Sabrina Carpenter on her mission to get everyone on the dance floor

Sabrina Carpenter wears all by Coach 1941 Pre-fall 2020

Photography by
Sarah Carpenter

On a straight-shot phone line, with nearly 3,000 miles of distance, two strangers gather for a conversation. If looking at a map, the abstract, unseeable wire feels like one of those playful phones kids make at camp. Built from a string of cotton and two plastic cups, tied together—with a hole in the center, ensuring clarity and connection. The reality is, neither of us on the phone is the appropriate age for camp. We’ve long passed the age-mark. But, in a time where the current norm is to refrain from enjoying the company of your regular cohorts, and the situations that grant you the freedom and opportunity to meet someone new, this gathering feels like meeting a new friend at camp. My new camp friend is Sabrina Carpenter, 21 years young, living in the San Fernando Valley, a Los Angeles suburb, made famous by the popular 1983 film ‘Valley Girl’ starring Deborah Foreman in the titular role. Carpenter, born in Pennsylvania, may not have totally grown up in the Valley—but she has that, hold for necessary cliche, Girl Next Door vibe to her. If the girl next door was a personable, charming, triple threat with 21 million followers on Instagram. The crazy thing is, in 2020, this is the girl next door.

Carpenter’s latest film, the Netflix Original ‘Work It’ is a timely arrival in a fragile world. She Plays Quinn, an over-achiever, hell-bent on succeeding at something new—a dance troupe. “It’s a really cute, fun dance movie. But, I think there are lots of layers, with things that people can take away from it if they want to,” she says assertively. With the aid of some friends and misfits, Quinn sets out to create a dance troupe, as an extra-curricular style flex, to get into her dream school; Duke University. Carpenter herself, feels like an elevated version of her Netflix equal. Older, yes, but self-assured and highly favored. Still, there is a likeness between teenage Quinn and 21-year-old Sabrina.

“I’ve always been someone that is fueled by my passions and the things I want to accomplish. I think it’s a strength of mine. I’m a hard worker. It’s so weird to say that kind of stuff about yourself. Usually, you ask your friends to describe you.” “We love a hard worker,” I say, speaking for the world. It’s a compliment she welcomes, laughing in acknowledgment. My new camp friend has a sense of humor. Furthermore, she possesses true grit and perseverance, that propels her forward on the never-ending journey of that, trying to be the best you can be at life thing. I quiz her on what, despite all her accomplishments, she could improve on; “anything I could improve on, I’ll work on, I think bettering yourself, even in the smallest amount is worth it,” she admits. Citing the instruments she plays as one thing and her songwriting as another. Not being the type to take herself too seriously, she counters this. ” It’s also nice to have something you do because you like it, where the focus isn’t about being the best, or how good you are. I think that’s how I feel about sports. Like, genuinely, I’ll try and play basketball, and I know I suck. But I continue to play because I have fun with it, as embarrassing as that sounds. I think everyone has something like that in life, and if they don’t, maybe they should.” My new camp friend is wise.

Fans of Carpenter and performing arts movies will see a story of a girl trying to control life’s compass in ‘Work It’, sprinkled with humor and painted in the color of sweet, oblivious adolescence. Co-starring screen sweethearts Jordan Fisher, Keiynan Lonsdale, and Liza Koshy, ‘Work It’ gives the impression of the teen movie secretly injected with many of life’s questions— if that’s what you’re looking for. “More than anything, I think it’s the idea that life will switch up your path a lot more than you realize, and you can only plan things so much. But life will take you on the path you’re meant to be on, and it’s important to see how you’re able to carry yourself in the face of that.” Carpenter goes on to say, the themes explored don’t stop there. Nevertheless, I believe this is the most apparent one, and perhaps the most vital. The abstract nature of life must be accepted if we are to land where we need to be.

