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Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
for Radio Free Entertainment

May 24, 2005

While promoting Mysterious Skin, Michelle Trachtenberg graciously spent a few moments with us answering a variety of questions. In this exclusive interview, she elaborates a bit more on the compelling drama from director Gregg Araki, talks about some of the challenges of maintaining a career in acting, and previews possible future endeavors.

The Interview

RadioFree.com: Hello again.


People love criticizing the roles an actor chooses. On the one hand, if Robin Williams, say, plays a hyper character, he's erroneously tagged a one trick pony. On the other hand, if an actor allegedly "goes against type," they are criticized for overstepping their boundaries. You've been subjected to some of the latter for Mysterious Skin. What's your reaction to people's obsession with labeling actors like this?

It's very frustrating. I feel like people just want to peg actors into whatever's easiest, because then you don't have to think so much. People, I guess, just don't like to be surprised, which is so silly. When you're actor, it's so easy to just fall into that "I'm going to do the exact same movie over and over and over again." But that, to me, doesn't breathe twenty years into your career from this point. And I just feel like I, as an actress, want to challenge myself. You know, the most hurtful question, I think, is, "Oh, what will your fans say to the fact that you're not doing movies like Harriet the Spy anymore or that you don't want to reprise Dawn on Buffy?" Well, I don't know what they will say, but if they're truly my fans, if they really like what I do, then they will hopefully see my next projects. And if they don't, then I understand. But I'm never going to apologize for the choices that I make because I'm very much into the decisions that I make at that moment. And hopefully the result is great. With Mysterious Skin...I finished Buffy, I was on a plane a day later to Prague doing Eurotrip, and then two weeks later I was doing this. And I just wanted something different, something I connected to. And if people watch this movie and say, "Oh my God, I can't believe she did this," [then] thank you, because that's, I guess, what I wanted you to say.

As a viewer, do you appreciate it when an actor who is pigeonholed into a certain mold by the public breaks out of that and does something really challenging and different?

I do. I think it's amazing, and very, very scary. You brought up Robin Williams, which is a great example. He goes from the voices in Aladdin and all his funny movies to One Hour Photo, and he was brilliant. So good. And then you have Sandra Bullock going from Miss Congeniality to Crash, which I greatly admire. You have Amanda Peet all of a sudden going from her romantic comedies to doing a play. I think it's really great, and one woman that I admire greatly is obviously Nicole Kidman, who is the definition of stardom as an actress, yet she still differentiates herself so much in each and every role, from To Die For to Moulin Rogue to Stepford Wives to The Interpreter--it's so many different people. That, to me, is awesome, and I thank those other actors because it helps those of us who are still out there as well.

Because she's unfairly perceived as being very "Disney," Anne Hathaway has taken slack for her role in the yet-to-be-released-but-controversial Havoc, which also features your Mysterious Skin co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Have you gotten similar static since you starred in Disney's Ice Princess?

Well, Annie's actually a friend of mine, and I love Annie, and I read Havoc, and it is a very intense script. And I've spoken to Joe about it, because Joe and I are very close. And I feel that there was some quote that Annie said somewhere that everyone sort of jumped on. And it's like...you know what? Give her the respect as an actress. And yes, I have gotten, "You just went out to do the craziest thing that you could possibly find after Ice Princess." Well, I got you, because I filmed this like two years before Ice Princess! It just so happens that it came out after. That's not my doing. Ice Princess was a great family movie. It was wonderful for mothers and daughters to go in together and enjoy. I used to love going to the movies when I was little with my mom. I still go to the movies with my mom. But now I'm really going to see movies more like Mysterious Skin. And no, the eight year old girls that went to go see Ice Princess are not going to go see Mysterious Skin. [laughs] But their moms might, and their dads might. And I think no one can fault me for that.

Hopefully this doesn't count against me, but I really liked Harriet the Spy.

