Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for
November 17, 2017

Based on the novel of the same name by Joy Nicholson, the coming-of-age drama The Tribes of Palos Verdes follows one family's gradual demise juxtaposed with the scenic backdrop of an idyllic suburbia.

When her family relocates from the Midwest to the picturesque coastal community of Palos Verdes, 16-year-old Medina (Maika Monroe) is hopeful for a new chapter in their lives. But their tranquil surroundings belie a seething unrest: Medina's mother Sandy (Jennifer Garner) feels insecure and alienated in the affluent Southern California neighborhood; her father Phil (Justin Kirk) is unhappy with his marriage, despite his booming medical practice, and wants a divorce; and her twin brother Jim (Cody Fern) turns to drugs to escape his mom's increasing dependence on him and his dad's growing aloofness. Amidst this suffocating dysfunction, the introspective Medina finds her only solace in a burgeoning passion for surfing, even as she struggles to be the only stable force in her disintegrating household.

To its credit, The Tribes of Palos Verdes adeptly depicts all its characters' conflicting viewpoints, especially when it comes to Jim and his warring parents--no one is painted as the singular heavy, even as they each take turns expressing their emotions in the unhealthiest of ways. "I think in this particular story, everyone thinks that they're doing their best," Justin Kirk reasons, subsequently adding that much of the audience's perception hinges upon the editing process: "Someone said to me how in early cuts of the movie that the feedback was just that I was some horrible villain, and with a tweak or two here and there, it's suddenly a different perspective."

Cody Fern has faith that viewers are well-equipped to deal with the ugly side of these broken and damaged people, including a strong performance from Jennifer Garner in which she elicits a broad spectrum of emotions, from pity and sympathy to outright loathing for the backhanded comments directed at her children. "You never know how they're going to be perceived, but I think that today's audiences are more receptive to complicated characters," Fern observes. "People don't want simple good guy/bad guy, black/white layouts anymore. We understand greater areas of grey. And particularly with Justin's character, there's a lot of grey. People say he's the villain of the piece, but in a big way, he's a man trying to move on with his life, who also happens to have children."

At the center of this chaos is Maika Monroe's Medina, who is tragically forced into the responsibilities of adulthood just a little too soon thanks to the shortcomings of her parents. Coincidentally, Medina's newfound love for surfing and her connection to the ocean were not unlike Maika's own teen years--the SoCal native found comfort and confidence in kiteboarding, and was even on her way to making it a competitive career.

In this exclusive interview, Maika Monroe talks about her experience of working on The Tribes of Palos Verdes, the physicality that prepared her for the requisite surfing scenes, and the similarities between her own life and Medina's.

The Tribes of Palos Verdes is available on VOD, including YouTube and Google Play. Not to be too superficial, but Palos Verdes and your hometown of Santa Barbara are two oceanside communities in Southern California that really love their earth tones...

MAIKA: They sure do! [laughs]

...So were there any parallels between your own upbringing and Medina's?

Oh yes, yes, definitely. Santa Barbara is a very beautiful place, and all the buildings look very similar. My dad's a general contractor, and he has to get approved by the city [for] what the houses look like. And almost every home is an old Spanish style, and all the grass is cut clean, and there's obviously beautiful beaches. So yeah, it was very similar. And I grew up in a really tiny little home with my mom and dad up in the foothills, and I went to high school with a lot of kids that were living in these huge mansions and throwing these parties, that grew up extremely, extremely wealthy. So yeah, I think that there was a lot of similarities. And for me--especially in high school, kind of finding it hard to fit in or find a group of friends that understood, like, what I was going through--the ocean was something that I was so passionate about, and it was such an escape for me, not having to think about whatever was going on that day, whether it's family or friends...I grew up kiteboarding, which is close enough to surfing! [laughs] So yeah, reading the script, it connected with me--hit me really hard reading it, and just was like, "I have to do this!"

For a while, it seemed like you were on a trajectory toward a professional career in kiteboarding. How did acting get into the mix?

Well, it was my senior year of high school, and I had grown up auditioning and doing smaller things like booking commercials, but it wasn't really working out in the way that I wanted...And kiteboarding, for me, was more stable in the sense that I could control it, and I could train, and I could work on a trick, and I could get better and I could see progress, you know? And I knew, "Okay, if I train, I can be the best girl in the world." And it was nice having something that I could physically do. And with acting, it was very different. I mean, of course talent is involved, but so many other things...The stars have to align, and luck has to be involved, and you have to look a certain way for this and that. And so it was really tough for me, and it was kind of becoming a negative. And so I moved to the Dominican Republic when I was 17, finished my last semester online. And that was my life. I was there for about seven months. I was training, I was starting to compete, I was professional. And then I would send in a couple audition tapes here and there for films that I thought were kind of cool or special, and ended up booking this movie from my apartment in the Dominican Republic, which was just crazy. [laughs] And it just totally changed the course of my life!