In March, when everything changed, Carpenter had merely just begun her run as Cady Heron, the heroine in Mean Girls: The Musical. After just two performances, she, like the rest of the world, put her life on an immeasurable hold. But, her time on stage at the August Wilson Theater on New York’s 52nd street remains very vivid. So is her introduction to North Shore High and its eccentric personalities. Carpenter, 11 days close to her 4th birthday when the Tina Fey penned classic released nationwide in 2004, grew up somehow always being aware of the comedy. In a house full of three older sisters, the sharp and witty voices of The Plastics and their fellow student body was an established reference point. When I tell her I was 14 years old at the time of its release, ready to digest whatever tropes of being a teenager I was fed, she can’t fathom it. ‘That’s insane,” she blurts out in disbelief. “I know, I remember it so well,” I respond in agreement—visualizing my fading AMC ticket-stub in my soft 14-year-old hands.

“It’s one of those movies that embrace the weirdness and uneasiness of those years in our life, and doesn’t do it in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable about it,” she adds. “It makes you laugh and reminds us we all have flaws that make us unique and individual.” The August Wilson Theater, named after the prolific American playwright of the same name, whose notable works include 1985’s Fences, holds a maximum occupancy of 1,228 seats. This is where Carpenter had her moment as Cady Heron, the endearing new girl who finds herself in a battle for her reputation.

“When the opportunity arose to play Cady, I thought, this is not what I was expecting to be doing right now—but I don’t want to miss out on it either. I wanted to push myself to do something that I was kind of afraid to do. Even only having done two shows, it is one of my proudest accomplishments.” I quiz her again, this time on her favorite Mean Girls quote, but she’s unable to think of one on the spot. “This is hard. the entire movie is a quote.” She’s right.

Notwithstanding Carpenter’s accomplishments, and her capacity to maneuver such a laborious and tricky industry with grace, I think the most exciting part of her life at present is her age. Glorious, celebrated 21. A milestone she commemorated on Instagram with a photo, wearing a sparkling, jungle-inspired Versace number, out of the Italian fashion house’s Spring Summer 2020 collection. “It’s weird,” she declares. “When I was 16, I had a lot of people tell me that I was an old soul. I didn’t feel like I had it figured out, but I knew that I had felt things before, even though I hadn’t necessarily experienced them—like I had some previous knowledge from another life. At 18 that changed, and the years after have been the biggest awakening for me as far as becoming the person that I am.” I half-apologize for the serious tone our conversation has struck. “You’re really coming in strong with the questions,” she jokes. “I’m literally still thinking of my favorite Mean Girls quote by the way. My new camp friend is introspective and self-observing. “Which is why every year is so interesting,” she goes on to say. “Oh, that was the crazy year, I’ll think. Now I can move on to some normalcy, but it gets crazier. They say that this time in our life, everything feels like it’s happening for the first time and that’s why it feels so intense. But truly I’ve never felt that more than I do right now.” Crazy is good, I assure her, me, nine years her senior. Carpenter, surprisingly enlightened and clear-sighted for 21 is coming-of- age in a very distinct world than the one I inhabited, virtually ten years ago during my own “crazy” Sophmore decade in life. Still, her desires for her future are the same. “I’m trying not to think too far behind me or too far in front of me, other than wanting to do things that completely challenge me. I’d love to live in Paris for a few months. I’d love to do things that make me feel alive and remind me of how young I’ll still be in a decade. I want to do things that make me feel the age that I am.” She’s on a contemplative roll that I don’t want to disturb. I egg her on. “It doesn’t seem like long ago, but the world has changed so much since I was having these thoughts at your age I tell her. Conversations are occurring now that had no place in 2011, during my 21st year

“We’re all kind of unlearning and learning right now and we’re doing it together. We’re experiencing things that our parents haven’t experienced in probably either a very long time or, possibly ever—That’s powerful.”

I’m processing her words, growing enlightened by her candor. I seem unaffected, but I am. I give her a break on my Mean Girls cross-examining, asking her; what comes to mind when the flick is brought up in conversation. This time her answer is instant. “Probably Regina’s white tank top scene. Where she cuts the holes revealing the purple bra and then everyone at school copies it. I think it’s because that’s almost happened to me before, not specifically. But I’ll have a hole in a shirt and be like, I could just Regina George it? Or just buy a new shirt.” Sabrina Carpenter is the girl everyone wishes was next door, and if they don’t, they should.

