think Jason did an amazing job of putting this group of people together and sort of gently saying, “Go. Find each other. Love each other, and build something here.” That’s the greatest loss for me. So if there was any way to salvage that or to at least check in with that, that would be fantastic. Even if we did pictures, or a little short that people could have. I would be more than excited about that.

Paste: You’ve been acting in film and television your whole life, but The DUFF is a different beast entirely for you. Did you feel any pressure going into it?
Whitman: Yeah I definitely felt pressure. It’s a weird thing because it is my first lead role in a movie. I really try to keep my work about communication, and want to always be paying attention to what it’s communicating to people. I’ve always felt like I’m the voice for the girl that doesn’t fit in. The fan base that I’ve amassed at this point is filled with these really cool and interesting people that are always thoughtful and connected in the things they have to say. I wanted to make sure that I kept that up. It’s such a limited bubble in high school and I was excited to show that, not only to teens going through it, but people our age that have been through it already; let them go, “Oh my God, look how tiny and limited that was.” Those were my truths.

Paste: The DUFF is unique because it’s rare when films are targeted at teens that encompass a positive and heartwarming message.
Whitman: Yeah, I think so too. It’s hard because it’s a tough thing to make something funny and entertaining, that also has a message. I was excited too because it’s very different from the book, but it has the same important similarities. I’m always trying to figure out how we can start to change the world, and make things a little more positive. Even if this opens up a discussion about labeling or stereotypes, it excites me to encourage people to be their own individual. If nobody is telling these kids, then they’re going to try and squash down their individuality, and we need those people to be who they are.

Paste: People are comparing The DUFF to Easy A and Mean Girls, but I think it’s a story that’s void of cynicism. Did you think those films would be brought up into the conversation when you read the script?
Whitman: I love all of those movies, and I think it’s great company to be in. But I appreciate you saying that it has heart, because I’ve always felt this way. I’ve always felt like I didn’t quite fit in and I’ve been put in boxes and labeled. It wasn’t just in high school, but in my job or in the world. There’s such a human tendency to try to contain someone, and I think you end up losing out on a lot of opportunities. A lot of girls lose out on a lot of interesting roles because of how they look. I get a lot of, “Well, I don’t think you’re fat enough or ugly enough for this.” And I’m like, “Wait, does that mean you think somebody is fat or ugly enough?” If that’s the kind of thing that we’re perpetuating as some weird person’s perspective, then that’s going to mess up our future generations.

Paste: On top of going through growing pains I can’t imagine being an actress and getting these character descriptions.
Whitman: It’s not good, but I think it’s like anything else. In a huge way I’m grateful to have been the weirdo, because I think those roles are really interesting and those stories are strange and wonderful. It’s hard and disheartening when you get a character description and it’s the box that you automatically get shoved into, because you’re not a certain type. The saddest thing is that it’s limiting for both parties, because you don’t have a chance to show what you could bring. It’s really like anything else, where you kind of have to be the best version of yourself you can be, and someone will get you and appreciate you. You don’t want to be jumping through hoops to fit into something for someone else.

Niki Cruz is a Freelance Entertainment Journalist based out of New York. With a passion for Film/TV she often contributes to Paste, amNew York and Interview Magazine. Niki spends her time off learning life lessons by binge-watching Dawson’s Creek. You can follow her on Twitter.

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