“I always feel like a vague failure in L.A.,” said Greta Gerwig, sitting in a movie theater in the heart of Hollywood.
The actress, 30, had flown from her home in New York to partake in the Los Angeles Times’ Young Hollywood round table at AFI Fest last week. And yet even among a group of the year’s brightest up-and-comers — Michael B. Jordan, 26; Dane DeHaan, 27; Miles Teller, 26; and Brie Larson, 24 — Gerwig said she has yet to fully assimilate her success.
“In L.A., people are like, ‘Why do I know who you are?’ ” she continued. “And I’m like, ‘You don’t.’ ”
But after her critically acclaimed performance in “Frances Ha” this year, that anonymity likely won’t last much longer. All of this year’s participants are on their way to becoming household names after starring in some of 2013’s most-talked about movies: Jordan in “Fruitvale Station,” DeHaan in “Kill Your Darlings,” Teller in “The Spectacular Now” and Larson in “Short Term 12.”
But being thrown into the spotlight at a young age has its challenges. None of the five actors can watch themselves on the big screen. They sometimes get so nervous around big stars — Nicole Kidman, Woody Allen — that their work suffers. Some are even too self-conscious to tweet.
Here are excerpts from a conversation with five of the movie business’ most promising young talents, as they talk about navigating their newfound fame.
We’re right next to the historic Chinese theater, and I’m wondering if it reminds you of your own first big Hollywood moment?
Dane DeHaan: When “Lawless” was going to Cannes, they were going to take everybody except for me, because everyone else was a lot more famous than I was. So my agent bought me a plane ticket, and the first night I was there I slept on a line producer’s futon.... And then after the premiere, [costar Jessica Chastain] had to go back to finish shooting “Zero Dark Thirty.” So she gave me her hotel room for the night. And it was, um, palatial.
Greta Gerwig: The first big movie I did that was released in a lot of theaters was “Greenberg,” and I came to L.A. for the premiere. They put me up at the W Hotel, and I was very excited. And then, overnight, it was like the room was gone. And I was in L.A. and I didn’t have a place to stay or any money. I was driving in Los Feliz, terrified, and I drove past a movie theater with a marquee that had my face on it. And I was like, “I don’t have anywhere to stay tonight. What a Hollywood moment.”
Miles Teller: I guess I have a similar one. I went to South by Southwest this past year. And I took like an early flight and I just got there, they gave me a [hotel] key, and I opened the room. There’s like three dudes in there, and there was a bunch of room service. It kind of smelled, and the whole room’s in disarray. So I walked out. I was like, “Hey, I don’t know what’s going on. There’s a bunch of people in that room.” They’re like, “Oh, yeah, that’s James Franco’s room. He’s got a late checkout.” I thought that was pretty funny.
Brie Larson: My first job, I was 7 years old, and I was doing a fake Barbie commercial for Jay Leno — Malibu Mudslide Barbie. I was so excited, and they really do it up there. They put your name on the door. And so it was my first time ever seeing “Brie Larson” because that’s not my real name. It was this fake name on this door in Los Angeles. I remember thinking I’ve made it. I had no idea that I wasn’t even close.
None of you grew up in Los Angeles. What was your idea of Hollywood from afar?
Larson: I thought that the ground was gold and sparkly.
Michael B. Jordan: My dad’s from California, so I always visited, so I always wanted to come. It lives up to the hype for the most part. I think if you have a tight group of friends, it helps.
Gerwig: Yeah, I grew up in California in Sacramento, but I never came to Los Angeles because it was a very long drive. But when I was young, I loved Woody Allen movies. So by the time I went to L.A., I was already doing some weird Woody Allen impression of him saying, like, “I’ll have a plate of mashed yeast.” And I was, like, 12. I had already decided that I was a New Yorker even though I was from Sacramento. It was like the only cultural advantage [in L.A.] is that you can make an uncontrolled right-hand turn.
And you do live in New York now. A lot of actors say they choose not to live in L.A. because all anyone talks about here is the industry. True?
Gerwig: I always feel like a vague failure in L.A. — it always makes me feel like I should somehow be different than I am. And I don’t know why. But in New York I always feel like I can kind of melt in. And in L.A. people are like, “Why do I know who you are?” And I’m like, “You don’t.”
What were your early auditions like?
Teller: I wasn’t booking anything at first, and my agent said, “Well, you’ve got to start working out, or you’ve got to start doing your hair.”
Larson: I don’t know, Greta, if you ever experienced this — but for so many auditions, I get the, “It was really great, but could you come back in a miniskirt?”
Gerwig: They don’t want to see me in a miniskirt. After an audition they’re always like, “So, are you funny?” I’m like, “Nope.”
I’m like the only actor in New York who’s never ever been on any “Law & Order.” And I’ve auditioned for so many. The sad thing is I love “Law & Order.” I’m really obsessed with it. And they always said to me, “You seem like you’re making fun of the material.”
Michael, you started working while you were still in high school on “All My Children.” How did your classmates react to that?
Jordan: Everyone joked how weird it was that I was on a soap opera and I was from Newark [N.J.]. I played Susan Lucci’s adopted kid — this troubled youth. It was the stereotypical role on a soap opera. I did it for about four years.
Gerwig: In the show, what was Susan Lucci have supposed to have done with you?