Conversation

Hi Sabrina? I’m so excited to be speaking to you. I just watched Work It, like an hour ago.

Wow, you’re Fresh!

Yes, I wanted to watch it and be excited about it and have it fresh in my mind before talking to you.

How’d it made you feel? Do you want to dance?

I want to dance! I want to make other people dance. I’m so pumped. OK. So, from the opening scene, I thought, this seems like so much fun. Can you give me a bit over an over-view of your time filming?

That’s exactly what it was. I couldn’t picture a better movie to film, in a better place during the summer. It really did feel like summer camp. As you can see, we have this really talented, funny ensemble. The best part about it was kind of seeing the movie come to life from what it initially was. At our table read, the movie was something completely different from how it started developing—and I think a lot of that had to do with the dance, but also because of the on-screen chemistry, and these relationships that you see on screen. Us actually becoming friends and spending so much time with one another, and being really free to be able to experiment and improv, and our director Laura Terruso was so open with us bringing ideas and making things as funny as we could.

At the end of the day, it’s a really cute, fun dance movie. But, I think there’s a lot of layers, and definitely things that people can take away from it if they want to. I think it was just great to make, because we weren’t taking ourselves too seriously, and I don’t think the film takes itself too seriously. I think right now, during these weird, heavy, kind of hectic times, it’s a nice breath of fresh air to remind you that life is very short and that you just have to live it to the best of your ability.

I really loved the scene where Quinn and her mom are sitting in the car before her Duke interview, and her mother asks her what her strengths are. I thought I’d ask you, personally, what are some of your strengths?

Oh, wow. That’s a great question.

Thanks!

I think some of my strengths are… You know, it’s funny, because I had a question the other day, about the movie, and someone being like, who is the least like their character in the film. And Liza was like; I think Sabrina. I don’t think Sabrina and Quinn are too similar. But I do think something that we have in common is our passion and determination. I’ve always been someone that is just really fueled by my passions and the things I want to accomplish. Oh, sorry, there’s a siren going through. It’s getting hot out here. (Laughs)I think that’s something that I think is a strength of mine. I’m a hard-worker. It’s so weird to say that kind of stuff about yourself, like, usually you ask your friends to describe you. I like to work hard, and I’ve never really had to force myself to work hard, I just like to.

We love a hard-worker, that’s awesome.

(Laughs)

I love that Quinn is super intelligent but is the underdog when it comes to the dancing world—and how she works hard to improve that aspect of herself. What are some things that you, as Sabrina, could improve on?

The instruments I play in order to get better. My songwriting, I love to improve, because I feel like it makes me more comfortable with myself, allowing me to get stronger. Honestly, everything I can possibly improve on, I’ll try to. But I think what’s really awesome about Quinn is that this is something she has no knowledge in; she has no coordination—she has two left feet. But she’s having fun with it, so she wants to continue working very hard. I think that’s how I feel about sports. Like genuinely, I’ll try and play basketball, and I know I suck. But I will continue to play because I have fun with it, as embarrassing as that sounds, I think everyone has something like that in life, and if they don’t, maybe they should. It’s nice to not care so much about how good you are at something, and just do it because you like it. Not caring if she looked bad, or dumb. As long as it was getting her to the place where she wanted to, like, improve even the slightest amount, it was worth it. I think that’s a good thing to take away from it.

I thought Jazz’s constant sexual innuendos with the boy at the mattress store were so interesting—because I feel like sometimes in movies for a young audience, we kind of shy away from the fact that adolescents can be a very sexual time for some teenagers. Was that something that was mentioned on-set, or was it just in the way that Liza Koshy acted it?

