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'Eighth Grade' breakout Elsie Fisher talks shrimp, middle school and channeling her awkwardness on-screen

'Eighth Grade' breakout Elsie Fisher talks shrimp, middle school and channeling her awkwardness on-screen
Elsie Fisher, the 15-year-old star of Bo Burnham's film "Eighth Grade," takes time to chat at Universal CityWalk. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Elsie Fisher is just trying to enjoy her lunch at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., but her waiter won’t stop telling jokes. And they’re really bad jokes. Painful, in fact. Every time he stops by the table — roughly every seven minutes or so — he offers up another:

“Hey, you guys know why seagulls like to go to the sea? Because if they go to the bay — bagels.”

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“Hey, you know why ants don’t get sick? Because they have little antibodies.”

“You know what Forrest Gump’s password to his email is? 1Forrest1.”

At other tables, this shtick is met with grimaces and uncomfortable silence. But not Elsie’s. With every pun, the 15-year-old smiles and gives a generous chuckle. Sure, the server is awkward. But nobody knows awkward like Elsie Fisher.

As the star of “Eighth Grade,” writer-director Bo Burnham’s critically acclaimed teen dramedy that has emerged as a breakout hit on the art-house circuit, the actress serves as the embodiment of embarrassing, often heartbreaking discomfort. She plays Kayla, a 13-year-old who desperately wants to be popular but is so overcome with social anxiety that she only feels comfortable expressing herself in confessional YouTube videos.

Elsie’s performance is raw: Kayla wears no makeup to cover her acne, often trips over her words and has to escape into the bathroom to quell her panic attacks.

Elsie stars as Kayla, an awkward teenager who struggles to fit in and turns to YouTube to express herself in "Eighth Grade,"
Elsie stars as Kayla, an awkward teenager who struggles to fit in and turns to YouTube to express herself in "Eighth Grade," (Linda Kallerus / A24)

Reviewers have been uniformly taken with her turn in the film, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and will go into wide release on Friday. The film has grossed $6.6 million since it opened last month.

Writing in The Times, Justin Chang called Elsie’s performance “funny, watchful and utterly persuasive,” noting she “gives precise form and delicate feeling to emotions and experiences that, despite the specificity of the circumstances, most everyone will recognize.” In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis said she was “visceral and unforced,” a “convincing” teen who “looks and moves like an actual underage human being.”

Of course, some of that is partially due to the fact that Elsie wasn’t that far removed from her own eighth-grade experience. She had just graduated from middle school in Thousand Oaks a few weeks before “Eighth Grade” began filming in New York last summer. Like Kayla, she found the school year difficult.

“She went on the eighth-grade trip to D.C. and had an absolutely miserable time,” recalled her father, Chris Fisher, a server at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and California Pizza Kitchen. “She loved the historical aspects, but the three people she had to bunk with were absolutely terrible to her. She would text me from there. She had to take solace in some of the chaperones.”

Elsie’s father had accompanied her to Universal CityWalk for this interview earlier this month, setting no parameters on where she chose to go other than a massive candy store. “I’m pretty lenient, but she has to work after this,” he explained.

The actress surveyed her options and settled on Bubba Gump, where her grandmother used to take her after visits to the Long Beach aquarium. “I just really like shrimp,” she said with a shrug, sitting one table away from her dad.

Elsie, 15, had recently graduated from eighth grade when she shot "Eighth Grade." Like her character, she found the school year difficult.
Elsie, 15, had recently graduated from eighth grade when she shot "Eighth Grade." Like her character, she found the school year difficult. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Elsie spent the majority of her youth in Idyllwild, where her father noticed her proclivity for performing at age 4. One night, she came to visit him during a shift at a local jazz cafe, and jumped on stage and started acting.

“The entire restaurant — the jaws dropped,” her father said. “And one of my regular guests said, ‘Hey, I have a friend who’s an agent. Have you ever thought about having her try out to be an actress?’”

Six months later, he sent a headshot of his daughter to Kazarian, Measures, Ruskin and Associates, a small but legitimate talent agency that represents Joey Lawrence and Ian Ziering. The company signed her as a client, and within a month she had done a national commercial for Toys R Us. She would soon land a major gig, voicing young Agnes in the animated film “Despicable Me.”

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“I couldn’t read, so I literally memorized the script by heart,” said Elsie, digging into her shrimp mac and cheese. “They would repeat the lines back to me the way they wanted me to say them, and I would be a parrot.”

Soon, the family was commuting on average 35,000 miles a year to auditions in Los Angeles — roughly four hours each way, most of which the actress spent playing games on her Nintendo DS. Eventually, when Elsie was in fifth grade, her father decided to move her and her younger brother to Ventura County to be closer to Hollywood.

