Brains and beauty in ‘Youth in Revolt’

“I’m more androgynous,” says Portia Doubleday, “because men are supposed to be more spatial, women more literal -- I’m a tomboy.”

The 21-year-old actress is speaking of her academic pursuits -- she’s studying psychology and considering pre-med because “I’ve always had a more spatial mind, mathematical, than literal.” But it’s not likely anyone is going to mistake the athletic young woman with the blue saucer eyes and flowing blond tresses for a boy. She looks like a cross between Natasha Lyonne and Lily Cole. In a good way.

Doubleday is making her leading-role debut opposite sexy wimp Michael Cera in “Youth in Revolt,” Miguel Arteta’s adaptation of the popular novel (“Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp”) by C.D. Payne.

“I guess rebelliousness has been explored in many movies but what about the smart kids’ rebellion?” she asks. “Not just the motorcycle jackets and that kind of rebellion, it’s the dorky kid, what could he do?”

The actress plays beguiling teen Sheeni Saunders, the elusive Francophile summer girl too rich, too pretty and too sophisticated for Nick. Hence the creation of the devil on Nick’s shoulder, the dangerous alter ego Francois, and if a sullen-eyed Cera in a continental mustache and tight white pants isn’t the antidote to the angsty undead teens plaguing cinemas of late, nothing is. For Doubleday, it was about balancing the Francois within Sheeni.

“She’s really complex. In the book, she’s way more manipulative, and to be frank, bitchy,” she says. “When I read the book, I felt for Nick: ‘Whew. She’s a mean one!’ If my guy friend was dating her, I’d say, ‘Dump her!’

“But I think what made me fall in love with her was that her aloofness is sort of her vulnerability -- she’s a really smart person stuck in an environment that she cannot relate to. All she thinks about is moving to Paris. I loved that she’s in love with Jean-Paul Belmondo. It’s hard being 16 and not being so young anymore but not being old enough to do anything. It was fun to figure out how to play a person who wasn’t just one thing.”

Doubleday is a native Angeleno whose parents (Frank Doubleday and Christina Hart) and sister (Kaitlin Doubleday) are all actors, so a love of the art was ingrained in her as a child -- despite her mathematical mind and passion for sports:

“Oh yeah, hard-core. Hard-core sports. Twelve years of soccer. If I could play football, I’d play football. But not women’s football, real football. Or I’d just date a quarterback,” she says, laughing. “Like Gisele [Bündchen].”

She says one of her primary motivations to stay in school is to broaden her knowledge to better inform her acting. The self-described “dork” didn’t even experience the usual parental resistance growing up to draw on for her Sheeni.

“I’ve been asked a lot of questions about my own rebellion but I never really had to. My parents are both really big artsy-fartsy weirdos. ‘OK, see you later, you’re going to Michigan for three months [to shoot]? Call me!’ There’s so much craziness, it’s nice to have parents who understand what this business entails.”

Still, her parents’ advice didn’t prepare her for such peripheral aspects as doing press.

“My mom talked more about Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen -- she was an acting teacher,” she says. “So when I had to do a magazine for the first time, I was like, ‘How do they even know who I am?’

“It’s fun though. When we were at Penn State [for a campus screening and Q&A], there were some kids I went to high school with in the audience.”

Still, taking on her first lead in a feature after amassing almost no track record gave the otherwise bold young woman pause.

“I remember panicking one night,” she says. “I e-mailed [Arteta] paragraphs and he gave me one sentence: ‘Portia, just follow your instincts and the rest will be taken care of.’ That was so heartwarming to me because that, I know I have and can depend on.”