(Laughs) I think since the beginning, I’ll never forget the day on set where we had, like, a crew of a bunch of grown adults, trying to shoot a kid’s boner. That was overall, probably the highlight of the movie for me, was seeing them trying to get the angles of this boner, and shoot it properly. Yeah, like I said, I don’t think the film takes itself too seriously, and that’s obviously like a part of life. I didn’t realize how advanced kids were, until I was probably too old to see. I was also homeschooled for most of my youth. So I definitely was sheltered to certain innuendos. But honestly, it’s nothing that I never didn’t understand. Like, when grownups or my older sisters would make jokes. It was nice to almost feel comfortable with it at the end of the day, and I think that obviously Liza… It’s funny because we actually have so many outtakes of her trying different options, and some that probably did take it too far, and what ends up in the film is a happy medium. It’s not something that feels too crazy in the movie, but when you watch it, it’s nice for the audience that will understand it.

Hold for Plane. I really should go inside. There’s like four planes circling my house right now. (Laughs)

Do you live by the airport?

I don’t. Just in the valley, and they are having a field day right now. 

I saw a few themes going on in the film—can you tell me in your own words some of the themes you think Work It represents?

More than anything, I think it’s the idea that life is going to switch up your path a lot more than you realize, and you can only plan things so much. But life is going to take you on the path that you’re meant to be on, and it’s important to see how you’re able to carry yourself in the face of that. Also, just being there for your friends. I think Quinn notices for a moment, that, not that she’s a shitty friend, but she’s put this one thing on the pedestal for her entire life, and it’s probably her mom and dads doing… and at the end of the day, you have to make yourself happy, it’s your life. You have to be happy with it.

Goodness, there’s so much to take away from it, and I’m excited to see what others take from it. I also love that, and this is a spoiler, but the things she wants the entire movie, what she’s aiming for. She doesn’t get. This thing she was dying to get into and did this crazy thing to get into, she doesn’t get. That just shows you that life is going to be OK, even if it doesn’t turn out to be the way you wanted it to.

OK—so Mean Girls… I hope you’ll be back, and god willing theaters are able to open again in the fall. So, Mean girls came out when I was 14, I’m 30 now—and I just remember it so well—and how it made me feel. When were you officially introduced to Mean Girls?

That’s insane, by the way! But, that was one of those movies that I literally don’t remember the first time I saw it, I just always remember it being a part of my life. Honestly, it’s probably because it came out, not too long after I was born, I was probably just a couple years old. But I just grew up with it. I have a house full of sisters, and it was definitely a fan favorite in my household. And like you said, that’s one of those movies that embrace the weirdness and uncomfortableness of these years in our life and doesn’t do it in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable about it. It makes you laugh about it and reminds you that we all have our flaws that make us unique and individuals. Honestly, it never even crossed my mind of the opportunity to play Cady on Broadway. I was a fan of the original Broadway cast, and I love the show. Broadway was something I’d always wanted to do, just maybe later in life. When the opportunity arose, I was like OH, this is not what I was expecting to be doing right now—but I don’t want to miss out on it, and I really want to push myself to do something that I’m kind of afraid to do. I only got to do two shows, and still, it’s one of my proudest accomplishments as of right now, and I really hope to get to do it again once it starts back up again.

Hair by
Scott King

Makeup by
Allan Avendaño

Manicure by
Zola Ganzorigt

This is a bit of annoying question—but what’s your favorite mean girls line?

Oh wow, the whole movie is so quote. That’s literally so hard. I’m going through them all in my head. I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

OK! That being said, I’m sure you had plans to spend your summer a different way —as we all did. How have you adjusted to quarantine, and honestly, just what have you been doing for the last few months?

Adjusting has been a really interesting situation. This whole thing was such an unexpected surprise for everybody. Admittedly I was kind of excited to have a little time to breathe and figure out what was going on, even though I’m one of those people that can’t sit still. So it has really tested me, mentally and emotionally. But it’s been a rollercoaster. Lots of ups and downs for everybody. I’ve tried to be there for myself and be there for my friends and family. While also trying to do things to keep myself sane, like create things’ and watch something that makes me laugh and keep me happy. It’s a really interesting year where we are all kind of, not starting over, but almost starting over.