Was it just a coincidence that this role included some of the physicality to which you were already accustomed?

Yeah, definitely. I mean, I remember getting the script and reading it, and people had said, "I think you'll really like this story." And I don't think I had read anything that hit me so close, and was so close to my own childhood and my own upbringing.

You said that surfing is close enough to kiteboarding. What skills from your own prior training helped you in shooting this film?

I think a big part is just being comfortable in the ocean. It was pretty crazy weather. It was February, yet we were doing a lot of stuff in the ocean, and it's very cold. And we had been having a lot of storms and some really big waves, and some scarier conditions. But the ocean has been such a huge part of my life, so that was never really an issue...And sometimes we'd be shooting and we'd finish the day, and they're like, "There's great waves, let's just go [again]!" And I'm like, "Okay, okay, let's do it!" [laughs] So I think [my background] just really helped with all the ocean stuff, I guess.

Did you get to do all of Medina's scenes in the ocean?

Almost all. I think there's a couple wide shots where they have a stunt double doing some of the surfing, where she's getting better. But yeah, a lot of it I got to do, which was fun.

Medina offers several bits of sage advice, including duct tape's ability to solve a lot of problems. Has this magical fix-all ever come in handy for you while out in the elements?

[laughs] Oh yes, yes! There's a photo of me, probably about five months [into] the Dominican Republic, and my hands are covered in blisters, and my feet from my straps are covered in blisters. And there's just a photo of, literally, duct tape around my hands and feet, and it's really funny...Because it's the only thing that's going to stay in the water--you know, you can't do a band-aid. [laughs] So yes, it has helped!

As twins, Medina and Jim have a very close relationship. To what extent did you and Cody work on their dynamic, and maybe even subtle things like shared mannerisms?

We spent a lot of time. That was something that was really nice with this film: we had time to rehearse and spend time together. And I think the relationship with Cody is so important because not only are they siblings, but they're twins. And I have friends that are twins, and I spent time talking to them--there's just a connection that you have with a twin that's different than anything else. And so we were able to hang out a lot before and really kind of get to know each other, and kind of figure out ways throughout the script that we can really show this connection.

Given the heavy material you are dealing with in this story, how would you characterize the on-set mood of you and your co-stars?

Yeah, it was definitely a darker film, and almost every day, there was kind of a bigger scene. So you couldn't really "let it out" in between scenes. It was kind of heavy days, and I think everyone was feeling a similar way, especially for Jen--you know, Jen had incredibly heavy material. And so I think it was more at the end of the day that we were able to let go of the work and kind of shake it off. And I haven't been able to film a lot in Los Angeles, so being able to drive home and see my friends and be in my apartment and shake off all the, like, anger that could build up with doing scenes like this was nice...That was really helpful, and also, I think, super important to be able to let it go at the end of the day.

Does being able to sleep in your own bed and stay in your home environment always help during filming? I could also imagine it being a distraction.

Overall, I would tell you that I would prefer to not shoot in Los Angeles. You know, you're meeting all these new people and it's kind of separate from your own personal life. I've always actually preferred that. But for this film, I think just because it was so close to my heart, being able to have my friends around, and at the end of the day being able to let it go, [helped]. I think if I didn't have that, it would have been a lot harder, probably, just emotionally. But it really kind of depends on the project and what you're doing.

In a lighter moment, Medina expresses a strong opinion about how people should share their food when eating together. Where do you fall on this hot-button issue?

Yes! [laughs] I agree! Share! Obviously! I like sitting at a table where everyone's sharing food. That's how it should be!

It looks like you have a few upcoming projects that we should be keeping on our radar. What are you particularly excited to share with audiences?

I just finished filming a Neil Jordan film called The Widow in Dublin with Isabelle Huppert and Chloe Grace Moretz that I think is going to be really special. And just to be working alongside a director like Neil who has made such incredible films and has won all these Oscars...It's just crazy. And then Isabelle, who I've been such a huge fan of, and especially with her last film Elle...She's just incredible. To work alongside people like that that just know what they're doing, you learn a lot. I'm super excited for that one to come out.

You worked with Chloe Grace Moretz previously in The 5th Wave. Did that prior relationship help with The Widow?

Oh, it's so nice, yes! [laughs] It was great. And we play best friends in the film, so the chemistry and everything was already there. She's a good friend, so it definitely helps.

Thanks very much for your time this afternoon, it was nice to meet you.

Yeah, of course! Thank you! Very nice meeting you, too!

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