Emma Roberts on running a bookclub and preparing for new roles
Matthew Priestley/Sibling Artists
Hailing from Hollywood royalty, Emma Roberts has now lived over two-thirds her life on camera. Many people first encountered Roberts when she made her acting debut at the age of nine as the very adorable daughter of Johnny Depp in Ted Demme’s Blow. But it wasn’t until a few years later that Roberts became a household name as the painfully relatable middle-schooler Addie Singer on Nickelodeon‘s Unfabulous or as the kid detective in Nancy Drew, two roles that catapulted her into tween stardom.
But despite the constraints the child star slash niece of Julia Roberts typecast can come with, Roberts has successfully circumnavigated the risks of being pigeonholed by her own limelight, making a steady evolution from being one of Hollywood’s royal families to a huge star in her own right. She has consistently lent her talent to one successful project after another—from starring in TV series American Horror Story and Scream Queens to films We’re the Millers, Scream 4, Palo Alto and Paradise Hills.
But it’s no wonder that her career has been so thoughtfully curated; the actress is a voracious bookworm with a vivid imagination, often daydreaming in lieu of scrolling mindlessly on Instagram, which can only explain why she is so drawn to roles with scintillating worlds and complex characters.
Here, the actress talks to us about her acting process, how she has taken her bookworm tendencies and turned it into a full-fledged club, and her thoughts on dealing with the vacillating nature of her career.
“I felt I was a girl who wanted to be intelligent but also be interested in what I wore. I think it’s important to show young women they can be all things. They don’t have to choose.”
You first began auditioning at the age of nine, which is beyond impressive considering that most of us were graduating from velcro shoes to laces and there you were, already decided on your life’s career path. Who was nine-year-old Emma? What do you admire most about her?
Haha. I got made fun of for wearing velcro shoes on the first day of 5th grade at a new school actually! I had specifically picked them out thinking they were so cool: camouflage Nike velcro! I remember being so confused as to how nobody could see how fabulous they were. That’s the thing I admire most about my nine-year-old self—that uninhibited confidence. I think that’s the hardest thing to bring with you from childhood to adulthood because we let other people’s negative opinions affect us.
If you could talk to your pre-industry kid self 17 years ago, what do you wish you tell her?
Never lose your confidence! Not everyone is going to like you, not every situation is going to go your way, but most of the time it’s not personal and you can’t let it affect who you are as a person.
If there was a philosophy that you lived by when you approach your work, what would you say that is?
You can never be too prepared.
Can you talk about the process you undergo when you’re preparing for a new role? How do you curate the different facets of a particular character?
I love preparing for new roles. The prep is one of the most fun parts because it’s all about discovery. I work with my acting teacher Warner Loughlin on creating a backstory as well as coming up with memories for the character, which is always really interesting. Sometimes you remember things about your own life you didn’t remember before. I love to read, so I always create a bookshelf for my character. I pick out around four books before filming and that way when I have downtime on set, or just while I’m on location, I can read in character. Books are an endless inspiration for me.
Could you name one movie in particular that you feel like really impacted your growth as a person and actor, and why?
I remember seeing Legally Blonde in theaters—that movie and performance by Reese Witherspoon blew me away! I was 10 and saw it at least three or four times in theaters. I had never seen a character that could be the smartest woman in the room but also have the most fabulous shoes. I loved that dichotomy because I felt I was a girl who wanted to be intelligent but also be interested in what I wore. I think it’s important to show young women they can be all things. They don’t have to choose. I’m also re-watching all of Carey Mulligan’s movies. I think she is the most talented actress. Far From The Madding Crowd is one of my favorite film as well as Never Let Me Go. That is the rare case where the book and the film are equally amazing.
How was the jump from being an actor to an executive producer of In A Relationship? Is this new role something that you see yourself doing more of in the future?
Producing is something I absolutely want to do more of. I love putting all the pieces of a project together, not just my character. I also love problem-solving, which I’ve learned is a lot of what being a producer is.
In addition to your acting, we hear that you’re quite a bit of a bookworm. Where do you think your love for reading began?
I was homeschooled from seventh grade on, so I had no choice really! Even before that though, I always had my nose in a book. I would read on set, before bed, in the car. I remember how much I loved riding the school bus because it meant I had extra time to sit in the back alone and read before and after school. My favorite books as a kid were the Junie B Jones series.
You’ve taken this love for reading and transformed it into an amazing community and monthly book club called Belletrist that you co-founded with Karah Preiss. How did you two meet? What’s the meaning behind the name?
