Aimee Teegarden and Thomas McDonell are a bit of an odd couple. And I say “couple” figuratively, since the two aren’t actually reported to be dating (an increasing rarity in these promotional showmance times we live in). Teegarden is, at 21, already a consummate media professional. An actor in film and television from the age of 14, she recently spent five very big years of her young life living in Austin while filming the critically beloved NBC series Friday Night Lights, currently airing its fifth and final season. Talking with Teegarden feels like chatting with the button-cute president of the FBLA: she is bright, quick, and upbeat. But ironically, playing a teenager for five years meant she had to miss high school herself. “I was working,” she says ruefully.
McDonell, on the other hand, is new at this. The well-spoken NYU-trained actor, 24, got his first film role when he auditioned “as an experiment” for a small role in the Jackie Chan movie The Forbidden Kingdom while living in China to study contemporary art. This was followed by another small role in Joel Schumacher’s Twelve. And now, he suddenly finds himself playing the romantic bad-boy lead opposite Teegarden in Disney’s Prom, which the studio is hoping will take off like High School Musical. He has also been cast as the younger version of Johnny Depp’s character in Tim Burton’s upcoming Dark Shadows film. It seems like big things are in store for him. But for now, he is brooding through his exhaustion.
When Teegarden and McDonell sat down with Spinning Platters, they were in the midst of a rigorous Prom promotional blitz. Having just arrived in San Francisco from Teegarden’s beloved Texas, they were in town for barely a full day before being shipped off to their next location at 4:30 the next morning. For her part, Teegarden wasn’t registering any exhaustion. She was chipper and excitable, sitting bolt upright in her chair while wearing a cute fitted blazer, tight jeans, and tall strappy heels. The hair: immaculate. McDonell, on the other hand, looked like the #1 suspect on a potential school shooter list: slumped down in his chair, disgruntled expression, longish hair, long black coat over a black T-shirt, loose black jeans, and scuffed black shoes. The two of them shared the resigned and cordial air of young kids stuck in the publicity trenches together.
In Prom, Teegarden plays a girl named Nova (ugh, I know), a bustling and goal-oriented young woman who seems to be functioning as a one-woman prom committee. Nova talks about prom with the wide-eyed zeal and enthusiasm of a newly converted religious fanatic. She projects onto it the same strange idealism that Love Actually gave to Christmas. Really? It’s the one time of year to tell someone you love them? Why, Hugh Grant? But I digress. Things start to change for Nova when her precious prom decorations are destroyed in a fire, at which point bad boy Jesse (McDonell) is punitively assigned to help her rebuild them and get prom back on track. Initially they dislike each other, but you can probably guess what happens from there.
Below, we talk about Prom, Aimee’s work in Scream 4 and Friday Night Lights, the influence of John Hughes, being mocked for doing a Disney movie. and life in “the Mouse House.”
First of all, we promise we’re not gonna ask about your own proms or high school experiences or anything like that.
AT: [laughs] What did I wear, who was my date, who’s my celebrity dream date…
One of the things I enjoyed about your performances in Prom was that, on paper, these characters could have just come across as types: the good girl and the bad boy. As actors, how did you approach your characters to elevate them beyond that?
AT: For me, it was finding what sets this character apart from any other part I’ve played or any character I’ve seen growing up. The big thing about Nova is that there’s such a drive with her. We all knew that girl who was cute and driven and had college on the mind and tried to be friends with everybody. But over the movie, you pull back the layers and realize she doesn’t really know what she stands for or why she stands for it. She kinda misjudges everyone.
TM: The studio and the director and the cast and the writer of the script, everyone was pretty committed to making the characters more than just those types you described. So in a way, that made it easy for me to do. The stuff was, to a certain extent, on the page. The reveals with the characters were there, and so as long as the performance was in keeping with what was on the page, we were okay. They wanted the types to exist, but they also wanted to explode them. One of, if not the most, important themes of the film is things not being the way that they seem at first. To Jesse, Nova seems totally superficial. Then, in fact, she’s not like that, there’s more to her. And the other way around: Nova thinks Jesse is just a trouble-making nuisance, but she learns about the things that are motivating him, from specific stuff like skipping class to pick up his brother because his dad’s gone, to the more subtle things about why they’re emotionally the way they are with each other. And that’s true of all the characters in the film.
The director [Joe Nussbaum] gave you guys DVDs of all the classic John Hughes high school movies from the ’80s. Were there any characters in particular you wanted to pay homage to?
TM: Not one in particular. The idea behind giving us all the movies was because a lot of the cast members were really young and probably hadn’t seen them. As for an homage, it was more about having an overall consistent tone than the specifics of the characters.
AT: It was really interesting because if you look at the themes in Prom, a lot of the ’80s movies had similar ones. So it’s kinda fun to watch and figure out where you’ve seen that scene or that relationship before. We have a John Cusack character, Lloyd (Nicholas Braun), and my character’s relationship with her father is kinda like the father-daughter story in Say Anything, with the expectations and the college and that kind of thing. But not as intense. We don’t end up in jail in this movie. [laughs]
Thomas, you seemed immediately reminiscent of Heath Ledger in Ten Things I Hate About You. Was that intentional?