Like a reset of some sort.

Yes! I’m still thinking of my favorite mean girls quote, by the way.

OK, I don’t want to talk too much about Girl Meets World, just because it’s been a while, and because I feel like you’ve done so many cooler things after. But I grew up watching the show and grew up in Philly and it is set right outside of Philly. What are some memories that remain with you from those days?

Oh gosh. Funny, I was in my closet the other day and thought, wow, I really dressed differently in 2015. Everything has changed. I think when I was 16, I had a lot of people tell me that I was an old soul. I didn’t feel like I had it figured out, but I knew that I had felt things before, even though I hadn’t necessarily experienced them, and I just had some previous knowledge from another life—I don’t know how that works—but I definitely always felt like I was one. Until I turned 18, and then 18, 19, 20, 21, have really just been the biggest awakening for me, as far as, I think becoming the person that I really am—and I definitely haven’t figured that out fully. Which is why every year is so interesting. Oh, that was the crazy year, got that done—now I can move on to some normalcy, then every year just feels crazier. They say that this time in our life, everything feels like it’s happening for the first time, and that’s why it feels so intense. But truly, I’ve never felt that more than how I do right now. But I really do hold a lot of experiences from the time in my life—and I think that the biggest thing is that it just felt like a very safe place. It felt like a playground for me to make mistakes, and for me to really decide if this was what I wanted to do. Luckily for me, it was definitely something that I wanted to continue to do and continue to push myself in a lot of different ways. I’ve taken friendships with me that will last a lifetime from those days. So, I think that that’s also really special.

You’re 21 now, and the world is a completely different place than when I was 21, just a little under ten years ago. What would you say are some of the upsides in growing up today?

The upsides? That’s a loaded question. (Laughs)

I know, I’m going full Diane Sawyer here… coming in strong with the deep questions. 

(Laughs) You really are, coming in strong with the questions. I think the upside is that we’re all kind of unlearning and learning right now. And we’re doing it together, and that because of it we can all be a lot more accepting of each other because we’re growing up in such a weird fragile time. We’re obviously experiencing things that our parents haven’t experienced in probably either a very long time or no time at all. Social media which has made this world a completely different place. There are some positive aspects where we can connect with people on a lot more of a personal level and maybe people that we wouldn’t get to know otherwise, but every day it’s a battle for me with the relationship with it because, I think that as much as it can be powerful in a lot of good ways where you get a lot of good messages across, it could also be kind of powerful in a lot of bad ways and get lots of bad messages across. I think the most positive thing is that we have each other. I think about my friends and my peers. We’re all able to be there for each other and empathize with people.

Super optimistic answer, very cool. I dig it.

Thank you!!

OK, and lastly, I think you have your best decade in front of you. Your 20s. Tell me some things you’d like to accomplish in these next ten years. It doesn’t have to be a professional pursuit.

Honestly, like, I’ve always been a planner, if I’m being completely candid. I’ve always had specific goals, but the more that I’ve lived through this kind of a weird time, you really realize that like, you shouldn’t take any days for granted, and nothing is certain. And it’s really about taking advantage of the present moment, as cliche as that sounds, and I’m trying to think too far behind me or too far in front of me, other than the fact that I want to do things that completely challenge me and push me. I’d love to live in Paris for a few months if that ever happens, and we’re ever able to travel again. I’d love to do things that make me feel really alive and remind me of how young I’ll still be in a decade. I want to do things that make me feel the age that I am.

Amazing! OK, an alternate question to my earlier Mean Girls one. What’s the first thing that pops up in your head when you think of the movie?

The first scene that pops in my head is probably Regina’s white tank top, where she cuts the holes in the bra, and then everyone else does the same thing. I think it’s because that’s almost happened to me before, not that specifically. But I’ll have a hole in a shirt, and I’ll be like, I could just Regina George it, or just buy a new shirt.

Hilarious. I’m so excited to see everything you do.

Thank you! I hope we can meet in person sometime. Sorry about the planes!

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