Oh, no, that's really sweet! Thank you! You know what? I only recently was able to watch Harriet the Spy, like in the last two or three years, and really appreciate what I did as a 10 year old. And it's very hard--now that I'm older, I understand--to get emotion from child actors. But I was sort of mature for my years and I understood everything that was going on. I read Harriet the Spy. I guess I just like doing movies about books. [laughs] I have a slight theme of it. But it became a classic movie. For some reason, I still get, "Oh, Harriet the Spy!" walking down the hall. I'm like, "Ten years later and I still...? You know, I have boobs! [laughs] I grew up!" I was actually doing a photoshoot for a magazine a few months back, and just as I was about to go out, I was looking at the video collection. We were shooting in someone's house, and in the little girl's room was the VHS of Harriet the Spy. And it was very flattering.

In Mysterious Skin, your character Wendy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Neil have a unique dynamic. Do you feel that Wendy is intentionally putting herself into a self-destructive relationship?

That's an interesting perspective. I don't think Wendy sees Neil as self-destructive. I think the reason why she tries to get him a different job, she's always there for him, she's trying to encourage him, is because she sees the light in him. She sees the ability for him to heal himself. So that relationship is very special, and I think it's sort of a small cornerstone of the movie, and especially for Neil, because Wendy does know all of his secrets. So I think that he's not a lost cause, and she's not trying to save him so much as she's trying to help him.

So you don't think she's trying to sabotage her own life? Because she does admit, "Where normal people have a heart, Neil McCormick has a bottomless black hole."

No. I think Wendy, outside of her reality, is an optimist, and she hopes for the better. And she's not stating the bottomless black hole bit to have a sad moment or to be dire or morose in that second. She's just sort of stating it as a fact. Like, "Don't get hurt. I've come to realize this, this is what it is." The part of that line that isn't literally being said is, "I still love him no matter what, even if he doesn't have a heart, because he's Neil."

How would you summarize your feelings about the film?

I think Mysterious Skin is one of the most beautiful depictions of human life and reality and what happens to people.

You don't have any scenes with your Mysterious Skin co-star Elisabeth Shue, but did you get to interact with her off-camera?

I did get to meet her. I met her mostly through all our press stuff. I mean, I had watched Adventures in Babysitting. I loved the movie, but I had respect enough not to be like, [sk8er grrl voice] "Yo! Adventures in Babysitting rocks! Woo-hoo!" But I had said, "Oh, I'm a fan of yours. I think highly of your work." [laughs] And that was about it. She's a cool lady.

I should probably already know the answer to this, but I'll ask anyway: are you currently enrolled in college?

Well, I've been deferring for the last few years at USC film school. I haven't actually gone. I think I paid orientation fees one year--it was right after Eurotrip. I flew back like two days before my orientation and I woke up the day before and I was just like, "Yeah, I'm good, I want to defer..." And then I went immediately into Mysterious Skin. So I've been deferring for the last couple years. It's funny because all my friends are just graduating now.

Do you have any future plans for university life?

It's on my to-do list. I don't know that I'll ever get around to it. It's something that I'd consider doing.

What do you think you'd major in?

I would study film. I was accepted into USC as well as the film school, because that's two separate processes. But I wouldn't study theatre. I've never taken any acting classes. I don't believe anyone has a right to tell me how to be an actress other than my director, so I've never responded to that. I would study the history of film, I'd study producing and directing and just the beauty of film.

I understand you speak Russian?

I'm pretty fluent, yeah.

Did you learn the language at an early age?

Yeah. My background is Russian. My mom was actually born in Russia, so I would always hear it around the house. And that was the only way I could communicate with my grandparents. So I do Russian and English.

Have you always lived in Los Angeles?

No, I'm actually originally from New York. But I moved out here when I was about 12 and was bi-coastal for a little bit. And I now live in LA, but I still go back to New York.

Your Mysterious Skin character moves from Kansas to New York. Was there anything in your own experience that allowed you to personally relate to that jump to the big city? Although in your real life, I guess you were just moving from one big city to another...