TM: People haven’t really said that to me. He comes up more on the movie I’m about to film [Dark Shadows]. To be honest with you guys, it came up like: “You’re gonna do a Disney movie? Really?” But then people would say, “But it’s cool, Heath Ledger did a Disney movie. A lot of people got their start doing Disney movies like that, right?” And I’d say, “Yeah,” or, “Whatever.” [smirks] Disney’s not all bad.
Aimee, I have to ask you about Scream 4. [Teegarden has a key role in the film’s opening sequence]
TM: Is it true that nobody dies?
AT: I was at the premiere the other night, and it was just crazy. The fandemonium or whatever you wanna call it, it was really overwhelming. It was just like people everywhere with their Scream masks and memorabilia they’d been carrying around forever.
Those movies have trained me to fear large crowds where people are wearing that mask.
AT: There were tons of bodyguards, tons of security. It was intense.
So, your role in this film puts you in a special place in movie history: the opening scene!
AT: [laughs nervously] I’ve signed a lot of paperwork, I’m surprised I can even talk about the fact that I’m in the movie. But I was really excited to work on it! Originally when I got the part, like, nobody got a script, or at least not a complete script. It was always constantly changing. It was on triple goldenrod pages by the time I got out there. Even on set it was like, do you learn your lines or do you not learn your lines? Are they gonna change? Even shooting it, you didn’t really know where or if it was gonna end up in the movie. Then I went back to Michigan for five pages of reshoots to the scene.
How much time passed between the first shoot and the reshoot?
AT: Well, they added the whole second half, the, uh…other half… [trails off nervously]
I’ve seen it! We can talk about it! This won’t run until after it’s in theaters.
AT: Uh… [laughs nervously]
AT: Yeah, from the garage, and a little further back from that. It was about four months between actually shooting and then going back and adding more scenes. It was a big change in weather, just to start out with! The last scene that I’m in of the movie [which takes place in an open garage], it was literally one degree outside. They had to keep turning on the heaters just so you couldn’t see my breath, because the camera was picking it up.
It was a real house, not a soundstage?
AT: It was a real house in the real cold with the real snow outside! And then we had to shut down the production because Michigan had its biggest blizzard in twenty years or something like that. But the whole thing was such a fun experience.
You’ve also just come from spending five years playing Julie Taylor on Friday Night Lights. What was it like as an actor, spending so much time with the same character?
AT: It’s one of the really big highlights of getting to do TV, getting to develop your character. There’s not a start and end point. But also, five years of your own life you’re spending doing TV. You’re living your own life, growing as a person. I got to grow with Julie and change as a person. We started out with ten principal cast members, and there were only so many minutes in an episode to cram everyone in. But in the end it was down to three regular series cast members [Teegarden, Kyle Chandler, and Connie Britton], so I got a lot of story lines and really got to develop the complexities of being female and young and trying to figure out who you are and the struggles you go through. The big thing about Friday Night Lights is you never see anything being judged. Like, the conversations between my character and her mom about sex — there’s no judgment, which I thought was really important. It was just like,”This is what it is, these are the repercussions, these are the pros and the cons. I want you to be happy and enjoy it.” I think that’s a really important message to put out there, without judgment—
TM: The audience does the judging.
AT: [laughs] I feel like a lot of people who come to me [about the show] appreciate that they have talking points to discuss with their kids and their families. It’s an all-inclusive family type of show and it deals with real issues and real situations, and it doesn’t make a judgment on them. I think that’s really important.
So you’re here talking about a Disney-brand movie, but with movies like Scream 4 and Dark Shadows, it’s not like you’re living exclusively in the Mouse House.
AT: The Mouse House! I like that! [laughs]
TM: Oh, are we ever. [smirks]
So how important is it to pick diverse roles that suit your identity as an actor?
AT: It’s really about passion and being passionate about a project. And yes, you want to diversify to prevent yourself from getting typecast. But I think the biggest thing that sucks up young Hollywood is the idea of wanting to grow up and wanting to be an adult and wanting to be taken seriously, and then they go out and make these movies that are just so far beyond what their fan base is that you can’t identify with them anymore, as an actor or a role model or as being part of something you enjoy watching on TV or in movies. And I think that’s a big thing to watch out for these days in Hollywood, in general.
TM: It’s an important thing, and it’s so important to so many actors that it’s almost like a cliché. Like, you ask any young actor around and they’ll always say, “I wanna take diverse roles and blah blah blah…” And it’s true, because you demonstrate your range as an actor and that’s good. And there’s politics in the business, like if you get too far down one road, you’ll stop being considered for other things. But what Aimee always says, which is really smart, is that it’s not about the studio or what kind of movie, whether it’s big or independent or small or whatever. It’s really about the story and who’s gonna be working on it, so if there’s directors and actors and people you admire that are gonna be working on it, and the script is good, that’s what matters.
Prom opens in theaters nationwide this Friday.