Jordan: I went away to basketball camp.
Teller: And never came back.
So after graduating high school, you went right to L.A.? Did your parents try to stop you from acting?
Jordan: My mom and dad really wanted me to explore college. But at the time, my sister had just graduated from Temple University and she had tons of student loans to pay back. She graduated at the top of her class and there weren’t any jobs. So I’d say, “Mom, do you want me to be more in debt?”
Gerwig: My mom was also a little freaked out that I wanted to be an actor, and I was like, “I’ll show you. I’m studying philosophy [at Barnard]. I’m not going to be a money-earner either way! There’s lots of ways I can mess up my future.”
Did anyone try to dissuade you from going to college, since there’s so much pressure to start young in the film business?
Gerwig: I felt pressure to start early, because when I was in high school, Mandy Moore was already famous and she was younger than me. And I was like, “Well, it’s over.” When I graduated from college, I thought that I would probably never be an actor because it seemed like everyone was big by the time they were 20 or not at all.
Let’s talk about how you approached some of your recent roles. Michael, in “Fruitvale Station,” you play Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old who was fatally shot by a BART police officer. Were you eager to meet his family and friends and get as much as you could from them, or did you want to keep your distance?
Jordan: It was a weird feeling because you want to try to embody this character as much as you can, but there’s nothing really to go off of. There weren’t any home videos or any audio, so there was nothing to really imitate, which was kind of like a blessing in disguise. I was really looking forward to meeting his mom. It was really awkward at first — walking on eggshells, not really wanting to ask anything that might bring back any sad memories. I just listened a lot.
That was a low-budget movie, so you didn’t have long to prepare. Dane, you’ve appeared in a number of indie movies this year, but then you just filmed the sequel to “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Was the experience on a big studio film different for you?
DeHaan: The sets are a lot nicer in “Spider-Man.” And you have a lot more time — I think that’s the main difference. You have six months to make a movie instead of 24 days, so you can spend an entire day working on two pages. You can just explore everything.
When you show up on a set like that, working with people who have been in the business for years, are you intimidated?
Teller: You can be. The first thing I did was “Rabbit Hole,” and on the first day Nicole Kidman, the director of photography and the director were sitting there talking about Lars von Trier. And I was just trying to eat salad and not stare, because Nicole’s, like, 6 feet tall and absolutely beautiful. She’s like a unicorn.
Did things improve once filming began?
Teller: Well, Aaron Eckhart was also in the movie, and I didn’t meet him until “action.” I didn’t hear any of what he was saying because I’m just staring at him like, “You’re Harvey Dent, bro.”
What was it like working with your childhood hero Woody Allen on “To Rome With Love,” Greta?
Gerwig: Well, doing your weird neurotic impression of Woody Allen to Woody Allen is terrible. I feel like if I could go back in time, I would’ve been like really confident. Like I saw Penelope Cruz with him, and she was joking with him and so nonchalant. With me, I felt that he whispered to someone, “Keep that girl away from me.” I was kind of a disaster on that movie. It’s really hard for me to be around people I admire.
How self-critical are you of your own performances? Can you ever look at a movie you’ve done and say, “You know what? I’m proud of this.”
Teller: When I watch a movie I’m in, I don’t see the movie at all. You have all these memories associated with it, and then for that to be condensed down to like an hour and a half — it’s just so weird. I hate it. And think I’m terrible and I think everybody is fantastic, truthfully.
Jordan: It’s a little weird. The first time I saw “Fruitvale,” I was looking at the screen thinking, “That’s annoying.” I mean, I’m up there like 98% of the time. I was tired of looking at myself on screen. After you get finished with a film like that, it’s not for you anymore.
I noticed that all three of the guys are on Twitter, but the ladies are not. Why is that?
DeHaan: I just use it for fun. You can say anything, and then people are like, “Yeah!”
Jordan: I Instagram a lot.
Teller: You like the selfies.
Jordan: I do selfie every once in a while, but it’s not for me; it’s for them, OK?
Teller: You’re welcome, world.
Why do you have an aversion to it, Greta?
Gerwig: I’m like an old woman. I read people’s Twitters, and I like Jessica Chastain’s Facebook page very much. She’s so nice. And she’s so happy. Her like picture is her in a field. So I stalk people all the time via their things. I just want to be behind a shield.
Are there things you know now that you wish you’d been aware of when you were first starting out?
Larson: Auditions are the weirdest, most backstabbing thing ever to do every day. You finish and they’re like, “Great, nice to meet you.” And then your agent says, “Yeah, they called, and they hated you.” It warps your mind and what your perception of yourself is. You start picking yourself apart — “I didn’t get it because I have blue eyes, or I’m too tall or too short.” And then you start either wearing too much makeup or no makeup, or curling your hair and straightening it. I started feeling like I was like apologizing for being me. And then the strangest thing happened. The second that I actually was fed up with it and was like, “You know what? I can’t do this anymore. It hurts too much to not be myself.” That’s when everything changed for me, and I started working.
DeHaan: All of us on the stage are really lucky because we’ve, I guess, achieved a certain amount of success. But ultimately that’s never been what it’s been about for me — it’s always been about the work. That’s the only thing that will remain constant. So instead of trying to grasp at things that aren’t reliable at all, that’s something that is entirely personal and entirely your own.