Technically, but I was living in Brooklyn, so it was still a little more sheltered. What was a really big switch for me was going from a place where entertainment was prominent, but not surrounding, and in LA, I feel like you're constantly surrounded by people in the entertainment business--I mean, that's what it is. You sit in a coffee shop, and there's that producer, and that director is sitting over there. It's everyone. There's a publicist or an agent in the corner. So that was a little bit like, "Wow, my life is sort of in the middle of everything."

I'm told you were recently named one of the "20 Teens Who Will Change the World" by Teen People Magazine.

It was a couple of years ago, actually. I'm not going to be a teen very much longer, so...[laughs] Gettin' old!

So what are your plans to change the world? You're going to have to get something rolling here, right?

Yeah, right? [playfully exaggerated] "Oh, so you mean I haven't changed it already? God!"

Ummm...I mean, "Change the world more than you already have."

Nice! Very good rephrasing. No, I think as long as one person tries to make an effort to do something, that is changing the world in itself. I know that sounds very cliche, very [grandiose accent] "one hand, one help!" But it's true. I mean, it's as simple as not taking a particular call: you're sitting in a coffee shop and you're not talking loudly on your cell phone, and then the person next to you doesn't get a headache, and then that person can come home and maybe spend an hour extra watching TV with their child, and then the next day, the kid goes to school and he does better on the test because his mom or dad spent more time with him. It's like the stupid little things that you don't think anything of actually can affect people in a huge way. So you, in your own individuality, can help save the world.

Your IMDB filmography lists quite a few upcoming films. Have any of them been shot yet?

No, they're not. Once you get to a certain level at your career--which I'm very honored to be at and I've worked hard to achieve--people just sort of attach you to movies. And all of a sudden it's a done deal when you're like, "I haven't even really heard anything about this." Those movies were all movies that I know had been wanting to be made at one point or another. One is with Taryn Manning, who's a friend of mine, and the other's Thora Birch. And individually, Thora, Taryn, and I have all been sort of looking for a movie that we can do together, because we do like each other. Thora, Scarlett Johansson and I...we all grew up in New York. Not necessarily being like best friends, but we always saw each other in auditions and everything. And now when I see the girls, there's like a comfort there. So I do look for movies that we could do together or I keep track of their careers. The stuff on IMDB would probably be nice to do one day, but that's not happening right now.

One of the proposed films, tentatively titled Four Women, has a synopsis that reads, "four young women are picked up by two men in a truck." That sounds like a setup for anything from an edge-of-your-seat thriller to a Eurotrip-type comedy.

Right! Definitely not a Eurotrip-type comedy...It was actually four women, it wasn't young women at all. I was the youngest one probably by about 15 years. It was a very good script, and I hope that one day it is going to be made into a movie. It's more of an independent, along those lines. So take that where you will.

At this particular point in your career, what type of character or emotion do you enjoy depicting the most?

Well, I did really enjoy Six Feet Under. It was crazy and fun and I was allowed to be outrageous. It was just a blast. I had a brilliant time. The cast and crew of Six Feet Under is a dream to work with. And Mysterious Skin was amazing because it was a passion project. We all wanted to be there truly because we wanted to make a great movie, and I think that reflects on screen. So I enjoyed--I use the past tense--playing those. They were great, and I don't know what I'm going to enjoy next...

You mentioned that you were considering a shot at theatre?

Yeah, maybe. I think it frightens me, so that means I'll probably do it. I'll go out there, I'll forget all my lines, I'll laugh. You know, one of the first times I went bowling with my boyfriend, I totally hit the gutter, and he's like, "It's okay, honey, at least you look pretty." Well, that doesn't really work so much in a play because the audience can't really see you up there. So I'm going to have to wave my arms a lot or something. [laughs]

Big motions!

Yes, big motions, there you go. [dramatizes] "Ha-ha! Look at me!"

Well, congratulations on Mysterious Skin. I look forward to seeing you in many other different roles in the future.

Thank you very much. Nice to meet you!

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