But as she aged, she found she wasn’t booking as many roles. Fewer people stopped her on the street to tell her she looked like “Dakota Fanning’s young clone.” Veering ever closer to high school, counselors were already pressuring students to start thinking about what they might like to study in college, and Elsie became overwhelmed by anxiety.

“I was going through a rough place mentally, because I didn’t have a lot of friends and I wasn’t working. It was like, ‘Oh, God, what am I gonna do for the rest of my life?’” she said. “I know I didn’t really have to figure it out then, but it felt like I did, because they put so much pressure on you. I was freaking out, and then this movie basically just came along and swept me off my feet, like, ‘We got you.’”

When Elsie walked into the audition for “Eighth Grade,” Burnham said, he was immediately struck by how honest she seemed. He’d spent weeks watching teenagers “squishing down all of their awkwardness to present themselves in that performative kid way,” and Elsie didn’t do that. “She could translate the chaos of what it meant to be a kid into a scene,” the filmmaker said.

On set, Burnham observed, Elsie refreshingly wasn’t self-conscious about her looks.

“She told me she would go into auditions and casting directors would say, ‘Why isn’t your acne on your headshot?’” Burnham said. “The worst, more violent thing is telling a kid that, ‘the way [you] are is not OK, and in order to be in this film we need you to cover up.’ She wanted to see someone in the movie who felt real, like her. Even on the day when she had to just wear a bathing suit, our costume people were running around with a robe and she kept pushing them away because she thought she looked cool.”

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Elsie says she considers director Burnham among her closest friends. “Honestly, all my best friends right now are adults,” she says.
Elsie says she considers director Burnham among her closest friends. “Honestly, all my best friends right now are adults,” she says. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Elsie said she considers Burnham, his girlfriend — screenwriter Lorene Scafaria — and “Eighth Grade” producer Christopher Storer among her best friends. “Honestly, all my best friends right now are adults,” she said earnestly.

She has three friends from school who are juniors, “so they’re close to adulthood” and said she gets along better with her dad’s work colleagues than her school peers. She’s allowed to date, but “isn’t really interested in children, so no thank you. I’ll just wait until I’m 18.” And she’s considering starting home-schooling this year instead of returning to 10th grade in Thousand Oaks and would like to test out of high school early, if she’s able.

“I don’t want to say I’m ahead of my years, but I’ve always felt more mature than people in my grade — not to say that was necessarily the truth, but that’s just how I felt,” she said. “I was always in a position where I was allowed to be friends with adults and they actually listened to the things I said, so that was nice. I spent a lot of my life being either a quiet kid who got interrupted every time I tried to talk, or a weird, spastic kid who would actually drink puddles.”

True story, she insisted. Once, after a rainstorm at school, a classmate dared her to drink from a puddle.

“I was thirsty for friendship, and I quenched that thirst with some puddle water,” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t get sick, thankfully.”

Elsie, right, stars in a scene from "Eighth Grade" with Emily Robinson. When Elsie walked into the audition, Burnham says, he was struck by how honest she seemed.
Elsie, right, stars in a scene from "Eighth Grade" with Emily Robinson. When Elsie walked into the audition, Burnham says, he was struck by how honest she seemed. (A24)

As an adolescent, that kind of behavior wasn’t out of the norm for Elsie. She would often do strange things to “get attention on or off” herself, such as passing gas in public, or wearing frameless glasses when she had perfect vision. Internally, she was so anxious that it began to cause bowel problems; at one point, her stomach caused her so much trouble that she thought she was lactose intolerant.

“I’m still not over it,” she acknowledged, admitting she won’t eat before any type of public appearance for fear of getting sick. “I act cool about it or whatever, but I feel constantly terrible in my stomach. But I’m getting through it and pushing past it.”

Elsie would still like to pursue acting as a career — she looks up to Winona Ryder — but said she also enjoys art and once had a YouTube channel where she posted videos of herself digitally drawing characters from “Steven Universe.” (She’s since deleted it because she doesn’t think the drawings were very good, and her classmates found the channel and spammed it with comments.)

“I tell Elsie all the time, ‘Don’t feel like you have to capitalize off of anything right now,’” Burnham said. “‘You’re a kid. You’re still growing.’ But she’s incredibly, deeply humble. Her biggest stress right now is that she thinks she’s not that good, and everyone keeps saying she’s that good.”

Burnham and Elsie on the set of "Eighth Grade." The teen actress says she would like to pursue acting as a career.
Burnham and Elsie on the set of "Eighth Grade." The teen actress says she would like to pursue acting as a career. (Linda Kallerus / A24)
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