Karah and I met through mutual friends a decade ago in New York City. I cherish the fact that we have stayed friends from when we were 17 until now. Books were actually the thing that kept us in touch on opposite coasts. We would always recommend articles, short stories, novels, or memoirs to each other and follow up to see what the other thought. Karah is someone I could sit and talk to endlessly about every topic, so I was always curious what she was up to and reading. We found emails between each other from 2009 about how we wanted to start a ‘book blog,’ asking each other’s thoughts, and how we should do it!
We went through so many names, but none of them felt like the one. One day, we started looking at synonyms for “writer” and “novelist”, and we came across the noun “Belles-Lettres,” which is a category of literature that refers to writing that focuses on the aesthetic qualities more than content or substance. There is some snobbery inherent to the meaning of the word because people who wrote belles-lettres were often taken less seriously than, say, Dostoyevsky. But we thought, “Screw that, we’re going to re-appropriate this because we have an appreciation for aesthetics and we extend that appreciation to literature.”
The literal translation of the term from French is fine writing. We were like, “Hmmm… that’s what we’re trying to celebrate here. This might be a good name.” And I’m really happy we chose it because it has become so integral to our recognition as a brand and it’s given birth to “Belletrist Babes” and “Belletrist Beaus,” which, quite literally, means people (like us) who love fine words.
What’s been the most incredible part of running Belletrist been so far?
The most incredible part of our journey so far with Belletrist (other than the advance copies of books by our favorite authors) is the community that has grown so quickly. I remember when we hit 10k followers we were like, “YES!” And now we have 175k, and it still blows my mind. Our followers are people like us who just want to have their curiosity heard and fed!
“I’m very grateful social media wasn’t a thing until I was past the pain of being a teen. It’s really hard to find the balance with this one but also imperative to my sense of self.”
With the advent of social media, being an actress with such a large platform and reach invites a lot of praise and instant gratification. But this also means that the whole world is commenting at all hours of the day from all the corners of the world with the positive, negative, and everything else in-between. What do you do to protect your own sense of self and drown out the noise?
Yikes. I know! I’m very grateful social media wasn’t a thing until I was past the pain of being a teen. It’s really hard to find the balance with this one but also imperative to my sense of self. On the one hand it’s incredible to be able to interact with fans so directly and immediately… on the other hand, it can get unhealthy. Social media displays a curated version of people’s lives… remember that. It isn’t reality. I think it’s so important to have experiences that you don’t do for social media. I think it’s so important for our brains to disconnect. I love the time after work where I come home and run a bath and maybe take a book with me but ultimately just disconnect and reflect on my day. Sometimes I’ll be mindlessly scrolling on Instagram and I stop myself and just daydream instead. I think using our imaginations is so important, as is being able to just sit and not have constant noise. I didn’t have a phone for a week last summer, and I swear I felt more room in my brain.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received for pursuing creative work?
Never stop asking questions.
The actor life has its ups and downs; there are moments of insane glory and then times where you’re not doing much. Do you ever worry about the next project? How do you stay grounded during times where there’s more uncertainty?
The grass is always greener. When you’re working a lot, you want time off, when you have too much time off you want to be working. I’m always grateful when I get to be on set and work because it really is what I’ve always dreamed of doing. That being said, you have to find balance. There are times where I’ve felt really burnt out but kept going from project to project. I don’t do that to myself anymore. I have to step away and have time to myself in order to step in front of a camera. I also realized, as I’ve entered my later 20s, that the projects I do affect me as a person and the stuff I do in my downtime affects who I am as an actress. I’m trying to be more specific in both of those choices lately if that makes sense…
Adir Abergel/Starworks Artists
Melanie Inglessis/Forward Artists
Jenna Hipp/Nailing Hollywood
What does the future hold for Emma Roberts? For Emma?
I bought a house, and I’m in the process of decorating it so, I can’t wait to focus on that. I’m excited to spend time making my house a home. I’m filming another movie this summer called Anya’s Ghost, which I’m really excited about. It’s a comedy which I haven’t done in so long! I adore the director Dan Mazer so it should be a fun summer.
Books you would recommend for—
The person who is searching: A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit. I’ve read this book countless times and I never cease to find something new in it. Especially depending on where I’m at in my life.
The person who wants to escape: Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. The world created here is worth diving into. The house itself is its own character in this incredible novel. I would love to adapt this for TV or film!
The person who wants to be entertained: Sex & the City by Candace Bushnell and Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote. I think it’s always entertaining to read a book that has been adapted to a movie or a show especially ones as iconic as these. The books are different in a lot of ways so they’re worth reading. Both books are much darker and more grounded than I thought they would be!